The Big 12 expansion movement takes its next public step Monday when league presidents offer an update at the end of their scheduled meeting at a Dallas-Fort Worth hotel.
Whether that step will be forward, backward or sideways is open to speculation. Most signs point toward embracing the 10-member status quo as the probable outcome despite millions spent on consultants' fees and significant hours spent vetting expansion candidates — including USF — by commissioner Bob Bowlsby since the July 19 acknowledgment that the Big 12 had shifted into expansion mode.
But check back at the end of Monday's meeting because the momentum could change as options surface behind closed doors, including the possibility of adding two schools as football-only members. The sticking point, multiple administrators have confirmed, is finding an expansion-related proposal that could draw the necessary "yes" votes from eight of the league's 10 members to earn approval.
Multiple Big 12 administrators contacted in the past week offered similar versions of the same mantra in regard to Monday's anticipated outcome: "Your guess is as good as mine."
That's because the power rests with league presidents, and none of them has offered much in a public setting since Oklahoma president David Boren, chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, acknowledged at a Sept. 14 Oklahoma regents meeting that league expansion was "not a given."
In addition, Sports Illustrated reported Saturday that TV executives at Fox and ESPN are discussing the possibility of paying the Big 12 to not expand. The networks seek to offer a fee in exchange for closing a loophole in their contracts with the conference that enables the Big 12 to earn nearly $25 million annually for each member it adds.
That has left coaches, athletic directors and league observers in speculation mode. Though momentum seems to have cooled on the idea of adding full members to participate in all sports, the possibility of adding football-only members remains in play.
Kansas men's basketball coach Bill Self addressed that possibility last week on a College Hoops Today podcast with cbssports.com. Asked about Big 12 expansion, Self said: "I think there's a chance we could expand. If we do, there's a better chance of doing football only. I don't think it would affect basketball."
The football championship game will resume in 2017 with or without expansion and will feature a guaranteed rematch of a regular-season contest unless the Big 12 adds more football teams. Because a guaranteed rematch cheapens the value of regular-season contests, it's conceivable league presidents may embrace some football-only members through the 2024-25 season.
After that, the Big 12 appears poised to come apart at the seams unless Texas and Oklahoma can be enticed to stay beyond the length of existing TV contracts. That concern will not dissipate regardless of Monday's action or inaction. At this point, league officials have years to sweet-talk the Longhorns and Sooners into remaining long-term participants.
BYU, a football independent, and Houston, a member of the American Athletic Conference, receive the most attention when speculation surfaces about football-only members. But it might be easier logistically for Air Force, one of 11 finalists on the Big 12's list of expansion candidates, to become a football-only member while shifting its other sports to the West Coast Conference (where BYU competes in sports other than football) than for Houston to make a comparable move with its non-football programs.
Another service academy, Navy, is a football-only member of the AAC and competes in the Patriot League in other sports. So there is a precedent for such an action.
There's also a precedent for Big 12 administrators to embarrass themselves on the big stage. In the minds of most college sports observers, that is what an "expansion is dead" acknowledgment would achieve after so much time and energy spent on the topic for the past three months.
But this much remains true: The expansion candidates are the same schools the Big 12 bypassed in 2011 when it chose to add only TCU and West Virginia to replace Texas A&M and Missouri. Five years later, we'll soon find out if anything truly has changed in a league where surprise announcements are more common than in any other Power Five conference.