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Big 12 Expansion: Is TCU Holding the Conference Back?

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A new report claims that the Big 12 is staying put at ten teams because Texas says no, and has in-state neighbors backing them up.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go again.

Earlier this week, the Big 12, namely commissioner Bob Bowlsby, came out with a report saying that their consulting firm had given them data suggesting a twelve team league with an eight game conference schedule gave the conference the best chance to make the playoffs. In fact, moving to this model would increase the Big 12's odds of making the four-team bracket by 4-5%. Yesterday, a report came out saying expansion actually increased the odds of making the playoffs by closer to 10-15%.

It's hard to get too riled up one way or the other about a couple of percentage points, and even more so when you consider the sample size is all of two seasons. But after the disaster that was 2014 - a disaster mind you, that was *this close* to allowing two teams to make it into the four team field - the big boys holding the bag are looking for any advantage, perceived or otherwise, that will ensure the Big 12 gets a slice of that massive CFP purse annually.

League coaches and athletic directors are meeting separately this week in Phoenix. Big 12 presidents, who will ultimately make a decision, will be in Dallas later this month.

“The ADs have seen most of it already,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “The ADs saw the preliminary work of Navigate work in March. It's got a few nuances to it.

“The coaches will be seeing it for the first time.”

Monday, Matt Brown (SB Nation's College League Manager) wrote an article for the excellent BYU blog Vanquish the Foe, detailing where the Big 12 was in expansion talks, who the major players are, and which direction a handful of pivotal votes seem to be leaning. The most revealing part of the story? TCU may be one of three holdouts that are voting no on adding teams to the conference.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Texas is the big dog in the room and continues to push buttons when it comes to Texas Tech and TCU:

Texas is believed to be influencing Texas Tech's and Texas Christian's decisions to also be reluctant to expansion.

Texas Tech has long fallen in line with Texas. Both are public universities that have been in the same league together since 1956, when they were in the Southwest Conference. Texas and Texas Tech were founding members of the Big 12 in 1996.

TCU is believed to be following Texas' lead because the conference's power broker reportedly helped the Horned Frogs get into the Big 12 four years ago.

As Brown writes, and I happen to agree, it makes a lot of sense, unfortunately. Texas Tech has long aligned itself with the state's flagship public university, and it benefits them to stay on the Longhorn's good side. TCU on the other hand, may not have the deep-seeded relationship with their neighbors to the south, but certainly feel some sort of debt to UT for pushing to add them to the conference during the last round of realignment. The only school in the state outside of that circle? Baylor... who is probably in favor of dropping from nine to eight conference games, seeing it as an opportunity to schedule an extra cupcake (I kid, Bears - mostly).

So where does that leave us with TCU? As a private institution, TCU is not subject to open records request, so it's impossible to know if other institutions have reached out directly to the Horned Frogs, but record requests sent by Brown to Texas and Tech revealed that overtures had been made by both Cincinnati and Memphis. Houston also had conversations with UT, but it's unclear as to whether or not that was in regards to realignment or not. BYU remains a question mark at this point as well, as they are also private, but it's long been suspected they have had conversations with the major players in the Big 12 when it comes to their status as an expansion candidate. The voting rules in the conference state that a 75% majority is required to make major changes (or eight votes), and if the reports that seven of the ten member institutions are in favor of expansion, that makes TCU the most likely swing candidate. So the question becomes: do the Frogs want to see the conference grow, but are hamstrung temporarily by their tenuous loyalty to Texas? Or is TCU actually opposed to expansion, and willing to hold firm and fast to their current outlook? Thirdly, you could also ask if the assumption that TCU is a holdout is true, but for this exercise, we will trust the reporting of Brown, the Enquirer, and others.

Theory One: TCU Wants to Expand

How strong is the Longhorns hold on the Frogs? If Gary Patterson and company truly believe they have a national title contender in Fort Worth - and why shouldn't they - then anything that gives them a better chance of making the four-team playoff should be explored. You can say what you want, point to the loss in Waco, wax poetic about how Ohio State dominated Wisconsin in their title game, but it's still really hard to believe that an OU or UT team that suffered a single three point loss to a top ten team would have been left out of the bracket in 2014. As long as their is a human element, there will be more than eye tests and metrics making the decisions. And, as college football fans, that's what we wanted. It's hard to say if it has or has not working out - we just don't have enough data to this point - but it's easy to look back to two seasons ago and think what might have been. Had TCU and Baylor had a rematch in 2014, the winner would have had a really good argument for making the playoff field. No team would have had a better resume than either of them, and with the way TCU was playing at that point, they may have gotten the nod over the Buckeyes, regardless of how their game against the Badgers went. Plus, can you imagine the eyes that would have been on that game nationally? It would have been the toughest ticket in town and likely one of the most watched games of the year. But in 2015? Oklahoma probably does to Oklahoma State what they had previously done (and just a week prior, so that would have been anticlimactic), and nothing would have changed, except perhaps seeding.

When you consider those facts and that information, it's plausible that Chris Del Conte could see the benefit of expansion, and could be in favor of adding two teams - Cincinnati makes the most sense of the likely candidates, with Memphis, BYU, and Houston all tied closely together in the next group.

Theory Two: TCU Wants the Big 12 to Remain at Ten Teams:

Gary Patterson has spoken openly about his desire to remain at ten teams, and he's not one for sucking up to the big boys, as we all know. If GP says he's happy with the way things are, then more than likely, he's truly happy with the way things are.

"It's tough to have a round-robin. Everybody wants to say you have to have expansion so you have a better chance of playing for a national title. They should try to play everybody every year. I like the model that we have now, even though it's tougher."

For the Frogs, who are not shying away from playing top teams down the line, there may not be an advantage, perceived or otherwise, to adding additional teams or a championship game. Patterson's argument, and it's a pretty good one, is that being the only Power Five conference where each team actually has to play every team in the league gives the Big 12 enough of an advantage to overcome not playing a 13th contest. And it makes sense, especially when you see teams like Iowa and Florida skate through week divisions in tough conferences to make championship games (though Iowa played MSU within inches, they were embarrassed in the Rose Bowl by Stanford). I don't think anyone makes the argument that either of those teams would have had anything close to the records they did if they had to play the full conference, or even on the other side of the bracket.

It's also worth noting that GP is not alone - Bob Stoops has come out against adding a conference championship game while remaining on the fence regarding expansion, despite working for the University president who seems to be most in favor of it.

"I don't know how a championship game with 10 teams when you're playing everybody already would really be that positive. With 12 teams of course it would be, but now you have to expand, and we'll see where that goes."

If you're looking for a fourth wildcard, you don't have to look much further than the conference's biggest wild card, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen. Holgo, for his part, doesn't seem too worried about growing the Big 12.

"I think the Big 12 got it right last year. Based on the results of what happened, I think we're in pretty good shape moving forward."

So Where Does This Leave Us?:

The Conference meetings are being held at the end of the month, and if there is a decision forthcoming, it's likely to be made then, when all of the power brokers are together in the same room for a significant period of time. If the Big 12 is truly just a single vote away, TCU is the mostly likely candidate to be swayed. And a lot of that depends on how closely knit the Frogs are to the Longhorns, and if they truly feel beholden to them four years into the conference.

Again, it's a big if, but if the reports are true, we will know a lot more about TCU's thoughts regarding expansion, as well as their role in the Big 12, in the coming weeks.