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Monday, August 29, 2011
Sizing up the Big 12 expansion candidates

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Every indication the past few weeks is that Texas A&M is leaving the Big 12. It's not quite official yet, but if the Big 12 has put together an expansion committee (which it has) it's probably safe to do the same here.

So, here goes.

Bronco Mendenhall
Adding BYU and head coach Bronco Mendenhall to the conference seems like a realistic scenario for the Big 12.
Rumors have run rampant regarding future Big 12 members. The league's remaining nine members sound very committed to the Big 12's future, so I don't see the league imploding, but who should the league add?

The one caveat: I don't see any programs joining the Big 12 without some sort of written agreement that guarantees Big 12 stability moving forward. The league already tried that whole honor system thing, built around "unequivocal commitments." How'd that work out?

Without some sort of concrete, binding, contractual agreement, any of these programs would be crazy to join the Big 12.

Let's have a look, broken down by classes.

(To clarify: the "chance X School joins" is simply that. It's a reflection of the total factors that would have to fall into place for future membership. It's not a reflection of the "chance school X joins if it was invited."

The pipe dreams/necessary wastes of time: They'll probably say no. But that's the worst that can happen. It's a good idea to make your pitch and ask. You never know. Since when is ambition looked down upon? Oh, that's right. When Texas A&M decided to join the SEC. Nevermind.

Notre Dame: The relationship between Texas AD DeLoss Dodds and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick is a supposed catalyst for this marriage. Notre Dame can have its own television network in the Big 12. It can't have that in the Big Ten, which has had its advances toward the nation's Catholic university spurned for decades. But the truth is this: The Big Ten is a better academic conference than the Big 12. Here's guessing the Irish academics wouldn't be pleased with any serious talks of a move to the Big 12.

Chance Notre Dame joins: An ambitious 2 percent

Arkansas: I don't quite see what Arkansas brings to the Big 12 (Arkansas' population: ~3 million), but there's no doubt the Razorbacks are a better geographic fit in the Big 12 and would rejoin rival Texas and should-be-but-isn't rival Missouri. The Hogs haven't won a conference title since joining the SEC in 1992 (the Hogs had two SWC titles in each decade since the 1950s), but it hasn't seemed to matter to the fans, who would revolt if talks about a move began to take a serious turn. The best pitch for Arkansas would be the chance for greater success, but it would be quickly rebuffed.

Chance Arkansas joins: 4 percent

The realistic dream

BYU: This is my official recommendation. The Big 12 needs to heavily pursue the Cougars and stick with 10 members for the same reason it didn't expand to 12 over the past year: No one else adds enough to the league to warrant membership. This marriage would be beneficial for both sides. BYU gets more money and access to the BCS, while likely keeping its already-active television network for Mormons across the country. The Big 12 might have to allow the Cougars to keep their current television deal with ESPN, though. The Big 12 gets a national brand with great football and great basketball while expanding its footprint. And there's plenty of BYU fans inside the Big 12 footprint, too. There's an argument that independence better serves BYU's mission, which might cause decision-makers to think twice, but this decision-making process will be interesting.

Chance BYU joins: 60 percent

The Huh? Where did this come from?

Pittsburgh: This rumor erupted over the past weekend, but just doesn't quite make enough sense. Pitt is a pretty strong basketball and football brand, but not strong enough to spur any real excitement. And besides that, Pittsburgh is more than 700 miles from its closest Big 12 neighbor: Missouri. I don't get it. BYU is nearly 900 miles from Manhattan, Kan. and Lubbock, Texas, but it truly has fans all over the country. Pitt doesn't. The Panthers would see a financial windfall in the Big 12, but this just doesn't seem to fit.

Chance Pitt joins: 13 percent

The dark horses

Air Force: The Falcons are located just outside Colorado Springs, Colo., getting the Big 12's footprint back into the state, in addition to bringing in a national brand. Air Force, currently in the Mountain West Conference, brings up questions about competitiveness on the basketball court. Will that matter? Doubtful. Troy Calhoun has the football program rolling, but someone smarter than yours truly will have to offer a measure of what the program would truly bring in terms of television revenue.

Chance Air Force joins: 21 percent

Louisville: Could be a nice addition with a growing football program that's seen success in the past, including an Orange Bowl win. A strong basketball brand as well. But there's not much buzz these days around the Cardinals, and is a mid-size television market (that's split with Kentucky anyway) worth bringing Louisville in? Maybe so, but the Big 12 would be well-served to do its research before reaching out to gauge interest.

Chance Louisville joins: 16 percent

The former SWC leftovers: Being in the Big 12 footprint actually hurts these candidates. Nobody in the Big 12 needs an additional recruiting foothold in Texas. The league pretty much has that covered. These schools would add little to nothing in the way of television revenue, while adding another mouth for Big 12 conference revenue to feed.

Houston: The Cougars have the best chance, but it would be a gesture of good faith if the Big 12 decides Houston is a good fit. The program has fallen behind in the facilities arms race, but its biggest strength is its enrollment of more than 38,000. Texas is the only school in the Big 12 that's bigger. The problem? Those alums seem to have been rather apathetic toward the athletic program. Would that change with entrance into the Big 12, where Kevin Sumlin's football program could compete immediately? That's up for debate. The Cougars play in a 32,000-seat football stadium, but reportedly could use Reliant Stadium to play in until Robertson Stadium is upgraded. Houston has by far the biggest chance for growth of these candidates, but is the Big 12 willing to take the risk? Time will tell.

Chance Houston joins: 28 percent

TCU: Great football (in the past decade, anyway). No one doubts that. As long as Gary Patterson is in Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs will be solid. But you can't escape the fact that it would be the smallest school in the Big 12 by 4,000 students and the third-smallest school by more than 10,000. That's a lot of alumni over time. Baylor has 13,000 students. Oklahoma State has 23,000. Additionally, TCU couldn't sell out its 44,000-seat stadium last season, despite going 13-0 and winning the Rose Bowl. Not good, Frogs.

Chance TCU joins: 11 percent

SMU: Proximity is not your friend, Ponies. I promise. SMU is just now crawling out of the smoldering crater from the death penalty imposed on the program by the NCAA in 1987. Ironically, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe was one of the investigators for the NCAA on that very case. But here are the facts. The basketball program is middling at best. The football program's ability to compete on a weekly basis is debatable at best. But the worst number? An enrollment of 11,000, that, as we discussed above, is going to end this conversation before it starts.

Chance SMU joins: 7 percent