College football is a mess and it just became messier.
Already reeling with the circus free-for-all caused by the NIL rule and the transfer portal and conference realignment, the sport experienced another tectonic shift: UCLA and USC are leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, its historical Rose Bowl opponent.
This would have been unthinkable a few years ago — akin to the Yankees leaving New York — but not anymore.
College football is in a state of upheaval.
UCLA and USC are the Pac-12. They’re the conference’s brand, even though they haven’t done much to earn it lately.
UCLA boasts 11 national basketball championships, and USC has 11 national football championships and six Heisman Trophy winners (strangely, each has a national presence in only one of the two marquee sports).
The defection of UCLA and USC comes a year after Texas and Oklahoma — the brand names of the Big 12 Conference — left the league to join the SEC.
It’s a ruthless battle out there. A turf war. A hostile takeover. Nobody’s messing around or playing nice.
The SEC has grown to 16 teams, and now the Big Ten has retaliated by adding its 15th and 16th teams.
Both leagues pursued the heart and soul of another conference, without apology. USC joined the Pac-12 100 years ago and UCLA 94 years ago, and as of August 2024, they will be gone.
College football makes no pretense about it; the schools are billion-dollar football businesses, and they are fighting for market share in the ever-changing business.
The departure of those schools is shocking, but it shouldn’t be. The Pac-12 has been falling behind for some time and it’s costing the big schools a lot of money.
As the L.A. Times noted, “The Pac-12 has lagged behind other major conferences for years in media rights revenue, distributing $344 million among its schools in the 2021 fiscal year. In the same year, the Big Ten handed out $680 million.”
The Pac 12 fell behind under the watch of overpaid, free-spending Larry Scott, who was ousted 18 months ago.
The Pac-12 suffers from mediocrity on the field (it’s been six years since a league school qualified for the College Football Playoff), a failed TV network and the inherent disadvantages it faces in the Pacific time zone.
The league has become irrelevant.
The Pac-12 is a Power Five school in name only. After all the dust settles, the Power Five will be the Power Two – the SEC and the Big Ten.
The Pac-12’s situation could get worse. Washington and Oregon, the Pac 12’s biggest remaining name schools, could end up in the Big Ten.
Will Colorado and Stanford look elsewhere as well? The Pac-12 ship is taking on water, and the rats are trying to jump over the side.
Somehow, the new Pac-12 leadership missed all the signs that all of the above could lead to defection.
Early in June, new Pac 12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told The Oregonian that he was “absolutely not” concerned about the Big Ten luring away some of its member schools.
Addressing the move to the Big Ten, USC athletic director Mike Bohn released this statement:
“This is the most volatile and uncertain era in the history of American collegiate athletics. USC must ensure it is best positioned and prepared for whatever happens next, and it is our responsibility to always evaluate potential opportunities and be willing to make changes when needed.
“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports.”
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond wrote in a statement, “College athletics is changing, and UCLA has always led in times of change. For the sake of our student-athletes, and for preserving the legacy of Bruin excellence, we cannot afford to stand still.”
The defections of Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC pose a lot of questions. Where is all this upheaval leading? What’s to stop the SEC and Big Ten from breaking away and forming their own league – like the NFL’s American Conference and National Conference?
They even have the same number of teams as the NFL. Where would that leave teams from the other conferences? In an entirely different organization?
The Pac-12 says it will try to expand, but where? Boise State and San Diego State will be at the top of the list.
After Texas and Oklahoma bolted, the Big 12 signed up BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston, a collection of schools that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
Does the smug Pac-12 regret not taking BYU, whom it turned down cold? The Cougars, meanwhile, have outshined USC and UCLA on the field.
Does Utah really want to be a part of a Pac-12 without USC and UCLA, especially since it is clear Oregon and Washington want out?
How quickly things can change. Now BYU, after wandering in the wilderness of independence for more than a decade and getting rejected by conferences at every turn, is going to belong to a better conference than Utah.
Nothing stays the same for very long as college football undergoes a major reset and tries to find its footing.