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May 5, 2010

Big 12 should look to UCF, USF

Three years ago, the University of Central Florida football program christened their brand new on-campus stadium by welcoming the University of Texas to Orlando.

A capacity crowd of 45,622 packed inside Bright House Networks Stadium on Sept. 15, 2007 where they saw the Knights take a fourth-quarter lead before eventually falling to the No. 6 Longhorns, 35-32.

In the future, could we see Texas return to UCF for a conference game? Could the Big 12, not the BIG EAST, be the future destination for UCF's athletic programs?

Throwing out conference realignment scenarios - by fans and media alike - is a popular thing these days, so here's mine:

A marriage of the two biggest football hotbeds in the nation-- Texas and Florida. A future Big 12 that includes UCF and USF.

Now, I don't profess to have inside knowledge of what the conferences plan to do, but this is something I could see happening. Seriously.

Everybody seems to be in agreement that conference realignment is coming, maybe this summer or next spring, but probably with the Big Ten firing an opening salvo.

Time will tell if the Big Ten expands to 14 or 16 schools, but the chatter seems to be stronger these days of a 16-team league that would add the following schools: Missouri and Nebraska from the Big 12 and Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse out of the BIG EAST.

That's assuming Texas and Notre Dame turn down the Big Ten's overtures. Texas, perhaps more than any other school, holds all the cards whether this thing really gets crazy. The Longhorns conceivably could have an open invitation to join the Big Ten, SEC or PAC-10.

If Texas does leave the friendly confines of the Big 12 many believe their most likely destination would be the PAC-10 where they feel an academic kinship to those universities.

However, my scenario factors in the following: Texas isn't leaving the Big 12.

Granted, UT could make a boat load of cash joining another league (particularly the Big Ten or SEC), but in the end I feel Texas enjoys being the top dog that calls all the shots, something that probably wouldn't happen in those other leagues. And as far as the PAC-10, there is the issue of playing essentially all of your road games in the Pacific Time Zone.

Texas - home to the nation's most profitable athletic department - instead will look to re-strengthen the Big 12 and create their own "Longhorn Sports Network" to try to bridge the money gap compared to those other leagues.

So now that Texas has removed themselves from the picture, I could see the PAC-10 going forward with a plan to invite Colorado and Utah into their league. This is certainly not a given, however.

I also do not see the SEC or ACC making a move. Many people are throwing "super-conference" scenarios out there where multiple leagues grow to 16 teams, but it only makes financial sense for one conference - the Big Ten - and that's because of the unlimited revenue potential of the Big Ten Network. The other conferences have signed conventional television deals, which guarantees a certain amount that is then divided amongst its membership. Any new additions would have to significantly "increase the pot" to make expansion worthwhile.

The SEC - by nature of their 15-year deal with ESPN ($2.2 billion) and CBS ($800 million) - certainly could make expansion work, but if Texas isn't interested - then in my opinion - there is no compelling reason to expand past 12, at least not yet. I think you wait to see how the Big Ten experiment works out. You've just won four national championships in a row and nothing the Big Ten plans to do necessarily means they're going to start knocking you off the pedestal as college football's top conference.

I've seen Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Clemson mentioned as possible SEC targets, but for the most part the SEC already covers those markets. Expansion for the sake of expansion just doesn't make sense to me.

The ACC may or may not expand, but I'm not sure I see it happening.

A few years ago the ACC struggled to muster the votes to expand to 12, which really hasn't been what they thought it would be. As long as the SEC isn't poaching off their schools, I see no reason they'd go past 12. However, the ACC is currently in TV renegotiations and because that situation is still in flux, I suppose expansion would be possible, but only if schools added to their TV value even when you have to split it 14 or more ways instead of 12. In that case, Connecticut and West Virginia could make sense here.

So this is where we are: The Big Ten has added Missouri, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse. The PAC-10 has added Colorado and Utah.

Both the Big 12 and BIG EAST have lost three schools, while the Mountain West is down one. That puts the Big 12 at nine member schools (still a viable league) with the BIG EAST down to five football-playing schools (or possibly less).

