— -- On the field, the Big 12 has tumbled into a precarious spot this season. For the first time since its inception, the conference doesn't have a single team ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press poll. As a result, the Big 12's chances of putting a team in the playoff already seem to be dire after just three weeks.
Beyond that, expansion has dominated the conversation since late spring. But after months of contemplating it and weeks of officially exploring it, where does Big 12 expansion stand with a key Oct. 17 board meeting looming?
Here's the latest:
The Big 12 stages in-person meetings
Two weeks ago in the Dallas area, the Big 12 held meetings with the 11 candidates that made the conference's first round of cuts, multiple sources confirmed to ESPN.com. Those meetings began with SMU on Tuesday and ended with South Florida on Friday evening; Air Force, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, Houston, Rice and Tulane had their turns in between.
Each session, with commissioner Bob Bowlsby and a small group of Big 12 officials, lasted roughly two hours, and the expansion candidates were limited to bringing up to five representatives, who also had to be employed by the schools in some capacity. The majority brought their president, athletic director, board chair and general counsel, though USF, for example, was able to include Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is a faculty member of the USF Muma College of Business.
The schools spent most of those two hours pitching their individual strengths to the conference: SMU, its proximity to the rest of the league; Houston, its red-hot football program and its ability to help the Big 12 with the Houston TV market; USF and UCF, the upside of their top-20 TV markets and massive enrollments. As the Associated Press first reported, USF's showed a video that included testimonials from former NFL coach Tony Dungy and pro baseball player Tino Martinez. Said Vinik in the video, "I guarantee, when the Big 12 comes to this area, and when they make USF part of their community, we will all be 100 percent behind them, and they will never regret that decision."
At the conclusion of each meeting, however, the expansion candidates were given little indication of the Big 12's next step or even if there will be an actual expansion vote on Oct. 17. So far, it's essentially been radio silence.
One person with knowledge of the expansion process termed it as a "weird limbo."
The Cougars have picked an opportune time to put together one of their greatest runs in school history. Houston's 33-23 Week 1 win over Oklahoma provided only more evidence that the Cougars would strengthen the competitive profile of the conference. On Nov. 17, Houston will have a prime opportunity to play its way into the playoff when third-ranked Louisville comes to town.
Houston's upside as a Big 12 member, however, has strangely become perhaps the biggest knock on its candidacy.
Kansas State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy spoke out against inviting Houston to the Big 12, arguing that the Cougars would steal away too many recruits from them.
"Anyone that's not in Texas will have a more difficult time recruiting Texas if another Texas school gets in this league," Gundy said in August.
One Big 12 insider from a non-Texas school pointed out that having another game in the state of Texas would be one way in which adding Houston could actually help recruiting.
Still, it seems the support for Houston remains lukewarm among the non-Texas schools, even as the Cougars have produced stellar ratings this season in the Houston TV market.
Whether Houston ultimately gets in could hinge heavily on whether the four Big 12 Texas schools coalesce around the Cougars' candidacy.
There figures to be significant political pressure on the four Big 12 Texas schools to do just that. Texas governor Greg Abbott has already tweeted that expansion is a "non-starter" without Houston, and was spotted wearing a Cougars polo to the Oklahoma game.
Just this week, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick told KRIV-TV in Houston that "This is about Texas schools. I don't really give a hoot and a holler about UConn or some school in Florida or anywhere else. Texas schools oughta vote for other Texas schools."
Much of this is political posturing from elected officials angling to boost their appeal with Houston voters while improving their relationships with Houston lawmakers. That doesn't mean the pressure won't be real.
The pressure will also be on Texas chancellor Bill McRaven and, by proxy, Texas president Greg Fenves, to resolve the sticky 300-acre land deal in Houston. Texas wants to build a satellite facility there, but has faced stiff opposition from Houston officials and lawmakers. At this point, the best way Texas could placate Houston would be to help get it in the Big 12. Fenves tweeted in July that he "supports" the Big 12 "considering" the Cougars. But it remains unclear whether Texas will actually go to bat for them when it counts.
In the meantime, the best way Houston can help itself is to keep winning on the field. It would be difficult to envision a scenario in which the Big 12 announces expansion and leaves out the school on the brink of making the playoff.
Will anything happen on Oct. 17?
Since the league announced it would begin exploring expansion in July, Big 12 insiders have been pointing to the Oct. 17 board meeting of presidents and chancellors as the likeliest point at which a vote on expansion could take place.
