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Senior College Football Columnist

Big 12's born again -- and feeling its oats sitting at 10, 12 or 14


OU looked bound for the Pac-12 but now sits pretty in a reloaded Big 12. (US Presswire)  
OU looked bound for the Pac-12 but now sits pretty in a reloaded Big 12. (US Presswire)  

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you weren't laughing, you weren't paying attention this week to the newly rebuilt Big 12.

"Bigger," interim commissioner Chuck Neinas said of possible expansion, "is not necessarily better."

The statement was made to the Dallas Morning News as the Big 12 enjoys new-found muscle like Brian Bosworth on Nandrolone. Flash back eight months and the conference merely existing would have been better.

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That would have been early September. Neinas wasn't around because his predecessor Dan Beebe hadn't yet been run out. However, Texas A&M was on its way out, soon to be followed by Missouri. So as the league's spring meetings began here Wednesday, there had to be some level of elation there was a league at all.

The Big 12 that came close -- twice -- to being emasculated by another Texas and Oklahoma flirtation with the Pac-12, is proud to have grown a set. That would be the addition of West Virginia and TCU as well as a powerful bowl partnership with the SEC (Champions Bowl).

Bigger is better? The 10-school Big 12 would love to have that discussion just because it can at this point in its history. While expansion may not officially be on the agenda this week, trust me, it's on the minds of everyone gathered here. If the Big 12 has learned one thing these past two years, it can't sit around and admire the national landscape. Suddenly, it's in a position to manipulate it.

"We could expand to some number. You name the number -- 12, 14, 16," said Texas AD DeLoss Dodds. "We could expand, but the question is, do we need to expand?"

For the record, Dodds and the rest of the Big 12 ADs prefer the current 10 at the moment. That could change in an instant. That's what happened last summer when Texas A&M began its courtship with the SEC. In early June it was mumbling under its breath about the Longhorn Network. By September it had the Dixie hook-up.

But the Big 12 that was once worried about fulfilling its 2011 office lease now has some equity built up. Make that power and might. The conference probably hasn't considered the ultimate expansion end-game: It is a couple of invites away from creating a de facto eight-team playoff. That would be before we have all the details ironed out for an assumed four-team playoff.

Here's how it would work: If the Big 12 goes to a dozen teams (or 14, or 16) it would reinstall a conference championship game. That would crystallize what the Champions Bowl announcement helped formalize -- that the base of power in college football exists with the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12.

"It absolutely does that ...," Dodds said of the bowl that kicks off in 2014. "It puts us in the role of being in the top four."

In that scenario, the Big Four all would have conference title games. That means eight division winners playing off for four conference titles in leagues that have won national championships in 16 of the last 18 seasons. Given that history, each of those division winners, playing the top schedules in the country, could conceivably be in the running for the national championship.

See where this could be headed?

"That eliminates the ACC, Big East and Mountain West," Dodds said. "That eliminates a lot of football teams, but you're accurate in what you're saying."

What Dodds didn't say was the Big Four was bad. In case you haven't noticed, it has become a suit-eat-suit world out there. The ACC has no reservations about cutting off the Big East at the knees twice since 2003. The recent TV deals/extensions given to the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 by ESPN and Fox achieved a secondary goal for those rights-holders -- stiff-arming college-football hungry NBC Comcast from becoming a player. Without saying it, they're saying it: Today's traditional college football networks want the traditional college football powers on their air. Only.

The new Big 12 TV deal is expected to be announced any day, perhaps here this week as a celebration of the league's new-found strength. Within that deal is a clause that will give any new expansion candidates the same money as the current members (estimated to be at least $20 million per year).

One industry source said that number applies whether the Big 12 invites, "Appalachian State or Florida State." And according to another industry source, ESPN wouldn't stand in the way of Big 12 expansion even after negotiating a new deal with the ACC.

"I'm going to have to be a real good listener," incoming Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said about expansion.

Bowlsby was a huge hire. He helped structure the Pac-12 deal with ESPN and Fox as AD at Stanford. He knows SEC commissioner Mike Slive, having worked with him on the NCAA basketball committee. His time at Iowa led to speculation that one day Bowlsby would succeed Jim Delany as Big Ten commissioner.

It is amazing and heartening that an administrator of his stature "chose" the Big 12. Because of the length of the TV deal (13 years, $2.6 billion) and a supposed grant of rights that goes with it, he will have leverage. That means not having to take any crap from Texas and OU.

"He absolutely won't be intimidated," Dodds said.

The expansion picture will become clearer, Bowlsby said, when the playoff model is announced. That could cause Notre Dame to look for a conference home. Dodds told me last week that, "Notre Dame has options. I think they love their [independent] position. I certainly think they can continue to do what they're doing and do it well and be a major player. But they have options."

Dodds, a good friend of Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, reiterated: We talked to Notre Dame about the Big 12 ... They could put some football here."

If it was up to Florida State trustee chairman Andy Haggard, the Seminoles would be in the Big 12 yesterday. Miami seems to be an ideal fit if you forget geography, which you should. West Virginia is going to be sending its volleyball team to Ames, Iowa. And that's the Mountaineers' closest Big 12 rival.

Think of a Big 12 lineup that would include Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame.

That might even get the SEC's attention.

"I think we always have to keep conference membership in front of [our] mind," Bowlsby said. "But I haven't been engaged with the CEOs and the ADs enough to know exactly what they're thinking. I think it's important for me to come in with my eyes wide open and my mind wide open as well." The Big 12 certainly doesn't want to make the same mistake three times, admiring that national landscape while the world passes it by. Bigger is better? Pass the Nandrolone.

"We're there, we're back, we're it, we're as strong as anybody else," Dodds said. "Let's move on."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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