The future of the Pac-12 and cfb depends on the Big Ten's next move

As Pac-12 teams prepare for Week Two, the existential clock approaches zero hour.

The future of the conference — and major college football — likely will be determined in the next six weeks. The exact timing is difficult to predict because so many entities have a hand in realignment decisions, from university presidents to conference commissioners to media companies.

Also, because the stakes are massive.

Will Power Five restructuring continue or come to a halt?

Will the Big Ten continue its predatory ways and gobble up additional West Coast campuses?

Will the Four Corners schools bolt for the Big 12?

Is the 107-year-old Pac-12 merely weeks away from extinction?

Welcome to a Hotline series examining the future of the Pac-12 — yes, another Hotline series on Pac-12 survival.

We plunged into the issue in July and examined topics that ranged from a possible merger with the Big 12 and the TV ratings without USC and UCLA to the significance of the 7:30 p.m. kickoff window and what should be the Pac-12’s No. 1 expansion candidate. We also dove into the media valuation of the conference without the Los Angeles market.

On the surface, nothing has changed since June 30, when the Bruins and Trojans announced their departures for the Big Ten in 2024. Nobody else has left the conference; nobody has joined the conference; no contracts have been signed.

But behind the scenes, the situation is highly fluid and indisputably flammable — and not just with respect to the Pac-12. The futures of the ACC and Big 12 are at stake, as well.

In this first installment of our second series, the Hotline will sketch a scenario for the future of the Pac-12, the Power Five and the sport as a whole.

Multiple scenarios, in fact.

Although the timing and the outcome are difficult to predict, the epicenter for additional realignment is apparent to all: The Big Ten.

We have zero doubt that further expansion is coming — that the Big Ten eventually will grow to at least 20 schools and, subsequently, spark a massive restructuring of the major conferences.

But is the next move coming this fall? Or toward the end of its next media rights contract cycle? Or not until the mid 2030s?

Adding Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Cal would create partners for the Los Angeles schools, thereby limiting the amount of cross-country travel for athletes in all sports and easing scheduling complications.

Expanding this fall also would place the Big Ten and its network partners in control of the valuable fourth broadcast window (the 7:30 p.m. Pacific kickoffs). If Fox, CBS and NBC aren’t interested, ESPN and Amazon surely would be.

How does the fault rupture?

At some point in the next six weeks, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff puts a medium-term media rights proposal on the table for the 10 remaining schools. The deal is crafted carefully to expire in 2029 — one year before the Big Ten’s new contract.

The four schools with wandering eyes turn to the Big Ten and state, effectively: We’re signing a five-year deal with the Pac-12 unless you make us an offer.

If the Big Ten opens its doors, the Pac-12 liquifies:

— Oregon, Washington, Cal and Stanford join the Los Angeles schools to form a six-campus western division.

— Arizona, ASU, Colorado and Utah respond by joining the Big 12.

— Oregon State and Washington State reach an agreement with the Mountain West.

And just like that, the conference is no more.

Based on his public comments, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren appears to favor additional expansion sooner than later.

Why? Perhaps he views the creation of a western division purely as a legacy play, a means of escaping former commissioner Jim Delany’s ever-present shadow. Perhaps Warren is wholly convinced a 20-team conference would best serve his membership. Either way, he doesn’t make the final decision — the Big Ten presidents run the show.

Are they ready to kill off the conference that has been the Big Ten’s partner for a century? Do they want Pac-12 blood on their hands? The scenario for additional expansion this fall is plenty plausible, but we aren’t convinced it’s the likeliest near-term scenario.

There are reasons for the Big Ten to stand down, first and foremost the devastating blow it would deal to the Pac-12 and the resulting disruption throughout college athletics.

There is also the cash component.

Are the Big Ten’s current media partners (Fox, NBC and CBS) capable of keeping the schools whole if four more mouths feed at the trough? Not in our opinion.

Would the Big Ten campuses accept reduced revenue shares to accommodate the additions? Unlikely.

One option would be to create the western division and license the 7:30 p.m. (Pacific) inventory to ESPN or Amazon. But does Fox want to share the Los Angeles market? Would ESPN accept such an arrangement at whatever price Fox establishes? Those are crucial unknowns.

In our view, the likeliest near-term scenario — and it’s closer to 60 percent than 90 percent — is the Big Ten presidents pass on further expansion.

Perhaps in two weeks, perhaps in four or six, Kliavkoff places a contract offer on the table with ESPN as the primary, and perhaps exclusive media partner. The four schools with Big Ten aspirations turn to Warren for a definitive decision, and they are told the door is closed, for now.

