Fear it. Run from it. Hide from it. Re-alignment in college football will still come regardless and it did again on Thursday. UCLA and USC announced their intent to leave the Pac-12 by 2024 to join the Big Ten. Along with this announcement comes a flurry of questions for teams surrounding the Pac-12 and other conferences both at and below its level.
The Big Ten announced today that the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles will become conference members effective August 2, 2024, with competition to begin in all sports the 2024-25 academic year. https://t.co/DnwNMJSEe7— Big Ten Conference (@bigten) July 1, 2022
The immediate question that comes to mind is who, if anyone, will replace the Trojans and the Bruins in the league? Will the conference look to make a lateral move within the FBS confines or will it do what the Sun Belt and C-USA have recently done and dip its toes down a level and try its luck with and FCS program... or several?
More than likely the Pac-12 will look to the FBS and the Mountain West seems to be the most logical candidate. A team like Boise State (who’ve had their own fair share of re-alignment rumors swirling) would be enticing. They have the following, the product and the facilities to compete. You'd also have to believe the Broncos too would find such an opportunity attractive.
Let’s, for a second, entertain the idea that the conference does want to indeed recruit from the Mountain West and let’s say they grab a Boise State and/or a San Diego State. Now the MW is in a pickle and they too would likely be looking to replenish. Who might they go after? The FCS could be the perfect sampling station.
For years fans have been calling for North Dakota State to make the move. The Bison, after all, have won nine national titles in the span of 11 years and teams and fans who aren’t from Fargo wouldn’t be at all sad to see NDSU go. Unfortunately for those fans, though, it’s not quite that simple.
Yes, at first glance North Dakota State seems to be the obvious choice. The Bison have only lost 10 games total dating back to 2014. It’s been a run that’s truly ridiculous by many standards. There are, however, other things that must be taken into consideration outside the staggering win-loss numbers.
If this “what-if” were to come to fruition, NDSU would be the furthest East of any team in the conference. That would be quite the trip for the likes of Fresno State, San Jose State or Hawaii and travel isn’t cheap (for either side).
Also, if you’re the Bison, would you actually accept the invite if it comes your way? FBS play means increased revenue options and better TV options that get your program seen by a wider array of eyes. The Missouri Valley currently has a television deal with ESPN3 while the Mountain West has one with CBS and Fox Sports. That’s the big draw for any team.
Partnerships like that are what undoubtedly coaxed Sam Houston, James Madison and Jacksonville State out this last year. But is it worth it in the long run? Is it worth passing up what is an almost-guaranteed seeded playoff spot every year and the chance to compete for a legitimate championship for a mid-tier bowl game? That’s a decision the athletic department would be faced with.
Then there’s the hole that would be left on the FCS side of things. While more parity may come into play in the absence of NDSU, let’s remember they would also be doing away with their heated Dakota Marker rivals in South Dakota State. Would fans really want to see the yearly game with the Jacks go by the wayside?
And finally there’s the Texas issue. There’s no doubt that the annual migration of Bison fans to Frisco for the FCS National Championship is excellent for the local economy. The city embraces that fanbase like no other because those fans travel like no other. The national title game might as well be a home game for NDSU and it’s not that way for most other teams that go. If they’re gone then so is that tremendous following that has invigorated the FCS’s biggest stage.
Of course NDSU may not be the only ones considered for the move if this happens. What about those rival Jackrabbits? SDSU is also almost always in the playoff discussion and, while they don’t have the titles that the Bison do, they do have a flourishing program that may be attractive to the Mountain West. They would still face the same geographical hurdles but they might not have as much to lose as their neighbors to the north. It could be a very intriguing proposition for the Jacks as well.
We also cannot look past the Montana teams when talking about sustained success at the FCS level. Back in the early 2000s, Montana actually had two opportunities to make the FBS jump due to their prolonged relevance. The Grizzlies, winners of two FCS championships (1995 and 2001) ultimately turned down the invite and even cited their own rivalry with Montana State as a reason. But they too are a perennial playoff team with the pedigree and history to maybe receive such an opportunity. Would they take it the third time around?
It’s hard to the see the Griz going anywhere without Montana State, a program that is fresh off a trip the championship game itself and seems to be poised for another good run this season. It’s safe to say that both of these teams are blue bloods and plan to be for a while if they were to remain where they are.
It should be noted, though, that both UM and MSU tout the infrastructure, facilities and fan bases that may be enticing to the Mountain West. Both Montana and Montana State proudly sell out nearly every home game they play these days and have made serious, recent improvements to their training facilities and venues. Montana State’s Bobcat Stadium seats nearly 18,000 while Washington-Grizzly Stadium can hold over 25,000. Both are consistently at or above capacity.
There is, of course, the very-real possibility that the Mountain West would extend the invitation to two teams instead of one (again playing into our hypothetical scenario of the Pac-12 poaching multiple programs first). Boise State has drawn a lot of eyes to the conference over the years and their big absence alone may warrant a replacement by two programs. If that were the case, the possibility of a Montana and Montana State or a North Dakota State and South Dakota State moving up alongside each other becomes plausible. These teams may be more inclined to accept if their storied rivalry games can stay in tact.
Then, just for the sake of fun, let’s explore a dark horse. Eastern Washington, like UM and MSU, is currently in the Big Sky conference. They’ve won a title in recent memory (2010) and they consistently are in the postseason. The only real thing holding them back from that invitation could be infrastructure. Unlike their Big Sky rivals, the Eagles probably don’t have an impressive enough venue. Roos Field in Cheney doesn’t even seat 10,000 when full. Would the red turf be enough of a draw? An oddly colored field, after all, is a gimmick the Mountain West would be losing with Boise State.
At the end of the day this is all speculation and a lot still has to happen before these ideas could even be entertained. UCLA and USC, by every indication, though will be gone sooner rather than later and we’ve seen how these dominoes can fall in a hurry. Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC started a chain reaction that saw Sam Houston and James Madison, two other FCS powers, leave within the year. It’s certainly not impossible that any of the four aforementioned teams could get a chance among a few others. If they do, is there enough there to convince them to take it? Only time will tell.