When the dust settles due to the latest seismic shift in college athletics, Utah and BYU just might end up, once again, in the same conference.
That’s one of the many scenarios that could play out, or at least became a realistic possibility, after Thursday’s stunning realignment news that longtime Pac-12 members USC and UCLA are poised to join the Big Ten by 2024 — dramatically altering the college sports landscape.
Former Utah quarterback Scott Mitchell played for the Utes back in the Western Athletic Conference days in the 1980s. He’s enjoyed watching Utah’s rise from relative obscurity to the Power Five, and to one of college football’s biggest stages in the Rose Bowl last January.
But now, suddenly, the future is uncertain.
“If you look at what everyone says, that the relevance of the Pac-12 kind of hinges on USC,” said Mitchell, “and you see USC being down the past couple of years, and the perception of the conference has been down, and with them leaving — just take UCLA out of the picture — in my opinion, it just kills the conference. I’ve got to think the Pac-12 is dead. USC and UCLA just gave a big thumb-your-nose to a lot of longstanding tradition in the Pac-12. They just killed it.”
Just how does this monumental move by USC and UCLA impact the University of Utah, which finally earned Power Five status by joining the Pac-12 in 2011?
Do the Utes, fresh off their first Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance, remain in the league they worked so hard to join? Or do they start searching for a new home?
University of Utah president Taylor Randall and athletic director Mark Harlan issued a joint statement regarding Thursday’s news:
“This is a significant development that impacts each Pac-12 member institution and alters the landscape of intercollegiate athletics. At the University of Utah, we are very confident in the strength and trajectory of our institution and our athletics programs, coming off another elite year of academic performance, a Pac-12 championship season in football and our most successful year, collectively, across all of our sports since joining the conference in 2011. We have been in frequent communication with one another since this information came to light, and we will continue to stay in close communication with conference leadership and our fellow conference members as developments unfold.”
The Pac-12 had eight members until 1978, when it added Arizona and Arizona State to become the Pac-10. Then in 2011, Utah and Colorado joined the league, bringing the number of programs in the conference to 12.
As it stands, the league will have just 10 programs again in 2024. Could the league expand? Merge with another Power Five league? Or could other Pac-12 schools, like Oregon, Washington and Stanford, jump ship as well?
What options do the Utes have right now?
“I’d be really concerned if I was Utah,” Mitchell said. “It’s kind of every man for himself. That’s what college football has become. You have to proactively say, ‘We need to find the best available option.’ And I don’t think it’s staying in the Pac-12. I think you look to go to the Big Ten or the Big 12. It feels like this is all moving to bigger conferences with divisions, expanded playoffs. Kind of a knockoff model of the NFL. This is no longer amateur football. With NIL, transfer portal and all of these realignments in these conferences that are a result of money, college football tradition is dead, I think.”
Due to its performance in football, Utah has put itself in a strong position as the college football landscape transforms again.
“The question is, how much has Utah done in the last few years to make it significant and relevant?” Mitchell said. “Utah’s made itself about as relevant as it possibly could. A part of me was like, ‘Utah, make hay right now because USC’s going to get really good the next few years.’ Then today, they’re gone. Utah has a big chance to be a big part of the conference. But does Utah want to be a big fish in a retention pond? Or do you want to be a mid-size fish in a big ocean?”
There is speculation that this move by USC and UCLA is more evidence that college football is destined to create superconferences. And instead of a Power Five, there could end up being a Power 2 — the Big Ten and the SEC.
“If these conferences are expanding to 20 teams, then maybe you get four conferences with 20 teams,” Mitchell said.
“I’ve got to think the Pac-12 is dead. USC and UCLA just gave a big thumb-your-nose to a lot of longstanding tradition in the Pac-12. They just killed it.” — former Utah quarterback Scott Mitchell
The addition of USC and UCLA gives the Big Ten 16 members. The SEC will grow to 16 teams when Texas and Oklahoma join in a couple of years.
But the Big Ten and SEC may not stop there, and could expand to 20 teams. The Big Ten could poach the Pac-12 again.
Certainly, the departure of USC and UCLA seriously diminishes the Pac-12’s media rights deal. The Big Ten is currently negotiating a media rights deal that would be lucrative with the conference as it is presently constituted. Adding the two schools from Los Angeles will make it even more lucrative.
And USC and UCLA would earn considerably more money as part of the Big Ten.
