College sports realignment appeared to be in a place of stability after the expansion activity of the early 2010s ended with the five major conferences intact.
There would be peace and harmony across the land. For less than 10 years.
Last summer, news broke that Oklahoma and Texas would be departing the Big 12 for the SEC, drastically altering the conference landscape and throwing a wrench into the seemingly settled College Football Playoff expansion.
There was predictably a ripple effect. The Big 12 grabbed teams from the American Athletic and also Brigham Young. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 created an alliance to address the worries of the SEC becoming too big to fail. That alliance lasted all of 10 months before the Big Ten poached two of the Pac-12 landmark schools – Southern California and UCLA – last week.
Now chaos rules with the era of the Power Five greatly in doubt.
How this all winds up is anybody’s guess. But one thing is certain: There’s more change to come and money and fear of being left out will drive the decisions by both conferences and schools.
Here’s a look at where things stand now and an analysis of the biggest questions about where they could be headed.
Why did USC and UCLA head east?
The decision by two Los Angeles schools to leave a conference they have been associated with for almost 100 years for a league where there are no schools in the neighboring time zone and will feature road games in November with the likes of Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin tells you – if you didn’t know already – how much money is driving college athletics.
The fact that it is the Big Ten raiding the Pac-12 is even more illuminating. The leagues have been sending its champions to play in the Rose Bowl for more than 60 years with modification for the playoff era. The value of playing in Pasadena on New Year’s Day has been huge for the Trojans and Bruins. Now they’ll have to do it as a member of the Big Ten.
How might the Big Ten divisions work?
The league will reach 16 teams when it adds Southern California and UCLA before the 2024 season. Stretching from New York to Los Angeles, it does seem an unwieldy setup. A split of East and West divisions helps mitigate those concerns for football.
The simplest move would put USC and UCLA with Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern. Purdue would move to the East with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland. Or they could balance the divisions or eliminate entirely.
It’s hard to see the league staying pat at 16 as it tries to extend its reach. Adding other Pac-12 schools – namely Oregon and Washington – would reduce some of the geographic issues and build football strength, but that might not add enough value. There’s an obvious solution for one addition in its backyard, however.
What will happen to Notre Dame?
Football independence has benefited the Fighting Irish for more than a century. Even haters would admit Notre Dame retains a unique position in the sport and recent success has shown it can thrive on its own. Its own television contract and scheduling flexibility have been assets. The time where it can go alone, however, may soon be winding down.
The Big Ten is an obvious landing space should the school decide it needs the stability of a league to secure its future for the next century. Along with the cash, there are geographic benefits and a multitude of natural rivals that would suit both sides. However, the history between the two sides has been frosty going back to the early quarter of the 1900s when Notre Dame tried multiple times to join the league and the last decade of the century when the Big Ten attempted and failed to lure the school.
How does the ACC figure in?
Complicating the move to the Big Ten is also the matter of Notre Dame being a member in the ACC for all other sports. The agreement between the two requires the Fighting Irish to play football in the ACC if they join a conference before the league’s grant of rights expires in the summer of 2036. It’ll take money to get out of that deal. That’s not really a concern for either the Big Ten or Notre Dame given how much value each brings to the other. It would be a major coup for the conference and arguably put it with or above the SEC in terms of financial might.
Will the Pac-12 dissolve?
Having lost two of its landmark institutions in its biggest media market has put the Pac-12 in a precarious position. Down to 10 schools with two each in Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington plus Utah and Colorado, the league must balance how to address its coming television rights negotiations with its current deal expiring in 2024 with the possibility of expanding and having its biggest members seek to find a secure landing spot in the current uncertainty.
The Mountain West would be an obvious place to look in order to replace two teams. San Diego State, Boise State, UNLV or even Colorado State would provide some balance of football and market improvement.
The other possible spot for additions would be the Big 12. Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU could be attractive. The bigger question may be whether the Pac-12 is attractive to those schools.
Big 12 making its move?
The smallest of the Power Five leagues had been content to stay at 10 teams until the defection of Oklahoma and Texas because it didn’t want to split its financial pie with incoming schools that didn’t do enough to increase its value.
With its coming departures, Commissioner Bob Bowlsby set to step down later this year and Houston, Central Florida, Cincinnati and BYU set to join the league next summer, that conservative approach no longer remains. One aggressive action would be to seek out interested parties from the Pac-12, which now is in the weakest position of the Power Five.
Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Big Ten expansion forces Pac-12, Big 12, and ACC to consider options