The fallout from college sports’ frenzied summer of conference realignment has bled into the start of football season, and with Week 0 just days away, there are a few loose ends still to be settled after six Pac-12 schools jumped for the Big Ten and Big 12 within the span of a month. Will any schools or conferences kick off 2023 without finalizing their plans for 2024 and beyond?
Nicole Auerbach, Justin Williams and Stewart Mandel break down what to watch for as leagues and schools ponder their next steps.
1. Where do the Pac-12’s final four stand?
Stanford and Cal are still holding out hope for an invitation to the ACC, which has continued to discuss expanding west to include them and/or SMU, though one league source metaphorically characterized the topic of expansion as something stashed away in a freezer, perhaps to be taken out again later but maybe not. The Athletic confirmed that heavy hitters such as Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush have made calls to the ACC’s league office on behalf of Stanford and SMU, respectively, as Sports Illustrated first reported. One ACC source joked that it might be more effective if the politicians could send money to the league instead of calling, underscoring just how central the financial impact of expansion is to the discussion.
SMU has told the ACC it is willing to forgo its revenue distribution from the league for five years to be admitted. Stanford has broached the same subject with ACC officials, a league source confirmed to The Athletic. At the very least, the Bay Area schools would be coming in at partial shares, if they eventually joined.
But the ACC didn’t have enough support to add these schools a week ago, when the presidents and chancellors took a straw poll on expansion, needing 12 of 15 to vote yes to make it happen. Four schools were opposed: Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina and NC State. No other votes — formal or straw — have taken place since. But the ACC has also not officially tabled expansion, so the wait continues.
The wait has also put Oregon State and Washington State in a tough position. The two schools, who have hired Oliver Luck as a consultant, need to see what Stanford and Cal do before they can fully explore their limited options. If there’s a chance the four schools would remain together, they could potentially work together to rebuild the Pac-12. Oregon State AD Scott Barnes told The Athletic on Wednesday that he’s hoping to have clarity on Stanford and Cal’s paths forward soon. “If we do, then we can go to work in earnest on rebuilding the Pac-12,” Barnes said. “That’s certainly our goal. I have been personally in touch with the other schools to ensure that we’re talking and meeting and moving the ball up the field. … Obviously, (Group of 5) options are out there. But that’s not our priority.”
If the four schools stay together, they can evaluate the assets they have — the money set to come in via NCAA Tournament units, the Pac-12 Networks infrastructure, etc. — and see if it’s feasible to rebuild the league via backfilling members before deciding that they would need to go to the Mountain West or the American Athletic Conference. Barnes told The Oregonian on Wednesday that he sees a reconstituted Pac-12 as needing “eight to 10 schools to start with.”
There is a sense of urgency across the board for all four schools, though. They need to set plans for the 2024 football season, and right now they each only have six games on their schedule. They’ve got to get moving on some course of action soon, whether that’s Plan B or a Plan C … or a Plan D. — Nicole Auerbach
Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes on rebuilding the Pac-12: ‘That’s certainly our goal’
2. What’s next for the Big 12?
The moon! No, it appears that after two years of nonstop expansion chatter, the Big 12 is content to settle down with its 16 future members starting in 2024: eight incumbents and eight newcomers.
Conference commissioner Brett Yormark said “we’re done” in terms of further realignment on the “Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast” earlier this week, which includes the Big 12 “no longer” considering Gonzaga and UConn. Any previous interest in those two was clearly focused on basketball, which Yormark believes is undervalued from a media rights perspective, but adding them became unfeasible once the Big 12 pulled off its “dream scenario” of luring the “Four Corners” schools from the Pac-12.
Yormark feels the league has successfully addressed its three “big-picture items” since he took over as commissioner in August 2022: re-upping the media-rights deal with ESPN and Fox (which now runs through 2031), negotiating an early exit for Texas and Oklahoma’s SEC departure and securing additional expansion. All of it, along with some continued uncertainty in the ACC, has positioned the Big 12 to establish itself as the third power conference behind the Big Ten and SEC.
Future ambition and disruption will never be completely off the table as long as Yormark is at the helm, but it seems the Big 12 is finally able to embrace what it has long sought: stability. — Justin Williams
Mandel: Pac-12’s cause of death is about gross failure of leadership
3. How might the 12-team College Football Playoff change in a post-Pac-12 world with four “power” leagues instead of five?
We’ll get more clarity about the 12-team CFP and any potential changes to its format in a couple of weeks, when the commissioners meet in Dallas on Aug. 30. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has already set the stage for the group to revisit some of the previously agreed-upon aspects of the format.
“How many FBS conferences will exist in 30 or 60 days?” Sankey said on “The Paul Finebaum Show” last week. “We do have changed circumstances. Right now we still have 10 FBS conferences. But there’s obviously a great question as to whether that (will) remain. And yeah, that could create the thought in my mind and I think in others about some level of adjustment being made.”
Last year, the presidents who oversee the CFP officially approved the creation of a 12-team bracket, one that would include six automatic spots for the highest-ranked conference champions (in most years, the five Power 5 conference winners plus the best Group of 5 team) and six at-large teams. I expect the commissioners would discuss an adjusted model for a “Power 4” scenario that awards five automatic spots for conference champions plus seven at-larges. Others have begun discussing publicly the idea of 12 at-larges, but there are legal issues as well as questions of overall fairness that could be raised by going too far down that path.
Removing automatic qualifiers would also abandon one of the purported foundational reasons the CFP expanded from four to 12 teams: to increase access for all FBS leagues. Still, the SEC and the Big Ten are bigger than ever and will likely throw their weight around on what they want the new CFP to look like (particularly for the new contract beginning in 2026), and they will certainly want more at-large spots for their top teams.
CFP revenue, which to date has been distributed evenly among Power 5 leagues regardless of participation in the four-team field, is also expected to become an even more contentious issue in the changing landscape. Perhaps the leagues that send and advance the most teams through the postseason should get more money, similar to the way NCAA men’s basketball tournament units work. The size of the conferences will also likely factor into the calculations; if shares remain equal, the 18-team Big Ten would pay out less money to each of its schools than the SEC dividing its share 16 ways and the ACC sharing its money 14 ways. Options to adjust that dynamic will also be explored. — Auerbach
How two commissioners thawed the SEC-Big Ten cold war
4. What are the TV-related deadlines and negotiation windows to watch for the realignment carousel to start back up again?
If the “Pac-12” goes away, the other major conferences’ contracts won’t come up again for some time. The Big Ten’s new deal with Fox, CBS and NBC that begins this year runs through 2030, the Big 12’s with ESPN and Fox runs from 2025 through 2031, the SEC’s with ESPN runs through 2034 and the ACC’s with ESPN runs through 2036.
If the Pac-4 does stay together and expands, it would face a frantic rush to solicit bids and sign a deal for games that begin almost exactly a year from now. The potential money wouldn’t come close to the $25 million-per-school Apple was prepared to guarantee the Pac-12 before it blew up. But depending on which teams the league adds, the number should easily eclipse the Mountain West’s current deal with Fox and CBS, which pays just $4 million per school and runs through 2025-26. In fact, it may be a way for ESPN to retain a West Coast presence on the cheap.
It’s unclear who would lead the negotiations, though. Barnes told John Canzano this week, “(Pac-12 commissioner) George (Kliavkoff) has not been involved in our path forward.”
(Photo: Chris Gardner / Getty Images)