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PROVO — What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, the Big 12 was on its deathbed, ravaged by the defection of its two flagship brands Texas and Oklahoma as they prepared a leap to the SEC and the billionaire-level coffers of wealth that followed. .
Schools collectively called the Remaining Eight or the Eight Left Behind, depending on one’s political beliefs, began rushing for an exit. From Kansas to the Big Ten? Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State at the Pac-12? Everything was on the table.
But all these calls were rebuffed. The Big Ten chose not to expand, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff backed out of Bob Bowlsby’s public negotiations for some form of partnership, and the Pac-12 later formed an “alliance” with the Big Ten and the ACC based on a handshake and a look into each other’s eyes.
It was an alliance of thieves, indeed, after the Big Ten snatched the two biggest brands on the West Coast – namely USC football and UCLA basketball – by inviting the two schools to join the conference in 2024.
“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we enter the new world of collegiate athletics,” said USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn, explaining a decision that will see the Trojans and Bruins play their next closest conference game. 1,496 miles away. “We are excited to have our values align with league member institutions. We will also benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of the Big Ten institutions; the visibility, exposure and increased resources the conference will bring to our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our alumni nationwide.”
A year later, the sands are moving again. This time it may be the Big 12 attacking.
With the Pac-12’s top remaining brands struggling and the conference openly “exploring” expansion candidates, multiple reports expect the Big 12 to go after the Pac-12’s top teams. Schools are required to attend the conferences due to federal tampering regulations, but that semantics could include Oregon and Washington, two Pacific Northwest powers that would still have eyes on the Big Ten.
Beyond that, the Pac-12’s Mountain Time Zone contingent — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — should keep tabs on the Big 12. That’s right, a reunion of Holy War rivals could be back on the table with BYU already joining the Big 12 in 2023 along with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF.
“We’re not sitting still this time,” a Big 12 source told Action Network’s Brett McMurphy. “It has killed us in the past. We are looking to strengthen our conference.”
Yes, another seismic shift in conference realignment is still underway, and this one will complete before the Longhorns and Sooners receive their first assignment to the SEC Network.
But in the current wave, a 16-team mega-Big 12 with the four mountain schools joining BYU, the American trio of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF and the Left Behind Eight would present a package of media rights more attractive than any other, to except the Big Ten, SEC and whatever Oregon and Notre Dame end up doing.
It’s probably too late to fully compete with the Power Two. But the damage mitigation can be done, and ironically, the league best positioned to take advantage of it could be the Big 12 by the time it loses Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC no later than 2025.
In an eat or be eaten college sports landscape, the conference that will fall on the shoulders of new commissioner Brett Yormark as of August 1 holds the keys. Could the league convince Oregon and Washington to rush away from the Pac-12 rubble left in USC’s wake?
Would Utah join their long-time historic rival in the new Big 12? Does anyone in Colorado want to return to the conference they left behind in favor of Pac-12 spoils a decade ago?
Are there still grudges – on both sides – after a proposed merger, whether Pac-16 or the exodus of the Leftover Eight, has all been rejected?
In the immortal words of Michael Scott: “Well, well, how do the turntables.”
By inviting Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah to join the conference, the Big 12 can do what the Alliance couldn’t: end an adversarial conference, or least relegate them to Mountain West.
One of the only other options is to stay in the Pac-12 and see what happens, whether it’s with San Diego State, Boise State, TCU, Gonzaga or any other school? At this point, why not add Fresno State, Utah State, and Colorado State as candidates?
Eliminate all preconceived ideas; USC and UCLA took them to Big Ten country. Other schools will likely follow — and that’s before the SEC finds a way to catch up with the 16-team super conference.
As the Pac-12 negotiates a new media rights deal, the conference has never been weaker in its 108-year history. The Big 12 didn’t thrust the sword into the league’s collective chest, but they were able to drive the blade a little deeper, while offering a hand of friendship and camaraderie to the schools that best meet its interest.
“I think the Big 12 hold the cards,” an industry source told The Athletic.
Added another to Texas-based reporter Sam Khan Jr: “If you’re in Arizona, Colorado and Utah, you’re looking towards (the Big 12) right now.”
The options are limited and the stakes are high. Pick the wrong one, and the Utes’ decade-long rise out of the five-man era — one that erupted last year with a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl berth — may come back down the hill like the personal Iliad of Sysiphus.
If the Big Ten is looking to expand again, it could continue to look to the Pac-12. They can tap into the Big 12.
Perhaps Notre Dame is the Big Ten’s next target — or even Hawaii. Is Kevin Durant joining the ACC? At this point, nothing is on the table.
The only guaranteed constant is change.