So the Pac-12 signs a five-year media rights contract that expires in the summer of 2029, one year before the Big Ten’s deal. It carries an annual average value in the mid-to-high $300 million range.

With the agreement reached, the Pac-12 plows forward, united, into the new contract cycle and, like the Big 12 and ACC, waits for the next realignment wave.

It begins, once again, in the Big Ten.

As the conference approaches the end of its seven-year media agreement, in the spring of 2030, the push to expand returns. And this time, everything liquefies.

First, the Big Ten gobbles up Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Cal to form its western division.

Then the shock waves spread east, and south.

Unlike the Big Ten, the SEC isn’t actively considering expansion — it’s perfectly content as a 16-team conference with Oklahoma and Texas. But by the end of the decade, the strategy shifts.

After the Big Ten’s westward move, the SEC makes clear to certain members of the ACC that a membership pathway exists if the schools sever their grant-of-rights contract.

Much has been made of this agreement, which binds each member’s media revenue to the conference until the summer of 2036. But show us a contract that cannot be severed by the will of its signatories and the work of their attorneys, and we’ll show you a world that doesn’t exist.

Because for the top ACC football schools, the expense that comes with breaking the grant-of-rights pales in comparison to the cost of sticking together.

They see the revenue flowing into the Big Ten after it signs yet another media rights deal — this one worth more than $2 billion annually due to the ever-increasing value of live sports and the additions of the four West Coast schools.

The SEC will see those Big Ten revenue numbers, too, and there’s one way to close the gap.

Much like the Pac-12, the ACC shatters.

Florida State and Clemson head to the SEC, while a bidding war erupts over North Carolina and Virginia.

What of Miami? The Hurricanes aren’t a first choice of either the SEC or Big Ten, but Fox’s desire to plant a flag in Florida eventually earns Miami a bid to the Big Ten.

We also wonder about Kansas and Duke, which have the academic credentials to interest Big Ten presidents and possess two of the few basketball programs that move the ratings needle.

Notre Dame, however, will remain an Independent.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 undergoes its own transformation, one spurred by the expansion of the SEC and Big Ten and the expiration of its own media rights deal in the 2029-31 window.

Whether the Big 12 ends up with 20 or 24 members, we aren’t sure. And it might not include the same core that exists today. The league could dissolve and reform, perhaps without some current members, perhaps with a new name.

Whatever the specifics, a third conference houses the top football and basketball schools not invited to the SEC and Big 12. It spans four time zones and, despite generating far less revenue than the SEC and Big Ten, produces a competitive and entertaining product.

We view that scenario — the restructuring of the Power Five at the end of the 2020s — as more likely than the dissolution of the Pac-12 this fall.

And had this column been published 10 days ago, the Hotline would have been completely convinced of the Power Five fault line rupturing at the end of the decade.

But the university presidents who make up the College Football Playoff’s Board of Managers have given us reason for pause.

The expansion of the playoff to 12 teams will prove to be the most profound change in the history of college football, with one exception: The 1984 Supreme Court ruling that ended the NCAA’s grip on media rights and allowed conferences to cut their own deals.

Expansion to 12 is more significant than even the creation of the four-team playoff itself. It will transform the sport in ways we haven’t considered, in addition to those obvious here and now.

At this tumultuous time, expansion has injected relevance into the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 regular seasons and has done the same for every league in the Group of Five.

It has provided a pillar of resistance to the growing hegemony of the SEC and Big Ten.

Make no mistake: Both leagues will benefit immensely from the presence of six at-large berths, especially with a  revenue-sharing model that assuredly will reward participation and advancement (much like the units distributed in the NCAA Tournament).

But by expanding the playoff, the presidents changed the realignment calculation. Yes, media revenue still matters. But the competitive factor has been greatly enhanced.

Win the ACC, win the Big 12, win the Pac-12 — and you’re virtually assured of a playoff berth.

Yes, the extra $25 million in media rights revenue potentially available in the Big Ten or SEC sounds great. But you know what also sounds great? Hosting a CFP game on your campus, that’s what.

Imagine the environment at Husky Stadium on the second Saturday in December when sixth-seeded Washington hosts  No. 11 Penn State or LSU for the right to face No. 3 Alabama on New Year’s Day.

Winning at that level — and the potential to do it annually if you’re an Oregon or Washington — carries a value for the university that simply cannot be matched by the added millions from the Big Ten that help pay for a fifth offensive analyst or fourth dietician.

Additional realignment is inevitable. Maybe it comes this fall. More likely, it comes at the end of the decade or in the mid-2030s. Eventually, the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 will either cease to exist or become unrecognizable versions of their current selves.

But because of playoff expansion, mapping out the future of the Power Five has become more difficult than it was even a week ago.

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