About a month ago, RobGordon posted this article, explaining why the idea of the Big 12 expanding wasn't dead, and narrowing it down to three possible candidates: BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston. Go read that piece, because it's really good, and he's basically Nostradomus, or Miss Cleo....
Anywho, it'd be boring to just stop with those three teams, so what I've done is compiled SIXTEEN potential Big 12 expansion candidates into three groups: The Best Options, The Worst Options, and the Pipedreams. Pretty much all of these schools have been linked to, or randomly suggested before as options for Big 12 expansion, so if you're looking for like, UTSA to be on this list, you're outta luck.
These options are being grouped based on the criteria given by the Big 12 for considering new members: strength of athletic programs, fan base, access to media markets, academics, school reputation.
So, here are the three groups of teams, ranked within each group.
The Best Options
The Absolute Best Option: BYU
Ranked by the US News and World Report at #66 on their National Universities Rankings (TCU comes in at #82, for example), that's just the start of why BYU is a good fit for the Big 12. They also carry the Salt Lake City media market, 34th in the country, and a massive living alumni base of over 412k people.
The Cougars also find themselves on an 11-year bowl streak with the football team, and while Bronco Mendenhall is now at Virginia, there's no reason to believe BYU won't be able to continue fielding a competitive team.
There is, of course, the question of how this specific religious institution will make things work in the Big 12. Distance isn't one of the factors listed above, but it becomes an issue when one considers the distance of Provo, UT from the rest of the conference, coupled with the fact that the university refuses to play on Sundays. This would put a rather interesting burden on some of the non-revenue sports as far as travel and academic schedules are concerned.
Despite that issue though, it seems clear that BYU is the best option for expansion at this point.
Cincinnati has a living alumni base of over 250k people, and is in the 36th largest media market in the country. That media market also happens to be in a place where the Big 12 is seen very little, meaning that it's expanding the footprint of the Big 12 as a whole (something that many argued TCU wouldn't do when the Frogs joined).
Was Cincinnati more competitive several years ago than they are currently? Sure, but even now they have one of the 16 best FBS football records since 2007, sitting at 82-35 (TCU is No. 6 on that list at 89-27). The Bearcats have reached seven consecutive bowls, and their basketball team has reached six consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
The university itself is also ranked relatively well by the US News and World Report, coming in tied with Rutgers, Washington State, and Ole Miss at #140. That's ahead of current Big 12 schools Kansas State (#146), Oklahoma State (#149), Texas Tech (#168), and West Virginia (#175).
Houston has had the most competitive football team of any candidate over the past two years, topped off with a Peach Bowl win over Florida State back in December. The Houston market is massive, 10th in the country, and it would help the Big 12 offset the recruiting, media damage Texas A&M did to the conference when they bolted for the SEC. Houston has an alumni base of over 224k, 75% of whom live in Texas.
Yes, it's a fifth team in Texas, and it doesn't seem like the majority of the conference would really like that, especially Texas, TCU, Baylor, and Tech, but beyond that it's a very reasonable choice.
Academically, Houston would be the lowest ranked school according to US News and World Report, but not by much at #187.
4. Colorado State
If geography isn't an issue, Colorado State needs to be on "best options" list. It falls at #127 in academic rankings, it's close to Denver (17th largest media market), and the football team has been bowl eligible the past three seasons.
5. Central Florida
If the Big 12 wants to expand to Florida, this is the place to do it. They're tied with Tech in academic rankings at #168, they're located in Orlando (19th largest media market), and they have an alumni base of over 230k people.
The Scott Frost era is about to begin with the football team as well, which brings hope of a revamped offense. Frost, of course, is the former offensive coordinator at Oregon. 2015 was a very tough season for the Knights, as they went 0-12, but with the cloud surrounding coach George O'Leary and the uncertainty of what would happen now behind them, it's not crazy to think they could do well in a P5 conference. After all, the Knights had a record of 81-49 from 2005-2014, including three 10+ win seasons and a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor.
