The Big 12 adds four new schools on Saturday in the conference's first expansion since TCU and West Virginia joined in 2012. BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF emerged as targets due to their recent success across multiple sports, but joining a power conference for the first time comes with complications.
Only adding to the confusion, 2023 will be a transitionary year for the Big 12 as Texas and Oklahoma overlap with the "Freshman Four" before departing for the SEC in 2024. That could lead to the most competitive year in Big 12 history. According to the SP+, the Big 12 is the only conference in which every single program rates in the top half of college football.
Even for high-achieving programs, transitioning to a power conference is a tough gig. TCU went 24-2 in the two previous seasons prior to joining the Big 12 and won the Rose Bowl. In their first two seasons as Big 12 members, the Frogs went 11-14. West Virginia similarly went from 19-7 with an Orange Bowl victory over Clemson to an identical 11-14.
With that context, Caesars Sportsbook rates only UCF as having better than +6000 odds to win the Big 12 among the newcomers. The Knights also pace the new teams with an set at 7.0 wins. That said, all four of these programs have competed at a national level in recent years. With that in mind, here are the best case and worst case scenarios for every new Big 12 member heading into the 2023 season.
Best case: Without question, BYU boasts a handful of the best individual players in the Big 12. Offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia, safety Micah Harper and linebacker Ben Bywater compare with nearly any other star in the Big 12. If this trio is able to stay completely healthy in 2023 -- a tall order -- the ceiling is high. Quarterback Kedon Slovis could slide nicely into offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick's system and emerge as a top-half Big 12 passer. If BYU can come out strong, it could be looking at a 5-0 start heading into a tough trio of Texas games. It's hard to imagine the Cougars sweeping TCU, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Oklahoma at home, but 2-2 would be plenty. If BYU threads the needle, it has an outside shot at the Big 12 Championship Game heading into the final two weeks against the Oklahoma schools.
Worst case: When things got tough in 2022, quarterback Jaren Hall was there to bail out the Cougars. That may not be the case this year. In a Week 3 matchup against Arkansas, BYU once again gives up more than 50 points and proves that the defense is nowhere close to fixed. The lack of confidence continues into winnable games against Kansas and Cincinnati, leaving BYU at risk of getting blanked in Big 12 play. Expect a win against Iowa State or Cincinnati at least, but the path could be treacherous. The depth component will be the biggest question mark for the Cougars. Playing 10 losable games is a huge step up from the four or five of previous seasons. The floor is much lower.
Best case: If things break right, there isn't a game on the schedule that is unwinnable. The defensive line, led by Dontay Corleone, immediately rates among the best position groups in the Big 12 for heralded defensive coordinator Bryan Brown. QB Emory Jones is able to leverage his experience into a Michael Penix-like jump and elevates an unproven group of skill talents. The Bearcats shock Oklahoma in their Big 12 opener before narrowly edging BYU on the road in a high-profile night game. Games against Baylor and Oklahoma State are both coin flips, but 1-1 is plenty. If Cincinnati can survive the early slate, the end provides plenty of rewards. A 9-3 season could be on the table.
Worst case: Jones is on his third different stop after jumping from Florida and Arizona State. By the end of the 2022 season, he was benched by the Sun Devils after failing to put together consistent play. In this scenario, he is once again plagued by poor play, forcing new coach Scott Satterfield and his staff to try out Evan Prater or unproven underclassman Brady Drogosh with the hope of adding any explosive components to this team. The Bearcats' star-studded defense deals with major injuries to key playmakers, leaving the lack of Big 12 depth on full display. Cincinnati's potential floor could be the bottom of the conference in Year 1.
Best case: Coach Dana Holgorsen has pulled many a rabbit out of a hat during his Big 12 career. While the Cougars have some fatal flaws, the upside is off the charts at a few positions. Wide receivers Matthew Golden, Joseph Manjack and Mikal Harrison-Pilot, combined with quarterback transfer Donovan Smith, provide the Big 12's best passing attack. The defense grows enough in a bounce-back season to keep the Coogs competitive. Beating Texas helps bring some swagger to the program as it hits the home stretch and Houston pushes for nine wins.
Worst case: Live by Donovan Smith, die by Donovan Smith. The talented signal-caller has dealt with turnovers and inconsistent play through the first several years of his career, and the Cougars need him to take on an even bigger role in 2023. That might not go well. The Cougars dropped outside the top 100 in total defense during their 2022 campaign and allowed a whopping 77 points to rival SMU. Big 12 teams boast even more talent at wide receiver and punish the Coogs. Getting West Virginia and Cincinnati at home will provide some leeway, but not enough to keep Houston out of the bottom of the conference. This is not a roster with guaranteed Big 12 depth outside of wide receiver.
Best case: Unlike the other newcomers, UCF already boasts Big 12-caliber depth. The Knights ranked No. 36 in the 247Sports Talent Composite in 2022, edging out teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor. The combination of high-end talent and depth pays off in a big way as UCF shocks Baylor in its second Big 12 game and pulls off a historic upset against Oklahoma. With confidence off the charts, a home stretch against Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and Houston only becomes proving ground. The Knights win 10 games and earn a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas in their first season.
Worst case: Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee starred in the AAC, but his passing ability failed to meet expectations during his first three years at Ole Miss. In three years with the Rebels, Plumlee completed just 53.8% of passes for 6.2 yards per attempt. The Big 12 is a significant step up defensively, especially in the secondary, and Plumlee might not stack up. Without a consistent passing game, the Gus Malzahn offense sputters. Starting against Kansas State and Baylor leaves the team physically beaten heading into the manageable stretch of the schedule. The Knights fall a step behind and are left fighting for bowl eligibility when they host Houston in the season finale.