As Big 12 considers conference expansion, what about USF and UCF?

The Bulls and Knights got a boost when the Pac-12 announced it wasn’t pursuing expansion. The Big 12 leftovers are out of Power Five lifeboats.
USF's recent facilities upgrades will help their case, if the Big 12 chooses to pursue expansion.
USF's recent facilities upgrades will help their case, if the Big 12 chooses to pursue expansion. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 27, 2021

The Pac-12′s decision not to pursue conference expansion “at this time” is great news to the I-4 corridor. USF and UCF have a chance at moving up the realignment ladder.

We don’t know how big that chance is, but it’s better now than it was before Thursday’s announcement. If the Pac-12 wanted to expand, it would have probably targeted some of the eight Big 12 leftovers. Now you can cross that league off the list of possible destinations for teams like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

Related: Why Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC matters to FSU

Based on what the ACC and Big Ten commissioners said Tuesday when they announced their ill-defined alliance, you can cross their leagues off the list, too. End any speculation about Kansas and Iowa State joining the Big Ten or West Virginia moving to the ACC. The SEC has already taken the two Big 12 teams it wants (Texas and Oklahoma), so it’s hard to imagine it adding anyone else.

Which means the Big 12 leftovers appear to be out of Power Five lifeboats. And that’s where USF and UCF come in. Unless the Big 12 chooses to do nothing — which is possible — there’s a chance the Knights and Bulls end up in a league with the likes of TCU and Iowa State.

The most obvious way is through Big 12 expansion. The conference could look to fortify its reputation and Power Five status by adding some of the top Group of Five teams. BYU is being seriously discussed, according to The Athletic.

Related: Jeff Scott’s on USF’s role in conference realignment: ‘Go win’

Houston and SMU have had success and would enhance the Texas footprint. Boise State is another Western option with a strong football history, while Cincinnati starts this season No. 8 in the country.

Jeff Scott and the Bulls got a boost when the Pac-12 announced it will not pursue expansion right now.
Jeff Scott and the Bulls got a boost when the Pac-12 announced it will not pursue expansion right now. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

UCF and USF don’t fit the geographic profile as well — if that still matters — but they do have other selling points. The Big 12 will lose even more recruiting power in Texas when the Longhorns and Sooners leave. USF and UCF would help the league establish a presence in two fertile areas in one of the country’s top three recruiting states.

Related: How Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC will affect recruiting

The Knights are better positioned than USF because of their on-field product (two Fiesta Bowl appearances and a Peach Bowl win). They also boast better facilities and social media engagement, in addition to having one of the largest student bodies in the country. In a board of trustees meeting earlier this month, athletic director Terry Mohajir outlined his vision for a $50 million “football campus,” which would be a part of any Big 12 pitch.

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USF has made progress in the facilities arms race. It opened a new-look locker room this summer as part of the Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center’s $3.3 million renovation, and the Bulls hope to break ground on an indoor practice facility this fall. But USF has lost 22 of its last 35 games and is the nation’s No. 99 team, according to ESPN’s preseason SP+ rankings. Perhaps the booming Tampa Bay area and USF’s unfulfilled potential will be enough to entice the Big 12 as it considers expansion.

Related: As conference realignment begins, USF picked a bad time to be bad at football

USF and UCF could also benefit if the AAC raids the Big 12′s top programs or if the two leagues merge. But those scenarios seem less likely than Big 12 expansion.

We don’t know how soon this could all shake out. Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt —who’s part of the Big 12′s four-person expansion subcommittee — told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal the issue could be around for “the next couple of years.”

“There is a lot of interest in the Big 12 Conference,” Hocutt told the paper. “There is a lot of interest for people to be associated with us, to join with us. So we will take our time, be diligent and make sure we make the right strategic decisions for the long-term future.”

Will that long-term future involve USF and/or UCF? Stay tuned.

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