Could an unexpected round of conference realignment be coming? The theme of this week on the college football corner of the internet has been the Pac-12's impending doom. Well, that may be an overstatement, but CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd put out a column this week outlining the league's struggles, both on the playing field and in the schools' wallets. Some coaches and administrators are pretty open about not being happy with how things are going.
When the 'Power Five' era began, after the Big East football league was poached and rolled into the AAC, the ACC looked like the most vulnerable league. Syracuse and Pitt didn't really move the needle for football, and Florida State was good, but the league didn't seem to stack up overall. The Big Ten was also able to pick off an ACC member, taking Maryland into the fold. However, the ACC's fortunes quickly changed.
Florida State captured the final BCS national championship, and made the College Football Playoff the following year. On the field, Louisville has been more than an ample replacement for the Terps. Clemson has been a mainstay in the playoff, and captured a national title in 2016. That year, it was hard to argue against the ACC having the best year in college football, top to bottom.
After that, the Big 12 took the mantle as the most vulnerable league. The Big Ten took Nebraska, and Colorado left for the Pac-12, knocking the '12' down to 10 teams. Over the last few years, the league has considered expansion, only to hold serve at 10 schools. Oklahoma has been the saving grace for the Big 12, making two runs to the College Football Playoff, and erasing some of the concerns about the conference's potential, with both Baylor and TCU being left out in the cold back in 2014.
Now, it is the Pac-12's turn to be the focus of our concern. One writer has even supposed that the league could be poached whenever conference realignment rears its ugly head again.
David Ubben of The Athletic says that the Big 12 should start "cuddling up" to Arizona and Arizona State. The two schools are longtime members of the Pac-12 and its previous iterations, but if the financial situation for the league doesn't change, it isn't crazy to think that the Big 12 could look to make a move in conference realignment to expand if it means adding some big name programs.
ASU athletic director Ray Anderson was one of those quoted in Dodd's piece:
“The gap between us and the other [leagues] continues to grow,” he said. “We’ll be competitively disadvantaged even moreso. … That’s real money in terms of being able to compete, support facilities, support coaches and support programs.”
It is a complete hypothetical, but we've seen schools pop up and change conferences out of nowhere before. On the very off-chance that the Pac-12 was to break up in a new round of conference realignment, I have a pretty good idea of where those schools may end up.
Arizona: One of the two programs that Ubben named. Obviously, he is just spit-balling, as we are, but the Arizona schools make the most sense for the Big 12, outside of the schools that were already once in that league.
The Wildcats would add a prominent basketball program to the Big 12's ranks, and a football program that could get back on the upswing quickly. Kevin Sumlin flamed out at Texas A&M, but he has worked in Big 12 country before, as the head coach of one-time conference realignment candidate Houston. Arizona is also not that far removed from a New Year's Six berth, and has shown that it will do what it takes to be competitive.
Arizona State: Of course, the Wildcats would not be going without the Sun Devils. Basketball aside, ASU has a similar profile to its in-state rival, and the Sun Devils even flirted with the top of the hoops rankings early in the 2017-18 season.
President Michael Crow is cited by Dodd as an ally of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, but AD Anderson is clearly not content with the Pac-12 monetary situation. Now, the Big 12 doesn't have a great answer for a linear network either, as Texas and the Longhorn Network dominate the situation, but adding some schools could push the Big 12 to make some changes in that department. Either way, it is hard for any solution not to be better than what the Pac-12 Network isdelivering right now.
Colorado: Who says you can't go home? The move to the Pac-12 is probably not the reason, but Colorado definitely had better days on the football field back when it was playing Big 12 football. The Buffaloes were a legitimate national contender in the early 1990s. The down slide started before conference realignment, but the only winning season the Buffs have had since the move is the surprising 10-4 2016 season.
Outside of a total break-up, I don't see Colorado looking to move back to the Big 12. However, in the event that the Pac-12 splits, it is definitely the most logical choice.
Utah: The Utes are also one of the teams that moved in the last major round of conference realignment. The Utes got the call up from what is now called the Group of Five, jumping from the Mountain West.
Utah is a pretty consistent contender in both football and men's basketball. It would also make for a logical travel partner for Colorado, similar to how Arizona and Arizona State would work well together in the event of a shift.
