The biggest news for west coast college sports in over a decade came out today as reports are that a move to the Big Ten by USC and UCLA is imminent. The move (at least for now) points to the first time that Washington will not be in a conference with the two Los Angeles schools since way back in 1928 when UCLA first joined the Pacific Coast Conference.
It’s easy to see why USC and UCLA went down this path. Money. Jon Wilner has suggested that the 2 school will end up seeing upwards of $100 million annually in television revenue by jumping ship. There’s no other reason to do it. This move kills tradition, it kills regional rivalries, it kills anything resembling a normal schedule for your student athletes. But there’s no question that the university as a whole will make more money by getting in bed with the B1G and FOX as opposed to being a part of the Pac-12’s next media deal.
Unfortunately we now get to see what happens when Washington is thrown onto the hot seat. Conference realignment holds a frightening number of similarities with a run on banks. It’s in everyone’s collective best interest to not jump ship and band together. It’s in each individual’s best interest to go out and grab as much cash as they possibly can before the vaults are potentially empty. It’s game theory and the end result is we all lose.
How this plays out in the long run appears to be inevitable (we’ll get there at the end) but in the short-term there are several options that sit before Ana Marie Cauce and Jen Cohen. Let’s run through them, shall we? At least before more news breaks and all of this becomes completely outdated.
FOLLOW USC AND UCLA TO THE BIG “TEN”
There are now 16 teams in the Big Ten with the additions of USC and UCLA. That’s a round number just like the SEC now has. However the Big Ten has now gone more than a decade with 14 teams so it’s not like they care about that. 18 isn’t much different from 16.
There are only 3 more schools from the Pac-12 that it could be argued are clear net positives for the Big Ten. We’ll go through in no particular order. The first is Stanford. It has the most championships in the non-football sports, has a national footprint as an academic power, is located in the rich Bay Area, and been a multi-year national power in football within the last decade. Then we have Oregon. They bring the Phil Knight Nike money, also have a national brand because of that, and also have had dominant stretches in football.
That leaves Washington which has the football history and tradition as well as the Seattle market to bring to a media rights negotiation. Now there’s no rule that says the Big Ten has to add schools as a pair. They could go with an odd number of teams. They could also convince Notre Dame to join and pair them with a Pac-12 refugee. But the scenario that makes the most sense to just about everyone is that Oregon and Washington have the combination of will to survive and desirability to make a desperation match.
It has been clear for a while that the SEC and the Big Ten were the only leagues that were absolutely going to survive the chaos of realignment in the near term. Joining with them would hurt my insides but it leaves open the possibility of remaining among the national elite and giving a clear bump in terms of money. Those 2 things go hand in hand.
In the world of the new hypothetical 18-team mega conference you would think that USC, UCLA, UW, and Oregon would be permanent scheduling partners with a rotation through the rest of the members for the remaining conference spots. It would create a nightmare for all your other sports who now have to occasionally take road trips to Rutgers or Maryland but when football is the only concern then that’s a sacrifice the administrators are willing to make.
In this scenario the rest of the conference is left to fend for themselves. The Big 12 likely moves in to try to grab the remnants of the Pac-12 South. The Pac-12 North refugees likely get assimilated into the Mountain West. And everyone hates it.
REPLACE USC/UCLA TO KEEP THE PAC-12 ALIVE (FOR NOW)
Of course Washington and Oregon could theoretically say they aren’t abandoning their fellow public in-state school. We just saw evidence of this with the Big 12 who didn’t have any further defections after Texas and Oklahoma bolted for the SEC. No other school in the conference was as appealing as a Washington would be which is part of why they all stayed but it’s not completely impossible.
Presumably Washington would take the best 2 schools they could out of the Mountain West to replace those spots. San Diego State would make sense as the next biggest school in Southern California and who is almost always good in both football and basketball. Boise State would make the next most sense as a school with a strong football history over the past several decades. You could make arguments for other Mountain West programs but those seem by far the most appealing.
Also, as long as you’re scrapping for survival go ahead and announce Gonzaga as a Pac-12 member for basketball. Do whatever it takes.
There’s also of course the option of attempting to go back and pick off whoever you can from the Big 12. Bring in an Oklahoma State and Kansas (even as desperate as they are I can’t fathom Baylor getting added with their history of off-field issues).
The resulting media deal the conference gets after all of this would be miles behind what the B1G or SEC gets and it secures the Pac-12’s status as a lesser conference than those 2. But at least it keeps them a clear tier above the Mountain West.
GET LEFT BEHIND
The third option is the least appealing in almost every respect. In this world UW tries to hold strong but Oregon crosses the picket line and joins Notre Dame in the Big Ten. Then the Arizona schools plus Utah/Colorado bolt for the Big 12. Stanford chooses to go independent. Suddenly Washington is left holding hands with Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State. With nowhere else to go the Huskies join the Mountain West and become Boise State under Chris Petersen where the absolute best case scenario is a top-10 finish by going undefeated but otherwise resigned to mediocrity.
But hey, the Apple Cup lives!
Given how things appear to be trending I would put the most likely outcome on UW and Oregon (plus maybe others) joining the mega conference that was formerly known as the Big Ten. When it comes down to it I don’t see how the administration doesn’t act in their own interest to keep from going down with the ship. It would suck to leave behind Washington State and a lot of people within the state would be very unhappy about it but when it comes down to it I don’t think that will be enough to hold them together.
In the Big 12 it was known that none of the member organizations left held all that much value for any other conference. They were all nearly equal. That’s not the case for the UW and some of the other members. Stratification exists. I’m sure we’ll find out for sure though sooner than later as once the game of musical chairs starts everyone tries to sit down very very quickly.
THE SUPER-CONFERENCE ERA IS HERE
I did say we’d get to the long-term outlook. The destiny has always been that college football was moving towards a super conference format. There’s too much money to be made for the “haves” for them to continue sharing it with the “have nots”. This makes it look like Washington State and Oregon State may be the first casualties of the move. But make no mistake that eventually the schools on the lower rungs of the new Big Ten are eventually going to be cast off of the ark.
Once the dust settles the current conference alignments are somewhat meaningless. College football is going to break away from the NCAA and make their own rules. There will be a ruling class that is a trimmed down version of the current P5. Those schools will be the only ones with a shot at a national championship.
It sucks. There’s no question about it. The only hope is that college football is allowed to go do its own thing and that other sports can end up reverting back to something approaching a regional conference structure so that softball isn’t traveling to New Jersey for a mid-week series.
There were people who swore off college football forever after the institution of the transfer portal and NIL. For me personally that always seemed like a gross overreaction. However imagining a world in which the only way the Apple Cup happens is as a non-conference matchup in early September is enough to make me question whether or not it’s worth it.
I’m confident I’ll find a way to justify it in my head. But I think it’s unquestionable that college football is less fun right now than it was when I woke up this morning.