"Will the Big 12 remain a Power Conference?" isn't the right question to ask
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The next chapter in the Big 12 expansion saga appears to be heading to a prompt conclusion.
Last night, Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports summed up the current state of play. As of right now, Big 12 Presidents expect to get formal applications from BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF this week, and could potentially vote to admit them as early as Friday.
Sources: Big 12 presidents held a meeting on Monday. No votes took place, as it was more an informational meeting to go over the impending applications of UCF, Cincinnati, BYU and Houston to join the league. 1/3
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel)
Sep 6, 2021
There are still plenty of details to iron out, and given this league, nothing is an absolute sure thing until the introductory press conferences, but as of now, there's no reason to think that these four schools will not be formally admitted into the Big 12 in the very near future.
When their first games will occur as Big 12 members is one of those currently unsettled details. The AAC confirmed to me that current league bylaws require schools to give 27 months notice, and pay a $10 million exit fee. Typically, the notice requirement can be negotiated around (UConn paid $17 million to leave early), but if all three AAC schools honored the full contracted agreement, they wouldn't be able to join until the 2024 football season.
As a football independent, BYU does not need to pay any conference exit fees, leading some analysts to suggest BYU could begin Big 12 play as early as next season. I'm hearing this is very unlikely. Not only would a staggered expansion make scheduling very challenging for the remaining Big 12 schools, but BYU also nearly has a full 2022 schedule built out, one that doesn't have automatic cancellation clauses in case BYU joins a conference. According to copies of BYU contracts I've inspected via our FIOA directory, other future contracts do contain clauses allowing BYU to get out of a game should they join a conference, but not any that would allow them to do so with only 12 months' notice.
Sources tell me that BYU is obligated to give notice to the WCC, and pay an exit fee, in order to move their other sports to the Big 12, but I have not been able to confirm the exact bylaw yet. I've reached out to the WCC and will update this newsletter once I learn what those contracts require.
This is all to say that probably, in 2023, maybe 2024, the Big 12 will add these four schools. Maybe they'll play a season with Texas and Oklahoma, maybe not.
That isn't the question I see most fans asking right now. They're asking...is this new league still gonna be a Power Conference?
Let's talk about that.
First, let's get specific here for a second. What does it ACTUALLY mean to be a Power Conference?
Being a Power Conference, or, ugh, an Autonomy Conference, if we're going to use college administrator jargon here, isn't just shorthand for "wealthy conference" or "important conference". It's a term that actually has a specific meaning.
For one, being an P5 league (I'm just going to stick with this term for the rest of the newsletter, if that's okay with y'all), is a specific NCAA designation, one that allows them to create rules among themselves that the rest of D-I membership doesn't have to follow. In the past, that's been used to tackle issues like cost of attendance, medical coverage, housing and meal spending on recruiting visits, etc. Multiple industry sources have told me that they expect the Big 12 to retain this administrative position even after Texas and Oklahoma leave. So in that sense, yes, the Big 12 will literally remain a P5 conference.
There's also the question of bowls. Right now, the Big 12 has contractual relationships that not just guarantee their conference champion an automatic bid in a New Year's Six bowl, but also makes sure their conference members get access to games like the Liberty Bowl, Alamo Bowl, and most importantly, the Cheez-It Bowl. My current understanding is that bowl agreements will be honored through the duration of the current College Football Playoff contract, scheduled to run through 2025, even if the Big 12 membership changes during that time period.
What happens after 2025, on both fronts, is a great question. The entire NCAA constitution will potentially be rewritten next year, and there's absolutely no guarantee that anything resembling the current Autonomy Conference designation will exist by 2025. In a few years, the CFP could be four teams, eight teams or 12 teams, and some currently contracted Big 12 bowl games could become part of that postseason, or even cease to exist.
In my estimation, fretting about the Big 12's ability to take full advantage of either system right now isn't worth the effort. There are too many unknowns, too many variables, questions that rest on much more important decisions than "should the Big 12 add Memphis or Boise State."
But what if we're using P5 conference as an informal stand-in for conference quality? Surely this new league would be the worst P5 league, right?
That's what I thought. But then I looked at the data, and I think it tells a different story.
I looked up the Sagarin Ranking and F+ ranking for each remaining Big 12 school, as well as the rankings for a variety of potential Big 12 expansion candidates, and the entire Pac-12. The conventional wisdom is that a Big12+ would be substantially worse than the Pac-12...but recent history doesn't really suggest that's true.
In 2020, 2019 and 2018, the Big 12 posted a higher average Sagarin ranking than the Pac-12, with the four expansion teams, or by themselves (in 2017, the Pac-12's ranking was better). The same trend was true with F+, and I suspect it would be true if you used SP+, or Massey, or any number of opponent and/or pace adjusted metrics.