Cal: The Big Ten loves to tout its academics, and UC-Berkeley is one of the nation's best public schools. It also should be better athletically, even if it is in a down cycle in recent seasons. We've seen conferences, including the Big Ten, take schools for their potential as much as for their current success before.
This will go for all of the schools we have heading to the Big Ten, but we're aware of the distance thing. It might not have been as big a stretch, but the Big Ten taking Rutgers, Maryland, and even Penn State was an acknowledgement that this is no longer a true Midwestern league.
There have also been rumors about talks with Virginia, UNC, and Georgia Tech in the Southeast, and Oklahoma and Texas down in Big 12 country. Adding a school like Cal, which is local to major metropolitan areas like Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco, is very much in-bounds based on what the Big Ten has done in conference realignment previously. And, of course, Cal wouldn't be going alone.
Oregon: The Ducks are probably the least obvious Big Ten program we've included. Honestly, outside of the Pac-12, there isn't a great fit for the Ducks.
However, Oregon has turned itself into a giant national brand. With the aid of Nike, Oregon scours the country for recruits, and has become a national contender in a number of sports, including football and men's basketball, with recent trips to the College Football Playoff and Final Four. If available, the Big Ten would probably not be alone in wanting to add the Ducks.
UCLA: The Bruins would be a good travel partner for Cal, and fits the Big Ten expansion profile extremely well. UCLA brings in the Los Angeles market, has excellent academics, and brings storied athletic programs, even if they've under-performed a bit in recent years.
Chip Kelly against Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, and company? Yes, please.
Washington: The Huskies are quietly becoming a legitimate power out West. Washington is one of just two teams in the Pac-12 to make the College Football Playoff, along with Oregon.
Chris Petersen is one of the sport's best coaches, and bringing in both Oregon and Washington would add another fun rivalry to the Big Ten's catalog. In this situation, we'd have 18 teams in the Big Ten, which would probably necessitate a move from the two division model into a pod-system that has been floated by those who are not fans of the current breakdown that the Power Five conferences currently have.
There are four programs left in the Pac-12 that are not accounted for in this conference realignment fantasy. Two are big-names that would probably be coveted by most, if not every, other big conference, no matter what geographic obstacles would be out there.
The other two are, unfortunately, the smaller programs in their states. Those might get left out in the cold in the event that this came to pass.
We'll deal with the powers first. Both USC and Stanford have a lot of clout, and both could probably make it out on their own.
Stanford: The Cardinal play really good football, but Stanford is truly an academic institution first, as much as that can be said about any program. It is also competitive pretty much across the board, in every sport that it offers.
Perhaps the Big Ten could appeal to the Cardinal. However, I could definitely see Stanford not wanting to commit to that type of schedule, and bowing out of this round of conference realignment. With an annual series against Notre Dame, and the potential to continue it with USC based on this hypothetical, the Cardinal could make it work. BYU also always has a need to teams to schedule, as the most recent big school to go independent, and could ink long term series with the Cardinal and Trojans.
USC: The Trojans are one of the signature programs in college football. As a rare private school power, they could have a different outlook on things, especially if the alternative is to join the Big Ten or Big 12, or another, even more distant league.
USC already has an annual rivalry with Notre Dame, the current independent power in college football, so they're well aware of what it takes. The Fighting Irish would probably love another school of its ilk to go independent, as it could make it seem less inevitable that they will one day have to join a league.
Oregon State: The Beavers have had some moments as a big-time program. However, they just haven't been able to remain competitive, especially as rival Oregon has surged.
The best hope for the Beavers to latch on somewhere in this scenario is for the Ducks to insist that a conference bring them along. Without that, it seems extremely likely that Oregon State would get left to join the Mountain West, like those old Big East schools that now reside in the AAC.
Washington State: This would be very unfortunate. The Cougars made an inspired hire, bringing Mike Leach to The Palouse. He's reformed their football program, and they've been very competitive in a strong Pac-12 North for a few years now.
It is just hard to see them making it, if the entire Pac-12 becomes available in a new round of conference realignment. Luckily, Cougs fans, this is all just a thought experiment, there is no real indication that this could happen anytime soon, so don't fret too much.