Football player Michael Wilson running with a football cradled in his right arm while an opposing player prepares an attempt to tackle him
Are historic rivalries like Cal-Stanford, Washington-Wazzu, and Oregon-Oregon State at risk at risk of falling by the wayside amid a wave of conference realignment? (Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire)
STUDENT ATHLETES MEDIA

Conference Realignment: 4 Scenarios for the Future of the Pac-12

UCLA and USC are off to the Big Ten, and six Pac-12 schools are rumored to be in discussions with the Big 12. What does that mean for the Conference of Champions?

We’ve been down this road before. When the conference realignment dominoes start falling, the college sports landscape can change in a hurry.

Case in point: Last week, UCLA and USC announced they will leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, and even before the official announcement came down, rumors began swirling about Notre Dame, other Pac-12 schools, the ACC, and more.

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By July 5, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported that six Pac-12 schoolsWashington, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, and Colorado — were in discussions with the Big 12.

If all this is legitimately real, then with the six schools headed out the door following UCLA and USC, there would be just four remaining teams in the entire Pac-12. Even before Dodd’s report, the conference announced it would explore expansion, so there are some wheels already in motion here.

So, what does all this mean?

Glad you asked. Let’s explore four paths forward for conference realignment out west — including one grim scenario in which the Pac-12 stops existing entirely.

Scenario 1: This is All a Ruse Over TV Money

If you don’t like chaos (and shame on you, if that’s the case!) or if you’re a diehard Pac-12 fan, then this is what you’re rooting for.

And it might actually be the most likely scenario of all.

The Pac-12 has started renegotiating its next television and streaming rights deal. The Big 12 could be floating this idea themselves to try and strengthen their position in the new power structure, or the Pac-12 could be putting pressure on the networks. Basically, TV execs know the Pac-12 is exploring expansion, and the conference can say to them something to the effect of “tell us who to add, we will add them, and you will have a better product than whatever comes out of a breakup THAT WILL TOTALLY HAPPEN REALLY SOON.”

Or perhaps the conversation with TV partners could be much more direct: “it’s in your best interest to save us.”

In case you weren’t aware already, it’s the TV (technically TV and streaming) giants that really drives conference realignment decisions, and college football realignment in particular will always be king as far as broadcast dollars are concerned. Note that ESPN played a major role in breaking up the Big East by encouraging the ACC to add Syracuse and Pitt, for example; preserving historic basketball rivalries was really never part of the conversation.

So how does this play out? Whichever network offers the Pac-12 the most money will encourage the addition of, say, two to four more schools. We never know exactly which individual details matter most any given moment of conference realignment musical chairs, but if media markets and recruiting still matter, then the Pac-12 could look to the Lone Star State to attempt to draw Texas Tech or Baylor from the Big 12.

That’s right: The Big 12 could poach from the Pac-12 OR the Pac-12 could post from the Big 12. These days, everything ought to be considered on the table.

If the objective is simply to find solid football programs that would jump at the opportunity to upgrade, however, maybe it’s time to look long and hard at Boise State and San Diego State — that latter of which also has the advantage of being in a top-30 US media market. Or maybe it’s all of those possibilities!

Here’s another factor at play: Do you remember “The Alliance” (RIP)?

Something along those lines could take shape between the Pac-12 and ACC, per Dodd.

Makes sense to float something like this right around the time you’re renegotiating your next media rights deal, doesn’t it? Dodd says the ACC is the party that came up with this idea; if six schools were really about to bolt, would that be a real thing the conference would bother to mention? It doesn’t seem likely.

Scenario 2: Pac-12/Big 12 Merger

Let’s say those six schools are actually planning to leave. The possibility of a merge has already been floated — we’ve even written about it — and if you watch Survivor, you know that once The Merge happens, the game moves fast.

