Analysis: Colorado is leaving the Pac-12. So what’s next for Washington?


During Pac-12 media day last week, Merton Hanks — the conference’s “executive associate commissioner of football operations” — was asked about his former San Francisco 49ers teammate and current Colorado head coach Deion Sanders.

“I’m excited that he’s in the Pac-12,” Hanks said. “He’s going to raise the bar and, quite frankly, bring out the best in all of our coaches, because you know you’re competing against a winner on the other side. Make no mistake about that.”

Make no mistake: mistakes have been made.

And Sanders won’t be in the Pac-12 for long.

That much became abundantly clear Wednesday, when multiple reports arose that Colorado will return to the Big 12 in 2024. The Buffs’ reversal was cemented with a board of regents vote roughly 24 hours later.

Which leaves Washington, it seems, at a fork in the drastically diverging realignment road.

So where do the Huskies go from here?

As Pac-12 Commissioner George Klavkoff scrambles to plug his sinking ship, and Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark circles the boat, let’s analyze three ways this cannibalistic conference shuffle could play out for Washington.

UW stays, the Pac-12 expands and the conference survives (for now)

Colorado will be the Big 12’s 13th member in 2024.

Yormark almost certainly won’t stop there.

The Big 12 will likely look to add either one or three additional members (to arrive at an even number). So who will be next?

UConn is the odds-on favorite, though the Big 12 would probably prefer to add Arizona, Arizona State or Utah instead.

Kliavkoff’s challenge, then, is to convince the Pac-12’s remaining members to stick together — while aggressively pursuing expansion as well. The best way to achieve the former is (and has been) to produce a competitive media deal, and Kliavkoff has repeatedly stated that the conference will complete said deal before considering expansion.

Now he can’t afford to wait.

It’s increasingly unlikely that the long-awaited Pac-12 deal can approach the Big-12’s number — $31.7 million per school, per year — without adding 1-3 members first. San Diego State, SMU and Colorado State are viable options.

But there are hurdles here, too.

Specifically, San Diego State — a no-brainer candidate that would keep the Pac-12 in southern California — faces an increasingly exorbitant exit fee. To compete in the Pac-12 in 2024, the Aztecs would owe the Mountain West Conference roughly $35 million (double the $17 million fee if SDSU announced its departure prior to July 1).

But let’s suspend our disbelief — for now — and assume Kliavkoff stumbles over some consolatory wins. The Pac-12 expands, the media deal arrives, and the numbers are strong enough for its remaining members to sign a grant of rights.

(These are some increasingly dubious dominos, we know.)

For Washington, the appeal here revolves around consistent College Football Playoff access.  

The CFP is expanding to a 12-team model in 2024, with automatic bids going to the top six conference champions. That all but guarantees a playoff spot (and a sizable payout) to the Pac-12 champion, an annually achievable goal in a smaller league that just bid goodbye to traditional powerhouse USC.

In other words: UW has an undoubtedly more direct playoff path in a 10 (or 11, or 12) team Pac-12 than a 14 (or 16) team Big 12.

If the Pac-12’s next media deal expires in 5-7 years — followed by a larger realignment reckoning — UW could conceivably dominate this shriveled shell of a conference, before riding into the Big Ten’s waiting arms.  

More Pac-12 programs leave, the conference crumbles and the Big Ten throws a lifeline

Cue the chaos.

Let’s say more teams — Arizona, Arizona State, Utah or anyone else — flee for Big 12 stability and the Pac-12 essentially sinks into the sea. Would the Big Ten then throw Washington, Oregon, Stanford or Cal additional lifelines?

The Big Ten is already adding USC and UCLA next year, and further additions would make geographic and scheduling sense. But commissioner Tony Petitti said at Big Ten Media Days Wednesday that he has not received “any direction” from his current members to pursue further expansion.

Of course, in conference realignment, the winds shift in a hurry — and there’s little question Washington would favor such a move. The Big Ten would provide the security, academic reputation and re$ource$ the Huskies covet … even if CFP access significantly suffers in a competitively stout 18- or 20-team league.

(It’s also possible the Big Ten could use its significant leverage to offer UW and/or others a partial media rights share, at least at first.)

As lifeboats go, the Big Ten is a yacht with a water slide.

But there’s danger in hoping and waiting for it to arrive.

UW follows Colorado (and others?) to the Big 12

Which brings us to the lifeboat that has already arrived, albeit with fewer bells and whistles.

The Big 12 has stability, with 13 members locked into a six-year grant of rights (through 2030-31). It has an actual, real, publicly reported media deal with ESPN and FOX featuring a clause promising a full share — $31.7 million per year — to additional Power Five programs that join the conference. It has perhaps the country’s premier lineup of basketball programs and a 2022-23 CFP appearance (and semifinal win) to its name.

It does not have the academic pedigree Washington covets, or improved playoff access, or traditional rivalries/opponents, or regional ties. And though Oregon and Washington could conceivably move together, road games (regardless of sport) in Morgantown, West Virginia, or Waco, Texas, would provide logistical headaches galore.

This likely isn’t an option UW’s administration would be enthusiastic to accept. But if the Pac-12’s media deal is flatly unacceptable, and the Big Ten stands pat at 16 members, what other option would Washington have?

(Remember: the SEC appears uninterested in westward expansion, while the ACC’s powers are openly exploring breaching their conference’s grant of rights. So those are exceedingly unlikely landing spots.)

Despite it all, UW’s brand and market value essentially assure the Huskies will land on their feet.

The question, for Washington, is where.


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