Evaluating top Big 12 expansion candidates


Moments after announcing it is exploring candidates for potential expansion, invitations to the Big 12 became among the most sought-after commodities in college football.

It was as though the conference's Facebook page was flooded with 63 friend requests from the many of the top schools outside of the Power 5.

Whether the Big 12 chooses to add two or four teams, league officials want to make sure they chose the best possible available candidates.

"You know, they're going to join a family," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "And it's important that they strengthen the family and we strengthen them."

The Big 12 is sifting through stacks of resumes.

Take a closer look at some of the favorites, the underdogs and the long shots to join the league.

THE FAVORITES

Houston: Few schools have enjoyed the kind of political push that Houston's received during this past week. From the Texas governor to school officials at Texas and Texas Tech, it appears everyone is in love with the Cougars. Don't be fooled, these Lone Star endorsements are huge and make UH an early front-runner in the race. It doesn't hurt that the school is going through a football renaissance under coach Tom Herman and the Houston television market is among the top 10 in the country.

BYU: Bowlsby said one of the criteria for a candidate is fan base and few schools have as much of world-wide presence at BYU thanks to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. It's one of the reasons the school created its own network — BYUtv — that is available in more than 65 million homes. And the Cougars averaged more fans at home football games (58,532) than eight of the 10 current members of the Big 12 last season. That said, the Cougars only make sense as a football-only member thanks to the school's stance against playing sports on Sundays.

UConn: Let's not sugarcoat it any further; the Big 12's interest in Connecticut would be mostly for its basketball programs and television market. Football is somewhat of an afterthought in this scenario when you consider the Huskies have won less than 46 percent of their games since 2000. The men's basketball program has won four national titles — twice in the past six seasons — while the women's program is the gold standard for excellence after winning four consecutive national titles. Then there is the TV market, which could provide millions of eyes from the Northeast not traditionally exposed to Big 12 schools. The Huskies' athletic department also is on par with most Power 5 schools in total revenue.

Cincinnati: It's no secret the Big 12 had interest in expanding its foothold East the last time realignment reared its ugly head. The league missed out on Louisville, instead going with West Virginia. Adding Cincinnati would provide the Mountaineers with a geographic rival in the league. The Bearcats' football and basketball programs have excelled and the television market is one of the top 40 in the country. Nippert Stadium has been upgraded, but it would need to be expanded past its current 40,000-seat capacity.

Memphis: Much like Cincinnati, Memphis would help expand the league's footprint. And much like the Bearcats, the Tigers would provide a league with football and basketball programs on the rise. The football program has won 19 games the past two seasons, with quality victories over Power 5 programs Kansas and Ole Miss. With that success has come a spike in attendance at home games. FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, whose company is based in Memphis, has already thrown his support behind the Tigers, offering to sponsor the Big 12's new championship game.

THE UNDERDOGS

Boise State: The Broncos have the best winning percentage of any Football Bowl Subdivision program since 2000 at 85 percent. Boise State became one of the top mid-major programs during the Bowl Championship Series era. The team averaged 33,612 fans at home games last season, which is more than Kansas (27,282) did during the same stretch. However, Boise State doesn't even make the top 100 television markets and the distance from other league schools could be a concern. It's more than 2,200 miles from Morgantown, W.Va., to Boise, Idaho, which could create some travel nightmares for programs outside of football.

UCF: Despite last season's winless campaign, the UCF football program has won more than 60 percent of its games since 2010. It includes at least a piece of three conference championships and a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor in 2013. New coach Scott Frost's boundless energy and enthusiasm have re-energized the program this offseason, which could lead to a spike in attendance. The men's basketball program has been atrocious, with the Knights last making an appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2004. The good news for UCF fans is the school is located in a top 20 television market and in the middle of recruiting-rich Florida.

THE LONG SHOTS

USF: There are some who believe that any expansion involving UCF should also include USF. That may not be the case. It's true that the Bulls' success last season under football coach Willie Taggart shows the school is turning a corner. But the program doesn't have an on-campus football stadium — instead using the NFL's Raymond James Stadium. The men's basketball program has qualified for the NCAA Tournament just once since 1992, while the women's program has made five consecutive tournaments. USF is located in the second-best television market among expansion candidates.

Colorado State: CSU is in the middle of building a new $220-million multi-purpose on-campus stadium that can hold as many as 41,000 rabid Rams fans. It's expected to be ready in time for the 2017 season, which is when the Big 12 would aim to add any new members. That's good news for a football program that's been resuscitated by Jim McElwain and Mike Bobo. The school fits perfectly into the geographic footprint of the Big 12 and would provide a larger piece of the Denver television market.

East Carolina: It seems just about everyone in the American Athletic Conference has been campaigning to join the Big 12 and East Carolina is no different. The Pirates are one of a handful of FBS schools in North Carolina and the school is located six hours away from Washington D.C. If the Big 12 wants a foothold on the East Coast, the Pirates could be attractive.

THE REST

Temple, Tulane and Colorado have also been mentioned as possible candidates, but they lag behind the pack.


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