Bigger Big 12: BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston on the way

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The Big 12 didn’t even wait for Oklahoma and Texas to leave before expanding and the league may not necessarily be done growing after adding BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston.

“This was a very clear and relatively easy decision for the eight continuing members of the Big 12,” Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec said Friday after that group unanimously approved applications from the four schools that sought membership after the league learned the Sooners and Longhorns will leave for the Southeastern Conference no later than July 2025.

Within hours of the Big 12 vote, all four formally accepted the invitations.

There had been no indication that Oklahoma and Texas, the only Big 12 teams to win football national championships, were looking to move until the reports emerged a week after Big 12 football media days in mid-July. By August, both had accepted formal invitations to join the SEC.

The moves prompted speculation that the Big 12 would soon be in a death spiral without its two most storied programs, at least in the revenue-producing sport of football. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby had been largely quiet in recent weeks as the expansion was put in motion.

“Speaking purely on a personal level, I enjoy working with people that I trust, that I like and that I know share the values that I have for intercollegiate athletics,” Bowlsby said Friday.

BYU said all its sports will begin Big 12 schedules in the 2023-24 athletic season. BYU is an independent in football, but competes in the West Coast Conference for basketball and so-called Olympic sports like track and swimming.

Bowlsby said current American Athletic Conference teams UCF, Cincinnati and Houston will join no later than July 1, 2024, but he “certainly wouldn’t foreclose” on the possibility of them coming in a year earlier with BYU.

The AAC requires members to give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league, though there could be negotiations between the schools and that league to reduce that time.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said the league expected Houston, Cincinnati and UCF to “abide by the conference bylaws to ensure an amicable and orderly transition” as the league considers its options.

“Today’s news confirms what we have said all along regarding our status as a power conference,” Aresco said. “The irony that three of our schools are being asked to take the place of the two marquee schools which are leaving the Big 12 is not lost on us. Our conference was targeted for exceeding expectations in a system that wasn’t designed to accommodate our success.”

The four schools were among 11 interviewed by the Big 12 in 2016 when it considered expansion before staying at 10 teams.

Bowlsby described that process five years ago as “a voyage of exploration,” but said the decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave prompted renewed consideration of available options.

BYU President Kevin Worthen said the Big 12’s expansion study five years ago made the process much faster and easier this time. Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe said that failed attempt to get into the Big 12 turned out to be a “launching point.”

The Longhorns and Sooners have said they will honor their current contracts with the Big 12 and do not plan to join the SEC until 2025, when the conference’s current television rights contracts with ESPN and Fox run out. That means the Big 12 could have up to 14 members for a season or two.

Bowlsby said the Big 12 will take the departing schools at their word “and if it turns out that that isn’t the case, we feel like we have the necessary legal prerogatives to manage it as we see fit at the time that it occurs.”

The Big 12 distributed about $345 million of total revenue between its 10 members for the 2020-21 academic year that was greatly affected by the pandemic.

Asked about the potential value of media rights for the new conference without Texas and Oklahoma, Bowlsby didn’t offer specific numbers but said the league added as much as it could in football and more to arguably the best basketball conference in the country that already has reigning men’s national champion Baylor and perennial power Kansas.

“I think live sports is always going to be a valuable commodity, and if you have live sports with competition among the very best universities you can put together in an alliance, you have a chance to go forward and do good things,” he said.

As for possible future expansion, Bowlsby said the league was ready if there “are targets of opportunity or as there are situations that dictate that we would change composition.”

With the four additions, the Big 12 will be spread across eight states and three time zones. There are more than 2,300 miles between the Central Florida campus in Orlando and BYU in Provo, Utah. Once settled in the Big 12, the Knights and Cougars will both face average trips of around 1,300 miles each way for conference games.

West Virginia still will average about 1,100 miles each way on the road, but the Mountaineers at least picked up a relatively short trip with Cincinnati from Morgantown. Houston faces much shorter trips for its Texas-based foes.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” Houston Chancellor Renu Kahtor said.

Half the league’s 12 charter members will remain when Texas and Oklahoma are gone.

The Big 12 began play in 1996, when all Big Eight teams (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) joined four Texas schools from the old Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) to form a new league split into six-team divisions.

Arkansas had left the SWC to join an expanded 12-team SEC, starting play there with South Carolina in the 1992 season. The SEC is now set to grow to 16 teams, with its last four additions all coming from the Big 12.

The Big 12 has been a 10-team league since the last significant round of realignment a decade ago that started with Nebraska going to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12, before Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC. TCU and West Virginia are both now in their 10th Big 12 season.

With 10 teams, the Big 12 has played round-robin schedules in football and basketball. The top two teams in the standings advance to the conference’s football championship game. Bowlsby acknowledged that the league Will Likely be going back to divisions with the additions.

Big 12 presidents set to vote on adding 4 schools

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The Big 12 is moving swiftly to plug the holes looming with the upcoming departure of Oklahoma and Texas for the Southeastern Conference.

A person familiar with the Big 12’s expansion plans said the conference’s presidents are scheduled to vote on applications for entry into the league at a meeting Friday. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the Big 12 has not been publicly disclosing its discussions about rebuilding the conference in preparation of Texas and Oklahoma leaving in 2025.

Along with UCF and Cincinnati, the Big 12 identified BYU and Houston as its primary expansion targets last week and then moved quickly to make it happen.