“The additions of USC and UCLA would assuredly add to the Big Ten’s stature, and probably its television ratings, too. The two Los Angeles schools have been the anchors of the Pac-12 in its various forms over the decades, with long histories of attracting attention for athletic excellence,” wrote the New York Times. “USC has long been the marquee college football franchise on the West Coast with its lengthy list of national championship teams, Heisman Trophy winners and its distinctive white horse, Traveler, carrying a Trojan mascot up and down the sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Across town in Westwood, UCLA projects a similar standing in men’s basketball, with the Bruins playing under 11 national championship banners at Pauley Pavilion and boasting a rich catalog of alums who have starred in the NBA.”
The Los Angeles Times explained the decision by USC and UCLA this way: “With the Big Ten and Southeastern Conferences lapping the Pac-12 in revenue and football success during the past decade, USC in recent years has been continuously evaluating its options for future conference alignment, even considering joining rival Notre Dame as an independent. Texas’ and Oklahoma’s move from the Big 12 to the SEC in July 2021 made it clear momentous changes were already afoot and accelerated the Trojans’ push to secure themselves a seat at the leadership table for whatever is to come during a tumultuous time in college athletics.”
Could the Pac-12, like the Big 12 a year ago, add teams to its ranks to offset, at least in number, the loss of USC and UCLA?
One problem is there aren’t any marquee programs available. Some might point to Notre Dame, a football independent, but the Fighting Irish have a deal in place with the Atlantic Coast Conference for non-football sports. Besides, why would Notre Dame want to play a bunch of games on the West Coast when it traditionally plays teams from the Big Ten?
This leaves the Pac-12 in a precarious position.
“The Pac-12 … was clearly blindsided by two of its premier universities opting to leave together. As the conference began to swallow this bitter pill, it also was wrapped up in damage control,” according to The Athletic. “Analysts employed by the Pac-12 Network were pulled off scheduled local radio stations in light of the stunning news. The conference has been adrift compared to its Power Five colleagues for a while now. The subpar results on the field and the lackluster media rights deals that hamstrung the Pac-12 for a decade are now bearing out a new reality: learning to exist without its prized crown jewel.”
And what happens to the Rose Bowl, the “Granddaddy of Them All”? USC has played in numerous Rose Bowls over the years. UCLA plays in the Rose Bowl Stadium itself.
“Is the Rose Bowl going to say, ‘See ya later, Pac-12’ and realign with an SEC school?” Mitchell said. “I don’t know.”
The Pac-12, which hasn’t sent a team to the College Football Playoff since 2016, issued a statement Thursday evening.
“While we are extremely surprised and disappointed by the news coming out of UCLA and USC today, we have a long and storied history in athletics, academics, and leadership in supporting student-athletes that we’re confident will continue to thrive and grow into the future. The Pac-12 is home to many of the world’s best universities, athletic programs and alumni, representing one of the most dynamic regions in the United States. We’ve long been known as the Conference of Champions, and we’re unwavering in our commitment to extend that title. We will continue to develop new and innovative programs that directly benefit our member institutions, and we look forward to partnering with current and potential members to pioneer the future of college athletics together.”
Mitchell said that USC could reassert its position as a traditional college football power by joining the Big Ten.
“The top place to recruit athletes is Southern California, and California in general. If you’re USC and you’re in the Big Ten and you’re going to play Michigan and Ohio State, and playing where everyone can see you, all the top recruits are going to go through USC now. Recruits want relevance and exposure. You’re going to get as big exposure in the Big Ten as you possibly could if you’re USC. You have homegrown kids that want to stay and play at USC and also be relevant in college football.”
Last August, not long after Texas and Oklahoma announced they would be leaving the Big 12, new Pac-12 commissioner George Klaivkoff formed an alliance with the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference, which included a scheduling component between the three conferences. There was an agreement that the conferences wouldn’t poach each other.
So much for that alliance.
After the announced departure of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 to the SEC last summer, many presumed that was was the end of the Big 12. Instead, it expanded, opening the door for BYU to leave independence and join the Big 12.
BYU, Houston, Central Florida and Cincinnati are set to become members of the Big 12 in 2023.
Now, the Big 12 could reach out to Utah, and other Pac-12 schools. In the end, Utah and BYU could be reunited — in the Big 12.
Or could the Utes remain in a revamped Pac-12. Or join another power conference.
With so much uncertainty looming, the future appears to be wide open.