Watching Louisville football the next few years is going to be tough for Big 12 fans. The Cardinals could have been theirs. A conference in desperate need of football depth passed on Louisville, a solid gridiron program and a stalwart athletic department.
When West Virginia jumped to the Big 12, Louisville was anxious and ready to come along, but the Big 12 didn't want to expand past 10, mainly for financial (meaning, selfish) reasons. When Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten, Louisville was a quick fix for the ACC.
And so Labor Day night, there was Louisville waxing Miami 31-13 and making us watch on what we had missed.
I wrote about the seeds of Big 12 instability in my column on former commissioner Kevin Weiberg in the Wednesday Oklahoman, which you can read here. The Big 12 remains uninterested in expansion and will stay that way until forced to move off 10 by developments in the College Football Playoff. If it's clear the new football committee gives preference to teams playing a conference championship game, the Big 12 will change direction. Until then, it's not likely.
But a Louisville/Cincinnati addition remains the stuff of lament. That would have made for a nice North Division. Kansas State, Louisville, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Kansas and Iowa State. Cincinnati was the most successful program of the Big East/American Athletic Conference the last six years. West Virginia has great tradition. Louisville has produced a solid program. Kansas State you know about. That's not the SEC West, but you could argue it was the equal of the old Big 12 North in the last 6-7 years of that division's existence. Plus think of the basketball in that division.
If the Big 12 wanted to expand, it still has the Cincinnati option, though the Bearcats without Louisville aren't nearly as enticing. Brigham Young remains the best kid in line not picked, and we've discussed BYU's candidacy abundantly over the last couple of years. I'd favor adding BYU and going to 11 schools. BYU is the lone school left that would enhance the television package of the Big 12. The Cougars , by the way, play at Texas on Saturday night, having popped the Longhorns a year ago in Provo.
But here's something else to consider. What if the next good candidate is not yet a candidate at all? What if the next best option just needs time to grow into something big?
In the spirit of Boise State, which went from Division I-AA to winning Fiesta Bowls in seemingly no time, North Dakota State has risen up to become a football force. The Bison in recent years have beaten Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas, plus Minnesota and Colorado State. They've won two straight I-AA national championships. That's Boise State boulevard. Except they're not northwest of Salt Lake City, they're straight north of Manhattan, Kan. A good deal north, but still, they're in this part of the country.
North Dakota's economy is booming, Fargo is growing and it's a rabid fan base. It would be easy to see North Dakota State become a state enterprise, much like Nebraska. I'm not saying the Big 12 should add North Dakota State. I'm saying that if the Big 12 gets in the expansion business years from now, North Dakota State is a school to keep an eye on.