Last week we talked about the rumors that Army and Navy might be in the running for membership in an expanded Big East. They aren’t alone among service academies when it comes to conference expansion rumors; Air Force has been mentioned as a candidate for Big 12 membership should Texas A&M defect to the SEC. Like the Navy-Big East talk, it’s just wild speculation at this point. Whenever one of these situations comes up, various media elements start making guesses with the hope that one of them will stick.
You can find people talking about a dozen or so schools that the Big East might consider, including the likes of Marshall, Temple, and Memphis. None of those schools have a chance in hell of getting into the Big East. Similarly, in addition to Air Force you can find people talking about Louisville, Houston, SMU, and Boise State for Big 12 expansion. Are any of these any more viable? I doubt it; the first (and second and third) call the Big 12 would make if A&M left would almost certainly be to BYU. One thing we do know is that the source of the rumors suggesting any of these schools isn’t anyone with any say in the matter from the conference itself. It’s all meaningless conjecture; fun to talk about, but lacking substance. Not unlike this blog!
I’m not sure what Air Force would offer the Big 12 anyway, other than a geographic fit. Sure, it would get the conference back to an area that it lost when Colorado left. There’s a big difference between delivering a media market and simply being located there, though, and outside of Colorado Springs proper I don’t know if Air Force has much draw within the state. Maybe they do. And you have to take into account that service academies have a national following as well. But would that be enough to add value to the conference’s television contract and offset the loss of Texas A&M? No chance. Remember, we aren’t talking about the Big East here; we’re talking about the Big 12, which has contracts with FOX and ESPN that reportedly pay the conference $130 million per year. That’s a lot more to live up to. The only school among the usual suspects that has the kind of clout even in the same ballpark as A&M is Brigham Young. The conference could take a school with less mass appeal, but doing so only decreases the conference’s selling power. Texas and Oklahoma would be motivated to look for a league where they could maintain their income. If the Aggies leave, the Big 12 needs to land a whale. SMU, Houston, and Air Force probably don’t fit the bill.
It’s unlikely that Air Force will be going anywhere, but let’s say that for whatever reason, the Big 12 decides to invite them. Would Air Force accept the bid? That depends on what their goals are. If it’s more money, then joining the Big 12 is pretty much like winning Powerball. Air Force has different considerations than Navy does; the USAFA athletic department loses money, and that’s even with an obscene amount of government funding (an amount that has nearly tripled over the last 7 years). They don’t want to stay that way; they’re trying to follow the Navy model of creating a 501(c)(3) corporation for their athletic association, but they aren’t there yet. The money they would get from
leeching off of Texas and Oklahoma joining the Big 12 would certainly help them get there.
The question for Air Force would then become whether or not that money is worth being slaughtered on the field. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they wouldn’t be. Air Force gets drilled in the Mountain West in every sport other than football. Let’s take last year, for example. Outside of football, Air Force didn’t have a single team with a winning record in conference play. Only one team (women’s tennis) had a winning record overall, but they were still 2-6 in conference. Their counterparts on the men’s team went winless in the MWC. Some other lowlights include baseball (19-36, 4-20), women’s basketball (9-22, 3-13), and women’s volleyball (4-25, 1-15). Of the teams that don’t generally compete in head-to-head competition, the cross country teams finished a respectable 3rd (men) and 4th (women) at the conference championship. The men’s indoor track team finished 2nd at the conference meet. That was the high water mark. The rest include swimming & diving (men 6th, women 9th), women’s indoor track (8th), outdoor track (men 3rd, women 8th), and golf (8th). (Keep in mind that only 6 MWC schools have men’s track & field programs). Putting these programs up against Big 12 competition would be one step short of a war crime.
The football team wouldn’t be in much better shape. They hold their own in the Mountain West, but they’ve had at least two conference losses every year since the league was formed (and even that they’ve only pulled off twice). Half the conference is mediocre to downright awful in any given year, which gives Air Force a built-in slate of winnable games. The service academies are even matchups (in theory), and they schedule a lousy I-AA program over parents’ weekend. That means there are only 3-4 games each season that are a genuine stretch. Their schedule sets them up for success, which is a good thing. That goes away if the team is playing a Big 12 schedule. Air Force doesn’t play a ton of BCS programs, but when they do, they usually don’t fare so well. Over the last 20 years, they’re 12-19 against BCS-caliber competition (including Notre Dame). For a service academy that isn’t bad at all; joining the Big 12, though, means that they’ll be playing those teams almost every week. They won’t be any more successful. Think about it; all the service academies recruit Texas more than any other state. They get a ton of players from there, but they get them after Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, TCU, and most Big 12 schools have their pick. That isn’t going to change if Air Force joins the Big 12. You aren’t going to be competitive playing in a conference with players that almost everyone else in the conference passed on. What reason other than pep talk rah-rah would anyone have to think that Air Force, being a military school with strict admissions requirements, would do better in the Big 12 than Baylor has?
That leads to the most ironic part about this scenario: joining the Big 12 would actually make Air Force less likely to ever appear in a BCS bowl game. They would never come close to winning the conference, and if they can’t finish a season with less than two losses in the Mountain West then there’s no way they’re going to get an at-large bid out of the Big 12. Air Force isn’t going to win the Mountain West either, but at least the very thought of it isn’t completely insane. Army and Navy would also have a better chance at a BCS game than a Big 12 Air Force. With the scheduling control that comes from being independent, it’s a lot more likely for either of them to go undefeated and get a BCS at-large bid. You don’t need some ridiculous schedule, either. Marshall finished 12th in the BCS standings in 1999 playing a MAC schedule. Tulane finished 10th in 1998 against a slate that wasn’t much more daunting. Hawaii’s 2007 schedule included two I-AA teams, and they also finished 10th in the final BCS rankings. Under the current BCS selection criteria, that is enough to be eligible as an at-large selection. That isn’t a guarantee, but it’s a lot more likely than a service academy winning the Big 12.
Texas A&M has officially informed the Big 12 that they’re looking around. The speculation is only going to intensify. I can’t imagine that they’d seriously consider inviting Air Force, and I can only barely imagine Air Force accepting.