Remaining college football conference realignment questions

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Saturday, August 5, 2023

In arguably the most historic day of conference realignment, Oregon and Washington finalizeda move to join the Big Ten in 2024.

And later on Friday night,Arizona, Arizona State and Utahannounced they were officially jumping to the Big 12, joining Colorado in a Pac-12 exodus. It leaves a conference that was formed in 1915 with just four teams and on the verge of extinction.

Today's moves will have ripple effects far beyond Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State as the Pac-12's four remaining schools. Will the Big Ten keep expanding? Is the SEC content to stand pat? What about Florida State and Notre Dame?

ESPN spoke to power brokers throughout the sport to help determine how today's seismic moves will affect schools in every major conference, plus the College Football Playoff and more.

What does this mean for the remaining Pac-12 teams?

Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State are without a natural landing spot that would ensure their long-term stability.

For the Bay Area schools -- Cal and Stanford -- the Big Ten has routinely been mentioned as a possible destination, but that was driven more by the idea that Big Ten presidents would be keen on an alignment more for academic reasons. From a media rights value standpoint, though, neither moves the needle in a way that incentivizes invitations in the current landscape. It leaves both very much in survival mode. They both have large athletic departments that rely heavily on TV money to operate, and it's hard to envision a scenario where both don't end up cutting sports. Do they flirt with independence in football and find a different home for the other sports? Could ACC or Big 12 lifelines materialize? The Mountain West would be thrilled to welcome either school -- it obviously makes sense geographically -- but the discrepancy in media rights money from what they're accustomed to would mean wholesale athletic department changes.

Oregon State and Washington State have no leverage and very little prospects of getting bailed out by a power conference. More than Cal and Stanford, OSU and WSU would be cultural fits in the Mountain West. The problem here is that both athletic departments have long operated with the expectation of $30 million or more in TV money and in the Mountain West, they won't get anywhere near that. That shortfall would force both schools to essentially reinvent how their athletic departments operate. If they can weather that storm, life in a healthy Mountain West wouldn't be so bad -- both could regularly compete for conference titles in a way that has never been possible in the Pac-12 -- but it would represent a drop from major college football, and that's a tough pill to swallow.

"We are disappointed with the recent decisions by some of our Pac-12 peers," WSU president Kirk Schulz and athletic director Pat Chun said in a statement. "While we had hoped that our membership would remain together, this outcome was always a possibility, and we have been working diligently to determine what is next for Washington State athletics. We've prepared for numerous scenarios, including our current situation." -- Kyle Bonagura

Where do things stand with further Big 12 expansion?

Arizona is in the final stages of being admitted to the Big 12, according to sources, but an official move hasn't been finalized yet. Sources told ESPN's Pete Thamel that Utah and Arizona State applied for formal membership in the Big 12on Friday following the news of Washington and Oregon's departure. If those three programs join Colorado, the Big 12 will increase to 16 teams.

The Big 12 was aggressive in its pursuit of Arizona as a 14th team, and although Arizona and Arizona State operate under the same board of regents, they could have made conference decisions independently. Sources indicated their preference was to stay together.

A 16-team Big 12 would close the gap with the ACC -- and possibly put the Big 12 in third place financially behind the Big Ten and SEC. -- Heather Dinich

Is the SEC really content to stay at 16 teams?

At SEC media days last month, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said the league is "very attentive to what's happening around us."

"Do I think it's done?" he said in July. "People will say, well, I get to decide that. Right now it appears others are going to decide that before we have to make any decisions."

Well, here we are -- with others having made their decisions.

Sources within the SEC indicate there's certainly been chatter recently among the athletic directors about adding more teams -- simply as a reaction to recent events -- but there's also a reality to the finances component as they ask each other if they're willing to share revenue with more schools. There are certain sources of income beyond the television money that don't fluctuate much -- like the conference championship games, the baseball tournaments, etc.

The bottom line is, who would they add that's available and drives value?

Until proven otherwise, the ACC schools like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Clemson are tangled in a legal web that includes a hefty exit fee and grant of rights that extends through 2036.

The SEC will do its homework, but probably won't be forced into a knee-jerk reaction because the Big Ten just got bigger. Sankey has said repeatedly that geography matters as they consider these things. There is no sense of panic in the SEC.

