Big 12 has big, long-term decision looming regarding expansion

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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West Virginia would be the 10th -- and perhaps the final --  program to jump over into the Big 12. (Getty Images)  
West Virginia would be the 10th -- and perhaps the final -- program to jump over into the Big 12. (Getty Images)  

Last week the Big 12 Conference's expansion board met. Nothing was voted on. Nothing was decided. The Big 12 still has 9½ teams (West Virginia, at least of Tuesday morning, is not yet all in for 2012).

The meeting was a chance for the expansion board to discuss where the league stands, where it wants to go, where it needs to be and also was an opportunity to tell Missouri and Texas A&M jokes. OK, I made that last part up.

But the Big 12 does have a decision to make. A difficult, long-term decision: stay at 10 schools or expand. And if it expands, does the league go to 11 or 12 so they can have a conference title game?

There are several arguments for and against 10, 11 or 12 teams.

Here is what the Big 12 could be considering according to college football industry sources:

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Stay at 10? Schools and television like the round-robin format allowing each team to play each school in the conference. If scheduled correctly this would provide both the schools and television with multiple games on conference championship Saturday. Another bonus is that staying at 10 means there are less mouths to feed in the league and each member gets a bigger slice of the pie. Mo money, mo money, mo money!

Big 12 acting commissioner Chuck Neinas told West Virginia media outlets recently that the league is "very comfortable" with 10 schools. But Neinas is on the way out in the coming months -- the Dallas Morning News reported the league would form a committee Thursday to start the process to find Neinas' replacement.

Another benefit for the Big 12 with 10 members, besides allowing each football team to schedule the remaining nine schools, is that it also allows men's basketball to hold home-and-home games with each league opponent.

The downside of 10 teams is that the Big 12 would continue to fight the perception that it is vulnerable to other leagues: the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten. However, the league has taken measures to affirm its strength with its current grant of rights agreement and equal revenue sharing. Also, the additions of TCU and West Virginia, who both preferred the Big 12 to the Big East, appeared to have solidified the conference. At least for now.

Go to 11? Multiple sources have told CBSSports.com if/when the Big 12 decides to expand to 11 schools, Louisville will be the choice. "They are clearly the best fit," a college football industry source said. Not only are the Cardinals the overwhelming favorite as the Big 12's 11th team, but sources told CBSSports.com that the Cardinals are aggressively pursuing a Big 12 invitation.

However, after Navy announced last week it would join the Big East, the Cardinals' exit fee to leave the Big East increased to $10 million. "The cost of poker just doubled," a source said. Even so, it's doubtful the additional $5 million is enough to keep the Cardinals from jumping to the Big 12 if they get the chance.

When the Big 12 extended an invitation to West Virginia last year it was a two-horse race between WVU and Louisville. The Mountaineers ultimately got the bid in a photo finish, but there remains a large sentiment for Louisville. Even though having 11 schools is an odd number, the Big Ten, which added Penn State in 1990, showed that a league can function -- and succeed -- with 11 schools.

Go to 12? If Louisville is No. 11, what school would be No. 12? BYU continually gets mentioned as a Big 12 target, but everything I hear -- and I mean everything -- from sources is "look east, not west" for the Big 12's 12th school.

If that's the case, Cincinnati would appear the most likely candidate as the 12th team, but the league hasn't seriously discussed a 12th member and the Bearcats have nowhere near the support of Louisville, making the move to 12 even more tricky.

Even though there is no clear-cut 12th team, there still would be advantages to the Big 12 actually having, yes, 12 members: a conference title game would be worth a substantial amount. However, a bigger advantage would be with 12 schools the league would be in a much stronger position to ward off any future expansion worries if/when there is another wave of expansion from the other power leagues. With 12 teams, the Big 12 would be in a position of strength.

One downside to 12 teams -- besides a smaller piece of the pie for each team -- is the league would have to be divided into leagues and it would want to avoid a lopsided split between the Big 12 North and South (or East and West).

So what's the Big 12 ultimately to do? The new commissioner will obviously play a role in that decision. We do know West Virginia is joining one of these days/weeks. After that, I think the Big 12 has some serious discussions on the benefits of adding Louisville and somewhere in the future, the Cardinals receive -- and accept -- an invitation.

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