Monday Musings: Ranking the potential Big 12 expansion targets

Apr 22, 2023; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders during the first half of the spring game at Folsom Filed. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The dog days of the offseason are upon us, but we still have plenty to discuss in Big 12 country.

Realignment is never far off the brain in this part of the United States. We’ve been dealing with it nearly every summer for more than a decade.

The difference is the Big 12 is in a position of power for the first time, holding cards that allow it to be the aggressor and the pursuer rather than the home of the pursued.

Last week, Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported a list of potential expansion options for the Big 12 from a variety of leagues spanning from coast-to-coast. 

There’s the corner four Pac-12 schools of Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, which could be looking for more solidarity and media rights safety than its current league can provide. There’s the Mountain West schools looking to elevate themselves in San Diego State and UNLV.

There’s even the reigning men’s basketball national champions, UConn.

Each school brings its pros and cons, and we’re going to dive into them here. This is the ranking of the teams I’d most like to see the Big 12 poach this summer.

1. Colorado

It’s time to come home, Buffaloes.

Colorado has a long history with Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State that dates back to the Buffaloes joining the Big Eight Conference in 1947. Oklahoma State joined that group a little more than a decade later when they entered the league in 1958.

Those ties lasted all the way until 2011 when Colorado bolted from the Big 12 for the Pac-12.

Hardly anything has been the same since for Colorado.

After winning four Big 12 North titles during the early 2000s, Colorado has struggled mightily on the football field in the Pac-12, compiling a 48-84 overall record and 27-76 record in conference play over the last 12 seasons.

The Buffaloes have gone to only two bowl games in that span, and those were the only two years Colorado finished above .500 in conference play, finishing 8-1 in the league in 2016 before losing in the Alamo Bowl then going 3-1 against Pac-12 foes during the shortened 2020 campaign before once again losing in the Alamo Bowl.

Perhaps Deion Sanders is the man to turn the tide for Colorado in the Pac-12, but those numbers make how glaringly clear it is that the Buffaloes’ glory days in the Big Eight and Big 12 are well behind them.

Colorado’s found more success on the basketball court since moving west, going to five NCAA Tournaments during the last 12 years and twice advancing to the round of 32. The program made the NCAA Tournament only twice from 1970-2011.

A Colorado return to the league would also give it a strong foothold in the Denver television market, which ranks as the No. 17 market in the country.

Is Colorado a perfect addition to the league? I’m not sure a perfect addition exists, but the Buffaloes have history with the programs in the league, bring strong visibility to the league and they bring something to the table in both football and men’s basketball.

It’s time for the Buffaloes to make their way back home to the plains.

Feb 2, 2023; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Cedric Henderson Jr. (45) and Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd on the sidelines in the first half at McKale Center. Mandatory Credit: Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

2. Arizona

Only one school on this list brings a stronger men’s basketball tradition to the table than Arizona.

The Wildcats have a national championship to their names (1997) and have been to the Final Four four times in program history. They’ve also been to 11 Elite Eights and 20 Sweet Sixteens with 11 of those Sweet Sixteen berths coming since 2000.

The Wildcats are a perfect fit for the best men’s basketball conference in America, and Tommy Lloyd has that program rolling right now with back-to-back Pac-12 Tournament titles, a Pac-12 regular season title in 2022 and back-to-back top-two seedings in the NCAA Tournament.

The flip side of this is Arizona doesn’t bring a ton in the football space right now.

The Wildcats haven’t been to a bowl game since 2017, but went to six bowl games in a seven year stretch in the years prior to their last appearance, so the road map to football success at Arizona does exist.

The strength of the basketball program is enough to make the Wildcats a no-brainer addition if they’re looking to make the leap.

3. Utah

If you’re looking for recent football success from potential additions, then look no further than the Utes.

Utah has won the Pac-12 South five times since 2015 and has gone to back-to-back Rose Bowls after winning the Pac-12 title game. They were even on the verge of a potential berth in the College Football Playoff in 2019 before being upset by Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

Obviously, you have to consider the fact Utah would be joining a league with its in-state arch rival BYU, if it were to make the leap. The possibility of making the Holy War an annual Big 12 rivalry makes my mouth water.

This is going to be a league largely devoid of natural historic rivalries, so any opportunity to add one to the league slate organically should be welcomed. The Holy War would immediately move near the top of the list for rivalries within the league.

The Utes are traditionally solid on the basketball court with eight NCAA Tournament appearances since 2000, but only two of those appearances (2015 and 2016) have come since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

Basketball success isn’t why you’re adding the Utes, though. That would be entirely tied to their success in football, and the idea of uniting the state of Utah as Big 12 country.

Apr 3, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Connecticut Huskies head coach Dan Hurley celebrates after cutting down the net after defeating the San Diego State Aztecs in the national championship game of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

4. UConn

Would any of this make any sense on either side? Probably not, but it is okay for a basketball junkie to dream.

Only Kansas would eclipse the basketball resume the Huskies could bring to the Big 12 with five national championships, including the most recent NCAA Tournament, to their names.

