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Dick Harmon: Big 12 not looking to expand, but BYU's a candidate in waiting

Published: Saturday, July 19 2014 5:00 p.m. MDT

BYU players run onto the field for warm-ups as BYU and Oklahoma play at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 5, 2009.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Strategically set in America’s heartland, the Big 12 Conference isn’t realigning its boundaries or expanding anytime soon. But how would BYU fit into that league featuring legacy programs Texas and Oklahoma if one day the college landscape went crazy again?

BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall made it clear the Cougars would make a great Big 12 addition when on June 5 he told a reporter from the Austin American Statesman that BYU could bring a national brand and a worldwide following to the league.

The reporter, Brian Davis, working on a routine Longhorn opponent roundup, ended up making national headlines with Mendenhall’s quotes, which were a bold inclusion sales pitch for BYU to the Big 12 by the coach of a team outside Power 5 blue bloods.

Later in June, during BYU’s football media day, Mendenhall was unapologetic in pushing BYU’s case. “I’d do it again,” he said. Officially, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said the Cougars like the freedom of independence but they are in launch mode if a Power 5 conference like the Big 12 came calling.

This week, the Big 12 football media days kick off in Dallas, and expansion is not expected to be a hot topic. But what if it were?

BYU ranks No. 4 behind No. 1 Nebraska, Oklahoma and Ohio State in Division I-A wins (504 wins, .703) since 1974. During Mendenhall’s tenure at BYU, Cougar wins rank No. 12 the past nine years behind No. 1 Boise State and just ahead of No. 13 West Virginia. But how does it sell?

As with a golf swing and late-night comedy, it’s all about timing.

BYU may have run for 679 yards in last year’s 40-21 win over No. 15 Texas; upset No. 2 Oklahoma in 2009 in Cowboy Stadium; beat Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl and handed Texas its worst loss in 47 years in a 47-6 Sean Covey/Ty Detmer-led win in Provo in 1988, but being competitive with the Big 12 for a third of a century doesn’t matter in 2014.

Expansion would pinch the payout for 10 members of the Big 12 who cut larger checks per team than the 14-team SEC in 2013. But with college football’s new four-team playoff set to kick off this season, the Big 12 might be at a disadvantage with the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 because it doesn’t have a conference championship game. From a competitive standpoint, that could be held against the league when a committee picks the four teams for a playoff, and they could use a BYU.

“If it's a close decision between them and a conference champion from a conference with a championship game, I think the selection committee will give the edge to the non-Big 12 team,” said former BYU offensive lineman and ESPN analyst Trevor Matich. “Ultimately, I think it's better for the Big 12 to expand and play that championship game in order to get into the top four."

Back in 2010 when the Big 12 invited TCU and West Virginia to join the league, the Big 12 and BYU were a hot topic. CBSsports.com college football analyst Dennis Dodd said BYU to the Big 12 never moved out of the discussion stage.

“I know there was no formal vote. There were concerns about proximity even before West Virginia was added,” said Dodd. “The league had just lost Colorado, and BYU is a farther commute. BYU is kind of the same as Cincinnati and Connecticut and probably any other team you can name below the Mendoza Line. There is no school out there that brings the equity of the current Big 12 schools, and that is $20-$21 million per year. I'm told BYU can't bring that, no one can.”

Dodd agrees that to get the Big 12 to expand again, it would take “external pressures” such as being left out of the playoffs several years in a row.

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