Any suitors? A look at some of Utah's options after latest conference realignment



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Had a chance to breathe yet?

The very foundation of college football was shook Thursday as UCLA and USC accepted a bid to the Big Ten β€” shout out to Jon Wilner for the biggest scoop in college football. The ramifications of such a move are just beginning, but there's one thing that 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 SEC took a major step forward over the last year to solidify its standing in the sport as the leaders in football β€” not all that surprising. Both leagues stand at 16 teams, but there's reason to believe each could expand to 20, according to some reports.

Regardless of the final number (will there be a final number?), the landscape of college football will forever be altered as two mainstays of the West looked for a better suitor (read money).

The immediate fallout remains with the Pac-12 β€” we back to saying Pac-10 again? β€” where the very existence of the league is in question with its largest market and most marketable brands leaving the conference high and dry. For a conference that has been fighting off criticism that it's 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 β€” and it's probably right, save some Hail Mary miracle from Commissioner George Kliavkoff and the remaining 10 teams in the conference. The Pac-12's official statement from Thursday doesn't instill confidence, though.

"We've long been known as the Conference of Champions, and we're unwavering in our commitment to extend that title," the statement read, in part. "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."

But as the conference released its less-than-motivating statement, other reports have several of the remaining Pac-12 schools looking for inclusion in the Big Ten. An official list of schools petitioning the Big Ten has not been made public, but any school looking to better their situation is likely included (read that how you may).

In a joint statement by Athletic Director Mark Harlan and President Taylor Randall, Utah said it has been in "frequent communication" about the situation and will "continue to stay in close communication with conference leadership and our fellow conference members as developments unfold."

There's no doubt Harlan and Randall will look to move Utah into the best position possible for its program β€” quite honestly, their jobs depend on it. And while it's unknown how many options Utah has at its disposal, here's a look at a few possible scenarios.

Stay put in the Pac-12

Unless the conference folds, which is still very likely, there's no reason to immediately jump ship. But it's not time to pop the life rafts and settle in for a conference that lifted Utah to the Power Five level. There's still real problems ahead for the conference, especially if schools like Oregon and Washington look for greener pastures β€” I guarantee they are.

To put it frankly, Utah is not in a position to dictate its future on its own. Sure, there's a chance Utah could orchestrate its own deal, but the university would likely be paired with another program in a deal, at the very least. Oregon (hello Nike) and Washington (hello Seattle) have the better bargaining power, and the conference staying together likely starts there.

If Kliavkoff can stave off any more defectors, there's hope for a salvaged conference. But the options moving forward aren't great. With talks expected to begin this year to explore new media rights, a weakened conference with only 10 member institutions will not be that attractive to ESPN or FOX (at least to the extent that benefits the conference long term).

So the conference needs to expand, right? Probably, but what programs really raise the profile of the new Pac-12? The conference could bring in San Diego State, Fresno State, Boise State, SMU, Memphis, etc., but none really make up the difference that was left when the two LA school left. And is that an attractive conference for the remaining programs?

This is certainly a viable option for Utah, but it has many flaws and concerns β€” to say nothing of a growing disparity in the sport.

Petition the Big Ten (or SEC) for inclusion

This is a no-brainer next step. Utah has to shoot its shot to the two 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, though still unlikely.

The Big Ten loves to tout its academics and Association of American Universities inclusion, which Utah recently was included in last year, but there's more at stake to join the Big Ten.

Utah as a state is a burgeoning market and continues to grow, especially in the tech sector, but can it rival some of the biggest markets in the country β€” LA, New York, Chicago, etc.? Wilner tweeted Thursday that any new members to the conference "would have to be seen as revenue additive by Fox and the 16 members. Very high bar."

Does Utah cross that bar? Likely, no. Oregon is likely the best option left in the Pac-12 to clear that bar, but that's not a guarantee either.

Should Utah find itself welcomed into the Big Ten, life remains good and there's nothing to worry about β€” well, outside of being in a much tougher conference and being in a continual fight to recruit against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan. Inclusion will not 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?

It's been more than a decade since BYU and Utah have been in the same conference, but the rivalry remains alive. Do the two universities want to be conference partners again? I can hear a collective sigh from both fan bases just thinking about it.

The Big 12 β€” which actually came out of the conference realignment period in a better position after Thursday β€” is likely Utah's best option to move forward, especially if Oregon and Washington (and others) join with them. The Big 12 could easily add Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah and give it 16 schools to try to compete against the other super conferences.

It lacks the big names like the Big Ten and SEC, but it would be better positioned to combat the growing chasm in the sport. Additionally, the competition would be less strenuous for Utah than the Big Ten. That's not to say Utah would instantly dominate the Big 12 β€” at least Baylor and Oklahoma State, among others, would like a word β€” but it's an easier draw than the Big Ten.

Let's get crazy ...

OK, so the options above aren't attractive or not available. Or maybe they are but this option seems better (and obviously more fun). To combat the two super conferences, a third conference needs to rise up to combat the Big Ten and SEC.

How? Take the best 16-20 teams left from the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to form a third super conference. Since geography is now out the window in collegiate sports, let's get wild. Tell me a conference with this iteration couldn't be fun and competitive (for football and basketball):

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

There's a lot of ways to draw up a third super conference. I could make cases for switching some in and out, but it's a start. For irony sake, the conference can be called the Alliance ... because why not?

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

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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