USC and UCLA are planning to join the Big Ten as early as 2024, sources confirmed to ESPN on Thursday, spinning the conference realignment wheel again a little under a year after Oklahoma and Texas rocked the college football world by announcing their intentions to join the SEC. The fallout of the latest existential shift to college sports could be even bigger this time around.
Is this move the end for the Pac-12? Could it be another step toward superconferences? When will the next dominoes fall?
Our college sports reporters weigh in on what comes next after another seismic move in the NCAA landscape.
— David M. Hale
What’s next for the Pac-12?
Kyle Bonagura: The Pac-12 as a conference and the other member schools were completely caught off-guard by this move. It’s going to take some time to have any real sense of what happens for the conference because schools such as Oregon and Washington have clear incentive to leave as a form of self-preservation. Do other schools recognize this and also seek preservation options? Do Utah and Colorado look to the Big 12? If the Pac-12 seeks replacement options, schools such as San Diego State or Boise State do very little to make up for the loss of USC and UCLA. This has the potential to serve as essentially a death blow for the Pac-12. It can still exist but the idea that it can compete in the national landscape without the Los Angeles schools is absurd.
Paolo Uggetti: As one rival Pac-12 staffer put it soon after the news surfaced, this is great for the L.A. programs but the toughest possible outcome for the rest of a conference that was already struggling.
There’s a real sense of surprise among those schools that were likely banking on USC’s boomerang to the top of the conference to have a positive trickle-down effect. Now, the Pac-12’s marquee program is gone and what’s left is a lot of questions for commissioner George Kliavkoff to answer.
For those L.A. schools, it’s easy to understand the incentive. Should Oregon and Washington, maybe even Utah, follow, the conference can wave goodbye to any semblance of prestige or power.
What happens to the Big Ten now?
Tom VanHaaren: Adding USC and UCLA to the Big Ten might seem odd logistically and geographically, but it widens the conference’s footprint with big-name schools. USC hired Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma and the Trojans have been in the news constantly. That renown, offensive prowess and recruiting success from Riley at USC is going to help the perception of the conference.
Perception is key when it comes to recruiting and having offensive powers such as Riley and Ohio State coach Ryan Day in the same conference is only going to help on the recruiting trail. In fact, the Big Ten now has four coaches whose teams finished in the top 25 of total offensive yards per game last season and if Riley can get USC into the College Football Playoff conversation, it makes the conference that much stronger.
This doesn’t make the conference an SEC-style superpower, per se, but it’s definitely a step in the direction of protecting the Big Ten from being left behind. It also possibly creates an opening to add more teams out west if that opportunity arises in the future as more conferences expand and we move closer to superconferences.
There will still be questions about scheduling and adding two teams that are three time zones away from most of the other schools in the conference, but the positives for the Big Ten outweigh any possible negatives that might arise or issues this causes moving forward.
What does this mean for the ACC and Big 12, and what happened to the Alliance?
Andrea Adelson: When the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 commissioners announced the Alliance, they seemed to really stand behind their “handshake agreement” as something that would hold up over time. Even then, the idea that a handshake agreement would keep realignment from happening again seemed pretty preposterous. Now here we are again, only this time the ACC and Pac-12 are looking around the room with even more questions about their respective futures than they had one year ago.
The Big 12 already faced uncertainty after Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave. Even with its new additions, nobody really knew what a new television contract would look like without its top two name brands. But the Pac-12 is now in a similar situation — facing an expiring television contract without its two biggest brands — with more departures possibly on the way.
The situation is far different in the ACC, where the league is tied together with a grant of rights through 2036 that at least for right now makes it financially impossible to leave and join up with either the SEC or Big Ten. The key phrase there is “at least for right now.” Multiple sources said several ACC schools have investigated the possibility of withdrawing from the league’s grant of rights, but thus far have not determined a financially feasible option.
So for now, the risk is not worth taking. But given the way the landscape is shifting, major superconferences mean major dollars in television contracts, which means in all likelihood there will be money to pay out whatever it takes as a financial penalty to leave. Programs such as Florida State, Miami and Clemson top the list in terms of the value they bring. As we saw during the realignment shakeup a decade ago, this will ultimately become every program for itself. That means the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC find themselves once again facing serious questions about their respective futures.
How could Notre Dame figure into this?
Hale: Notre Dame is every league’s white whale, and would be a significant financial boost for even wealthy conferences like the Big Ten or SEC. The problem, of course, is the Irish have indicated they’re not particularly interested in shifting away from independence.
There are ways this calculus could change, however.
During last year’s round of realignment, when Oklahoma and Texas announced plans to join the SEC, the Irish held strong to independence but hinted at a few key caveats. The first is that Notre Dame needs a home for its non-football sports. Currently that’s the ACC (additionally, Notre Dame currently has a deal with the ACC stating that, should the school join a conference full-time, it must be the ACC), but what happens if the ACC’s existence is threatened by a move to superconferences? The second is that the Irish need a path to the football playoff. In the current landscape, that path exists (Notre Dame has made it to the playoff twice already) and most expansion models would likely make that path even easier. But again, in a world where one or two superconferences dictated the postseason — or, for that matter, even in-season scheduling — could Notre Dame survive as an independent?