Oklahoma president and Big 12 board chair David Boren, however, seemed to turn that timetable on its head when he spoke to the media, including ESPN.com, after the school's regents meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week.
"I'm not certain there will be a decision at the October board meeting on expansion at this time," Boren said. "We're going to look at every way in which we can make the conference stronger and better. But I'm not sure the automatic answer to that is expansion.
"The situation is still pretty fluid."
Bowlsby has been pushing the presidents to move forward with a decision on expansion as quickly as possible. "There's no sense in dragging it out once we know all the pieces to the puzzle," he said this summer.
But if Boren's comments were any indication, Bowlsby might not be able to persuade the Big 12 presidents to commit to a vote Oct. 17. If no vote is taken then, the expansion process could drag on through December, as Iowa State president Steven Leath suggested last month, and possibly beyond -- a frustrating proposition for many in the league.
"We knew who all these schools were before this process," said one Big 12 insider.
Yet even after Boren's most recent public comments, multiple Big 12 officials still believe that Oct. 17 will most likely be Decision Day for the conference -- one way or the other.
How will the Big 12 reach consensus?
One of the most under-discussed challenges to this undertaking is still ahead: How will the Big 12 actually conduct its expansion vote?
In previous realignments, conferences were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on only a couple of schools. Considering the conference still has a pool of 11 candidates, the Big 12's situation is far more convoluted.
Will the league first vote on whether to expand, then the number to expand by, before finally deliberating on the individual schools? Or will the league go straight to voting on schools, one-by-one? Boren acknowledged last week that the Big 12 still had not settled on a method. Bowlsby has no voting power, but he could make recommendations that could help streamline the process.
Any expansion candidate, however, will still need a super majority, or eight votes, in order to get an invitation. Considering so many options remain, it could prove difficult for any one school to get the necessary votes.
"Nobody agrees on the teams right now," one Big 12 official noted.
What remains to be seen is how the self-inflicted pressure of making this process so public could affect the decision-making. After all of the pomp and circumstance, could the Big 12, in the end, really vote not to expand? That is certainly a possibility, underscored by Boren's recent comments.
"I would just caution you and say, I would not take expansion as a given," he said. "I'm not saying there won't be expansion. But I'm not saying it can be automatically assumed that there will be expansion."
Some inside the conference who oppose expansion, however, fear the presidents will feel compelled to vote in favor of expansion, even if they're unsure that it's the right move.
As one industry insider put it, "I don't know how they could go through all this and not expand."
BYU losing steam
Months ago, BYU was viewed as the frontrunner in any Big 12 expansion scenario. With a passionate national fan base, strong football tradition, top-35 TV market in Salt Lake City and solid academic credentials, BYU checked every box of the criteria the Big 12 said it would be analyzing.
But the LGBT community's opposition to BYU because of its honor code has turned BYU's candidacy "toxic," as one Big 12 insider characterized it.
"Their appeal doesn't outweigh the baggage, even though the appeal is great," another said.
Earlier this month, Iowa State's student government passed a resolution opposing a BYU Big 12 invite, noting that "BYU's discriminatory policies and practices are inconsistent with the values of the Big 12."
Last week, the ACC announced that it would be moving all neutral-site conference championship games out of North Carolina as a result of the state's controversial House Bill 2 law that limits the legal protection of the LGBT community. That included the ACC removing the football championship game from Charlotte.
"BYU makes all the sense in the world from a football perspective," said one Big 12 source.
Given the current climate, however, that might not be enough for the Cougars to get an invitation, at least without some give on its honor code.
The moment of truth?
Interestingly, Boren noted last week that expansion could hinge on whether it "adds to the long-term stability" of the conference.
But if the Big 12 doesn't sign an extension of its grant of rights the way the ACC did this year, the league's long-term stability will remain dubious, at best. The contracts currently binding the conference together expire in the 2024-25 academic year.
So far, neither Texas nor Oklahoma has indicated it would agree to a grant of rights extension under any scenario. Without the extension, the clock will continue to tick on the Big 12, regardless of whether it expands or not, as the Longhorns and Sooners will be free to leave for greener pastures when the rights expire.
"If the two parents don't commit [to signing the extension]," said one industry source, "what does that tell you?"
Said another: The Big 12 "could be close to the end."
Bowlsby has said that the Big 12 will continue to fall further behind the SEC and Big Ten if it does nothing. But expansion alone won't catapult the Big 12 back onto the same plane, either.
That could be one reason why the Big 12 is struggling to agree on the next step. And why anything could be possible in the coming weeks.