Relegating Relegation

Conference realignment has loomed large over college athletics in recent years. Texas and Oklahoma are waving farewell to the Big 12, bound for the SEC. Over the summer, both USC and UCLA announced plans to exit the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024. Rumors and whispers have swirled, and last summer it was reported that Washington and Oregon had conducted “preliminary discussions” about also leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

With the possibility that two of the Northwest schools might also bolt for the Big Ten, there were rumors/discussions that the “Four Corners” schools – Colorado, Utah, Arizona State and Arizona – should held off to the Big 12.

Instead of looking west, though, the Big 12 took out a map of the United States, started throwing darts, and added BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida. The Big 12, which has been playing with ten teams, will now have 14-team league until Texas and Oklahoma can get their passports to the SEC stamped and approved.

So, we’re done with realignment, right?

For the moment, perhaps, but college football fans know that the current allocation of teams will not be the final one. The Pac-12 is about to become the Pac-10, with a media rights contract looming. Very few fans, if any, expect the Pac-12 to remain content with ten teams.

Programs like San Diego State, Boise State, Fresno State, UNLV and other west-coast based programs have been names thrown out as potential suitors for the new-look Pac-12 when the conference realignment takes place in 2024. If the Pac-12 wants to look east, schools like Rice and Tulane have been discussed.

Still, no names have officially been thrown out as definitively joining the Power Five conference.

Regardless of which teams will end up joining the league following the Bruins and Trojans’ departures, something will need to be done for the conference to remain relevant once the realignment within the Big Ten, SEC and even Big 12 take place in the coming years.

The fear for those remaining Pac-12 schools not named Oregon and Washington is that the poaching is not done, and that the 99-pound weaklings of the Pac-12 might be left in a conference without national relevance.

CU fans haven’t been the only ones with that fear.

A bill proposed in this year’s legislative session of the Washington state legislature seeks to link Washington’s two major universities in the same conference and aims to give state lawmakers input on a realignment decision. The measure’s primary sponsor, Sen. Drew MacEwen, R-Shelton, hopes to see Washington and Washington State remain in the same conference.

MacEwen and Senate colleagues Jeff Holy, R-Spokane, and Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, have sponsored a bill that would require both UW and WSU to compete in the same conference. The boards of regents for both schools could jointly recommend participation in a different athletic conference, but a move would be subject to approval by the Legislature, the bill’s text states.

“I think that both of those schools have rich history in this state, and I don’t think that decision should be made without public input via the Legislature,” MacEwen said of his proposal. “The intent of that bill is to, one, keep UW and WSU together, so we don’t end up losing one to a different conference and the other one is left in a conference that is dwindling, that being the Pac-12, and then at the same time, having the Legislature have input and oversight and approval of any major conference realignments. Looking at it from the taxpayer’s viewpoint, I think we have every right to do that and make sure that we honor our rich tradition in this state of both those schools.”

Memo from Washington State to Washington: We don’t want you doing to us what UCLA did to Cal. The Bears assumed that, since they were tied to the Bruins through the University of California system, that UCLA couldn’t leave the Pac-12 without taking Cal with them.

Well, that didn’t work out so well for the Bear Nation, did it?

Nervous Washington State fans are hoping to keep the Pac-12 together, and it appears, at least for now, that Colorado isn’t interested in going anywhere.

Colorado AD Rick George spoke in a wide-ranging interview on “Canzano & Wilner: The Podcast” this past week. He had some strong comments on realignment and the unity of the ten remaining members of the conference.

On whether Colorado ever spoke with the Big 12:  “The Four Corners have not talked to the Big 12 — at least this corner hasn’t. In our room, and I talk about our AD room, I think there’s a lot of commonality amongst the ADs in the room. We’re confident with the right media deal that we become a very attractive conference.”

On how expansion of the College Football Playoff factors in realignment thinking: “Why would you want to be in a conference where there’s 16 to 18, when you can be in a conference that is 10 to 12? Your opportunity, particularly when the top six-rated conferences have automatic bids and the top-four have automatic byes, why would you leave?”

Why, indeed?

But getting to the college football playoffs hasn’t been on CU’s radar for years. What has been on the radar of CU’s fans is the fear of relegation. At some point, the Power Five will be reduced to the Power Four, the Power Three, or even the Power Two.

There are currently 65 teams in the Power Five conferences (including Notre Dame). This fall, the number won’t be contracting, it will be expanding, with the four new Big 12 teams – UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, and BYU – giving the nation 69 Power Five teams.

