The ins and outs of Big 12 expansion has been a crazy story, long on talking and deliberation, and short on hard and fast news over the last few years.
But after last night’s Big 12 conference call, it looks like there might actually invite somebody else to the party after all. They’re essentially holding open solicitations for bids now, and you can bet everybody and their brother will be working the phones now, hoping for one of the last lifeboats away from the Group of 5 life.
If you’re a Big Ten fan, this story might have been fun to follow as a curiosity. For all of the Big Ten’s faults, they’re unquestionably more stable than the Big 12, and a fan has every right to feel more confident in Jim Delany’s decision-making, even if you’re still kind of mad about Rutgers.
But now that expansion appears to be moving beyond just the realm of message board hypotheticals and into something approaching reality, Ohio State fans just might have a dog in this fight after all.
How should they feel about Cincinnati?
One of the reasons Ohio State has been a dominant program for nearly the last hundred years is geography. For much of the 20th century, Ohio was one of the biggest hotbeds of high school football talent in the country, and even as that reputation has taken a slight hit thanks to budget cuts and demographic shifts, Ohio still produces more blue-chip recruits than all but four other states in the country. And unlike the other power states like Texas and California, Ohio State hasn’t had to really share Ohio with anybody.
Sure, other programs, like Notre Dame, Michigan, and other Big Ten schools, would try to recruit Ohio, and will occasionally grab a kid that the Buckeyes want. But given the vast gap in resources, prestige and conference affiliation between Ohio State and the other universities in Ohio, no real threat could ever be raised by an in-state program, despite a proliferation of other universities. Only Louisiana can boast a similar dominance of their own borders, and it’s no accident the Tigers are a college football power either.
But that might change. Cincinnati has made absolutely no secret about their desire to join a Power 5 conference, specifically, the Big 12. I’ve even seen some of the promotional materials they’ve sent. And while we’re a ways from the Big 12 making any real decisions, virtually every national writer has the Bearcats as one of the favorites to grab a spot. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard the same thing.
Per the USA TODAY database, last year, Cincinnati had athletic department revenue of about $52.5 million, good for 54th in the country, and near the top of non-power conference schools. While the exact financials of what a Big 12 invite would entail are unclear, as Cincinnati would undoubtedly have to wait to get a full revenue share, an eventual increase of at least $20 million over the next few years certainly seems reasonable. That would put the Bearcats as a peer to programs like Purdue, Iowa State and Kansas State. That’s a far cry from the $167 million Ohio State took in.
Those programs aren’t beating Ohio State, or other big boys, for recruits very often, if at all. But Buckeye fans know all too well that a Purdue is still capable of beating Ohio State, if the Buckeyes are unlucky or play especially poorly.
Ohio State is 14-2 all time against Cincinnati, and those two losses took place in 1896 and 1897. The two teams have played five times since the 1940s, and while Ohio State has won all of them, they’ve still had to work. The Bearcats made Ohio State sweat for portions of the game in 2014, before eventually falling 50-28. In 2002, another year Ohio State won a national championship, the Buckeyes were fortunate to escape Paul Brown Stadium win a victory, squeaking by, 23-19. The two teams are scheduled to play one more in the future, in Columbus in 2019.
Even though the Cincinnati region is where Ohio State is probably the weakest when it comes to in-state recruiting, it seems unlikely that the Bearcats would pose too much of a head to head threat to Ohio State in recruiting battles. There’s Power 5 precedent for that sort of arrangement. Iowa State rarely beats Iowa for recruits. Georgia Tech seldom grabs kids the Bulldogs want. Tennessee typically beats Vanderbilt for kids. That’s probably not the concern.
But with extra money, visibility and prestige, there’s reason to think Cincinnati could start beating other Big Ten programs, like Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Minnesota, for players in Ohio. It could also potentially give other Big 12 programs, like Iowa State, West Virginia, or even others, an excuse to try and recruit Ohio more. Both of those scenarios have the potential to have a roundabout negative impact on Ohio State.
Should the Big 12 decide to go elsewhere, perhaps by picking BYU, Houston, Memphis or a slew of other candidates, it’s difficult to see how it would impact Ohio State very much.
A Cincinnati Big 12 invite would mean more quality football games held in the state of Ohio, and would be nice for fans of both programs. But if you’re a Buckeye fan dead set on keeping every advantage the program has enjoyed over the years, maybe you’d actually want to root against the Big 12 adding the Bearcats.