So, if you’re somehow living under a rock, you may have missed this. USC and UCLA, two strong Midwestern programs, are finally joining their brethren in the Big Ten. This is obviously a volcano eruption affecting the landscape of college sports. It will kick off the next round of conference re-alignment, centered around the fight between the Fox TV contracts (the Big Ten) and the Disney TV contracts (the SEC). Once again, the Colorado Buffaloes finds themselves right in the middle.
However, unlike last time (11 short years ago), the Buffs aren’t one of the best options available to any conference. There are TONS of schools that could move around, and the continued mediocrity of the football team has really hurt CU’s reputation as a strong program. There are three different scenarios that I see as the most likely for CU - remaining in whatever the new-look Pac-12 is, moving to the Big 12 and somehow moonshotting their way into the Big Ten.
Let’s talk about the lamest option first. If the Buffs decide to batten the hatches and try to keep the Pac-10 together, that new look league will be a MASSIVE step down, revenue and prestige wise. It will be hard to negotiate with that group of schools. Assuming that no other schools leave (which is unlikely), the Pac-10 would be Oregon, Washington, Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and CU. Whoof. This is not a showstopping set of schools. It’s also possible that the Pac-12 expands and takes in more teams to try to boost their profile. Boise State is an obvious candidate, and maybe a basketball-only membership for Gonzaga is in the cards. SDSU is a fun one to think about, and is Fresno State in the mix? None of these really would move the TV market needle, but would make for some fun competition. CSU is another obvious candidate for expansion in this case, and potentially UNLV. Once again - this option is the worst.
The next option is hopping back to the Big 12. Hello, old enemies, we meet again. The Big 12 is set to add Cincinnati and BYU in next year, as well as Houston and UCF. This makes for a fun conference, without any marquee programs to carry the TV deal (Texas and Oklahoma will be in the SEC by the time that the next TV rights deal is negotiated). This puts the Big 12 at 14 teams, but maybe they will expand to 16, 18 or 20? Assuming that the Big Ten also doesn’t pillage the largest members of the Big 12 (Kansas certainly fits geographically), the Big 12 is in a fun position to the be the “best of the rest” conference.
In this scenario, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and ASU are the most natural geographical fits. All four of those schools have decent to good fan engagement, with ASU and Colorado bringing two of the largest Western media markets. It’s also possible that they make a play for Oregon and Washington, two of the remaining jewels of the Pac-12 that could actually add to the value of a conference. However, that puts the Big 12 in a weird spot, trying to schedule volleyball flights from Orlando to Seattle on a random weekday. Yuck. This move would put CU in a conference that is absolutely a half-step down from the Big Ten and the SEC, but still provides good competition and some nice revenue. Plus, it gives CU even more of a presence in Texas, with four conference games in the Lone Star State.
Finally, and most optimistically, it’s semi-possible that the Big Ten tries to balloon up immediately to counter the SEC expansion. Multiple writers are saying that the Big Ten is now waiting on Notre Dame. If they cannot convince Notre Dame to join, the Big Ten will stay at 16. If they can get the Fighting Irish on board, it sounds like they will open the floodgates to get to 20 or 24 teams. In the second scenario, Stanford, Oregon and Washington are easy choices to join Notre Dame to make it a 20 (!!!) team conference. Stanford protects their Notre Dame rivalry, exceeds the academic requirements and brings quite the brand value. Oregon and Washington both match the academic profile, bring sizable fan bases and large media markets.
CU is still left out in the cold in this scenario. HOWEVER, if the Big Ten tries to beef up even more and gets to 24 teams, this is where CU comes into play. There are few teams remaining that fit the Big Ten’s academic requirements (which may be going out the window, but the Big Ten seems intent on keeping them). If they keep their AAU requirement, that list gets even smaller. Arizona and CU are on that list, as is Kansas and Utah. So, if the Big Ten wants to become THE biggest conference in the country, and take 10 NEW teams during this round, I would bet that CU, Arizona and Kansas are in that list. This would be the best case scenario for the Buffs.
I do want to re-iterate this at the end of this article - all of this sucks. This is a massive paradigm shift in college athletics, and throws the regional aspect of the game out the door. I always loved that college sports is often more about beating your neighbors than it is about measuring up nationally against others. Conferences were a part of that. The Rose Bowl was a part of that. And I think that’s how rivalries develop. Now, more than ever, it is ALL about the money. Are we really saying it makes sense in any other world for a basketball team playing for the University of Southern California to travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, on a regular basis? It’s insane, it’s corporate, and I don’t like it. In the end, this hastens the move to a truly national college sports universe, where the haves separate again from the have-nots and become even more semi-professional. At that point, the charm is gone and I’ll stop watching. Until then, we sit back and hope that the Buffs don’t make the mistake this year that they did in 2011.