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Rooney: Pros, cons of what might come next for CU Buffs athletics

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 6, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Ralphie the buffalo runs before the Oregon State Beavers game on November 6, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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For now, Colorado athletic Rick George remains steadfast in his confidence in the solidarity of what remains of the Pac-12 Conference.

George did not specifically add the “for now” caveat as he met local media members this week. But he didn’t have to. That part of the equation has been a given since the Pac-12 was gut-punched by the sudden defection of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten more than two weeks ago.

Anything can change on any given day. One phone call, one enticing offer to league rivals like Washington and/or Oregon, and the solidarity into which George professed his faith — “The ADs are aligned on where we think this needs to go” — will vanish even more quickly than the Pac-12’s footprint in Los Angeles.

Amid all this debate and speculation regarding the future of Colorado athletics and the Pac-12, what exactly is the best potential fit for the Buffs? The obvious answer, and the one folks like George are driving toward, is, essentially, “Whatever pays the best.” As always, this will come down the (football) bottom line.

Still, the speculation part is fun. Here are the CU-centric pros and cons among the more viable options on the table.

Staying put

If, as George noted this week, the remaining 10 schools in the Pac-12 indeed weather this storm in a unified front, it will cocoon the Buffs in a security blanket. This week, Sports Illustrated published a “Desirability Ratings” list, ranking all 69 Power 5 schools based on how coveted they would be in the hypothetical scenario of wiping clean the current conference alignments and starting over. CU checked in at No. 57.

Sorry Buffs fans, but nearly two full decades of mostly futile football has severely dampened CU’s national brand. The Pac-12 (10) remains the biggest athletic conference west of the Central time zone. Hitching the Buffs’ future to the coattails of Oregon and Washington could keep CU from being overlooked and left behind.

Then again, Pac-12’s current troubles can be traced, among other business missteps, to a football brand that already was struggling to keep pace with the Big Ten and SEC even with USC. It is difficult to envision the Pac-12, even with additions via expansion, closing that vast football gap as a standalone conference.

Big 12 merger

In the immediate aftermath of the USC and UCLA announcement, the “Four Corners” schools of CU, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State were rumored to be entertaining an offer from the Big 12. That particular scenario has been debunked, but some sort of league-wide merger — be it a full consolidation or some sort of media and scheduling alliance — still very much could be in play.

CU obviously has a history with the Big 12, its home prior to the move to the Pac-12 a dozen years ago. Any sort of merger would allow both conferences to keep pace with the blossoming superleagues of the Big Ten and SEC. With Cincinnati, Brigham Young, Houston and Central Florida soon joining the Big 12, a merger would give the Pac-12/Big 12 a cross-country footprint even more expansive than the new-look Big Ten.

While such a merger would allow CU to keep pace in college football’s financial race, a Buffs football program that has struggled to compete consistently in what largely has been a mediocre Pac-12 would have an even more difficult time rising above the pack in any superconference.

ACC merger

Perhaps more out-of-the-box than other solutions, but merging the west coast with the east coast again would allow the Pac-12 to keep pace with the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC also features larger TV markets than the Big 12 but, like the Pac-12, its football brand for any school not named Clemson has lagged in recent seasons. Travel would be more demanding, but at least CU is better situated for regular east coast trips than the bulk of its Pac-12 brethren. The unfortunate reality is that survival for the Pac-12 might require a coast-to-coast footprint, regardless of the scheduling demands that puts on most non-football sports.

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