Independence is a relic of another era of college football, but for a national brand such as Notre Dame, it remained sustainable. But the world of college football is shifting rapidly, and it is entirely possible that model simply cannot exist if more significant consolidation happens down the road.
How does this affect the basketball programs at USC and UCLA?
Jeff Borzello: Aside from the obvious things — multiple-game road trips will be more taxing, cold weather, etc. — recruiting is the one area to watch. It will likely be more of an adjustment for USC than UCLA due to the Bruins’ blue-blood status and national brand in basketball. UCLA is already capable of recruiting nationally, but it’s mostly stuck to its region since Mick Cronin took over as coach; only one of the Bruins’ last nine signees has come from east of Las Vegas. USC is in a similar boat, perhaps even more concentrated: 13 of its last 15 signees went to high school in California. Will all those players want to play in the Big Ten as opposed to the Pac-12?
Now, however, both schools will have an additional wrinkle in their pitch. They can go into Midwest cities and tell prospects they can still play in front of their family and friends nine or 10 times per season while spending the rest of the year in warm Southern California. Both schools have big enough brands and cachet — although USC’s is more on the gridiron — to walk into high schools and living rooms outside of their region and consistently land players.
On the floor, UCLA will seek to raise the Big Ten’s hopes of winning its first national championship since the year 2000 — but will have much more consistent competition at the top of the league standings. USC will have more company in the middle of the pack, but the Trojans have won 73 games and are 40-20 in the Pac-12 over the past three years — with an Elite Eight appearance in 2021 — so they’re not going to the Big Ten to be a pushover.
Alexa Philippou: Various Pac-12 teams have found success in the conference — most recently Oregon under Kelly Graves — but as long as Tara VanDerveer is in Palo Alto, UCLA, USC and the rest of the conference are largely just trying to chase Stanford, which has overwhelmingly dominated the league for three decades. Now, USC and UCLA — the latter of which has been the better team in recent years, as USC hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2014 — are set to join a relatively more competitive conference with more parity among the top half of teams. This past season, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State finished within a half-game of each other in the race for the regular-season crown, while Indiana and Nebraska also earned bids to the NCAA tournament.
How does this move impact other programs at UCLA and USC?
Mechelle Voepel: In short, it seems like a travel and logistical nightmare. UCLA and USC have strong Olympic sports histories that go back a long way on the men’s and women’s sides, and now those athletes will be spending a lot of time on planes competing as far as three time zones away for conference play.
Between them, UCLA and USC have seven NCAA women’s volleyball titles and are the Pac-12’s most successful programs in that sport short of Stanford, which has nine. Now the Bruins and Trojans join the Big Ten, which already had edged ahead as the top volleyball conference with defending champion Wisconsin, along with Penn State and Nebraska, which have a combined 12 NCAA titles. It will be volleyball’s version of a superconference.
UCLA is the premiere program historically in men’s volleyball, having won 19 NCAA titles. Because there are substantially fewer men’s than women’s volleyball programs, UCLA and USC don’t play conference slates in men’s volleyball; both already had Big Ten schools Ohio State and Penn State on their schedule this past season.
In men’s soccer, the Bruins have four NCAA titles and last went to the College Cup in 2011. The Big Ten has eight-time champion Indiana and four-time champ Maryland. In women’s soccer, USC has won two national championships and UCLA one, with the Bruins most recently making the College Cup in 2019. The Big Ten has had just one women’s NCAA winner: Penn State in 2015.
When it comes to baseball and softball, we’re talking about legendary programs. USC has a record 12 NCAA titles in baseball; the Big Ten’s last baseball championship came from Ohio State in 1966. UCLA has a record 12 softball titles; the Big Ten has one (Michigan, 2005). Playing multiple conference baseball and softball games in cold-weather locations is not something UCLA’s and USC’s programs likely look forward to doing.
How does this impact the CFP?
Heather Dinich: Even in their bulked-up status, it’s hard to imagine the SEC and Big Ten not wanting an expanded postseason playoff — especially if they can get more teams into a bigger field and in turn more revenue from it — but will their vision change for what it should look like?
That answer might depend on any further changes. Multiple sources said Thursday this isn’t the end of realignment, that it will only trigger more moves. And remember, the Pac-12 recently scrapped divisions to pit its two best teams against each other in the conference championship game to better position itself for the playoff. Without USC and UCLA — and pending any other exodus — its two best teams are defending conference champion Utah and Oregon. In prior CFP expansion talks, the Pac-12 wasn’t wed to the notion of automatic qualifiers, but it’s fair to ask if this might change that stance.
It’s a quiet summer as far as any CFP expansion talks, which will at least give some time for emotions to settle. It’s a completely different scenario as far as timing from when Oklahoma and Texas announced their move to the SEC, which played a huge role in derailing expansion.
In retrospect, critics will question the Pac-12’s decision to vote against expansion in January, along with the Big Ten and ACC. While Kliavkoff didn’t see it coming, some might wonder if USC and UCLA still would have made the move if they knew the postseason was a 12-team format.