The Big 12 is engaged in plans to split into two seven-team divisions in football beginning in 2023 to temporarily restructure as a 14-team league as the realignment process unfolds, league sources tell CBS Sports.
Big 12 athletic directors -- including those from conference newcomers BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF -- met last month in Las Vegas to begin deciding how the league will look for two seasons (2023-24) ahead of Texas and Oklahoma departing for the SEC.
The Big 12 is operating under the assumption that both the Longhorns and Sooners will stay in the league four more years. The current Big 12 television contract with Fox and ESPN ends in 2025. If not, both schools would be subject to what have been projected as nine-figure early exit fees for breaking the Big 12 grant of rights that bind schools' TV inventory to the conference.
Assuming BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF join ahead of the 2023-24 athletic year, the league would be at 14 teams for two seasons in 2023 and 2024. The Big 12 would then shrink to 12 teams in football, playing in six-team divisions beginning in 2025.
"We've got subcommittees in several sports that are talking about structure," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told CBS Sports. "Conference office, staff, ADs, sports administrators and coaches involved on a sport-by-sport basis, they're all doing the same thing."
NCAA rules state that any league with more than 12 teams must split into divisions for football according to Big 12 senior associate commissioner Ed Stewart. The conference has operated as a 10-team league without divisions since 2017. Presently, the top two ranked teams play in the Big 12 Championship Game. In 2015, the NCAA allowed leagues with less than 12 teams to conduct championship games.
From 1996 to 2010, the Big 12 played a football title game. After realignment, the league shrunk to 10 teams. The conference reinstated its championship game in 2017. Beginning in 2023, the Big 12 would have to go with its old format of division winners meeting for the conference title. A source within the league said the Big 12 is most likely going to stick with its current nine-game conference schedule.
"We're going to sort it all and figure out what the divisions look like and what the competition model will be and all that," said Stewart, a member of a working group addressing the situation. That group also includes West Virginia deputy AD Keli Zinn, TCU deputy AD Mike Sinquefield, Texas deputy AD Shawn Eichorst, Baylor AD Mack Rhoades and Kansas State AD Gene Taylor.
One person involved in the process said it would be "easier if we don't reshuffle the deck" in 2026. By placing Texas and Oklahoma in opposite divisions beginning in 2023, that would allow the Big 12 to conceivably stay with the same composition of two six-team divisions moving forward in 2026 without the 'Horns and Sooners.
One working group member joked that Texas and Oklahoma should be placed in the same division to ensure that at least one of the programs wouldn't play for the football championship. The two superpowers ripped apart the Big 12 and the FBS with their July decision to leave to the SEC.
Stewart said a decision has not been made whether to separate the divisions competitively or geographically. Big 12 North and South divisions existed from 1996 to 2010. In 2017, the Big 12 decided to match its two highest-ranked teams a league title game to create a greater chance of getting into the College Football Playoff.
"We talked just a little bit about it, but we didn't dive [the teams up]," Cincinnati AD John Cunningham said. "Do you go North-South? Do you go East-West? I think there is some obvious things that would break that way, but we'll figure that out as we go."
Together in the old Big 12 South, Texas or Oklahoma played for the Big 12 title in 12 of 15 seasons from 1996 to 2010, combining to win nine of those 12 championship games.
If the Big 12 had been at 14 teams in 2021, it would have finished with four top-10 programs: No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 5 Baylor, No. 7 Oklahoma State and No. 10 Oklahoma. Using the 12 teams that will go forward in 2026, the Big 12 would've had five top-20 schools: No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 5 Baylor, No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 17 Houston and No. 19 BYU.
In basketball, the Big 12 is looking at a format that would keep the current 18-game conference schedule in a 14-team alignment. The league currently plays an 18-game home-and-home round robin in the 10-team Big 12.
Sources indicate that instead of playing more than 18 conference games, the Big 12 would like to keep its series with the SEC that bolsters schedule strength at a time when it is more meaningful for NCAA Tournament entry.
The Big 12/SEC Challenge has been played continuously since the 2013-14 season. Since 2016, it has been played in late January after the start of conference play. That makes victories in the challenge more beneficial to both leagues' NCAA Tournament hopes, according to a source within the Big 12, because it is held later in the season. This year's challenge is set for Jan. 29 with all 10 Big 12 teams playing 10 of the 14 SEC teams.
There is no indication the SEC would want to discontinue the series. The leagues are in Year 3 of a six-year agreement that expires after the 2024-25 season.
The Big 12 plans for its working group to forward a proposed division structure to Big 12 ADs by March during the Big 12 basketball tournament. The lineup could be finalized by Big 12 spring meetings, which will be held in May in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Here's a projection of one way the Big 12 could organize its seven-team divisions in 2023:
|Big 12 North
|Big 12 South