Before getting wrapping up the analysis of the FBS schools, I’d like to point out again that this is but one piece of a larger project detailing all of the important factors to consider when looking at Big 12 expansion candidates.   If you haven’t yet, feel free to read the rest here at Big12Fanatics.com:

The Expansion Project: Preface

Combining the Scores

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Per the link above, over the past year we’ve looked at numerous factors that will be considered including the financial health of an athletic department, the fan support a university receives and even what they make on their rights and licensing.   All of these give us a pretty clear picture of what schools will bring value in Big 12 expansion and which will not.

Before we get into individual teams, it is worth setting the bar on where the Big 12 resides with in the FBS in terms of scoring so that we have a base line to compare any team with.  Obviously a school like LSU or Ohio State would add value, that’s not really the question that needs answered.  Finding the cogs that can fit into the Big 12 and grow with it are more difficult to determine.

exp2.7.1I combined all of the points from all of the categories together which created a large total that really means nothing on its own.   To see how the Big 12 performs from top to bottom I converted all of the rankings into percentiles then averaged those percentiles for each conference.

On the chart to the left we have that result for all the major FBS conferences.  The orange line represents the Big 12’s average score, which was 74.12%.  Only two conferences had higher average percentages than the Big 12, and that was the SEC and Big Ten, who both averaged right around 80%. The Power Five average was slightly lower than the Big 12’s, coming in at just shy of 70%.  After that there is a noticeable drop off with the remaining Power Five conferences with the Pac 12 scoring closer to the FBS average than the Power Five.

Below the Power Five there is a sudden demarcation between the AAC and Indy schools (for this project Notre Dame is considered within the ACC, even with their special football arrangement) and the rest of the FBS conferences.  The secondary axis on the right shows the percent difference a conferences has in relation to the Big 12.  The AAC was over 30% lower, on average, as a conference, but the Mountain West and Sun Belt were closer to 60% lower than the Big 12’s score.

If you were like me and saw how low the Pac 12 ranked and wondered why, well, the answer was location.  It doesn’t feel that way from how most of us use maps, but the Western United States is immensely vast and largely empty.  Fifty million people live within a 500 mile stretch between Boston and Washington DC.  That is basically the same distance between Kansas City and Dallas, except with ten times as many people.  The population density drops even faster into the Rockies, making it 1,500 miles, or three times as far, from Dallas to Los Angeles and that is one of the closer Pac 12 markets.

This, however, is known.   The Pac 12 is isolated, on its own island within two time zones with a third of the people that live within the other two US time zones.  As much as it is a factor in the Big 12’s expansion, and location will play a major role, it will need to be removed for now in order to appreciate how close the conferences are to each other.  To do that we’re going to dissect the rankings.

Breaking down the Rankings

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To put all the points into perspective I ranked every school in every category, which gave a much better indication of where a school resided within the FBS from top to bottom.   Those who performed better in categories had higher points, those at the bottom had lower.

For this comparison I only used the top three indicators of a school’s value; Brand and Culture, Financial Strength, and Fan Support.  Nearly all of the significant differences between various schools falls into these categories.   Instead of breaking the schools out by percentage, I’m actually going to use their FBS ranking in each category and then average that for each conference.

Brand and Culture

What makes up the Brand and Culture of a university’s athletic department and what is measured has been covered previously in Part One and Part Two on the subject.  So if you’d like to review or if you missed it the first time, please check those out first.

exp2.7.2When ranking the schools based on their brand and how they maximize it, then grouping that into conferences, it is easy to see why the Power Five schools reside where they do.

The Big Ten, as mentioned in the article on Brand and Culture, runs away with this category due to having massive universities who have been together for a century.  The SEC, Pac 12 and Big 12 are all right around each other, straddling the Power Five average.

In this category the ACC is a bit disadvantaged since it has so many small private schools in its conference.  That lowers the amount of merchandising sold and the amount of alumni the schools can add yearly.

What surprised me a bit was how close the AAC was to the ACC.  Some of this has to do with there being quite a few large schools in the AAC and a few of them also have quite a bit of merchandizing, like UConn.

After the AAC, however, there is a real drop off in brand power remaining in the FBS.   The only school to even register close to the Power Five and AAC was BYU, who, as an independent, isn’t included on this chart.  However they ranked similarly to the AAC schools and right at the FBS average.

As you can tell from how the money is split within the College Football Playoff structure, the largest brands in the NCAA reside in the Power Five.

Financial Strength

There is a reason an athletic department who manages their finances well has a better chance of success than one that doesn’t.  Like the other categories, I highlighted this exp2.7.3segment in Part One and Part Two as well, if you are interested in seeing what is factored into the financial health of an athletic department.

