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Mailbag: Washington State and OSU link arms as their playoff path widens

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Are Oregon State and Washington State joined in holy matrimony, till death do them part? If so, what is the best possible outcome for the duo? – @tailgatestate

We’ll step aside and let Oregon State president Jayathi Murthy answer that question herself.

During a news conference Friday (conducted remotely), Murthy was asked about OSU and Washington State acting together following the collapse of the Pac-12.

“We are wonderfully aligned,” she said.

That alignment is both natural and enforced. With their difficult geography, land-grant status and limited resources (relative to Washington and Oregon), the schools are cut from the same model and face many of the same challenges.

And after the Pac-12’s demise, they are alone on the Power Five seas.

Their options are to rebuild the conference – a massive lift but potentially the most prosperous – or enter the Mountain West.

They have no choice but to link arms into the next era.

If Oregon State and Washington State go to the Mountain West, do you see their College Football Playoff chances going up, down or staying the same? – @BennyL1986

Before answering, let me state categorically that the Hotline is not minimizing the impact of the Pac-12’s collapse on the Beavers and Cougars in any way, shape or form.

It’s massively problematic for them on multiple levels and could have a deep impact on their ability to fund sports teams and retain current employment levels within their athletic departments.

But as it pertains only to participating in the College Football Playoff – not an inconsequential factor by any stretch – every plausible future scenario is better for OSU and WSU than if the Pac-12 had remained intact.

Whether they rebuild the conference, execute a reverse merger with the Mountain West or join the Mountain West in a traditional expansion move, the Beavers and Cougars will possess a wider path to the CFP when it expands at the end of next season.

The approved format grants automatic bids to the six highest-ranked conference champions, but that could change as a result of the Pac-12’s implosion.

The SEC and Big Ten want more spots for at-large teams, so expect the number of automatic qualifiers (AQs) to drop to five. But there will only be four power conferences. The CFP format must allow for one more AQ spot than there are power conferences in order to provide access to the rest of the FBS membership and avoid a lawsuit.

It doesn’t matter if WSU and OSU join the Mountain West or reform the Pac-12. The champion of their conference will compete for the final AQ berth against the winners of the Sun Belt, MAC, Conference USA and American, which has lost all its top football schools.

In our view, a rebuilt Pac-12 or enlarged Mountain West would clearly be the best of the nonpower conferences. The Beavers and Cougars won’t need 12-1 or 11-2 records; they won’t need top-10 or top-12 rankings. They will simply need to be ranked higher than the champion of the MAC, American, C-USA and Sun Belt.

We believe their prospects for winning the new conference, and winning it with some regularity, are vastly better than their chances of winning an intact Pac-12 that featured Oregon, Washington and Utah.

And we believe their prospects for being the highest-ranked champion outside the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten are excellent, so long as the administrations commit the requisite resources.

The expanded playoff will change the sport like nothing before it. In theory, OSU’s Murthy and WSU president Kirk Schulz will recognize that within the carnage is a huge opportunity.

Previously, you cited three options for WSU and OSU, including “rebuild the Pac-12 with teams from the Mountain West.” I am curious about the reasons you did not include a rebuild with “the best of the rest” from the MW and American. – John Lamar

That is an option, but it carries a major obstacle: Exit fees.

We don’t see the American schools as relevant to a rebuild – the geography is poor and the media valuations are low – and any poaching of the Mountain West in time for the 2024 season would require the targeted schools to muster about $34 million in departure fees, which isn’t reasonable.

But if the Cougars and Beavers rebuilt the Pac-12 with the entirety of the Mountain West membership, those schools could simply vote to dissolve their league and move under the Pac-12 banner. Without a conference, there would be no exit fees.

The simplest option for all involved would be a standard expansion move, with OSU and WSU joining the Mountain West. However, it’s quite possible the schools would forfeit tens of millions of dollars in Pac-12 assets – assets they would control if the conference remains a legal entity.

The reverse merger between Pac-2 and the Mountain West almost makes too much sense. So what do the universities involved think of it, and what are the obstacles to making it happen? – @pfnnewmedia

The universities have yet to reach any conclusions as they attempt to determine the size of Pac-12 assets and liabilities. That process is not for the athletic directors and presidents but, rather, the attorneys and financial officers. And it could take several more weeks.

The Mountain West is watching, too. The stockpile of assets and the value of the Pac-12 brand could be enticing enough to convince the 12 schools that dissolving their conference and moving under the Pac-12 banner is the most lucrative option.

But as you might imagine, that’s a complicated process on multiple levels.

How does a Group of Five conference elevate itself to a Power Five conference? Is it just tradition, or is there a path the new “Pac-2” could take to regain Power Five status? – @BakerMeow

Power Five status is determined by the Power Five conferences, which received that authority through the NCAA legislative process.

Rest assured, the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 will extend no favors to the “Pac-”’ or any Group of Five league, regardless of its composition.

But as mentioned above, the fear of an antitrust lawsuit will force the heavyweights to preserve a playoff path for the Group of Five.