Trustees at UCF and Cincinnati have scheduled special meetings Friday related to conference membership. Both of those schools, along with BYU and Houston, are expected to receive invitations to join the Big 12.

The moves come six weeks after the SEC invited Texas and Oklahoma to join its league in time for the 2025-26 season, though there remains the possibility that could happen sooner. For now though, the Big 12 appears focused on the additions and not how to facilitate the exits of the Longhorns and Sooners.

UCF, Houston and Cincinnati are in the American Athletic Conference, which requires members to give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league. BYU is an independent in football and part of the West Coast Conference for basketball and Olympic sports.

The Longhorns and Sooners have said they will honor their current contracts with the Big 12 and do not plan to join the SEC until 2025, when the conference’s current television rights contracts with ESPN and Fox run out.

If that holds true, the Big 12 could have up to 14 members for at least a season or two.

Since the Big 12 started play as a 12-team league in 1996, Texas and Oklahoma are the only teams to win national football championships. Texas is the nation’s richest athletic program while Oklahoma is the six-time defending conference champion and still the only Big 12 team to make the four-team College Football Playoff. The Sooners lost semifinal games in each of their four CFP appearances.

The Big 12 has been a 10-team league since the last significant round of conference realignment a decade ago that started with original members Nebraska (to the Big Ten) and Colorado (to the Pac-12) leaving before Texas A&M and Missouri went to the SEC. The Big 12 brought in TCU and West Virginia, which are both now in their 10th league season.

As for the expected additions, Cincinnati is currently ranked No. 7 in the AP Top 25 poll, while Central Florida has more than 70,000 students and was the self-proclaimed national champion after going 13-0 in 2017. BYU has a nationwide fan base while Houston is in the nation’s fourth-largest city and will keep four Texas teams in the league when the Longhorns depart.

SEC beefing up schedules, moving away from early cupcakes

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Southeastern Conference is moving away from early season cupcakes. It’s been years in the making and probably long overdue.

The powerhouse league still has a few teams lagging in the scheduling department, seemingly not quite ready to go all in for competitive reasons. But beefing up schedules is clearly on the horizon for everyone, especially once the SEC adds Oklahoma and Texas.

“You can’t just open the gates and give people a 12-inch piece of wood to sit on anymore,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said.

Stricklin called the shift in philosophy “market driven,” pointing to fans, players and television partners wanting better matchups on a weekly basis.

It’s hardly unique to the SEC, especially since strength of schedule plays a role in determining which teams make the College Football Playoff. And with the CFP planning eyeing expansion, there’s even more reason for some of the nation’s top programs – those expecting to vie for coveted playoff spots – to add more challenging games.

While fans may have gotten spoiled watching last season’s all-SEC slate of games because of COVID-19 concerns, it would be hard to complain about much of the league’s 2021 schedules.

Top-ranked Alabama thumped Miami. No. 2 Georgia edged Clemson. Mississippi routed Louisville. LSU lost at UCLA. And that was just Week 1.

This weekend’s slate includes Pittsburgh-Tennessee, Colorado-Texas A&M, Texas-Arkansas and North Carolina State-Mississippi State.

And then Auburn plays at Penn State and Vanderbilt host Stanford in Week 3, followed by Missouri at Boston College.

“It means a lot for confidence,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Confidence can help. Can overconfidence hurt? Yes, but there’s a line there. The experience of the environment is what I value. Win, lose, or draw, the experience of that environment was going to make us better, and that is what I gain from it.

“Does it give some of the players more confidence? Yes, it gives them more confidence. It does, but it better not give them overconfidence because humility is one week away.”

Alabama and LSU have led the league’s push to strengthen schedules. The Crimson Tide have opened each of the last 10 seasons with a Power Five opponent – and won them all. The Tigers, meanwhile, have scheduled similarly for nine straight years.

The rest of the league is catching up.

“One of the harder things to do is to judge what the future of college football is going to be,” said Florida coach Dan Mullen, who is entering his 17th year in the SEC. “If you look and say, `OK, six years ago, we’re going to have a playoff and this is how they’re going to judge it and evaluate the playoff.’ It’s hard to judge that in the future, that far.

“And scheduling is tough. As you call people, there are a lot of people who are booked out way into the future. And then you get into the issue of how is the SEC schedule going to work four and five and six years ago from now? I know what our position is right now as a league.”

Four SEC teams – Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina – have permanent, non-conference rivalry games against the Atlantic Coast Conference that they insist make scheduling a bit more difficult. The Gators play Florida State. The Bulldogs play Georgia Tech. The Wildcats play Louisville. And the Gamecocks play Clemson.

When those SEC teams are on the road every other year, they have one fewer home game that affects the bottom line.

“Our strength of schedule is kind of built in,” Stricklin said. “You want to have six, preferably seven home games a year. And when you start doing home-and-homes or start giving away neutral-site games, that eats into how many home games you’re going to have.

“Knowing the value of the home game to our campus and to the city, I don’t know that we want to be there. We might end up being there one day, but we’ve not taken that approach.”

Adding Oklahoma and Texas should change everything. The SEC is expected to revamp its scheduling model once the Big 12 juggernauts arrive, whether it’s in 2025 as currently planned or sooner, in hopes of everyone playing each other more often.

“Scheduling is just a challenging deal and we’re going to continue to work at it,” Stricklin said. “We do want to look for opportunities where we can make it more interesting for our fanbase.”