Memphis is right on the line between best options and worst options, which essentially just makes them an "option." They're barely rated by the US News and Word Report (ranked but not published). The Memphis media market is 50th in the country though, which would be (if Memphis was the only school added) the 7th largest market in "Big 12 country," behind DFW, Houston, San Antonio, Kansas City, Austin, and Oklahoma City. Not to mention it puts the Big 12 in a market that has largely been dominated by the SEC.
Athletically, their basketball program would probably immediately be in the top-half of the Big 12, and they just took Tech's head coach Tubby Smith. Smith should be able to continue his trend of winning basketball games at Memphis.
The football team saw success in recent years with former TCU OC Justin Fuente, going 19-7 in his final two seasons at the helm. There is a big question mark looming with their new football head coach, Mike Norvell, though. Will he be able to sustain the recent success Memphis has had?
The Worst Options
The Absolute Worst Option: SMU
Just.... No. The academics are there, yes, but a school shouldn't be invited to an athletic conference solely based on academics. This isn't to say that academics don't mean anything, they obviously do (as I used them to make a case for both BYU and Cincinnati above).
However, there's too much going against SMU at this point for academics to right the ship. First, they fall in a media market that has already been cornered by the Big 12. Was this the case when TCU was attempting to enter the Big 12? Yes. Was there already a Big 12 university in DFW? No. That's a big difference.
As for athletics...well. SMU's basketball program just lost head coach Larry Brown, the football team has gone 3-21 in the past two seasons (46-79 over the past 10 seasons), and they don't have a baseball team. Their golf program, one of the best athletic programs SMU has to offer, is currently on probation.
2. South Florida
Did you hear they're being investigated for academic fraud? Yep. Not to mention, their football team isn't exactly lighting the world on fire, and their basketball team looks a lot like Jim Christian's Boston College squad. They do carry the No. 11 media market, though, in Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Tulane is the only school on these first two lists that can claim it is an AAU school, and it's rated as the #41 national university by US News and World Report. It's also located in New Orleans, the 51st largest media market in the country, and it would put the Big 12 squarely present in SEC country.
However, their athletic programs are a disaster. The football team has more 3-win-or-less seasons (9) than they do 6+ win seasons (3) since 2000. Their basketball program has more losing seasons than winning seasons in the same span.
Baseball is by far their most successful program of the big three, and the Green Wave just returned to the postseason (Baton Rouge Regional) for the first time since 2008.
UConn would seriously expand the media footprint of the Big 12, bringing in the Hartford-New Haven market (30th largest market), and even parts of the New York market (1st largest market). Academically they're ranked #57 in the US News and World Report rankings, tied with George Washington and the University of Maryland.
Their football team, though, hasn't had a winning season since 2010, when they went 8-5, somehow won the Big East, and got demolished by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Huskies basketball is a staple in the sport, but is it enough to get them in? Is it enough for the Big 12 to want them in? I don't think so.
5. Boise State
Boise State football will always be decent, but beyond that the university really doesn't offer much. They weren't ranked by US News and World Report on the National University list, coming in 61st on the Regional (West) University list instead, tied with Northwest Nazarene University.
Also, there's not a top-100 media market anywhere near them. Sorry Broncos, but you're out of luck.
These are in no specific order, but guided by two rumors that have been tossed around a bit. The first rumor is that the Arizona schools are not completely satisfied with being in the Pac 12. The second rumor is that Bill Snyder mentioned this week that there are two former Big 12 schools who are interested in getting back into the conference. So, here are a few names that will never happen, but it'd be great if they did.
Husker fans are out here like, "Uh, no thanks, winning 9 games a year in the Big 10 is fine with us."
Missouri has found success in the SEC East, which, for the past few years has been like finding success in the 2006-2010 Big East.
Colorado might actually be a school that is looking back at the Big 12 like, "At least we weren't in a division with USC."
It'd be great if the Arizona schools decided to bolt as a package deal to the Big 12, but it'll never happen.