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Big 12 Survivalist Expansion: What Happens Now?

As always, things keep changing

Murray State v Cincinnati
CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 11: A Cincinnati Bearcats cheerleader waves a flag with the Cincinnati Bearcats and Big 12 logos during the game against the Murray State Racers at Nippert Stadium on September 11, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Expansion hit over the weekend with the Big 12, in panic mode after losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, inviting BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida to join.

That means the Big 12 will soon go from a conference focused on the plains and Texas, with a side trip to West Virginia, to one that sprawls from Utah to Walt Disney World.

Losing Texas and Oklahoma was a staggering blow but the Big 12 recovered about as well as it possibly could under the circumstances.

All four schools have had at least reasonable football success and basketball will be just fine. BYU is good in both but has a great basketball tradition dating back decades. Houston just made the Final Four and also has a tremendous history. Cincinnati has been solid for a decades now and is the alma mater of all-time great Oscar Robertson. Central Florida has the weakest case but nearly upset the Zion Williamson-led Duke team in 2019 and of course has an argument about who should have been the national champions in football in 2017.

The loser here is the AAC, which was looking good a few years ago but has now lost three schools plus UConn which returned to the Big East.

The AAC will, barring its own expansion, now have ECU, Memphis, South Florida, SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa and Wichita State.

BYU comes from the West Coast Conference, at least for basketball, and has been an independent in football. Somewhat like Notre Dame, it has a big enough following to do that.

The other loser is probably Memphis.

Houston and Cincinnati were legitimate forces. Without them, and UCF, the second-best team might be Wichita State.

After that? It’s a crap shoot of mediocrity.

We’d be curious to see if the AAC tries for expansion and if it does, if it goes after maybe Appalachian State. That’s been a really good football school for some time now and might be interested in a move.

That still leaves Memphis’ future uncertain. Penny Hardaway is a major asset but if you can’t consistently schedule major games, what happens?

There is room for another conference that focuses mostly on basketball. You could take say, Memphis, Wichita State, VCU, Dayton, Temple, St. Louis, San Diego State, UNLV, New Mexico and, if you’re lucky or very persuasive, Gonzaga.

Memphis wants to take football seriously but like the rest of these schools, it’s a basketball culture first and foremost. They’d be wise to pull together.

The other thing that seems farfetched now and also counterproductive in the near future, is this: given the dangers we now know about football, concussions and CTE, many parents are keeping their sons away from football. Legendary running back Bo Jackson said he wouldn’t have played if he had known and doesn’t want his kids to either.

That’s not to say that basketball is guaranteed to be the top dog either. In fact, it could well be Esports. Because it’s focused mostly among the young, many sports fans don’t realize how serious a challenger it is to football and basketball. But online tournaments have had huge audiences and schools are beginning to offer scholarships. The 2024 Olympics will include Esports as demonstration sports.

It’s entirely possible that the classic definition of athletic competitions will shift dramatically, and soon, because the advertisers will follow the young wherever they go.

And then we may talk about conferences between continents rather than states.