Nuclear option: Is Big 12, Pac-12 merger best option for both leagues in realignment?


Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

PROVO — It’s a new day in college football, even if the decks won’t be formally reshuffled until USC and UCLA depart to the Big Ten in 2024 and Texas and Oklahoma head to the SEC no later than 2025.

Just as the previous wave of conference realignment was settling down with James Madison’s move to the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt, the next round already begun. The Trojans forced that hand, but the next wave of 16-plus team super conferences won’t stop anytime soon.

Previously, we discussed how multiple calls were being placed between leftover members of the Pac-12 and the Big 12, which finds itself in a rare position of strength just a year after its predicted demise following the Sooner and Longhorns’ shock announcement.

Instead, the league that will soon be headlined by BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF (in addition, of course, to Oklahoma State and Baylor, as well as Kansas basketball) could be the offensive force if it seeks to end the run of the 108-year-old conference formerly known as the Pacific Coast.

To be sure, it’s unlikely anything will happen until Notre Dame makes a decision about joining a conference, with the Big Ten presumed to be at the head of the line. If the Fighting Irish opt to end independence — where they have played for all but one season of their history since 1887 — then another round of dominoes will fall.

Any expansion that might involve ACC teams (hello, Clemson!) is also likewise at a standstill while school officials try to figure out the league’s grant of rights that runs through 2036.

In the meantime, schools outside the biggest targets — namely, those not named Oregon, Washington, Clemson, Miami and maybe a handful of others — will continue their game of musical chairs.

Arizona’s 247Sports website reported that Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will meet with the Big 12 on Tuesday, while CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd added that the league was in “deep discussions” with the same four schools, as well as Oregon and Washington .

That could leave the Big 12 with a few potential decisions regarding conference expansion:

  • don’t expand
  • Add the Arizona Schools (Arizona, Arizona State)
  • Add the Arizona and Mountain schools (Arizona, ASU, Colorado, Utah)
  • Attempt a full-on merger with the Pac-12, combining the best of both leagues, or at least Oregon and Washington with the top of the Big 12

“Everything is on the table,” one Big 12 source told CBS Sports.

We touched on the possibility of adding the four Pac-12 schools in the Mountain time zone. But here’s a look at what a merged Big 12 and Pac-12 could look like, a new conference we will refer to as the Big Pac, for brevity’s sake.

Dodd reported over the holiday weekend that such an option — even if it may be something of a nuclear option — has at least some merit. Every university is out for what’s best for its own university, even if the conferences try to put on a united front publicly.

So what might a new Big Pac Conference look like? Here’s what Dodd theorized:

Such a combination takes the best football products of both leagues into a single entity, but it’s not without its own leftovers. Note, for example, that reigning national champion Kansas basketball and its travel partner Kansas State have been left out from the Big 12, as have Oregon State and Washington State from the Pac-12. Iowa State’s recent rise in football under Matt Campbell is another casualty.

UCF’s inclusion in the “Midwest” division also drew some eyebrows online. Yes, the Knights represent a foothold in the state of football-mad Florida (and a piece of the Orlando market, ranked No. 18 nationally by Nielsen).

But while the school formally known as Central Florida has all those markings, it’s also relatively new to big-time college football, and has more sub-.500 seasons in the American Athletic Conference as undefeated seasons.

Would Kansas’ basketball tournament units be more valuable to the new league? That’s the question officials will have to wage in considering a merger.

In light of those topics, here’s our idea for the Big Pac, one that puts BYU in a west-laden division alongside Utah (where it belongs) and also arguably boasts the best college basketball conference in the NCAA.

We’ll also add that our version of the Big Pac would include 18 teams, because now that the artificial barrier of 16 has been broken, why stop there?

  • West: Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, Utah, Washington
  • Midwest: Baylor, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, UCF

To be clear, even this 18-team conference likely doesn’t compare to the financial well-being presented by the Big Ten or SEC once the latter two are assembled in their final form. But no assortment of lower-tier teams will; the challenge is simply to narrow the gap as much as possible, keeping within striking distance of a Power 2 that is sure to lap the rest of college football in the coming years.

And if you really want to make this fun, add Gonzaga in the west and Wichita State in the midwest to form a 20-team super conference in college hoops that could be unrivaled in its domination of the sport. The possibilities are limitless after the Big Ten’s recent move.

Each nine-team division could also be played as its own pseudo-conference in Olympic sports before coming together for a conference tournament, an idea that is not without precedence after the Western Athletic Conference’s most recent round of expansion. Such an alignment would alleviate travel concerns for non-revenue sports while also maintaining regional rivalries (ie Arizona-ASU, BYU-Utah, Cal-Stanford, Baylor-TCU, et al.) across all competition.

As for the 800-pound gorilla in the room: if Oregon and Washington are successfully courted by and admitted to the Big Ten, their spots could be easily replaced by Oregon State and Washington State. Ditto for Big 12 schools’ defects and the likes of SMU, Memphis or a number of current American Athletic schools.

Boise State and San Diego State of the Mountain West also remain options for expansion candidates in the Big Pac.

What do you think? Is the new Big Pac a better conference than either of the two prior conferences as they are currently made up? What would you like to see happen while we all wait for Notre Dame to set off the next round of conference dominoes?

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for KSL.com since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.

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