The football piece of this equation would be more or less irrelevant. Nobody would care about the fact UConn has been largely terrible at football in its recent history if it meant the league was getting its basketball brand out of the deal.

The issue is just general fit with the conference.

Sure, UConn could make more money, but UConn also is a perfect fit in its current situation playing Independent in football and in the Big East for basketball. In fact, I think you could argue that UConn’s return to the Big East in basketball played a central role in the Huskies’ return to power to begin with.

This one probably isn’t going to happen, and it probably shouldn’t for the health of college basketball. The sport is better when the Big East is good. The Big East is at its best when UConn is good. Its a match made in heaven that I’m not sure should be messed with no matter the potential monetary gains.

5. Arizona State

When I think of Arizona State, I think of a solid program all-around.

Are the Sun Devils going to move the needle by themselves? Probably not, and they’d need to be bringing a few of their Pac-12 friends along with them, but nobody would be mad to have them at the party.

Arizona State is the guy you invite to the party in hopes he brings a few of his hot chick friends along with him. By himself, he’s fine. Not a bad guy, but not your best friend. If he’s bringing his friends, though, the party can go to another level.

The Sun Devils have been to nine bowl games since 2011 and have had only three losing seasons during that stretch. They’ve twice won double digit games during that period, but they’re generally just a solid football program that has a chance to go bowling on an annual basis.

On the basketball side, they’ve gone to four NCAA Tournaments since 2014, including an appearance this past season.

I imagine most people would want the other Pac-12 schools more than they want Arizona State, but nobody is going to be mad if the Sun Devils are included along with their west coast friends.

Apr 3, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; San Diego State Aztecs forward Keshad Johnson (0) reacts after a play against the Connecticut Huskies during the second half in the national championship game of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

6. San Diego State

I won’t lie, I very nearly put the Aztecs ahead of Arizona State. This just feels like an athletic department that is on the rise.

San Diego State’s run to the national championship game this past March is exhibit one. The Aztecs have had a solid basketball program for more than a decade with 10 appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 2010. They’ve played a significant role in the Mountain West becoming one of the country’s best mid-major leagues on an annual basis.

On the football side, San Diego State has won better than 60 percent of its games since 2011, and has been to 10 bowl games during that span. They’ve also won three conference championships and played for three more.

Oh, and they’re playing football in a brand new stadium. And that stadium is in San Diego, which has to be one of the most attractive untapped cities in the country for a Power 5 league.

I would also like to go to San Diego, and their addition to the league would probably aid me in that pursuit.

San Diego State is without a doubt the second-best non-Power 5 option left on the table for the Big 12 behind only UConn, and we’ve already discussed how realistic of an option that is.

This is the best realistic option outside of the Pac-12 schools.

7. Memphis

The folks in Memphis have been trying to get into the Big 12 for a long time. There has to be a reason they haven’t been invited already, and that’s what gives me pause on them being invited now.

I’d argue if we get this deep on the list, then we might be trying to hard to make additions when they’re not necessary. Like Arizona State, I’d take Memphis if other schools were coming along and you just needed numbers, but Memphis by themselves is not a very sexy option.

The Tigers are competitive most every year on the football field and on the basketball court, but neither one matches up with some of the other options on this list.

There are worse options out there, but if the Big 12 were to add Memphis alone, it would feel like doing too much.


I guess you get yourself into the Vegas market, but what good does being in the Vegas market do for a league dominated by Midwest programs? Again, UNLV would be a fine addition with others coming along, but nobody should be putting their eggs into the UNLV by themselves basket.

The Rebels don’t bring anything to the football equation, and have struggled in basketball in recent years to the point where I’m not sure how much they even bring on that side of the coin.

Like Memphis, this would be trying too hard.

9. SMU

Does the Big 12 really need more Texas? I rest my case.

10. Fresno State

Can you imagine Big 12 teams playing 10 p.m. games on the road in Fresno on a Saturday night? You get some ties in Silicon Valley and a solid football program, but what else?

11. Colorado State

This, like the last four on the list, feels like scraping the bottom of the barrel, and would definitely fall into the category of trying too hard.

In conclusion

I think the best case scenario for the Big 12 would be to nab four of the schools on this list and take the league to 16 teams with a solid pod of teams out West, your core group in the Midwest and your solid grouping of programs in the East.

I’d start with locking in the four Pac-12 programs then move on to potentially adding UConn and Memphis if you’re dead set on getting to more than 16 teams. I’d still love to see San Diego State work its way into the mix, though, because that program feels like a real fit in every way if you’re able to strengthen your west coast mix of programs.

Those are my rankings. What are yours?

Jared Stansbury


Jared a native of Clarinda, Iowa, started as the Cyclone Fanatic intern in August 2013, primarily working as a videographer until starting on the women’s basketball beat prior to the 2014-15 season. Upon earning his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State in May 2016, Jared was hired as the site’s full-time staff writer, taking over as the primary day-to-day reporter on football and men’s basketball. He was elevated to the position of managing editor in January 2020. He is a regular contributor on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines and makes regular guest appearances on radio stations across the Midwest. Jared resides in Ankeny with his four-year-old puggle, Lolo.