Staples: Oregon, Washington should want Big Ten, but might decide fate of Big

The move heard ’round 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 a thought that I’d be fascinated to see put into action.

With USC and UCLA gone from the Pac-12 and headed to the Big Ten, Oregon and Washington are in peril and empowered at the same time. They don’t want to lose their stature, so naturally, they’d love to go to the Big Ten. But what if that’s not an option? They become some of the best options remaining on the board, and what they do could determine the futures of the Pac-12 and the Big 12. Joe and Jesse each came at their questions from a different direction, but they both lead to a potentially cutthroat scenario depending on how the dominoes fall.

Should Oregon pursue independence if Big Ten membership is off the table? — Joe in Albany, Ore.

One thing I’ve found interesting this past week has been the idea that the Pac-12 will try and steal from the Big 12. At this point, what Big 12 team would want to leave? Especially without USC and UCLA, is the Pac-12 really a more enviable destination? — Jesse

Notre Dame may hold the keys for everyone, but it feels as if 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 make sense in that league, too. They are big brands with passionate fan bases, and the schools are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities. They also would provide some travel partners for their fellow Pac-12 defectors.

But they clearly haven’t gotten an answer as to whether joining the Big Ten is a possibility. How do we know this? Because as soon as the Big Ten said it wanted them, Oregon and Washington would be gone. And if the Big Ten offered a definitive no, then Oregon and Washington would be moving to lock down their respective futures.

Presumably, the Big Ten’s next move depends on Notre Dame’s choice. If the Fighting Irish want to join, they’re in and the rest of the league decides if it wants to admit anyone else. But if Notre Dame isn’t ready to make that decision, it doesn’t have to. It is the one school that has an open invitation from every league whenever it wants. And the Big Ten could just hang out at 16 schools while it waits for the puff of white smoke or whatever signal the Domers choose to announce their choice.

If Notre Dame doesn’t choose soon, it could put Oregon and Washington in an awkward position. If the Big Ten isn’t sure it’s done expanding, the Ducks and Huskies shouldn’t lock themselves into any long-term deal. But the remaining Pac-12 members might be keen on making a long-term pact that ensures no one else leaves.

Sorry, Joe, but I don’t think independence is a viable option. I’m one of the people who always said Notre Dame should never join a conference in football if it didn’t want to, and after last week I think Notre Dame may have no choice but to join a conference in football. If Notre Dame can’t be independent anymore, there is no way Oregon could pull it off. But that doesn’t mean the Ducks don’t wield any power. Quite the contrary. If the Big Ten doesn’t shut the door, they and the Huskies have some options.

They could hold the Pac-12 together, providing two tentpole programs for that league — which presumably would expand. Jesse asks which Big 12 schools would leave for the Pac-12. All of them would as long as Oregon and Washington are still there. So the Pac-12 schools could select which ones they feel fit best.

There also is the possibility that the Pac-12 and ACC could come to some sort of rights-pooling agreement that could provide the remaining Pac-12 schools with some stability and the ACC schools with a few new revenue streams that might help soothe the members who feel they carry all the weight and deserve an unequal share of the pie. But that feels highly theoretical, and it also feels a little like a more fleshed-out version of The Alliance, the partnership formed last year by the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12. “It’s about trust,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said at the time. “We’ve looked each other in the eye. We’ve made an agreement.” The Alliance essentially imploded last week when one of the leagues gutted another like a fish. And that tends to happen with these things. In 2010, the Pac-10 held informal meetings with the Big 12 about pooling television rights. A few months later, the Pac-10 tried to steal half the Big 12’s members.

Realignment is a dirty business, so perhaps it’s time the Big 12 tried to fight to win instead of merely to survive. What if the Big 12 could get Oregon and Washington? That may sound silly on its face, but we’re talking about a league with a new commissioner (former Roc Nation COO Brett Yormark) who doesn’t come from the college sports industry. Unlike a former…

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