The Big 12’s not expanding now, but these two will be frequently discussed if it ever does.
The Big 12 decided before the 2016 football season that it wouldn’t expand — for the time being — beyond 10 teams. There’s been little chatter over the last year about the league growing. Sometime down the line, it’ll come up again.
When it does, two schools discussed will probably be UCF and USF. The two Interstate 4 rivals were among 17 universities to make pitches around the summer of 2016, when Big 12 expansion talk was at its latest zenith. USF made quiet approaches, while UCF emphasized video game supremacy.
In the wake of UCF’s 13-0 season and USF’s 10-2 mark, a Florida state rep wants to make extra sure the Big 12’s paying attention. Republican Rep. Bobby Olszewski, who won a special election in Orange County in October, sent a letter to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby on Wednesday, asking to keep the schools “at the top of mind.”
Clearly, a letter from a state rep (or a governor, or whoever) isn’t going to convince the Big 12 to do anything.
Politicans speaking up about college football is a quintessentially college football thing, dating at least to 1969, when Richard Nixon declared Texas the sport’s national champion over Arkansas.
Recent examples include an Iowa state rep who tried to bar Iowa State and Iowa from playing Friday night games and a Mississippi rep/former Ole Miss player who thought the NCAA’s compliance investigators should be accountable to the state government of Mississippi while they investigated Ole Miss. It’s always about making a point in order to gain favor with local voters.
“You know, the good thing is here I am as a state representative talking to you at a national publication, and we’re promoting the state of Florida,” he says.
But Olszewski is dead serious, and he has some points.
Olszewski represents part of Central Florida and used to work in USF’s athletic department. He’s done a few jobs in college football, he said, including a stint with bowl organizers Florida Citrus Sports and as the public relations director for the Butkus Award, which goes to the country’s top linebacker.
“I think because of the business analytics of college football, it would be extremely logical for the Big 12 to look at who can give them the most television revenue,” Olszewski adds. “And getting USF and UCF with the media markets they represent in Florida would be a wonderful fit.”
“That’s a whole lot of eyeballs that are gonna be watching college football games,” he says.
In late 2015, Nielsen assessed the media market including Tampa as the 11th-biggest in the country and the one including Orlando as the 19th-biggest. Outside of traditional Big 12 markets Dallas and Houston, those would be the largest in the league’s footprint, though not everybody in them is a) a college football fan or b) a UCF or USF fan.
USF and UCF are often good enough at football — the Big 12’s main money-making endeavor — to make the conference better there. Both have shown significant upside this century, including USF sharing the Big East years ago with current Big 12 team West Virginia. Both could hack it in Power 5 football, based on success found by Utah and TCU after jumping to that level.
USF and UCF have potential problems, though.
The Big 12 won’t add someone based on one or even a few great football seasons. The conference’s stated criteria for new members doesn’t look great for either USF or UCF. Both schools pull in more athletic revenue than the majority of front-line Big 12 candidates, but they have way worse men’s basketball programs, smaller fanbases, less academic funding, and lower university rankings than the league’s averages.
It’s possible the Big 12 just holds steady until 2025.
The league extended Bowlsby’s contract earlier this year. It’s set to expire in June 2025, which is the exact same time the Big 12’s grant of media rights expires. It’s possible that the conference disbands at that point, particularly if it shrinks beneath 10 teams.
“The Big 12 did make that statement, without question, and I think a lot of that hinges on what the University of Texas and Oklahoma do with their futures,” Olszewski says. Some horse-trading between the league’s two most powerful schools reportedly played a role in the 2016 expansion talks that didn’t result in expansion.
But when the expansion machine revs up again, eyes on these two.
Their recent football success means they’ll be in the public spotlight, if nothing else.