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Commentary: Establishing regional rivalries in Mountain West may be more beneficial than chasing power conference carrot for Washington State

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

In any other year, the uncertainty is what makes this fun.

The period before the first kickoff of the season is a time of endless possibility. Other teams have defied expectations and had miraculous seasons before, so why not your team? Why not this year?

So it’s just another kick in the teeth in a summer full of them for Washington State football fans that the uncertainty surrounding their team has a more ominous tone during this inaugural game week than all those that preceded it.

But you know what? I think the Cougars will be all right. At least, I suspect that once the insults and injuries of the unfair way WSU has been shoved aside by its peers wears off, fans will find that it is kind of nice to not be participating in the death of college sports at the hands of entertainment executives.

If WSU does not find itself a last-second invitation to the Big 12, and I do not think it will, then my hope for the Cougars is that they land in a conference of similarly situated western schools that have their own rich traditions and supportive fan bases. A conference in which WSU will not constantly be at economic and regional disadvantages, where their facilities will be as good or better than their competition.

For example, the Mountain West Conference, either by joining the conference as currently constituted or by inviting many or all of those schools to join the remnants of the Pac-12.

Now, I know why that does not land well for many. The Cougars have long played in a premier conference and they have more than held their own. If college football was being run with the interests of the schools, fans or players in consideration then the Pac-12, or at least the original Pac-10, would stick together.

But that is not where we are, nor where things are headed. Congratulations to the schools that got into the Big Ten or Big 12, and now get to spend the next decade worrying about positioning themselves to be fodder for Alabama in whatever super conference comes next. Hey, USC might even do well occasionally.

But eventually, in reality, Cougars fans might find it not so bad to say no to all that and reset their mindset to beginning anew and establishing traditions and rivalries against teams like Boise State, Fresno State, UNLV, Nevada, and San Diego State. These are not chump schools – their football teams have played in major bowl games and their basketball programs have made deep NCAA Tournament runs. Throw in Oregon State and you have a collection of schools whose alumni litter the professional sports leagues.

Here are the best arguments I see against this and my response:

• Argument: WSU needs to be in a power conference to have a shot at the playoffs during its best seasons.

• Response: The Cougars have had many elite teams, but have made it inside the top four just once – a two-week stretch in 2002. Regardless of conference, WSU would need to have its best season in history to make the four-team playoff, a season like Cincinnati had in 2021 when it made the playoff out of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), a conference which would not be as strong as one with Mountain West schools plus Oregon State and Washington State.

• Argument: Without being in a major conference, WSU will lack the resources and marquee matchups to field competitive teams and keep fans and donors interested.

• Response: WSU still has good bones. It has a great stadium and training facilities to match. It has a passionate fanbase, one that will be among the largest in its new conference, rather than among the smallest. Revenue will go down, but WSU has not brought in sufficient revenue to cover expenses for a long time. Fans will stay more engaged if the Cougars are playing regional rivals than they would be if WSU was struggling against better-funded schools that are too far for most fans to travel.

• Argument: How will I even watch WSU if they are never on TV?

• Response: There will still be large schools in major TV markets in a new conference. San Diego State has a much bigger enrollment than WSU and its graduates live in the No. 2 (Los Angeles) and No. 30 (San Diego) media markets. San Jose State also has a significantly larger enrollment than WSU and resides squarely in the No. 10 media market (Bay Area).

There is still plenty of Pac-12 Networks infrastructure left on the West Coast, and we know that streaming-forward providers like Apple are interested in getting a foot in the door of live college sports. Maybe by partnering with some former Pac-12 schools like WSU and OSU, combined with a general distaste for how major college programs are designed like professionals will lead to a more enjoyable and nostalgic viewing experience.

It has been a rough offseason of realignment for college football fans and Cougars have every reason to feel unsettled. I think things will be OK and fans can focus on hoping their football team’s last season in the Pac-12 is a memorable one.