Here we go again? Conference realignment is back, but will it trickle down this time?
A year ago, Texas and Oklahoma announced their plans to join the SEC, but despite all the drama, only the Big 12 was impacted at the Power 5 level. In the Group of 5, however, three conferences dealt with major movement, and the other two looked deeply into the possibility of expanding. The trickle-down effect was enormous.
So what does conference realignment have in store for the Group of 5 this time, following the move of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten?
“It’s been evident for a while, and this is the most definitive iteration, that geography doesn’t really matter anymore,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. “This is a new world.”
Aresco knows about coast-to-coast leagues. When he took over the Big East, the conference planned to add Boise State and San Diego State as football-only members, a plan that eventually crumbled as the league got picked apart. But now, with such moves at the Power 5 level, the Big Ten and SEC appear on the verge of taking up all the valuable real estate.
“Are we moving toward consolidation? Yes,” Aresco said. “We’ve probably been moving toward it for a while, but it was gradual. Now it seems more sudden.”
The first thing to know up front is that every Group of 5 team would accept a Power 5 invite. This was the case a year ago, when Cincinnati, Houston and UCF went to the Big 12, and it is always the case. Whether that’s a watered-down Pac-12 or another league, if there’s a chance to move to the “Autonomous 5,” they’re going to take it. So yes, San Diego State and Boise State want in the Pac-12. So does everyone else.
But other scenarios must be resolved before this impacts the Group of 5. That includes the Big 12/Pac-12 staredown and a potential Notre Dame decision. Group of 5 schools aren’t the first choice in these situations. Could a handful of Pac-12 schools defect to the Big 12? Could the Pac-12 form an arrangement with the ACC to stay whole? Could the Pac-12 cease to exist? You can’t quite guess who the Pac-12 will add if you don’t know first who is still in the Pac-12.
“We’re in a position where we have to let a few more dominoes fall,” one Group of 5 AD said.
Group of 5 schools are prepared to make their pitch, just as they were a year ago. Conferences are ready as well, should any schools fall to them. Here’s where things stand with the key players.
Television eyeballs drive realignment more than anything else, and Boise State leads the remaining Group of 5 in this category. It has a carve-out with Fox in the Mountain West TV deal, one that dates back to ESPN when the Broncos stuck with the Mountain West instead of joining the Big East a decade ago. That’s worth around $1.8 million, on top of the around $4 million paid to the rest of the Mountain West (other than Hawaii).
Boise State is still well-known nationally for its football success in the past two decades, and its future nonconference schedules are loaded with games against the Power 5 and AAC, making for a valuable slate. It’s still a big brand. And in April, the school revealed a new athletics facilities renovations master plan. If a team is pulled from the Group of 5, the Broncos remain a top option.
But Pac-12 presidents are known to really value academics, and Boise State does not rank in the top 300 in the US News & World Report university rankings. It’s also not known if Boise State would actually increase the per-school TV payouts in a Power 5 league, though it’s possible any G5 school could take less than a full share as part of a move. If the Big 12 and Pac-12 don’t take from each other, the Big 12 could be another fit for Boise State if it expands again, pairing with BYU as travel partners, but that remains several steps away. The future of the Pac-12 must be worked out first.
San Diego State
The Aztecs have plenty of football wins over Pac-12 programs in recent years, including a 7-2 record since 2016. They have a strong men’s basketball program as well. They’d fit in just fine in that sense. The school would also give the Pac-12 a flag in Southern California again after the defection of the two Los Angeles schools. A new football stadium finally opens this year, paired with campus expansion.
“We’ve invested in our programs, the academic institution is doing well,” one SDSU source said. “We feel like we’re ready to take the next step.”
But again with the Pac-12, academics could play a role. SDSU ranks No. 148 in the US News & World Report rankings, and it’s part of the California State University system, rather than the more prestigious University of California system (which includes Cal and UCLA). It’s also unlikely SDSU would add to the per-school TV payouts in the league, though it could take a smaller share as well. Again, it could depend on what is left of the Pac-12.
SMU hasn’t been this well-positioned for a move since the days of the Southwest Conference, with the football program back on track as one of the better teams in the AAC. While the Big 12 is a more natural fit, the Mustangs were already passed over last year, and the Pac-12 could give them a better shot. For the Pac-12, SMU would provide a foot into Texas, and specifically Dallas. That would help the league get into the Central time zone windows for games and help with recruiting in a fast-growing state and city.
SMU also meets the academic bar as a private school ranked No. 68 in the US News & World Report rankings. In addition, the school has plenty of money (a $2 billion endowment) and rich donors. In January, the school announced plans for a $100 million end zone complex renovation and a $50 million gift toward it. The Mustangs haven’t had their national moment like a New Year’s Six bowl, so they want prospective conferences to realize what’s already in place.
“We don’t want the dust to settle and then have a conversation with somebody who had a role in a decision and they say, ‘Oh, I wish I’d known that about SMU,’” one source said. “But we need some additional disruption to give us a shot at moving up.”
