After Big Ten defections, does Utah's best option lie in reunion with BYU in Big 12?

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PROVO — What a difference a year makes.

One year ago, the Big 12 was on its reported deathbed, savaged by the defection of its two marquee brands Texas and Oklahoma as they primed a jump to the SEC and the coffers of billionaire-level wealth that followed.

The schools collectively referred to as the Remaining Eight or Left Behind Eight, depending on one's political persuasion, began scrambling for an offramp. Kansas to the Big Ten? Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State to the Pac-12? It was all on the table.

But all of those calls were rebuffed. The Big Ten opted not to expand, Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff opted out of Bob Bowlsby's public bargaining for some form of partnership, and the Pac-12 then formed an "Alliance" with the Big Ten and ACC founded on a handshake and a look in each other's eye.

It was an Alliance among thieves, indeed, after the Big Ten plucked the West Coast's two biggest brands — 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 move into the new world of collegiate sports," USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in explaining a move that will see the Trojans and Bruins play their nearest other conference game 1,496 miles away. "We are excited that our values align with the league's member institutions. We also will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide."

One year later and the sands are shifting again. This time, the Big 12 may be the one on the attack.

With the Pac-12's top remaining brands in a lurch 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 reach out to conferences due to federal tampering regulations, but those semantics could include Oregon and Washington, two Pacific Northwest powers that still reportedly have eyes toward the Big Ten.

Beyond that, the Pac-12's mountain time zone contingent — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — should keep an eye on the Big 12. That's right, a reunion of Holy War rivals may be back on the table with BYU already joining the Big 12 in 2023 with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF.

"We're not sitting back this time," one Big 12 source told Action Network's Brett McMurphy. "That killed us in the past. We're looking to strengthen our conference."

Yes, another seismic shift in conference realignment is still ongoing, and this one will finish before the Longhorns and Sooners receive their first SEC Network assignment.

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 media rights package more attractive than any, save for the Big Ten, SEC and whatever Oregon and Notre Dame wind up doing.

It's likely too late to fully compete with the Power Two. But damage mitigation can be done, and ironically, the league in the best position to profit may be the Big 12 by the time it loses Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC no later than 2025.

In a college sports landscape of eat-or-be-eaten, the conference that will fall on new commissioner Brett Yormark's shoulders as soon as Aug. 1 holds the keys. Could the league convince Oregon and Washington to scurry away from the Pac-12 rubble left in USC's wake?

Would Utah want to rejoin its longtime historic archrival in the new Big 12? Does anyone at Colorado want to go back to the conference it left behind in favor of Pac-12 spoils a decade ago?

Are there still hard feelings — from either side — after a proposed merger, be it Pac-16 or Leftover Eight exodus, were all turned aside?

In the immortal words of Michael Scott: "Well, well, well, how the turn tables."

BYU president Kevin Worthen, right, speaks about athletic director Tom Holmoe, left, during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference at BYU in Provo on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.
BYU president Kevin Worthen, right, speaks about athletic director Tom Holmoe, left, during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference at BYU in Provo on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

By inviting Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah to join the conference, the Big 12 can do what the Alliance could not: all-but finish off an adversarial conference, or at least relegate them to the Mountain West.

One of the only other options are staying in the Pac-12 to see what it becomes, be it with San Diego State, Boise State, TCU, Gonzaga or any other schools? At this point, why not throw Fresno State, Utah State and Colorado State into the mix as candidates?

Eliminate any preconceived notions; USC and UCLA took them to Big Ten country. Other schools are likely to follow — and that's before the SEC finds a way to catch up to the 16-team super conference.

With the Pac-12 in the middle of negotiating a new media rights agreement, the conference has never been weaker in its 108-year history. The Big 12 didn't push the sword into the league's collective chest, but they could drive the blade a little bit deeper, while all the while offering a hand of friendship and fellowship to the schools that best meet its interest.

"I think the Big 12 holds the cards," one industry source told The Athletic.

Added another to Texas-based reporter Sam Khan Jr: "If you're Arizona, Colorado and Utah, you're looking toward (the Big 12) right now."

The options are limited and the stakes are high. Choose poorly, and the Utes' decade-long climb out of the Group of Five — one that burst through in the past year with a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl berth — can roll back down the hill like Sysiphus' own personal Iliad.

If the Big Ten looks to expand again, they may continue to look toward the Pac-12. They may dip into the Big 12.

Maybe Notre Dame is the Big Ten's next target — or even Hawaii. Is Kevin Durant joining the ACC? At this point, nothing is off the table.

The only guaranteed constant is change.

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