Welcome to another round of realignment.
The world of college athletics was thrown into flux for the second consecutive summer when news broke Thursday that UCLA and USC are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
Adding UCLA and USC gives the Big Ten 16 members and is an assertive response to the SEC. As the two conferences continue to separate themselves from the rest of the pack (both on the field and financially), the Big Ten is set to expand its reach to the West Coast. And not only are UCLA and USC big brand names in the world of college sports, the massive Los Angeles media market speaks for itself.
From a business perspective, the move makes complete sense for both sides. The lure of the Big Ten’s impending billion-dollar media rights deal made it easy for UCLA and USC to push aside the sentimentality of staying linked with the school’s traditional West Coast opponents.
And the Big Ten may not be done. Jon Wilner, the longtime Pac-12 reporter who broke the news earlier Thursday, was one of many to express that sentiment.
Source: Don't assume the Big Ten is done.
— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) June 30, 2022
So where could the Big Ten go from here? And how will the other conferences, including the SEC, respond?
Here are some thoughts on what could be on the horizon.
Notre Dame is the big fish
When Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC, it first caused a ripple effect at the Group of Five level. Most notably, the Big 12 quickly snatched Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American Athletic Conference. The AAC then scrambled to add members, leveling Conference USA. The Sun Belt made moves as well.
Now it seems inevitable that the landscape of the Power Five leagues is going to dramatically shift as the Big Ten and SEC further overshadow the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
As these conferences duke it out for power and stability, one school is the biggest potential prize: Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has maintained its independence in football, but could now be the time for the Fighting Irish to fully align with a conference? Notre Dame is one of the most-storied programs in college football and carries a national brand. The school is a non-football member of the ACC and maintains a scheduling agreement with the ACC in football.
Adding Notre Dame as a full-time member would be a tremendous boon for the ACC, especially if it fends off potential poachers (more on that later). But the Big Ten might now be more appealing for Notre Dame than it ever has been.
The financial side of the equation is obvious for both sides, especially considering the ACC’s media deal extends through 2036. And there’s also the geographical fit. At its core, the Big Ten is still a largely Midwestern league. From that standpoint (for whatever it’s worth at this point), it makes more sense for Notre Dame than the ACC.
Whether Notre Dame has any interest in joining a conference is anybody's guess. Nonetheless, the school holds plenty of leverage.
A source told me that if Notre Dame were to withdraw from the ACC, it can play football wherever it wants. It would have to pay exit fee and grant of rights fees for its other sports.
— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) June 30, 2022
What about other Pac-12 schools like Oregon and Washington?
Speaking of media rights deals, the Pac-12’s negotiations took a massive hit with UCLA and USC leaving. One source estimated to Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel that the value of the new deal (the current one expires in 2024) decreased by at least a third.
That’s a tough sell for the remaining schools — the ones with value elsewhere — to want to stick around. The Big Ten has already expanded west, so why stop with the two L.A. schools?
What about Oregon or Washington? The Nike-backed Ducks have become one of the West’s powers and could be an attractive option for the Big Ten. Washington brings the Seattle market and is the most-recent Pac-12 school to reach the College Football Playoff.
And where does Stanford fit in? It’s an academic powerhouse and the Big Ten, at some level, still values academic prowess.
Will Duke and North Carolina look around?
Speaking of academics, could the Big Ten and Duke be a match? As previously mentioned, the ACC’s television deal is a huge financial detriment for the league. Duke’s football program is one of the ACC’s bottom-feeders, but the academic and basketball prowess could make the Blue Devils an appealing option for the Big Ten.
If Duke flies the coop, it would make a ton of sense for North Carolina to depart the ACC as well. Duke and UNC are massive rivals, especially on the hardwood, and would provide a huge boost for the Big Ten from a basketball perspective.
Losing those two basketball stalwarts would be a massive blow for the ACC.
Is the ACC vulnerable to SEC poaching?
If the Big Ten is going to pursue additional members, the SEC isn’t going to sit on its thumbs and watch.
Like the Big Ten, the payouts in the SEC are going to be massive moving forward. In fact, they already are. And they’re going to continue to increase, leaving other leagues in the dust.
So which schools out there would make sense for the SEC? There are a few in the ACC that are obvious — Clemson and Florida State. Clemson has been the ACC’s football powerhouse over the past decade. Florida State is the league’s former powerhouse who is looking to make its ascent back to the top.
Miami could also be worth a look for the SEC. The Hurricanes still have name recognition based on past success. The new regime in football seems motivated to regain that status.
The ACC’s grant of rights (through 2036) is a massive hurdle, but you have to wonder if the associated financial hit is worth the potential for the long-term stability of another conference like the SEC.
The ACC grant of rights is through 2036 and keeps exiting teams from taking their media revenue to another conference. That figure — believed to be north of $100 million — goes down with each year, and at some point that cost may not outweigh the cost of losing out on SEC money.
— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) June 30, 2022
Could Big 12, Pac-12 join forces?
With the Pac-12 losing arguably its two most-valuable members, the conference’s remaining teams are in a tenuous position. If Oregon and Washington become targets of, perhaps, a 20-team Big Ten, could the Big 12 look to other Pac-12 members to bolster its membership?
Brett McMurphy of The Action Network reported Thursday that the Big 12 could go after “Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado” to get to 16 members once BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are officially onboarded and Oklahoma and Texas depart for the SEC.
How does this look, Big 12 fans?
Big 12 East:
Big 12 West:
It's ... not completely horrible?
— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) June 30, 2022
If the remaining members in the Pac-12 stay together, the conference could look toward steady Mountain West programs like Boise State and San Diego State (who won't make much of a dent financially). But if there are further departures, schools like Oregon State and Washington State could find themselves in a precarious position.
Another thought: What about Kansas? The Jayhawks are terrible in football but are a basketball power coming off a national championship. Could KU look for a new home in the Big Ten if the Big 12 doesn’t further strengthen itself?
The bottom line: Super leagues are coming
One thing is clear: realignment has entered another chapter. And so-called “super leagues” are looking like the unavoidable outcome.
The Big Ten and SEC are atop the heap and everybody else is playing catch-up.
Let the dominoes fall.