With renewed talk of Big 12 expansion, a plan that could include Houston from the American Athletic, it’s a good time to take a look back at two programs who made similar moves.
After the Southwest Conference disbanded, TCU wandered from the WAC (1996-2000) to Conference USA (2001-04) and then to the Mountain West (2005-11) before finally landing in the Big 12 in 2012. Utah, on the other hand, took a more direct route, cashing in on a dozen seasons in the Mountain West for membership in the Pac-12 starting in 2011.
Though these moves were seen as a step up, especially in terms of a viable opportunity to play for a national title, what did they mean to the bottom line of scheduling and then wins and losses?
Take a look.
2008-11 (Last Four in MWC): 47-5 (90.4%)
2012-15 (First Four in Big 12): 34-17 (66.7%)
Difference: 23.7% decrease
2008-11 (Last Four in MWC): 30-1 (96.8%)
2012-15 (First Four in Big 12): 21-15 (58.3%)
Difference: 38.5% decrease
2008-11 (Last Four in MWC): 8-3 (72.7%)
2012-15 (First Four in Big 12): 9-10 (47.4%)
Difference: 25.3% decrease
2008-11 (Last Four in MWC): 3 Conference Titles (2009-11)
2012-15 (First Four in Big 12): 1 Conference Co-Title (2014)
2008-11 (Last Four in MWC): 4 Bowl Appearances (3-1)
2012-15 (First Four in Big 12): 3 Bowl Appearances (2-1)
Top 25 Finishes
2008-11 (Last Four in MWC): 4 – No. 7 (2008), No. 6 (2009), No. 2 (2010) and No. 14 (2011)
2012-15 (First Four in Big 12): 2 – No. 3 (2014) and No. 7 (2015)
Though TCU struggled in its first two seasons in the Big 12, it has found solid footing since 2014, managing to become a contender not only in the league, but nationally.
The biggest decrease in production came in conference play. The Horned Frogs lost only one Mountain West game in their final four seasons there vs. a whopping 12 in their first two years in the Big 12.
It’s obvious that playing annual games with Boise State, Colorado State, and UNLV isn’t the same thing as squaring off with Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas State. That said, TCU’s statistical resume over the past eight years quantifies what that means in wins and losses.
What’s exceptional about the post-move Horned Frogs is what they’ve done in the last two years—winning all but three conference games, finishing in the Top 10 and earning a piece of a Big 12 title.
2006-10 (Last Five in MWC): 50-15 (76.9%)
2011-15 (First Five in Pac-12): 37-26 (58.7%)
Difference: 18.2% decrease
2006-10 (Last Five in MWC): 31-9 (77.5%)
2011-15 (First Five in Pac-12): 20-25 (44.4%)
Difference: 33.1% decrease
2006-10 (Last Five in MWC): 5-7 (41.7%)
2011-15 (First Five in Pac-12): 6-9 (40%)
Difference: 1.7% decrease
2006-10 (Last Five in MWC): 1 Conference Title (2008)
2011-15 (First Five in Pac-12): No Conference Titles
2006-10 (Last Five in MWC): 5 Bowl Appearances (4-1)
2011-15 (First Five in Pac-12): 3 Bowl Appearances (3-0)
Top 25 Finishes
2006-10 (Last Five in MWC): 2 – No. 2 (2008) and No. 18 (2009)
2011-15 (First Five in Pac-12): 2 – No. 21 (2014) and No. 17 (2015)
Even though Utah suffered back-to-back losing seasons in both its second and third year in the Pac-12 (the first time the program hit such a low since 1989-90), it didn’t experience the same level of early decline that TCU did.
Part of the reason is that the Utes didn’t ever reach the level of success in the MWC that the Horned Frogs did. In other words, they didn’t have as far to fall.
Like TCU, Utah’s biggest decline came in conference play, where it averaged 1.8 losses in its final five seasons in the MWC vs. five in its first five in the Pac-12. It amounts to almost three times more defeats per season.
Where the Utes didn’t suffer was in their performance vs. ranked opponents, dropping a mere 1.7% from one league to the next. What’s telling vs. TCU’s drop of 24% is the number of ranked opponents each team faced. Utah played 12 Top 25 teams during its last five seasons in the MWC vs. 15 in the Pac-12. The Horned Frogs, on the other hand, went from facing 11 such teams in their final four seasons in the MWC vs. 19 in their first four in the Big 12.
Again, like TCU, the Utes have begun to find their footing in the Pac-12, just this last season posting their first double-digit finish since leaving the MWC in 2010.
The Bottom Line
The numbers make it crystal clear that any team—Houston, Memphis, UCF, Colorado State, etc.—that becomes the lucky target of Big 12 expansion will suffer a 20-25% decrease in overall wins and losses and a 30-40% drop in conference production. That is, until they can engineer a turnaround, something that took TCU two years and Utah three.
It’s key to remember that Utah and especially TCU were solid national players when they moved up. The Utes went 13-0 in 2008, finishing the season No. 2 in the AP after knocking off No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Horned Frogs ran the tables in 2010, also posting a 13-0 record and a No. 2 rank after beating No. 4 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
It’s a level of achievement that, thus far, Houston, Memphis, UCF, and Colorado State simply haven’t met. What they’ve lacked is an undefeated season. Perfection, and a real case for inclusion in the national championship discussion, is the difference.
Two of the mentioned teams have come close. First, there was UCF’s 12-1 run in 2013, which included a win over No. 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and a No. 10 finish in the AP. But, where Utah won 10 games the year after its perfect run and TCU posted 11 wins, UCF dropped to 9-4 and then completely off the radar with a 0-12 mark last season.
And the Golden Knights were still playing an American Athletic schedule when they crashed, not a Big 12 or even an ACC slate.
Then there was Houston’s 13-1 run last season, including a No. 8 finish in the AP and a win over No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Though impressive, the Cougars fell one loss at UConn short of achieving what TCU and Utah did as non-Power teams. And, they’ve not yet proven that they can sustain that level of success over a number of years.
Also worth noting is continuity in coaching. TCU and Utah have both managed to retain the same head coach that got them to a Power league. The Horned Frogs’ Gary Patterson led the program 11 years before the move and the Utes’ Kyle Whittingham put in six years as the head man before the step up. Both chose to stay on through the transition, returning their school back to its winning ways.
Compare that to Houston, who has only had Tom Herman, one of the hottest prospects in coaching, for one season. He’s less invested and arguably could be tempted to move more easily. Then there is UCF and Memphis, both already losing the coach that engineered rises to national prominence.
This makes it logical to assume that any of the Big 12’s supposed targets would suffer even more dramatically than TCU and Utah did when they moved up. And it would take them longer, if ever, to rebound to the win totals prior to the move.
That leads to the bigger question, is a shot to play for the CFB Playoff worth a potential long-term drop in wins for schools like Houston, Memphis, UCF, Colorado State, and even Cincinnati?
Or, should the schools instead wait for the bracket to expand to include the best non-Power team in the country?