So assuming Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are staying put, I say the Big 12 is in a position of strength over the BIG EAST.

So what happens next? Both leagues will look to add schools from a pool that likely includes non-BCS teams or in the Big 12's case, possibly the BIG EAST.

BIG EAST expansion has been debated for years. Multiple sources have pointed towards UCF being the league's top expansion target right alongside schools like Memphis and East Carolina.

But who makes sense for the Big 12?

Many feel TCU is a logical choice, but I don't believe TCU (nor Houston or any other Texas school) is headed to the Big 12 as long as there are no Texas defections.

The Big 12 is going to look at growing the league going forward and that means adding new markets that can help expand the footprint. That could mean Florida.

Here's a quick history lesson when it comes to UCF and USF. Frankly, it was a coin-flip when the BIG EAST made their contingency plans in 2003 and USF got the call.

If you believe certain sources, UCF was originally "in" when the BIG EAST thought they were losing Miami, Boston College and Syracuse. Virginia Tech was an ally of UCF at the time. But when the dynamics shifted - Virginia Tech was leaving and Syracuse staying - USF inched ahead for a couple key reasons. One, they had a more suitable basketball arena (this was several years before the new 10,000-seat UCF Arena opened) and two, were already competing at a higher level in men's basketball (Conference USA vs. Atlantic Sun).

If USF was attractive to the BIG EAST then and UCF is now, why wouldn't the schools - as a pair - be just as enticing to the Big 12?

Who else would the Big 12 consider? A few possibilities could include BYU, TCU, Houston, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Memphis, Louisville, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Sure, some of the BIG EAST schools are compelling, but I feel UCF and USF would be the strongest additions. Here's why:

Potential. I know everybody gets sick of hearing the "P" word, but are there two programs with more potential than UCF and USF? Both universities are top 10 in terms of enrollment, which is leading to exploding fanbases. UCF is currently No. 3 on the list (behind Arizona State and Ohio State), while USF comes in at No. 9.

Since bringing football to campus three years ago, UCF is averaging 40,564 fans per game (in a stadium with a capacity of 45,000). In the same timeframe, USF is averaging 51,804 fans per game off campus at Raymond James Stadium, which holds 65,000.

Put the Florida schools in the Big 12 - which in my opinion is stronger than the ACC - and it wouldn't take very long for UCF/USF to become major players in college football given each schools' location and recruiting base. If I were Florida State and Miami, I'd be very, very worried when it comes to their de facto status as the No. 2 and 3 teams in the state.

Given each schools' size and simply their growth in the last five years, think about about what the situation will be like in 10-20 years? The potential payoff could be huge.

Market. Who adds a better potential market than UCF and USF? Statewide, the University of Florida is the dominant program - and UF is probably still the No. 1 team in Orlando and Tampa - but I'd wager that in terms of a following USF and UCF are no worse than No. 2 in their own market. Miami's fanbase is largely concentrated in south Florida and Florida State - in my opinion - has seen their pull within Orlando and Tampa drop in recent years.

As far as TV markets, Tampa/St. Petersburg comes in at No. 13 and Orlando at No. 19, which is important to replace the markets lost with Colorado (Denver/No. 18) and Missouri (St. Louis/No. 21).

Perhaps more importantly, you'd be exposing Big 12 athletics to a big part of the population that has only been fixated on the SEC and to a much smaller degree, the ACC. Florida is the nation's fourth-most populous state with more than 18 million residents and Tampa Bay and Greater Orlando are its second and third biggest metropolitan areas behind Miami.

Geography/Travel. If USF is currently in the BIG EAST and UCF in Conference USA (which has four schools in Texas and another in Oklahoma), then geography certainly isn't an issue. Boston College competes in the ACC, a long ways away from most of their fellow members, and it's looking more like the Big Ten will go from Nebraska to New Jersey. The PAC-10 has existed in its current format for 30 years with the Arizona schools being about a 24-hour drive from the Washington schools. Again, geography is not an issue.