"My view is we know who we are," Sankey said at media days. "We're comfortable as a league. We're focused on our growth to 16. We've restored rivalries. We're geographically contiguous with the right kind of philosophical alignment, and we can stay at that level of super conference. When you go bigger, there are a whole other set of factors that have to be considered, and I'm not sure I've seen those teased out other than in my mind late at night." -- Dinich

Does this change anything for Florida State and its timeline?

Yes. Florida State has been monitoring the events in the Big 12 and Pac-12 closely and understands the realities and dynamics of realignment.

Perhaps now it sees the possibility of the Big Ten expanding to 20 schools, with room for two more. Florida State has been exploring all its options for over a year, but there are key questions. If the Big Ten is interested: 1) How does Florida State figure out paying a $120 million exit fee and 2) come up with a strategy to get out of the grant of rights, which is meant to tie all ACC schools together until the end of their television contract with ESPN in 2036?

Florida State has had both an in-house legal team and an outside legal team study the specific contract language over the course of the last year. This is a document that has never been challenged in court, but one that in all likelihood will be at some point in time. Why? Because the grant of rights not only gives the ACC control over every school's media rights money, it gives the conference control over its actual media rights -- meaning the right to broadcast all home games in all sports.

Florida State may be willing to take the league to court to challenge the grant of rights, but legal battles take time and money -- and this is one the ACC will fight, since it wants to keep FSU and believes in the strength of the GOR document. And how attractive will FSU be to other conferences with those legal questions hovering over them?

As for the money, Florida State has hired JPMorgan Chase to look at all its financials, projecting all the way out to 2043, and has also partnered with a private equity firm to help with cash flow.

If there is no landing spot, Florida State wants to get more movement toward an uneven revenue distribution in the ACC that would give them a larger share of the television revenue pie based on what the school believes is its worth to the overall contract. As president Richard McCullough told ESPN earlier this week, "My No. 1 goal is to stay in the ACC, but at some point, it becomes difficult for me to do what I'm supposed to do for athletics at Florida State."

Presidents have already approved a success initiative model, which would reward on-field success in football and basketball. But shifting revenue distribution based on ratings and media metrics has not gained the traction Florida State believes it warrants. It remains uncertain whether any ACC president is willing to change their mind on that specific issue, especially given how vocal the Seminoles have been about it -- both publicly and behind closed doors. -- Andrea Adelson

Does this mean anything for Notre Dame?

No, not at this time.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has long repeated the same three factors that could contribute to the university's position as an independent becoming "unsustainable."

Those include: the loss of a committed broadcast partner; the loss of a fair route into the postseason; or such an adverse financial consequence that would force it to reconsider.

In spite of all of the drama swirling around Notre Dame, nothing has impacted those particular factors. Notre Dame still has a strong partnership with NBC as its broadcast partner that runs through the 2025 season. It recently announced a renewed commitment to Under Armour. It also remains a partial member of the ACC in football and has a contract with the league stating that if the Irish were to relinquish their independence, it would be for the ACC.

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said recently at the league's media days that he knows how much the Irish value their independence. Notre Dame still remains the most valuable property remaining on the Monopoly board -- and it's still not for sale. -- Dinich

What does this mean for the Big Ten schedule in 2024?

The "Flex Protect Plus" football schedule model, which the Big Ten had painstakingly put together in anticipation of a 16-team league in 2024, will need to be tweaked but not blown up. The league will not be starting from scratch here.

Many of the same principles will apply for the 18-team model, including the goals of protecting key games and rotating the others. The Big Ten has remained committed to nine-game league schedules, and both Oregon and Washington come from a league that plays nine. Still, the math gets a bit trickier with two more members. Divisions are not expected to be added in the 18-team model. The general philosophy behind the schedule model isn't expected to change much.

"It comes down to asking the question: 'What makes us a conference? What makes us feel like we're really tied together in a meaningful way?'" Big Ten chief operating officer Kerry Kenny told ESPN in June when the 2024 and 2025 schedules were announced. "Playing each other more and not less has some impact."

The initial 2024 and 2025 schedules included 11 protected matchups. A 12th is now virtually guaranteed with Washington and Oregon, bitter rivals who have played many memorable games. But the Big Ten "capped" the number at 11, Kenny said, because, "The more protected matchups you've included in the model, the less flexibility you had to create a really balanced model for everybody."