Taking Texas and Oklahoma out of the Big 12 unquestionably makes it a worse football conference. But the remaining eight, plus these four new teams, based on the last few seasons, would be a peer to the Pac-12, and honestly, to the not-Clemson ACC. The idea that there is a massive gap is not really supported by recent performance.
That being said, I think there are two important caveats.
You need to recruit at an elite level to win a football championship, and nobody in this Big 12 comes close to doing that
My friend and old colleague, Bud Elliott of 247 Sports, is the man who coined the idea of the Blue-Chip Ratio, which shows that only teams that sign at least 50% of their recruiting classes with four or five-star talent have the depth required to win a national title. Every champion has come from this group, and nearly every Playoff participant.
It's possible this could eventually change in an expanded playoff. For the Big 12's sake, it would have to, because nobody on this list has demonstrated they can even sniff that level of recruiting. The remaining 8 Big 12 schools signed a total of 12 blue-chippers, combined, in 2021. In 2019, they added 14. BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston combined to sign exactly one last season.
You'd expect some level of recruiting improvement from the new four schools, but not that kind of improvement. The Big 12 would absolutely need TCU, West Virginia and Oklahoma State to sign better athletes.
The other question is whether the current relative parity between this lineup of Big 12 and Pac-12 schools is sustainable.
After all, not a single Pac-12 school has recorded a top-25 average Sagarin ranking over the last four years. USC's four year average is 31, as is Oregon. Arizona State is 38. UCLA's is 58. Is it reasonable to assume that over a decade, those schools revert closer to their historical norms?
The new Big 12 schools are coming in on some of their best seasons ever. BYU finished 5th in Sagarin last year. The three years before that? 67, 63 and 112. Cincinnati was 16 last year...and 128 in 2017. Can the new schools weather a coaching change or an increase in competition, knowing that increased resources may be a few years away?
Maybe! But I don't think that's a guarantee.
Also, for what it's worth, of the four schools, Houston's metrics are easily the worst. If the Big 12 wanted to expand with the sole focus on improving their football performance, recent data would suggest Boise State or Memphis would be much better choices.
So what metrics were important?
This isn't 2014, and just pointing to TV MARKET SIZE doesn't mean the same thing. After all, the Big 12 doesn't have a linear television network. They can't force every resident of Houston or Orlando to pay thirty cents to get Big12 Net on their cable package like say, the Big Ten could with greater NYC and Rutgers.
I asked a few industry consultants about what sort of metrics would be used for a Big 12 pitch, and every one of them told me it would be a complicated question, since there isn't a single uniform metric that demonstrates who drives the most "value."
To the extent that they could, my sources told me would be Big 12 candidates would push their ratings performance on traditional cable broadcasts, something that BYU, UCF and Cincinnati would be able to do. There would also be other conventional metrics, like recent football success, history, attendance, budget, etc.
But I was also told schools would be using less traditional data points to make their case, from drawing attention to their ability to drive interactions on social media, to licensing revenue, undergraduate enrollment, to any streaming data they could get their hands on.
Judging by the results, I believe geography played a significant role. Houston and Orlando are pretty large TV markets (both in the top 15), but Salt Lake and Cincinnati aren't. But all four of those markets produce a lot of very good college football players. Orlando and Salt Lake are also two of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, and all four regions have important business centers. When a lot of your current league footprint is rural, and in states that don't produce a lot of recruits or corporate cash, betting on markets can be defensible.
That might explain why Boise State, a school with stronger football that Houston, (and honestly, stronger than BYU), was not selected.
One metric I was told wasn't likely to be a major factor? Academics, even if Big 12 presidents talk about it in the press conference. This isn't a league with a defined institutional fit, after all. The Big 12 is expanding to survive, not to boost their collection of research grants. AAU status may be a big deal for the Big Ten and the Pac-12, but not for the league with West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas State as current members.
This league has a lot of questions to answer moving forward...but I wouldn't worry too much about anything related to being a Power Conference
The new Big 12 is not going to make as much money as it did before. It won't have the same Q score. For reasons fair or not, it probably won't be as prestigious, at least, as a football entity. As a basketball league, it could be REALLY good, but that's for a different newsletter.
But it should retain whatever contractual arrangements and administrative privileges that it did before Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving. Those arrangements and privileges might not exist in a few years, even if Texas and Oklahoma stayed. Ask any admin, we're in a time of major upheaval in college sports.
But if the logos on the helmets aren't as fancy, I know the data suggests this should still be a good football conference, with competitive games.
That's a good place to start from. There's plenty of time to figure everything else out.
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