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In conference realignment, CU Buffs have options

If UCLA, USC leave Pac-12, Colorado, others to figure out what is next

BOULDER, CO – November 7, 2020: The University of Colorado football team takes the field for it's season opener against UCLA at Folsom Field. (University of Colorado Athletics)
BOULDER, CO – November 7, 2020: The University of Colorado football team takes the field for it’s season opener against UCLA at Folsom Field. (University of Colorado Athletics)

A dozen years ago, the University of Colorado got ahead of the game by jumping from the Big 12 Conference before its possible destruction (which didn’t happen).

Now the Buffaloes are left to react to the latest seismic shift in the college sports landscape before they get left further behind.

On Thursday, UCLA and Southern California announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Both schools were officially accepted into the Big Ten, beginning in August of 2024.

Suddenly, the Pac-12, which has already been lagging behind its Power 5 conference peers on the football field and in terms of media revenue, is losing the Los Angeles market and its two most iconic programs: USC football and UCLA men’s basketball.

Colorado and the rest of the Pac-12 now have to figure out what comes next.

The SEC has dominated on the football field and then made a power play a year ago by luring Oklahoma and Texas away from the Big 12. The Big 12’s two marquee schools are set to join the SEC in 2025.

Adding UCLA and USC by 2024 is the Big Ten’s answer.

Combined, those two shifts have made the Big Ten and SEC the big dogs in college sports, while the others — Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 — are left picking up the pieces.

Could CU’s time in the Pac-12 be nearing an end? Possibly. Some of CU’s options include:

1. Stay in the Pac-12: Without UCLA and USC, the key to the Pac-12 staying together is Oregon and, possibly, Washington. If the Ducks and Huskies want to stay in the Pac-12, the conference could stick together. Oregon is a top national brand and Washington has a football program with national appeal.

If the other 10 schools in the Pac-12 — CU, Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah, Washington and Washington State — stick together it’s likely they’ll look to expand.

Staying in the Pac-12 isn’t a bad option for CU because of the alumni base on the West Coast. However, when CU announced in 2010 its move to the Pac-12, part of the draw was the Los Angeles market and being able to put the Buffs in front of so many west coast alums. Without UCLA and USC, the Buffs won’t be making trips to Los Angeles and there is less appeal to being in the conference.

Of course, if Oregon leaves, the Pac-12 could crumble and leave CU with no choice but to move on.

2. Join the Big Ten: Reports Thursday were that the Big Ten may not be done with trying to add teams. With UCLA and USC, the Big Ten would have 16 teams and its possible the conference could grow to 20-plus.

Although the CU football program hasn’t been elite in a long time, the Buffs have some appeal. Getting into the Denver market and Rocky Mountain region could be attractive to the Big Ten. Plus, it could lead to a natural renewal of the rivalry with Nebraska, and possibly allow CU to continue making trips to Los Angeles.

3. Call the SEC: It’s clear that the Big Ten and SEC will be leading the way into the future in college sports. Both are on their way to becoming superconferences. Although both are now slated to have 16 teams, there is belief that two 32-team superconferences could be on the horizon.

What’s clear is that playing in the Big Ten or SEC would be the most lucrative options for CU — or anyone. So, why not at least call the SEC and gauge its interest in the Buffs?

As is the case with the Big Ten, CU’s place in the Denver market and Rocky Mountain region give the Buffs some appeal. Is it enough for the SEC to be interested?

4. Return to the Big 12: Maybe not the most exciting option, but it might make the most sense if the Pac-12 crumbles and the Big Ten isn’t interested.

It certainly won’t be the familiar Big 12 that CU left behind.

In the spring of 2010, there were reports of the Pac-10 looking to add six Big 12 teams, including CU, Oklahoma and Texas. At the time, it appeared the future of the Big 12 was bleak, with or without the mass exodus to the Pac-10. Ultimately, CU left for the Pac-10 and Nebraska for the Big Ten. Missouri and Texas A&M left for the SEC in 2012.

The rest of the Big 12 was able to stay together and add two members: TCU and West Virginia.

Now, after losing Oklahoma and Texas, six of the original Big 12 won’t be there by 2024. But, the conference is set to expand by adding BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston in 2023. After the departures of Oklahoma and Texas, that would give the conference 12 schools.

To create its own “superconference,” the Big 12 could look to add several Pac-12 teams, including Arizona, ASU, CU and Utah. Or maybe even merge with the remainder of the Pac-12.

CU already has long histories with several Big 12 schools, such as Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, so there will be some natural rivalries in place.

A move to the Big 12 could also be huge for CU in terms of football recruiting. The Buffs already make Texas a priority in recruiting, but the Buffs could be more attractive to prospects that get to watch CU play every week.

Whatever happens, it’s could happen fast. Reports of UCLA and USC leaving puts pressure on CU and other schools to scramble for the largest piece of the pie possible as they look to the future.

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