Ever since its inception, the Big 12’s story has been one of standoffs, clashing egos and marriages of convenience.
When the Southwest Conference merged with the Big 8 in 1996, tensions arose between the league’s two marquee programs, Nebraska and Texas, almost immediately over issues such as partial academic qualifiers. The Cornhuskers and Longhorns also ran the show on the field in the conference’s early years. Soon enough, a resurrected Oklahoma program rose up from the ranks to take its place among the league’s premier programs.
Meanwhile, a competitive middle tier began to emerge. Led by Bill Snyder and Kansas State, schools such as Texas Tech, Missouri and Colorado hired talented program builders, forging arguably the best league in the country for a 10-year stretch running through the early half of the 2000s. Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas all won a national championship during that period, and a Big 12 team routinely played in the national title game.
Yet, despite the league’s success, the conflicts that were present at the creation of the Big 12 never really went away. The final nail in the coffin for the conference as it was originally constituted came in 2010, when Texas surreptitiously led an effort to take six schools — including OU and Oklahoma State — to join up with the Pac-10 to form a 16-team superconference.
Even though the Pac-16 move was eventually aborted, Nebraska, which wasn’t in the Texas-led traveling party, took the opportunity to leave behind the instability of the Big 12 for the academic prestige and TV dollars of the Big Ten. Always a geographic outlier within the Big 12 footprint, Colorado skedaddled and joined what eventually became the Pac-12.
It turned out, however, that the conference wasn’t done shedding teams. A year later, Texas had leveraged the Pac-16 threat to form a joint venture with ESPN in creating the the first school-branded, 24-hour cable network, the Longhorn Network. The thorny problems surrounding the LHN’s implementation gave Texas A&M the cover necessary to bolt for the SEC. Meanwhile, OU went on the offensive as the Sooners took another run at the Pac-12. That then spurred Missouri, which had flirted with the Big Ten previously, to join A&M in moving to the SEC.
When the dust had settled, the Big 12 had slimmed down to 10 teams, adding West Virginia and TCU.
Which brings us to now.
When considering the current conference drama over the snub of TCU and Baylor, keep in mind that present-day events are now playing out against that tumultuous historical backdrop. The conference has never really been defined by unity of vision so much as keeping everyone just happy enough. It’s a culture that rewards posturing and leverage to get things done, which makes some members more equal than others.
If we’re talking realpolitik, how the Big 12 reacts to the playoff developments will be driven by the desires of Texas and Oklahoma. Following their lead — or, more appropriately, not going against them — is the best way to maintain the tenuous stability of the league going forward.
So, what do they want?
Neither has expressed much interest in expanding the league previously, beyond pipe dreams about Notre Dame. It’s difficult to see how the latest developments would sway them otherwise.
Frankly, how many expansion candidates out there bring quality football programs that are consistent winners? BYU, which is way outside the current conference footprint. Maybe Cincinnati. A directional Florida school, perhaps? It’s just not a compelling bunch of candidates.
More likely, the conference could petition to hold a championship game with only 10 members. Assuming the league stays at 10 teams, though, that raises questions about the wisdom of mandating a rematch every year between its two best squads.
Even more likely than that, the conference will push its membership to upgrade their non-conference scheduling. This year, Baylor’s cupcake binge clearly hurt the conference’s case for a playoff representative. The arguments that a Texas or Oklahoma team at 11-1 would have been in the playoff this year do have merit, but that’s because both are playing quality opponents outside of league play (UCLA this year for Texas and Tennessee for OU).
So, don’t look for a knee-jerk response out of the league any time soon. And Baylor AD Ian McCaw probably needs to start burning up the phone lines with other Power 5 schools and saving some buyout money for Incarnate Word.