In fact, travel couldn't be easier. With Tampa and Orlando, you're talking about two of the biggest airports in the country with many flights to Big 12 region destinations. In fact, the proximity of the two schools (90 miles) is a major plus for Olympic sport travel.

For your teams like soccer, volleyball, women's basketball, etc., you can fly into Tampa for a game on Friday night, then bus to Orlando the next day (1.5 hours) to get ready to play UCF on Sunday. One plane trip, two games = big savings.

Recruiting. Several Big 12 schools - particularly the North Division schools like Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State - make recruiting in Florida a big emphasis. A free scholarship and competing in the Big 12 is obviously a draw, but that is a long way from home.

Playing games on a regular basis in Florida could be a big plus for those schools and even for Texas and Oklahoma. Texas doesn't really need to look beyond their own state for recruits, but maybe a few more of the five-star Florida studs look to Texas when the Longhorns are making regular trips to the Sunshine State for games.

Location: I don't really want to knock other states and cities, but there's a reason people have always flocked to the Sunshine State and particularly Orlando and Tampa. Great weather year-round, beaches and world-class attractions. Both cities would make for great road trips.

Alumni. I'm having trouble locating specific data, but I'd have to assume that a large number of Big 12 alumni reside in Florida, just for the sake of population. I have always been under the impression Kansas State has quite a few alumni living in the state - I recall the Wildcats bringing quite a few fans to the Old Spice Classic several years ago - and Texas is said to have a big following in the state as well. Again, I wish I had data to back this up, but I'd assume there are a lot more Big 12 alumni living in Florida (and specifically the Orlando/Tampa markets) than other potential expansion candidates under consideration.

Academics/Facilities: But are UCF/USF a fit within the Big 12 in terms of academics and facilities? Both institutions are "Tier 3" according to U.S. News and World Report, which would put them on par with Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. (It should be noted that USF was founded in 1956 and UCF in 1963).

In terms of facilities, both bring football and basketball venues which are sufficient for Big 12 standards. Tampa's Raymond James Stadium is one of the finest NFL stadiums in the country. At 45,000 seats, UCF's Bright House Networks Stadium would be the smallest stadium in the league, but the school recently announced an expansion plan that will increase capacity to 56,000. A move to a conference like the Big 12 would surely speed up the expansion process.

UCF currently has the nicest college basketball venue in Florida, the 10,000-seat UCF Arena which opened in 2007. The 10,000-seat USF Sun Dome is showing some age at 30 years old, but was suitable for BIG EAST standards.

USF is currently constructing an $8 million state-of-the-art baseball stadium, while UCF recently announced expansion plans to their own venue, Jay Berman Field.

Divisions. If the Big 12 responds by adding UCF and USF, and if they do also lose Colorado, they would still need a third addition. BYU, Louisville, Memphis, West Virginia or any other school listed above could make sense. Here's how I'd break down divisions:

Big 12 South:

Texas
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
Baylor
UCF
USF

Big 12 North:

Iowa State
Kansas
Kansas State
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
BYU, Louisville, Memphis or West Virginia

That's a very solid league. I moved the Oklahoma schools to the North, which could set up a potential Texas vs. OU Big 12 Championship game.

Under my scenario, the BIG EAST could be in a tough spot to survive as a football league. They could conceivably be down to three or four football schools, not to mention UCF is now out of the equation as a football target. Or possibly less if the ACC comes a calling. If there was a chance they could still be viable, they'd likely have to respond by taking Memphis, ECU, Marshall, Temple, Southern Miss and possibly TCU and Houston as long as they could prove the BIG EAST would retain an automatic BCS bid (while the Mountain West would not get one).

Is this crazy? I don't think so. It makes as much sense to me as the BIG EAST scenarios where UCF, Memphis, ECU, etc. are added.

The Big 12, as long as they keep Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the fold, is going to be able to take the first pick of realistically available teams. Losing Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado is a blow, but not a devastating one, so they need to make a splash.

Bringing Florida into the Big 12 footprint - now that's a splash and something that should really be considered.



Brandon Helwig, who has covered the University of Central Florida's sports programs for the last decade, can be contacted at helwig2001@aol.com.








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