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Commentary: Where might Washington State find itself after this round of conference realignment?

WSU lines up before the start of the first half a college football game against BYU on Saturday, Oct 23, 2021, on Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

This wild ride of conference realignment only just began, and we’re all trying to imagine how it’ll end.

It’s been a bit over a week now since USC and UCLA blindsided the world of college athletics, ditching the Pac-12 for the greener ($) pastures of Big Ten play. The move becomes official in 2024.

In two years, the NCAA landscape – especially on the West Coast – will look vastly different than it does today. How exactly? It’s been the topic of speculation since June 30, the day the Trojans and Bruins bolted.

The fate of the Pac-12 is up in the air, and its 10 member institutions are in various stages of limbo as school and conference leaders attempt to tease out options.

Washington State finds itself in the middle of the mess, in a trickier situation than most.

It may have been tough to keep updated on the possible outcomes for WSU in this round of realignment, so we’ll give you a refresher.

Remain in the Pac-12/10

The Los Angeles schools’ media money-driven defections caused a gloomy outlook for the Pac-12 and its followers, many of whom feared an impending mass exodus that would ultimately destroy the conference and leave some small-market member schools in the dust.

Sadly, that could still transpire. The good news? It appears the Pac-12’s leaders are making every effort to preserve the historic conference.

Oregon-based columnist John Canzano, citing two unnamed Pac-12 athletic directors, reported earlier this weekend that the conference’s remaining members are united and galvanized. The Pac-12 also announced last week that it is exploring expansion and has picked up the pace on its media rights negotiations.

“If there’s a fracture anywhere, it could be disastrous for some of those schools,” said Bill Moos, a former athletic director at WSU, Nebraska and Oregon. “So, my hope is that they’re solid and unified in whatever they do.”

The Big Ten is reportedly focused on luring Notre Dame and less interested in poaching prominent Pac-12 institutions such as Oregon and Washington. The Big 12 is apparently eyeing several Pac-12 schools – WSU not included.

But for now, the Pac is settled at 10. For the Cougs, that eases some concern. The conference’s survival or reconfiguration means WSU, a century-old member of the league, is guaranteed a home. If the Pac-12 dissolves, the Cougars would probably be left searching for a new power-conference residence – an especially difficult prospect for the Pullman school, considering factors like geography, finances and overall marketability.

“My hope is that the Pac-12 can find a way to stay together and become profitable and beneficial to all involved,” former WSU and NFL center Robbie Tobeck said last week. “I love the rivalries. We have the tradition. But in this day and age, it comes down to dollars and cents. I understand that part as well, but I hope we can figure out a way to make it work while keeping our group together, whether that means merging or adding more teams, or whatever it might be.”

Does the weakened Pac-12 have the negotiating power to steal a team or two from the Big 12? That’s debatable. The Pac-12 does have the stature to swipe a few of the top Group of Five schools if it so chooses – SMU, San Diego State, Fresno State or Boise State, perhaps – though it might not be worth it financially to poach from the Mountain West.

A merger?

Yet it might be worth it to join forces with another “power” conference to compete with the new “Super Two:” the SEC and Big Ten.

The Pac-12 CEO Group – it should be noted that WSU president Kirk Schulz is on the CEO Group’s executive committee – and Atlantic Coast Conference officials are discussing the formation of a “loose partnership” in an attempt to increase the value of their media contracts with ESPN, per multiple reports. The details are fuzzy, but the bicoastal alliance presents an opportunity for intriguing crossover games. WSU versus Florida State? That’d be quite a weekend.

Plus, a postseason “championship” matchup between the conferences’ two top teams in Las Vegas is reportedly on the table.

“If it can help each institution in both conferences, then it’s something to look at,” Moos said. “Everybody’s looking at media markets, so that’s appealing.”

The idea of a Pac-12/Big 12 merger has been floating around for the past couple of weeks, too. A souped-up Big/Pac would provide entertainment value, no doubt, along with stability and national relevance.

“Having lived a life in college athletics, I think the option that makes the most sense (for the Pac-12) is to align and hopefully combine and consolidate with the Big 12,” Moos added. “Making one conference, in my opinion, is the best direction, because you’re going to be in some markets, not great ones but not bad. You still have Texas and Oklahoma, the Bay Area, Washington, the Arizonas, Utah, Colorado, Kansas.”

‘A cherry-pick situation’

In the arms race that college athletics have become, conferences aim to augment their brands and boost their media valuations with big-market additions to their membership. The Pac-12 still holds dominion over several notable markets – markets the Big 12, in particular, would like to control.

It’s no secret that the Big 12 is considering expansion and thereby threatening the Pac-12’s existence. The Big 12’s targets, per reports, are the best geographical fits, the “Four Corner” Pac-12 schools: Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State.

A four-corner betrayal, and the Pac-12 is toast.

“The thing Washington State, Oregon State and others need to worry about is if it’s a cherry-pick situation,” Moos said. “Hopefully, the leadership of the Pac-12 will hold together and ideally say, ‘If you want any of us, you gotta take all of us.’ ”

Should the Pac-12 fail to remain united, schools like WSU and OSU could face devastating and unfair consequences. They might go unselected in power-conference free agency and have no other options but to accept relegation to the Mountain West – which in that case would be the only FBS league out West.

If WSU’s leaders are forced someday to make a case for their school to be included in a power conference, they should have a compelling argument

“Our culture fits well with the Big 12 or the Big Ten. Our academic chops, we don’t take a back seat to any of those people,” Jack Thompson, a celebrated former Cougar quarterback, said by phone shortly after news broke that USC and UCLA planned to depart for the Big Ten.

“When you look at WSU, yeah – we can hang with anyone.”

The Cougs can contend that they consistently field competitive programs at this level. The crimson and gray is a marketable entity and a deep-rooted component of major college athletics. WSU boasts a large and loyal fan base and an “overlooked media market,” Tobeck noted, with Cougar strongholds extending far outside Eastern Washington.

“Seattle isn’t just U-Dub,” the former Seattle Seahawks standout said. “Most of our alums are over here. It’s a WSU market as well.

“I love Spokane and want to own that market, but we’re also Seattle. And we have a national brand. We’re mentioned every week on (ESPN’s College) “GameDay.” People know who we are, and that’s worth something.”

The Ol’ Crimson flag can be seen flying behind “GameDay’s” set every fall Saturday, but that’s not the extent of the national exposure the Cougs receive weekly.

The Athletic’s Andy Staples compiled some fascinating data on college football TV viewership this weekend, and the numbers shine a favorable light on WSU. Staples tracked viewership totals dating back to 2015 for Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 programs – not counting USC, UCLA, Texas and Oklahoma – and charted the amount of regular-season games per team featuring more than 1 million TV spectators. With 21 games, WSU landed at No. 6 on the list, higher than each of the “Four Corner” schools and above “bigger market” teams like Oklahoma State and Stanford.

Perhaps it’s because WSU often finds itself playing the final game of the night, kicking off at 7 or 8 p.m. In any case, it proves that average college football fans watch the Cougars more than one might assume.