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The Decline of Pac-12 Football: Realignment and the Erosion of College Football's Middle Class

The sport’s two biggest conferences continue to get larger, leaving many to wonder what will happen to the other Power 5 conferences as the Pac-12 continues toward extinction

There was a brief period of time, when some of the best college football being played was on the West Coast. In the decade of the 2000s USC was dominant winning 4 Rose Bowls and 2 national championships under Pete Carroll, Oregon enjoyed multiple 10-win seasons under Mike Belotti and Chip Kelly, and even Boise State was dominating in the WAC with multiple 10-win seasons and a shocking upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. For a while it seemed that the Pac-12 was a viable competitor to the inevitable dominance of the SEC.

But as soon as it arrived it seems that the magic has left. Recently, Colorado announced that they will be moving back to the Big 12 in 2024. The move may seem like a relatively pedestrian story since the Buffaloes have been at the bottom of the conference for years. However, the fans in Boulder finally have something to cheer for with the arrival of new head coach Deion Sanders and a strong recruiting class due to his presence. Shortly after, the conference also seems to be on the verge of losing Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. Losing these schools at this juncture is a major blow, on top of the already huge losses of UCLA and USC departing for the Big Ten. All of this movement leaves us to wonder, have we seen the last of the Pac-12?

The Casualty of Realignment

The reality of college football today is that there are only two conferences that matter in terms of mindshare and money: the Big Ten and SEC. With the additions of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC on the horizon and UCLA and USC to the Big Ten, the two conferences are currently engaged in an arms race to form super conferences.

For the Big Ten, USC and UCLA provide a pivotal west coast media footprint in the massive Los Angeles market. The conference has already shown a desire for a national presence when it brought Rutgers and Maryland into the fold in 2014, bringing the conference to the east coast. The addition of the two most prominent college football brands in California further solidifies the Big Ten as a national power and that the conference is serious about overtaking the SEC as the best conference in the nation.

The SEC, meanwhile, has also added their high-value programs in Texas and Oklahoma, bolstering its foothold in the college football obsessed South Central region. These two prolific schools will join other iconic programs like Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Georgia to create a juggernaut of name brands that will be prominently featured on national telecasts. It truly feels that there is an arms race when it comes to creating these super conferences, and it is coming at the expense of the other Power 5 conferences.

The Big 12 has approached this dynamic by adding teams to make up for its losses of Texas and Oklahoma. This year they are adding Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, and UCF to the fold. Houston reinforces their presence in the state of Texas with the exit of the Longhorns, while the other three schools extend the geographic footprint of the conference to be a viable option for future TV deals. All four of these schools have experienced decent levels of success as well, so it comes off a little better on paper than when the Big 10 added Rutgers. The ACC and Pac-12 meanwhile are currently under siege. The big players in the conferences (Washington and Oregon in the Pac-12; Florida State, Clemson, and Miami in the ACC) are looking at their options with a growing sense that these three conferences are facing the inevitable and will fold beneath the might of the Big 10 and SEC.

The Path Forward

When it comes to the Pac-12 specifically, is there a viable path forward? There are some attractive west coast schools that the conference could add such as Fresno State, San Diego State, UNLV, and Boise State if the conference wanted to emulate the path set forward by the Big 12. But despite their varying success in basketball and football, they are simply not USC and UCLA. If the conference wants to expand further out, it could target schools that the other conferences have yet to approach such as UT-San Antonio, Western Kentucky, and Coastal Carolina.

The situation becomes even more tenuous as the Pac-12 has yet to finalize a new media deal, leaving the schools that have remained unsure of their futures and likely to grow more and more dissatisfied with their current situation. Oregon and Washington specifically, are two schools with championship aspirations, likely feeling miffed that they will be playing in what feels like a conference in its final days. The path seems to be that these schools will leave and the Pac-12 will dissolve. With the Big Ten aggressively targeting Washington and Oregon and the Big 12 going after Arizona, the days of the Pac-12 seem to be numbered. The question then becomes if this is good for the game and the business of college football.

In a way, college football is beginning to mirror the economic realities of the United States. There is an erosion of college football’s middle class that has been happening for many years. The end game and path that we are on currently seems to be centered on two mega conferences that get all the air time on ESPN and FOX Sports 1 with more regional lower level competition like Conference USA and the Sun Belt occupying the other part of this equation. We should not be surprised to see lower-level Pac-12 schools like Washington State and Oregon State settle into one of these conferences such as the Mountain West. The middle ground of a Pac-12 or ACC team going on a run and shocking the world appears to be over.

It really should not be that much of a surprise now that this is the path that we are on with this sport, when one considers the advent of name image and likeness rules (NIL). While we cannot fault any athlete for going to the highest bidder in college football (it is too dangerous of a sport to be playing for free at a high level), it has created a vacuum where the schools with the most money can overspend and get the nation's best players, which leads to the best TV contracts and the most money for the top schools. The imminent collapse of the Pac-12 is, if nothing else, a sign of the times. A domino that will fall on the way to the widespread realization of an unavoidable fact: college football is a semi-pro sport now and only the biggest brands will dominate the landscape. And those brands are named Big 10 and SEC.

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