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Staples: Oregon, Washington should want Big Ten but could decide fate of Big 12, Pac-12

The move, which was heard in the college football world last week, inspired more than 200 questions for this week’s “Dear Andy” mailbag. But in trying to answer two in particular, I had an idea that I would be intrigued to put into action.

With USC and UCLA moving away from the Pac-12 and into the Big Ten, Oregon and Washington are simultaneously threatened and empowered. They don’t want to lose their stature, so of course they’d love to join the Big Ten. But what if that’s not an option? They’re becoming some of the best options remaining on the board, and what they do could determine the future of the Pac-12 and Big 12. Joe and Jesse each approached their questions from different directions, but both lead to a potential cutthroat scenario depending on how the dominoes fall.

Should Oregon go for independence if Big Ten membership is off the table? – Joe in Albany, Ore.

One thing I found interesting over the past week was the idea that the Pac-12 will try to steal the Big 12. Which Big 12 team would want to leave at this point? Especially without USC and UCLA, is the Pac-12 really a more enviable target? — Jesse

Notre Dame may hold the keys for everyone, but it feels like Oregon and Washington hold the keys in the Big 12/Pac 12 situation. Obviously, Oregon and Washington would like to join USC and UCLA in the Big Ten. They would also make sense in this league. They’re big brands with passionate fan bases, and the schools are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities. They would also provide some travel partners for their fellow Pac-12 followers.

But they obviously haven’t received an answer as to whether joining the Big Ten is a possibility. How do we know? Because once the Big Ten said they wanted them, Oregon and Washington would disappear. And if the Big Ten offered a definitive no, Oregon and Washington would lock down their respective futures.

Presumably, the Big Ten’s next move hinges on Notre Dame’s election. If the Fighting Irish want to go, they’re in and the rest of the league decides whether to include someone else. But if Notre Dame isn’t ready to make that decision, then she doesn’t have to. It’s the only school that has an open invitation from any league whenever they want. And the Big Ten could just hang out at 16 schools while waiting for the white plume of smoke or signal the Domers choose to announce their choice.

If Notre Dame doesn’t make a decision soon, it could put Oregon and Washington in an awkward position. If the Big Ten aren’t sure they’re done expanding, the Ducks and Huskies shouldn’t settle for a long-term deal. But the remaining Pac-12 members may be interested in forging a long-term pact that will ensure no one else leaves.

Sorry Joe, but I don’t think independence is a viable option. I’m one of those people who always said that Notre Dame should never attend a football conference if she didn’t want to, and after last week I think Notre Dame will have no choice but to attend a football conference. If Notre Dame can no longer be independent, there’s no way Oregon can. But that doesn’t mean the ducks don’t wield power. But on the contrary. If the Big Ten don’t close the door, she and the Huskies have a few options.

They could keep the Pac-12 together and provide two tentpole programs for that league – which would presumably expand. Jesse asks which Big 12 schools would go to the Pac-12. All would do it while Oregon and Washington are still around. This allowed the Pac-12 schools to choose which ones they felt would be most appropriate.

There’s also a possibility that Pac-12 and ACC could come to some sort of rights-pooling agreement that could provide some stability for the remaining Pac-12 schools and some new revenue streams for the ACC schools, helping to reassure members they might feel like they carry all the weight and deserve an unequal share of the pie. But that feels very theoretical, and it also feels a bit like a more polished version of The Alliance, the partnership formed by the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 last year. “It’s about trust,” said ACC officer Jim Phillips at the time. “We looked into each other’s eyes. We have an agreement.” The Alliance practically imploded last week when one of the leagues gutted another like a fish. And that’s what happens with these things. In 2010, the Pac-10 held informal meetings with the Big 12 to pool television rights. A few months later, the Pac-10 attempted to steal half of the Big 12 members.

Realignment is dirty business, so maybe it’s time the Big 12 try to fight to win instead of just survive. What if the Big 12 could conquer Oregon and Washington? This might sound silly at first, but we’re talking about a league with a new commissioner (former Roc Nation COO Brett Yormark) who doesn’t come from the collegiate sports industry. Unlike a former sporting director, he doesn’t have to worry about teasing his friends to push his conference forward. He didn’t know these people before, so he can bang away.

Here is the pitch. Tell Oregon and Washington they can join the Big 12, but just like a coach could get a release clause for their alma mater in their contract, let them have a clause saying they can leave with no financial penalty if the Big Ten they want. (Maybe protect the league a little by forcing them to give up something sensible like 18 months notice.) Then use their waste to grab Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State, too. If, due to political pressures in those states, you have to take Oregon State and Washington State to get Oregon and Washington, take them and either just get really big or cut two off the rest of the incoming group. With Pac-12’s media rights deal ending in 2024, go to partners Fox and ESPN and ask that they start negotiations on a new deal that would start in 2024 instead of 2025 when the next big- 12 contract to begin. Write in the contract that you understand that if Oregon and Washington leave, the payout will go down.

If Oregon and Washington stayed, this 18-team league would likely rank #3 behind the Big Ten and the SEC in revenue per school. The current Big 12 deal (which includes Oklahoma and Texas) already pays more than the ACC and Pac-12 deals. Oklahoma and Texas will go away — and in that scenario, they’d be in the SEC by 2024 — but that lineup would be just as strong as the ACC. More importantly, this lineup can be on the market now.

Every league wants conference affiliation to be a 100-year choice, but if the past 100 years have taught us anything, it just isn’t. If anyone should understand that, it’s the presidents and athletic directors of the Big 12. Their league has gone through every imaginable realignment scenario.

It has been clinically dead for several minutes (2010). It was minutes from implosion (2011). It held a dog and pony show for potential members that came to nothing (2016). It took an epic gut punch and then nabbed four new members (2021). So while Pac-12 school presidents — who are new to such things — are asking for blood oaths to ensure no one ever leaves their league again, the Big 12 should try to offer some flexibility to create the strongest lineup , which you can at the moment.

If this lineup stays together, great. If not, then the Big 12 have been through this before.

But the conference, which always seems to find a way to survive, may soon have a chance to buy itself some extra time.

(Photo: Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)