If conference realignment realizes itself via merger, a Pac-12/Big 12 hybrid would present a viable Super League of sorts to go up against the Big Ten and SEC should those two juggernauts expand even more. Assuming no one else gets picked off along the way, here’s what this merged league would look like:

  • Washington
  • Washington State
  • Oregon
  • Oregon State
  • Cal
  • Stanford
  • Arizona
  • Arizona State
  • Colorado
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Iowa State
  • Kansas
  • Kansas State
  • Oklahoma State
  • Texas Tech
  • TCU
  • Baylor
  • Cincinnati
  • Houston
  • BYU
  • UCF

That’s a 22-team conference that spans all four timezones of the continental United States, mixes public and private institutions, includes football- and basketball-first schools… and has delivered zero college football national championships since 1991.

It’s unwieldy, it doesn’t make sense, and it seems destined to fail.

It also might be the best available option for the above schools.

It’s the TV and streaming giants that really drive conference realignment decisions, and college football in particular will always be king as far as broadcast dollars are concerned.

As CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander noted on his “Eye On College Basketball” podcast, if UCLA and USC wanted any Pac-12 institutions to join them in the Big Ten, those schools would have come along with them here and now. Stanford could, perhaps, keep its hopes up that Notre Dame will join the Big Ten, making the Cardinal a sensible peer to keep conference membership at an even number. We cannot forget, however, that countless onlookers have been waiting for Fighting Irish football to join a conference for quite literally decades only to see them remain independent.

As for the other schools, it’s not likely the SEC will come calling. If they do expand further — and it’s likely to be simply a matter of time — they have plenty of attractive options in the ACC, including Clemson, Miami, and Florida State. If that does happen, could what’s left of the ACC try to pick off a West Virginia or a Kansas? Sure. But that’s a few dominoes down the road. Those schools can’t afford to sit and wait for something that might not happen at all.

Scenario 3: The Pac-12 Dissolves

If those six Pac-12 schools do actually move to the Big 12, this might become the most likely scenario. We’re just not sure how much the last four remaining institutions will like their landing spots.

Even if the Big Ten isn’t imminently planning to add even more members, it’s reasonable to think that they will soon. If the SEC picks off some ACC schools, then the Big Ten will want to respond; it would behoove the conference to give UCLA and USC a couple more dance partners out west, and — oh, look at that — Stanford and Cal are perfect candidates, as they fit the Big Ten’s target profile of elite academic institutions who are also members of the American Association of Universities.

Stanford is probably first in line here, as it is one of Notre Dame’s annual football rivals. If the Big Ten adds Notre Dame and Stanford and then stops there, Cal could be in some trouble; the Golden Bears would join Washington State and Oregon State among the west coast schools left behind.

That trio (or duo) could find refuge in the Mountain West, which would make geographic sense, but would be an utterly gigantic step down in terms of money and competition. Still, that might be the best option given that the American Athletic Conference has now lost virtually all its star power with Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF all gone.

Scenario 4: The Pac-12 Becomes a Glorified Mid-major

Even beyond the official death of the Pac-12 as such, this may be the absolute scariest scenario for Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State fans: What if a merger doesn’t happen and no other major conference comes calling?

In order for the Pac-12 to continue to exist as a viable conference (forget about a “power conference” until further notice), it would have to invite at least six members. Schools like Boise State and San Diego State have real strong cases, but there’s one general conference realignment principle to keep in mind: If a school is not currently in the Power Five, there is a reason why. In other words, every school you pick has surely been passed over for a major conference promotion multiple times over the past decade alone.

Using the best available options, a new Pac-12 could look something like this:

  • Stanford
  • Cal
  • Oregon State
  • Washington State
  • San Diego State
  • Boise State
  • Colorado State
  • UNLV
  • Nevada
  • Utah State
  • New Mexico
  • Rice

Swap in or out any Mountain West or AAC schools that you want, but you get the idea.

Perhaps this is the point at which the Pac-12 would finally fold and invite Gonzaga for non-football sports. This gives them a significant boost to its men’s and women’s basketball profiles, but it’s not even definite at that point that the Zags would go for it.

It would be a sad, sad day to see schools like Stanford and Cal — elite academic institutions with rich football histories and a celebrated rivalry — relegated to mid-major status. It’s not the most likely scenario but it’s certainly not out of the question and not without precedent.

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