It probably doesn’t come as a major shock that the schools with the biggest brands also tend to have the best financial strength.  What may surprise you is how well the Big 12 does in this category.  They currently lead all conferences in financial health for several reasons, but the largest impact how little subsidies the Big 12 uses to manage their athletic budget.  The SEC and Big 12 have large fanbases, which means more fan support with ticket sales (which we’ll cover in a moment with Attendance) and they are not in areas that tend to compete directly with professional sports.

The Big Ten is usually either right with the Big 12 and SEC or slightly above.   At least that was the case until this year.   Maryland and Rutgers are so financially weak compared to the rest that they are actually dragging the Big Ten’s average down considerably.  The main ten teams in the Big Ten are financial powerhouses, it’s some of the new guys who are struggling.

The Pac 12 and ACC are in an unusual place.  If you just look at their revenues, they are on par with the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC.  However, the sheer amount of subsidies the schools in the Pac 12 and ACC take is astounding for being in the Power Five.  There are some schools within the Pac 12 that take nearly $20 million in subsidies a year.  That’s not sustainable in an era where “keeping up with the Joneses” costs more and more each year.  Living on credit has a risk, even if the risk is not immediate.

It is probably within this area where the biggest chasm between the haves and the have nots in college sports develops.   On one side you have the Power Five (or Power Three as it may be) not only making $70-$130 million a year in revenue, but you have most of those schools operating in the black.  On the other side you have conferences who don’t even try and compete with the big teams or teams that are spending far more than they make in an attempt to get more media exposure and revenue.  Rutgers, as mentioned earlier, had nearly half of their revenue come from subsidies with the hopes of being able to compete against schools who burn money just to enjoy the smell.


Conjoined twin to Financial Strength, measuring attendance gives us a general idea of the fan support a university enjoys.  (And, like Financial Strength, it was also detailed in an earlier article)  It doesn’t always play out that the best attended athletic departments make the most money, because many of them keep costs low to put people in the seats.  However, those who have a strong fan base to draw from have more power to exploit winning seasons, or to ride out losing seasons, than an athletic department with a weak fan base.

exp2.7.4While everyone spends all their time talking about how much a school could make in media rights by moving into the Power Five, this is really where the conversations about can a school move up to compete reside.   If there is a fan base there already, then adding Power Five competition will cause it to explode.  However, if there is not fan support, than having Power Five games will likely not allow an athletic department to leverage that to push into the next level, like Louisville, TCU, and Utah have done.

The news is not all good, however.   The SEC and Big Ten lead all conferences with their attendance, mostly due to many schools having over 100,000 fans attend their football games consistently.   The Big 12 is third, right at the Power Five average, and, while it doesn’t sport a lot of 100k+ football stadiums, it does consistently sell out the ones it does have.

This is not the case for the Pac 12 and ACC where attendance is all over the place.  You have Clemson, Florida State, USC, and Oregon who draw very large crowds, but then numerous other teams who show tarps over large sections of their stadiums during TV broadcasts

The rest of the FBS conferences are even worse with consistency.   Unlike the other categories, the AAC rivals the Mountain West in attendance and a lot of that is due to schools who many talk about often as expansion candidates.   Only three AAC teams ranked in the top half of FBS schools in attendance and all of the AAC drew less in attendance than every current Big 12 team.

It will be hard to compete if you’re not equipped with the same tools as your potential conference partners.

Wrap Up

exp2.7.5As mentioned, these three areas constitute the factors that contribute to success of an athletic department and indicate how easily two schools can compete against each other.  Not factoring in location for a moment, which also plays a large role, here is how each of the conferences perform once we average all of these ranks together.

Some of the differences that were barely noticeable within one category become exaggerated once multiple comparisons are compiled.

The Big Ten and SEC are neck and neck with an average ranking of nearly 100, at 98 apiece.  Since there are around 120 or so schools in the FBS, that’s a solid ranking.  The Big 12 is still above the Power Five average and just slightly below the SEC and Big Ten, scoring a 93 average.

The first big jump happens next as it is a ten point drop from the Big 12 to the Pac 12, or 15 points from the top two conferences.  That is a 12% reduction in average scoring from the first to the fourth ranked conference.  The ACC was only slightly lower than the Pac 12, scoring 80.

The third tier of conferences come into view next, with the AAC scoring a whopping 22 points below the AAC or 45% below the SEC and Big Ten.   This is a significant difference that won’t be made up in the short term.  Any school coming from the AAC will need to invest heavily in their sports, their facilities, and their marketing to become what is expected of a Power Five school.

After the AAC there is even another jump into the rest of the FBS conferences.   At this point some of the scores are so low that it is difficult to believe they are playing in the same league as the Power Five.  Autonomy makes quite a bit of sense when you realize just how uneven the playing field is.

In the next articles in the Expansion Project we are going to start looking at each school individually to see how they stack up.   However, from this list it is obvious that no teams from the Mountain West, Conference USA, the Sun Belt, or the MAC will be invited or even be able to compete if they were.  Due to that I am going to exclude them from any further analysis.


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