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Commentary: As uncertainty swirls, WSU and OSU collide on the field. Does the outcome matter to their futures?

Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

There’s plenty at stake Saturday when Oregon State and Washington State collide in a prime-time broadcast on Fox 28. Both teams are ranked, undefeated and have their sights on a berth in the Pac-12 championship game.

That’s all fine and dandy. But what’s really on the line for the two schools left behind in the realignment game?

It doesn’t matter which team wins. Rather, the caliber of play matters. The TV ratings matter. The lasting impression matters as the Beavers and Cougars link arms and plot a future together.

“People can watch these teams and say, ‘They play like power conference schools, but they aren’t going to be a part of it, really?” an industry source said. “So in that case, what does it really mean to be a Power Five school? These teams aren’t, but Vanderbilt is. Boston College is. So what am I missing?”

WSU and OSU believe the only thing missing is their presence in one of the power conferences.

The Cougars have been bowl-eligible for seven consecutive seasons (excluding 2020) and have drawn a larger TV audience in the playoff era than any of the schools headed to the Big 12.

OSU won 10 games last season, thumped Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl and is ranked just below Alabama, and just above Oklahoma, in the AP poll.

“When you talk about what Saturday means,” WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun said Thursday, “it’s college football at its highest level. And it’s inexplicable that these two programs are in this situation.”

The Beavers and WSU took the Pac-12 to court earlier this month to determine the makeup of the governing board and gain access to important financial documents.

Once clarity emerges, they will select one of two paths:

  • Join the Mountain West in a standard expansion move, the same way Washington and Oregon are joining the Big Ten next summer.
  • Attempt to rebuild the Pac-12 with schools from the Mountain West and possibly other Group of Five conferences.

The renovation project carries more uncertainty but is potentially more lucrative, depending on the assets remaining in the Pac-12.

Other questions remain unresolved.

Would a rebuilt conference maintain its Power Five status for College Football Playoff access and revenue?

Would it remain an Autonomy Five conference – an NCAA designation – for legislative matters? Would it attract a respectable media rights deal?

Competitive forces across the college football landscape are stacked against WSU and OSU on each issue.

On-field success matters – not just Saturday, but throughout the season.

If the teams challenge for the Pac-12 title, hold their spots in the Top 25 rankings and participate in marquee games, their case for respect and cash strengthens.

This Saturday is about every Saturday for years to come.