College Football: Big 12 move begs question, Power Five or four or just two?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The ‘expansion world’ of college football spins again this week. This week the Big 12 Conference attempts to heal its wounds caused by the departure of Texas and Oklahoma. BYU, Houston, Central Florida and Cincinnati are expected to be officially approved to join the conference.

The Big 12 decided being the Big Eight was not good enough to ensure future high-dollar media deals. Adding four large markets in Salt Lake City, Houston, Orlando and Cincinnati is a strong move. The four cities have many more combined eyeballs than Austin and Norman (plus Oklahoma City). However, the Texas and Oklahoma football brands dwarf the four future Big 12 programs. The four new Big 12 programs don’t have stellar on-field records. As reported by Bill Bender of the Sporting News, over the past 10 seasons, the record of the four teams against ranked Power Five teams is 10-21.

Will the Big 12 look to becoming a 14-team league in the near future? The unknown answer is tied to other college football conferences. The Pac 12 announcing it has no intention of expanding gives the Big 12 a degree of security. A threat that will continue to worry the Big 12 is a future move by the SEC to 16 teams. Stillwater, with its close proximity to Oklahoma City and Tulsa would add value to the SEC. So would Dallas’ neighbor city, Fort Worth. The SEC taking Oklahoma State and TCU at some point would be another blow to the Big 12.

Another issue is in play with these college football changes. Will the new Big 12 still be a Power Five conference? Former Big 12 Commissioner, Chuck Neinas recently said,

"I’m confident the Big 12 is going to retain Power Five status"

The Power Five distinction is a well-known dividing line in college football. To an extent, it separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots.’ Technically, the NCAA does not distinguish between Power Five conferences and Group of Five conferences. Instead, in 2014, the NCAA granted what is called the Power Five specified autonomy. That autonomy was defined as,

"(SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12 schools) are granted autonomy in the following areas to permit the use of resources to advance the legitimate educational or athletics-relatedneeds of student-athletes and for legislative changes that will otherwise enhance student-athlete well-being"

Another few hundred words went into the details, but basically, it gave Power Five member institutions more control over themselves and allowed them to spend more money on their athletes than many ‘other’ schools could afford to spend. It also allowed for other changes to be made by the Power Fives. In short, the ‘haves’ were given a degree of autonomy allowing for greater strength and stability of their ‘have’ status.

College Football Power

Power, once gained, is rarely ever voluntarily ceded. The Big 12 does not want to lose its ‘autonomy’ status and join five other conferences as the Group of Six.

Brand power is beyond the control of the NCAA. It is brand power that drives media deals. That reality suggests the future of college football might not include a Power Five group. It might be a Power Four, with the SEC, Big 10, ACC and Pac 12. Or it might become a Power Two, with the SEC at 16-20 teams and the Big 10 at 16-20 teams. Or it might be a Power Two with the SEC at 18-20 teams and the now loosely formed Alliance merged into a large super-Conference.

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No one knows the form of future structures nor the time frame for the movements. What gets asked is what does SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey want? Short of not knowing that answer, the Big 12 has to settle for what best protects its future status as an Autonomy conference.