Just when it seemed like the Big 12 was ready to push all its chips to the center of college football's metaphorical poker table and bet everything on the hope of pulling off a full-fledged season of 12 games during a pandemic this fall, the conference must now re-evaluate its strategy.
Too many other conferences may have already walked away from the table for the Big 12 to make an aggressive play.
The Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will only play conference games this season. The ACC is shooting for a conference-only model that allows each of its member schools to play one non-conference game of its choosing, so long as the game is played within that team's home state and both parties agree to adhere to the ACC's coronavirus testing protocols.
Teams within the Big 12 have done an impressive job of replacing games that have been canceled thus far (Kansas traded New Hampshire for Southern Illinois, Iowa State traded Iowa for Ball State and TCU is close to announcing a replacement for California, perhaps UNLV).
But things just got a lot harder for any team with an opening on its schedule.
It's possible that every Big 12 team could find enough replacement opponents from the FCS ranks or smaller FBS conferences to fill out their schedules, but at this point the easier (and safer) move appears to be following the lead of their power-conference peers and settling for a reduced schedule consisting almost entirely of league games.
That, of course, comes with the major caveat that there might not be a college football season at all as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to climb across the country.
A decision will be made soon. Multiple Big 12 teams, including Kansas and Oklahoma, begin preseason camp Friday just in case they are given the green light to play non-conference games on Aug. 29. The conference will also hold a Virtual Media Day with Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and coaches Monday morning.
Then, in a poorly timed sequence of events, the Big 12 presidents are scheduled to meet and choose a scheduling plan Monday evening.
Here are a few options they will consider:
There are two main perks to playing only Big 12 football games this fall.
1. A reduced schedule of only nine games would give each team some flexibility should they need to postpone a game because of a COVID-19 outbreak across its roster. It will be easier for Big 12 teams to re-schedule conference games over the course of the fall than it will be for them to move around non-conference games.
2. Only playing conference opponents means every game will adhere to Big 12 testing protocols. No team will have to deal with the headache of making sure a FCS opponent properly tested its roster before a game. In short: It would theoretically create a safer playing environment.
But there is also one big drawback to only playing conference games. It would mean that each team will only play nine games. The ACC is aiming for 11 games. Other conferences are thought to be eyeing 10-game schedules. Playing fewer games could put the Big 12 at a disadvantage come playoff time.
This is a scheduling model that had some support from Big 12 athletic directors before the ACC and SEC forced their hand this week.
By playing just one non-conference game, each Big 12 team would play 10 games and preserve an early-season game that would help in preparation for conference play.
This model has merit, but if none of the other power conferences are willing to play games against the Big 12 it won't help the conference preserve marquee games like Texas at LSU. There is still value in warm-up games, but not nearly as much as blockbuster non-conference games.
FULL 12 GAMES
This scheduling philosophy is growing more unlikely by the day, but it remains a possibility as long as some athletic directors and school presidents have the stomach for playing as many games as possible.
Iowa State, for example, has a 12-game schedule lined up that will feature home games against South Dakota, Ball State and UNLV before conference play begins. For now, it seems all those games could be played. Some teams have also created extra wiggle room in their non-conference schedules by moving games up to Week 0.
But will every Big 12 team be able to line up a full slate of three non-conference opponents? And how much appetite will there be for replacing a game like Texas at LSU or Tennessee at Oklahoma with a random FCS team at Texas or a directional FBS team at Oklahoma?
It is also unclear if smaller schools will be able to follow the Big 12's testing protocols in advance of games.
NOTRE DAME PLAN
The ACC cleverly found a way to schedule 10 conference games for all of its members by annexing Notre Dame into its league for the upcoming season. The traditionally independent school will be eligible for both a conference championship and the league's Orange Bowl tie-in.
Could the Big 12 strike up an arrangement with another independent?
It's a longshot, but it's possible the conference could agree to a one-year partnership with a team like BYU or Army. That would allow every Big 12 team to play its nine traditional conference games and round out a 10-game schedule with a known opponent that could add value to the league on a short-term basis.
Partnering with BYU would be particularly appealing, as the Cougars have been an expansion candidate in the past.
The problem with adding an independent to the mix is that it would create some long road trips for the Big 12's teams and expose players to other parts of the country when they would normally stay within the Big 12 footprint.
The league would also likely have to split its TV revenue 11 ways instead of 10. Without sellout crowds filling stadiums, money will be at a premium this season, and sharing revenue with an outside team might make this a non-starter.
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