At some point, though, the numbers will go the other way. With the Big Ten expanding its footprint into Los Angeles, creating a national conference, it’s only a matter of time before there are two or three Super Conferences, with only the most prominent of programs getting the golden ticket.

Until a month ago, it would have been a safe bet that Colorado wouldn’t have received an invitation. Two decades of irrelevance and declining television interest would have almost certainly banished the Buffs to a lower level conference.

One of the top 25 programs in college football? Ancient history.

One of 24 teams in the nation with both a national championship and a Heisman trophy? So 20th century.

A growing Denver/Boulder metro area television market? Irrelevant … just as the Buffs had become.

And now?

With Coach Prime restoring the Colorado brand, and with the Pac-12 having a renaissance in the national spotlight (six teams finishing in the final Top 25 rankings), the Buffs are in much better position go get a seat when the music stops.

Coach Sanders and his players will still have to produce on the field. A sold out Folsom Field is impressive, but how long will the sellouts continue if there isn’t improvement in the win column?

There is every reason to believe that CU is on the rise … and just in the nick of time.

Thank you, Coach Prime, for relegating talk of CU relegation.


6 Replies to “Relegating Relegation”

  1. This will be very interesting to follow, and wow, CU relevant again…!
    On the surface the Washington state leg seems positive, don’t like 2 super conferences, happy to be an underdog but don’t poach any more teams.
    The western US has so many positives and good schools that somehow it should represent the 3rd and/or 4th tier re power 5 programs
    Would like to see more national attention to this and dialogue between the Pac and Big 12 regardless of how it all shakes out…

  2. I disagree wit the premise, Stu.

    Yes, we will see the college football playoffs, brought to you by big fox and secspn, but it will be basically the same 65-ish teams it has been.

    After conference realignment wreaks havoc on tennis, swimming, etc. geography will be a thing again.

    There will be a pacific division, two central divisions, and two eastern divisions known formerly as the pac whatever, big whatever and big whatever south, and north east and southeast.

    Just a matter of time. With some Cinderella opportunities for the conferences with less cash/audience.

    Go Buffs

    1. Do you really think the people behind the billion(s) of dollars being made buy the Power5 football machine are going to give a damn about swimming? or tennis?


      Sorry Eric the fact that Coach Prime can come to a dead program like CU and just because of his Brand, he brings in quality players, coaches and PR to CU shows just how much the pig (espen & fox and…) are driven by the Benjamins and tv eyes, they won’t change because of swimming.

      They may change alignment if the numbers end up with 16-18 teams in each of two conferences (69 plus 2 more to the PAC12=71 up from 65) and a couple of conferences with only 12, at that point the odds will dictate a change OR a weighting of the rules, or the big boys will be unhappy.

      Note: I lettered in Water Polo & Swimming in SoCal and we played against the top two schools in the nation. We were a smaller-city program and we played & got our asses kicked by the #1 & #2 Water Polo teams in the nation (ocean schools, in rich communities), and both were in our conference; and no one cared about us!

      We were in that conference because of football. Yes, CIF High School football has enough clout & power to write the alignment of city leagues and “BIG time College football” WILL write it’s own ticket too.

      Just Be Glad That CU Hired Coach Prime! I don’t think anyone else (that was available) could do the same.

      1. That’s a fair perspective, marcus. But let’s take ucla as an example. How many sports do they have, outside of football and basketball. Like 15? So how many kids, and their families is that? Now, how much of a hassle is flying them, not to mention their tutors, mental health staff, support staff etc. to New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, etc?

        That will get expensive and old quickly. Are the people involved in those sports, donors, alumni, etc influential enough to swing the tide back to a regional structure? I think so. Obviously, I could be wrong. But UCLA’s professed motivation was cash, or drop lots of those sports. Kliavkoff highlights the same, in terms of cost, hassles, detriment of those in those sports that don’t get charter flights etc.

        Time will tell how it shakes out. My guess is the new system will look a lot like the old system, with more money, and less ncaa involvement.

        Go Buffs

      2. I got curious and looked. Ucla has 881 sports participants/student athletes. Take out football and basketball, and that’s still what, 735 or so? Plus support staff, personnel, etc. etc. that’s a lot of people flying all across the country. Every week. It will definitely be interesting to watch the evolution of the major sports, conferences, and their impact on the Olympic sports, and vice versa.

        Ultimately, there’s enough money to fund them all, via football and basketball tv revenue, at every school, if there’s a professional-like revenue sharing model.

        Go Buffs

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