As with everyone else on this list, SMU’s impact on the TV payouts is hard to know, though again the Central time zone could help.
Fresno State has already begun its public pitch, posting on Twitter that the Central California region ranks as a top-15 TV market. There is a successful football program to lean on, one that beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl stadium last fall and has played in a bowl game in 17 of the past 23 seasons.
— Fresno State Bulldogs (@FSAthletics) July 2, 2022
“We’re looking to make sure we get recognized,” one Fresno State source said. “Whether it’s reaffirming it for our local community or reminding people who may not remember where Fresno is and making sure they recognize what we are as well.”
But the school is in the aforementioned Cal State system and ranks No. 213 nationally in the US News & World Report rankings. Facilities are aging and have been a priority in fundraising, which could hurt the case.
This would be a market play, as UNLV hasn’t had any recent football or men’s basketball success to lean on, but it’s come up in conversations with various administrators. Las Vegas has become a major sports town, including the host city for the Pac-12 championship game. There’s money connected to UNLV that would be interested in getting the Rebels into a bigger conference.
But along with the lack of success and the TV payout situation, UNLV ranks No. 249 in the US News & World Report rankings. It wouldn’t be a top choice, but if the Pac-12 loses a number of schools and decides to backfill with several G5 schools, UNLV could perhaps come into play.
The most intriguing part of potential realignment might come at the conference level. A year ago, it seemed possible the Big 12 could fall apart, with the Mountain West and AAC there to potentially pick up some of the pieces. It didn’t happen, and the AAC instead lost three schools to the Big 12.
The original possibility could be in play again. If the Pac-12 loses four or six more schools to other conferences, that may be the end of the conference. It’s hard to know what Stanford or Cal will do, but Washington State and Oregon State could be potential additions for the Mountain West in that scenario.
One Mountain West source said the league would pitch familiarity and stability to those schools if the situation arose. Both are in the MWC footprint. Washington State is a five-hour drive from Boise. The MWC already has a case to make as the top G5 league when the realignment dust settles. Adding two Pac-12 schools would only improve on that.
“Any conference would be very lucky to have either of those institutions fall their way,” another MWC source said. “They have good leadership.”
The Mountain West had an opportunity to expand last fall, after Boise State, SDSU, Air Force and Colorado State turned down the AAC. Some people in the conference wanted to be proactive and expand, perhaps getting into Texas. Instead, it stayed at 12. A source said at the time that Fox told the conference it wouldn’t increase the per-school TV payout if the league added any of the potential options from C-USA or the AAC. That could pay off if it stays together through this latest round of realignment. But if the Mountain West loses a team or two like Boise State or San Diego State (or more), there aren’t many natural replacements, as most of them went to the AAC.
The MWC once temporarily lost Boise State and San Diego State to the Big East a decade ago and planned a merger with Conference USA. The schools came back as the Big East collapsed and the MWC has thrived ever since. The league itself was a break-off of the WAC. It has a history of change, but also survival.
The American went big last year, adding six Conference USA schools after losing three to the Big 12 (and being turned down by the Mountain West four). Only Memphis and SMU appear to be potential Power 5 targets this time if spots open up.
But the AAC, too, could be interested in Washington State and Oregon State if the Pac-12 falls apart. The AAC already looked to the Pacific time zone last year with its Mountain West targets.
“If they were to come into the American, which might be a stretch, I would think the American would be excited about that,” one AAC source said.
The American could pitch a higher TV payout. The Mountain West pays around $4 million per school as part of its Fox/CBS deal, while the remaining eight original AAC schools earn more than $6 million from its ESPN deal, both numbers that could increase with the Pac-12 leftovers (the six new AAC schools will receive a smaller share).
“At the end of the day, the American has a chance to stay stable and/or potentially pick up a team or two if all hell breaks loose,” the source said.
It’s hard to see a massive G5 trickle down like last year because there aren’t many moves left to make. Those all happened last year.
The Sun Belt went against the grain and leaned into regionalization and rivalries in adding Southern Miss, Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison. The AAC added the value it found out of C-USA. The MAC already passed on WKU when MTSU opted not to leave its league. Conference USA still likely needs to add more schools from the independents or FCS at some point, but that’s been the case for a while.
There are not many obvious moves remaining. At the moment, there are only a few possibilities that could impact the Group of 5, and it still requires a few dominoes to get there. The most impactful change would be if the Pac-12 loses six or eight schools but survives and tries to add replacements. Then everything would be on the table.
“Conferences tend not to collapse,” one source said. “They tend to keep adding schools if they can to make themselves viable.”
It’s also possible the Pac-12 and Big 12 stay put. Nobody knows yet what will happen at the Power 5 level.
A handful of Group of 5 teams again have their eyes on that elusive Power 5 invite. For now, they hope for a chance to make their case and wait to see what happens next.
(Photo: Brian Losness / USA Today)