Suitors? A look at some of Utah’s options after the conference’s latest realignment

Estimated reading time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – Have you ever had a chance to breathe?

The very foundation of college football was shaken on Thursday as UCLA and USC accepted an offer for the Big Ten – kudos to Jon Wilner for the biggest scoop in college football. The ramifications of such a movement are only beginning, but one thing remains certain: Welcome to a two-conference sport.

Sure, there are other conferences out there (some in better shape than others right now), but the Big Ten and the SEC have taken a big step forward in the past year to solidify their position in the sport as leaders in football – not all that surprising. Both leagues have 16 teams, but there is reason to believe each could grow to 20, according to some reports.

Whatever the final number (will there be a final number?), the landscape of college football will be forever changed as two Western stalwarts searched for a better suitor (read the money).

The immediate fallout remains with the Pac-12 – we go back to saying Pac-10 again? — where the league’s very existence is in question with its biggest market and most marketable brands leaving the conference high and dry. For a conference that has battled criticism that it is the weakest of the Power Five conferences, Thursday’s news did little to calm the rhetoric.

If anything, the narrative is that the Pac-12 is dead in the water — and that’s probably true, barring a miracle Hail Mary from commissioner George Kliavkoff and the 10 remaining teams in the conference. Thursday’s Pac-12 official statement doesn’t inspire confidence, however.

“We have long been known as the Conference of Champions, and we are unwavering in our commitment to extending that title,” the statement read in part. “We will continue to develop innovative new programs that directly benefit our member institutions, and we look forward to partnering with current and potential members to create the future of college athletics together.”

But as the conference issued its unmotivating statement, other reports have several of the remaining Pac-12 schools seeking inclusion in the Big Ten. An official list of schools petitioning the Big Ten has not been made public, but any school seeking to improve their situation is likely included (read that as you can).

In a joint statement by athletic director Mark Harlan and president Taylor Randall, Utah, said he has been in “frequent communication” about the situation and will “continue to stay in close communication with conference leaders and our fellow members of the conference as developments unfold”.

There’s no doubt that Harlan and Randall will look to put Utah in the best possible position for their program – quite frankly, their job depends on it. And while it’s unclear how many options Utah has at its disposal, here’s a look at some possible scenarios.

Stay in the Pac-12

Unless the conference folds, which is still very likely, there is no reason to jump ship immediately. But now is not the time to jump the life rafts and settle for a conference that lifted Utah to the Power Five level. There are still real issues ahead for the conference, especially if schools like Oregon and Washington seek greener pastures — I guarantee they are.

To put it bluntly, Utah is not in a position to dictate its future on its own. Of course, there’s a chance that Utah could orchestrate its own deal, but the university would likely be partnered with another program in a deal, at the very least. Oregon (hello Nike) and Washington (hello Seattle) have the best bargaining power, and the conference that stays together probably starts there.

If Kliavkoff can ward off other defectors, there is hope for a saved conference. But the options for moving forward aren’t great. With talks set to begin this year to explore new media rights, a weakened conference with just 10 member institutions won’t be so attractive to ESPN or FOX (at least to the extent that it benefits the conference in the long run).

So the conference has to expand, right? Probably, but what programs really boost awareness of the new Pac-12? The conference could bring together San Diego State, Fresno State, Boise State, SMU, Memphis, etc., but neither really makes up for the difference that was left when the two LA schools left. And is it an attractive conference for the remaining programs?

It’s certainly a viable option for Utah, but it has many flaws and concerns, not to mention a growing disparity in the sport.

Petitioning the Big Ten (or SEC) for inclusion

This is a hassle-free next step. Utah must take its shot at both super conferences and present itself as worthy of inclusion in the exclusive ranks of the Big Ten or SEC. The SEC is the least likely, but I guess nothing is impossible. The Big Ten is Utah’s best option, although still unlikely.

The Big Ten likes to brag about its academics and the inclusion of the Association of American Universities, which Utah was recently included in last year, but there’s more at stake to joining the Big Ten.

Utah as a state is a booming market and continues to grow, especially in the tech sector, but can it compete with some of the biggest markets in the country – LA, New York, Chicago, etc. . ? Wilner tweeted Thursday that any new members at the conference “should be considered an addendum to revenue by Fox and the 16 members. The bar is set very high.”

Does Utah cross that bar? Probably not. Oregon is probably the best option left in the Pac-12 to break that bar, but that’s no guarantee either.

If Utah finds itself welcomed into the Big Ten, life is still good and there’s nothing to worry about – well, other than being in a much tougher conference and being in a continual recruiting struggle against the likes of Utah. ‘Ohio State and Michigan. Inclusion won’t immediately mean success like in the Pac-12, so be careful what you wish for.

So… BYU, do you want to be in the same conference again?

BYU and Utah have been in the same conference for over a decade, but the rivalry remains alive. Do the two universities want to be conference partners again? I can hear a collective sigh from both fanbases just thinking about it.

The Big 12 — which actually emerged from the conference realignment period in a better position after Thursday — is probably Utah’s best option going forward, especially if Oregon and Washington (and d others) join them. The Big 12 could easily add Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah and give it 16 schools to try to compete with the other super conferences.

He misses the big names like the Big Ten and the SEC, but he would be in a better position to fight the growing chasm in the sport. In addition, the competition would be less intense for Utah than for the Big Ten. That’s not to say Utah would instantly dominate the Big 12 — at least Baylor and Oklahoma State, among others, would love a word — but it’s an easier draw than the Big Ten.

Let’s go crazy…

OK, so the above options are not attractive or not available. Or maybe they are, but that option seems better (and obviously more fun). To fight the two super conferences, a third conference must rise to fight the Big Ten and the SEC.

How? Take the top 16-20 remaining teams from the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 to form a third super conference. Since geography is now out the window in college sports, let’s go wild. Tell me that a conference with this iteration could not be fun and competitive (for football and basketball):

  • ACC: Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
  • India: Notre Dame
  • Big 12: Baylor, BYU, Cincinnati, Kansas, Oklahoma State, TCU
  • Pac-12: Arizona, California, Oregon, Stanford, Utah, Washington

There are many ways to build a third great conference. I could make cases to change some of them, but it’s a start. Ironically, the conference can be called the Alliance…because why not?

Or there is still hope for a European-style approach to college football. Sure, relegation will really hurt, but once you’re in and competitive, life is good inside (and so is the money).

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Josh is the athletic director of and editor of athletics at the University of Utah – primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press top 25 voter for college football.

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