It’s sports policy that when any shred of college football conference expansion or realignment news happens, you are required to write up a wildly speculative post about who’s going where and why and how your favorite school will benefit based on absolutely no hard evidence whatsoever. I don’t make up the rules.
With that in mind, I intend to put all debates aside and give you, UCF fan, the definitive guide to What’s Going To Happen With Conference Realignment and how it will affect the Knights going forward.
First, the background:
Brent Zwerneman, the Texas A&M beatwriter for the Houston Chronicle (file that note away for later), was the first to report that Texas and Oklahoma were “reach(ing) out to the SEC about joining the conference”:
College Football Twitter’s response was predictable:
Everyone has dropped their wild takes.
As far as word from actual officials, Texas A&M is not happy. Texas Tech is not happy. The Big 12 had a meeting is waving around that grant of rights. And it stands to reason it was A&M themselves who leaked it in the first place.
So let’s break this down.
This is all about money, as it always is. Texas and Oklahoma are getting about $40 million a year each from their current media rights deal. They want SEC money, on the order of $55-60 million. Texas and Oklahoma are going to get that money either by joining the SEC or by extorting it from the networks, possibly at the expense of the other eight schools’ fraction of the media revenue pie.
So the ball is in ESPN’s court. They muscled CBS out of the SEC, and are probably just as averse to sharing the Big 12 with Fox. ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has his hands on the button. His choice is between letting the Big 12 live by giving Oklahoma and Texas all the money they want, or killing the Big 12 and letting Texas and Oklahoma move.
And no, they are likely not interested in keeping a Texas-and-Oklahoma-less Big 12 alive. Those two brands provide the value. Without them you’re looking at a league whose teams might or might not be worth what The American’s teams is worth.
So the question is, what do they do?
No, the question is what happens with UCF?
OK, OK. There are a lot of dominoes that have to fall before UCF’s falls. So let’s get to that, scenario by scenario:
If Texas and Oklahoma go to the SEC, then what?
To me, there are two possibilities:
- The Big 12 decides to stay together
- The Big 12 falls apart
Let’s say ESPN keeps the Big 12 together (again, why, I don’t know). The ball then falls into their court regarding what they should do to try to maintain some market value without their two anchors. Which means: Expand!
The remaining eight might want to add two, or four, or six schools. My completely speculative pecking order based on reading everyone else’s equally speculative pecking order is this:
- Houston (old SWC/Texas ties)
- SMU (Good rivalries with Baylor and TCU)
- Cincinnati (Second northern foothold that keeps West Virginia happy)
- Boise State (Football!)
- UCF (I hate we’re this low)
- Memphis (Why not?)
Why is UCF this low? The question to everyone’s answer is below:
What does West Virginia do?
UCF is in a spot where, if they want to move into the Big 12, and reap the somewhat better payday with it, they’re at the mercy of West Virginia. Morgantown, as many have said, is hard to travel to, and while that doesn’t matter much for football, it does for volleyball, soccer, softball, etc.
Should WVU stay, the only possible school that can alleviate that problem is Cincinnati. But the Queen City is still a five-hour drive from Morgantown, and to get there you still have to roll through Columbus and past one other major city that’s just an hour and fifteen minutes away by bus: Pittsburgh.
Which is why WVU might consummate their flirtations with the ACC, where they’ve always felt like they should be to begin with. Not only would this rekindle the classic Backyard Brawl, but it would alleviate the WVU Olympic sports travel issues.
It would also give the ACC basically 15 1⁄2 schools (since Notre Dame isn’t a football member). But it turns out Notre Dame had a really nice time on their COVID date with the ACC, and the ACC would like to see if they’d like to see one another exclusively. If the ACC is willing to let the Irish have their side piece with NBC (the ACC does have a freaky side), it all could come together.
It would also put the remaining seven Big 12 schools in a real pickle.
Could anyone else jump ship from the Big 12?
Sure! Let’s keep it going.
Although I’m not as bullish on the Pac-12 champing at the bit to grab schools that far east given how that conference is still in recovery following a leadership change. You’ll remember back in 2010 that they were willing to take on Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, but only because Texas and Oklahoma were flirting with them. But Tech and Okie State by themselves doesn’t quite have the spark.
Ah, what the hell, let’s do it. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State to the Pac-12. That leaves us with five.
What about the rest of them?
Well, people seem to think Kansas, despite the catastrophic situation their athletic department is in, would make a nice addition to the Big Ten. They are an AAU member and they are good at basketball. And they’re in the midwest. Let’s jump in.
Wait, that puts 15 in the Big Ten. We need one more because we like even numbers.
Found it! Iowa State. Make it so.
OK, that leaves three.
Let’s stick a fork in the Big 12 for good. Our friends at Our Daily Bears, SB Nation’s Baylor site, are freaking out, and with good reason. They broke down the membership bylaws of the Big 12 rather well here, so I encourage you to go check it out.
Should our scenario above play out, that’s a majority to vote for dissolution of the Big 12. And that leaves us with three lonely souls wandering the roads of the old west: Baylor, TCU, and Kansas State.
Buh GAWD, is that Mike Aresco’s music?!?!
Oh no you’re not.
OH YES I AM!
Let’s invite those three and get The American to 14! BAM!
Now here’s your new look American Athletic Conference, complete with divisions (and note I account for Wichita State in Olympic sports and basketball in parentheses):
East: UCF, South Florida, ECU, Navy, Temple, Cincinnati, Tulane, (Memphis)
West: Memphis, Houston, SMU, Tulsa, Baylor, TCU, Kansas State, (Wichita State)
Now all we gotta do is go back to ESPN, ask for another billion dollars through 2030, and everyone wins.
Who says no?
Now you’re just trolling.
Yeah, a little. But take my snarkiness out and this is a realistic scenario. The part I have the most misgivings about is Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the Pac-12. But hey, could that be another two for The American in an AAC/Big-12 merger, rather than an absorption by the American? Yeah, I think it might.
The question, as Eric Lopez always reminds me, is what the networks, er, ESPN, decide to do.
The AAC has positioned itself rather nicely as a potential home for the smoldering wreckage of the Big 12 if anything were to happen — After all, they moved the conference offices from Providence, Rhode Island to Irving, Texas for a reason, and it wasn’t the scenery, I can tell you that.
The main bargaining chip is that billion-dollar contract with ESPN. As Texas and Oklahoma are proving, if you’re on ESPN, you matter, and if you aren’t, you matter a bit less. The AAC has a nice deal with ESPN+, and given that ESPN already formed a similar streaming deal with the Big 12, that can dovetail nicely in any merger.
So what’s going to happen with UCF?
Shoot, I don’t know. This is moving so fast that things are breaking as I hurriedly finish this column and it could be outdated by this afternoon.
What I do know is that UCF is in a good spot for the future of college sports. When it comes to value, what matters isn’t market size or geography anymore — it’s alumni base. Passionate Millennial and Gen Z alumni will buy your streaming package, and that’s money directly into your coffers, not to mention inflate your linear TV viewership when football is on.
UCF pumps out more alumni than almost any major university in the nation. That is a lot of ESPN+ subs coming Bristol’s way in the next 20 years. We’re selling out football games. And that’s where I have to give Danny White a ton of credit, because he did something no other UCF AD could do: He consolidated the fan base.
20, 15, even 10 years ago, UCF’s problem was it was college sports’ best-kept secret well, the secret’s out now.
So we’re good, right?
Hell, I don’t know. We could move to the Big 12, we could absorb the remnants of the Big 12 into The American, we could get left out entirely.
All we can do is sit back, let this play out, and trust the process.
Get the popcorn ready. It’s gonna get wild.