Oregon and Washington will be all-sports additions to the Big Ten next year, but football is the focus now because schedules are done in advance to allow for planning and logistics. -- Adam Rittenberg

What is the USC/UCLA reaction to adding two Pacific Time zone schools?

Some combination of relief and begrudging acceptance. As Chip Kelly pointed out at UCLA practice Friday, as other teams scramble to figure out where they'll play in the coming years, it's nice to know where your home will be. Kelly joked that perhaps the Big Ten could put the former Pac-12 teams in a pod and the Big Ten teams in a pod and have the winners play each other at the end of the year, perhaps in the Rose Bowl. If it was up to him, though, he'd scrap the whole thing and start anew.

"I'd be for, we're all in the same division. Put 60 of us in the same division," Kelly said. "Do it like the NFL where there's NFC West, NFC North, NFC South. I think we should all be in, there should be one conference in all college football and then just break it up like they do the professional game. Based on geography. That makes the most sense. There's your travel question. There's all those other questions, but no one asks me."

Given the kind of chess move the jump to the Big Ten was for both L.A. schools and how it upended the sport, there was some expectation that USC and UCLA were going to benefit greatly, not just the influx of money as part of the conference's new TV deal, but also from a resources and recruiting standpoint too.

Oregon has perhaps been the greatest threat to the Trojans in recent years in terms of adding talent, either through the transfer portal or high school ranks. A jump to one of the premier conferences in the sport, with a chance to play in high-profile games, was going to be a significant recruiting tool in USC's and UCLA's favor. Now, Oregon and Washington will be able to sell the same thing to recruits and transfers too.

From a logistical standpoint, I'm sure there are those who will be grateful both L.A. schools will have more than one West Coast conference game to play in every year. UCLA and USC don't have some storied history playing against Oregon or Washington, but as the Pac-12 crumbles, carrying over some semblance of continuity isn't the worst scenario either. -- Paolo Uggetti

What happens to the Rose Bowl?

Conference realignment didn't change the Rose Bowl's storied partnership with the Big Ten and Pac-12 -- the College Football Playoff did. Last year's game between Penn State and Utah was the last, true historic matchup between those leagues. Moving forward, the Rose Bowl has fully integrated with the CFP and will host a semifinal this season, followed by quarterfinals in each of the first two seasons of the 12-team playoff.

The teams in those games will be slotted based on the selection committee's rankings. While it's possible there could be a Big Ten team involved by chance, the guaranteed matchup between the two leagues ended when the Nittany Lions beat the Utes. -- Dinich

Is the Big Ten done expanding?

Since June 2010, the Big Ten has expanded four times: Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, USC and UCLA and now Oregon and Washington. The superconference/consolidation era is clearly here, and it would be surprising if the Big Ten remained at 18 members for very long. The Big Ten could again look to the West Coast for Stanford and Cal, but neither has been overly appealing to the league or its media partners in these last two expansion rounds. What would change going forward?

The likelier scenario has commissioner Tony Petitti looking to the East and the ACC, if the league starts to splinter in the wake of Florida State's exit strategy comments this week. North Carolina and Virginia would be primary targets, sources told ESPN. Both are premier public schools and would excite a group of Big Ten presidents and chancellors that still places a premium on "cultural fit." Florida State would be more of a stretch, and league sources cautioned against an immediate push. But FSU would give the Big Ten a presence in the Southeast, which former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned would be valuable way back in 2010.

The Big Ten's ultimate expansion prize remains Notre Dame, and efforts will continue to lure the school into the league. Could longtime ND rival Stanford be dangled as an enticement? Perhaps. The Big Ten will need some patience as Notre Dame doesn't want to relinquish its independence in football. Perhaps things change when Notre Dame has more administrative changes. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick will step down in 2024, and university president the Rev. John Jenkins turns 70 in December. -- Rittenberg

What does this mean for the College Football Playoff?

In the 12-team format, the six highest-ranked conference champions will receive a bid, along with the next six highest-ranked teams.

If there's no Pac-12 champion because there's no Pac-12, that's something that will have to be revisited. What's awkward about it is Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is one of the 10 FBS commissioners who makes those decisions, along with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

It was too early following the news for any concrete answers as to if and how the model might change, and how it could impact conference champions. "I certainly understand why people need to ask the question," CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN. "The fact is that it's too soon to say. The CFP management committee and board of managers will discuss the future if and when it becomes appropriate. Of course, none of this will affect the four-team playoff this year." -- Dinich

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