Ranking the 18 Big 12 Expansion Candidates by Gridiron Results

On Friday, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported that the Big 12 will interview 17 (now 18) schools as possible expansion candidates.

Over at The Comeback, Kevin McGuire ranked the teams from 1 to 18. He also noted that according to McMurphy, it was highly unlikely that the league would expand beyond 12 teams.

If – and it’s still a big if – the Big 12 decides to expand, it’s likely that off-the-field factors will come into play. The teams that add the most value (e.g. revenue) will be the ones that ultimately end up joining the conference.

Although I would never fault any organization for doing something that’s in its best financial interests, I wish that the Big 12 would add teams that that would make the conference better. As I noted on Episode 155 of the ACC Podcast, if the league were better from top-to-bottom, the revenue would take care of itself.

That last sentence begs the question, “what would the Big 12 Expansion list look like if it were based solely on what the teams they’ve done on the field?”

Here is how I would rank the 18 teams, based solely on what they have accomplished on the gridiron (and nothing else):

1. BYU – The Cougars are probably the most deserving team of the 18 under consideration. Over the last two seasons, BYU has four victories against Power 5 conference teams (Texas, Virginia, California, and Nebraska) as well as wins over fellow contenders UConn (2), Houston, Boise, East Carolina, and Cincinnati. Given that the Cougars are the only team on the list that’s won a national championship at the FBS level (1984), I’m placing them in the top spot.

2. Boise State – If the Big 12 wants to make itself better, it needs to select teams that can win often. The Broncos bring that to the table. Since Dirk Koetter took over in Boise back in 1998, the team is 192-40 (.828) and has won or shared 12 conference titles. It also has ten top 25 finishes during that time, as well as bowl wins over Oklahoma, Iowa State, and TCU (two). That’s more than enough to prove that the Broncos belong.

3. Houston – Make no mistake about it: the Cougars are good enough to make it to the College Football Playoff this season. They were easily the best “mid-major” in the land last year, defeating four ranked teams in five weeks to close out the season, highlighted by a decisive win over Florida State. Houston is also 20th nationally in in FBS wins since 2006, posting an impressive 88-44 mark during that span, which is why it is third on the list.

4. Arkansas State – Yes, I’m aware that many people think that the Red Wolves belong lower on this list, including one guy who likened their candidacy to a first-round play-in game of the NCAA basketball tournament. However, the facts tell a completely different story. ASU has been of the most consistent teams in the country over the past five years. During that span, the Wolves have won or shared four conference titles and posted a 33-6 mark in Sun Belt play. It’s tough to argue with — or make jokes about — those results.

5. Northern Illinois – The Huskies are the gold standard for excellence in the MAC, appearing in the last six conference championship games, with wins in 2011, 2012, and 2014. NIU is also one of the few teams on the list that’s earned a BCS/NY6 bowl bid, qualifying for the Orange Bowl after posting a 12-1 regular season mark in 2012. While their resume is every bit as impressive as Arkansas State’s, I listed the Huskies fifth because they’ve dropped four straight bowl games.

6. Cincinnati – The Bearcats are one of the more underrated programs on the list. They’re certainly one of the more consistent teams, winning over 70% of their games since 2007, which is the 16th best total in the country. Cincinnati also won two Big East titles and appeared in BCS Bowls at the end of 2008 and 2009 seasons. However, they’ve also finished with a losing record in 2005 and 2010, which knocks them out of the top 5.

7. Central Florida – If this conversation had taken place last season, the Golden Knights would be much higher than they are right now. After all, UCF had won three conference championships in the last five years (2010, 2013, and 2014) and owned victories over Louisville, Penn State, Baylor, and Georgia. Unfortunately, the Knights went winless last season, which was the second losing season that the team has suffered through in the last five years. This lack of consistency is just enough to drop the Knights down a few spots.

8. San Diego State – Rocky Long has been the difference maker in San Diego. He inherited a talented squad from Brady Hoke and has guided it at eight wins or more in four of his five seasons at the helm. The Aztecs also won the Mountain West Conference championship last year and throttled fellow candidate Cincinnati 42-7 in the Hawaii Bowl. However, with only one championship under its belt, SDSU is at the middle of the pack… for now.

9. South Florida – The Bulls are a tough team to figure out. They haven’t won a conference championship in their brief history, but they did pull off several upsets over ranked opponents, including Louisville, West Virginia, Auburn, Kansas, Notre Dame, Florida State, as well as Temple last year. The ability to take out a top team — especially in non-conference play — would be welcomed addition to the Big 12. But, without a conference title to speak of, USF’s resume ranks just behind some of the other top candidates.

10. East Carolina – The Pirates are a better candidate than people realize. ECU won conference championships in 2008 and 2009, and has a history of upsetting some of the big boys, including Virginia Tech and North Carolina in recent seasons. Unfortunately, the Pirates are just 6-8 against the other contenders on the list, which is why they’re tenth.

11. Air Force – It’s difficult where the Falcons should fit on this list. On one hand, Air Force has won consistently under Troy Calhoun, posting six eight-win seasons in his nine-year tenure. On the other hand, the Falcons have a grand total of one division championship during that time. Without a conference title, I have to place them below those that have actually won one.

12. Connecticut – Like South Florida, the Huskies are a hard team to place on the list. They’ve never had a 10-win season, but they have captured two conference titles and played in a BCS Bowl (2011 Fiesta Bowl). Since the team has had five straight losing seasons, I’m placing UConn lower on the list than perhaps some others would… but don’t be surprised if they’re a contender in the AAC this fall.

13. Memphis – It’s tough to know what to expect from the Tigers going forward. Memphis was absolutely awesome over the last two seasons, posting a 19-7 mark, which included an upset over Ole Miss last year. Unfortunately, that’s all of highlights on its resume. The Tigers are just 8-14 against the other candidates in the last five years and have lost 9 or more games four times since 2006.

14. Temple – Don’t get me wrong: the Owls were the most pleasant surprise in college football last season, throttling Penn State en route to an impressive 10-4 record. Yet, that 10-win campaign was the school’s first since 1979. Even though Temple will continue to do great things as long Matt Rhule remains the head coach, it hasn’t won consistently enough to earn a spot in the Big 12.

15. Colorado State – The measuring stick for success in the WAC and MWC during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Rams have struggled with consistency over the past decade. Yes, CSU did finish 10-3 in 2014, but it also has five losing seasons since legendary head coach Sonny Lubick stepped down in 2007. Considering that the Rams haven’t won a conference title since 2002, it’s safe to say they’re not ready to compete in the Big 12 just yet.

16. Tulane – It seems like a long time ago, but the Green Wave have actually posted a perfect season in recent history, finishing 12-0 under Tommy Bowden in 1998. Ever since then, Tulane has struggled with consistency, finishing with a winning record just three times. Although Willie Fritz will turn the program around soon, the Green Wave’s resume simply doesn’t stack up well against the other candidates.

17. SMU – The Mustangs narrowly avoid the cellar on this list because of their success before receiving the death penalty. However, there’s no way that their on-field performance since that time warrants a spot in the Big 12. SMU has only posted three winning records in the past 30 years, and has failed to more than eight games in a single season. While they’ll be much better under the leadership of Chad Morris, the Mustangs aren’t quite ready for Prime Time yet.

18. New Mexico – The Lobos haven’t won a conference title since 1964, and have just one 10-win season in school history. That’s simply not good enough to earn an invite to a power 5 conference.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.

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