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Which Pac-12 Schools are Hurt the Most by USC/UCLA Move to the Big Ten?

Looking at where the Pac-12 teams stand; and who’s fighting a losing battle.

It’s a shock that rocked the college football world. On Thursday, USC and UCLA did some thought was unimaginable. They left the Pac-12 for the Big 10 conference. 

The move left fans theorizing about super-conferences and cursing Larry Scott, while some universities in the potentially pulse-less Conference of Champions try to assure fans this is not the end.

Though the Pac-12 itself released a statement saying they are pushing for expansion and the ten remaining schools are committed to a “shared mission of academic and athletic excellence,” it’s not a stretch to consider which universities could or couldn’t find a safety raft in the rising waters of uncertainty.

Oregon

It’s safe to assume the school in the least amount of danger is Oregon. According to The Sports Economist, Oregon came with the 13th-highest ratings in college football with 2.31 millions viewers in the 2021 season. After their explosive 2021 win in the Horseshoe over Ohio State, Fanatics reported Oregon gear was the highest-selling merchandise on their website, rising 425% in the days following that game. Couple football dominance with Oregon’s prestige in track and field, an athletic area the Big 10 frequently does well in (the World’s at Hayward helps), then the Ducks have a solid selling point to do just fine. Oh, and there is that new Knight science facility to give a boost to the academic appeal.

Oregon State

In a statement from Oregon State University president Becky Johnson, “OSU continues to strongly believe in the continuing strength of the Pac-12 Conference.” To be honest, the Beaver’s best chance is for the remainder of the Pac to stay together. The Beavers’ baseball program is their strength, with six alumni actively playing professionally and three national championship wins in the sport since 2005. However, their football program is not the strongest in the Conference of Champions by a long shot. According to a deep dive of 2021 TV ratings from independent journalist Run It Back With Zach, Oregon State came in 69th nationally with 321,000 viewers, the second-worst in the Pac-12 for football. Corvallis’ local sports coverage also comes from Eugene stations. Their first bowl appearance since 2013 was a chilling loss to the Utah State Aggies at the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. Their demolition of part of the old Reser Stadium might have been a premonition for their modern day power five contention.

Washington

With the Seattle-Tacoma area as the 14th-highest TV market in the country in 2021, the Huskies carry the largest TV market since UCLA and USC left. According to college football ratings research, Washington is the third most-watched of the remaining ten schools with a 38th rank of 985,000 viewers annually. Their most recent NCAA national championship went to their 2019-2020 women’s rowing team, and they have nine national championship teams overall, which is not glowing compared to UCLA (119) and USC (111). Washington’s football program is struggling as of late, but their 17 conference titles and seven Rose Bowl wins tout the prestige of history. Their fate is brighter because of their fanbase and TV market size alone.

Stanford

The fourth most-watched of the remaining 10 teams in 2021, the Cardinal pulled in roughly 778,000 viewers. Their Ivy-League adjacent reputation could lend a hand to their athletic department alone. Furthermore, Stanford has the most overall titles out of any college in the country with 131. The school has won a national title consecutively for 46 years. Furthermore, still being in that valuable California TV market UCLA and USC boasted, the Cardinal will have an easier time finding a reputable conference home. Football wise, Twitter is always quick to remind Stanford of their dwindling crowds. Under David Shaw, the Cardinal had record-breaking Rose Bowl and conference title wins, but has since petered out in recent years.

Colorado

“Just sitting around thinking what could have been or looking longingly into the past is not going to help (the Buffs) in their current state,” said Joel Klatt, former Buffaloes quarterback and current Fox Sports Analyst to the Denver Post. The Buffalos could reunite with Nebraska out of former Big-12 founder tradition, and travel logistics would work out for that conference. Colorado hits the middle of the pack for 2021 viewers at around 366,000, but not enough to justify a power five immediate pick up. They have their single national championship in football from 1990, but there isn’t enough prestige in the program to sell it to a modern audience.

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Washington State

For Washington State, the concern should be at an all-time high. They rank above Colorado in viewers with about 483,000 annually. However, Washington State’s location and lack of relevance in the modern era just doesn’t cut it for a power five conference. Most social media commentary on the situation points out the “who wants to play in Pullman?” argument. Their only modern division championship appearance was a 2018 tiebreaker Washington won. They do consistently appear in bowl games, like the Sun Bowl in 2021 against Central Michigan, but since 2015, they’ve only won two of their last six bowl games. The Cougs and the Beavers are both in equal trouble.

California

222,000 viewers annually, the lowest of all ten remaining schools (with the California market in mind), should be a huge red flag. There is currently little to no talk of the Bay area school being attractive to another power five conference, with most online chatter pointing to the end of the Golden Bears’ as we know them. The Bears can try to boast their history of five national titles from the 1920’s and 1930’s, or their 14 conference championships ending in 2006, but that history doesn’t reflect the current sinking football program. In 2019, the Justin Wilcox breathed some life into the program with a top 15 national ranking after a 4-0 start to the season along with their first win against Stanford since 2009, but there’s just not enough present for them to move to another power five conference.

Utah

Utah should be one of the least concerned programs on this list. The second-highest in 2021 viewers under Oregon with 994,000 estimated viewers, Utah revamped their program with two very notable wins over the Ducks last year. They’re the reigning Pac-12 champs with a Rose Bowl appearance to boot. Utah has 24 overall national championship teams. Salt Lake City is also the 34th-highest ranked TV market in the nation (out of 210 markets). Their viewership, history of football intrigue (remember Urban Meyer head coached in the early 2000’s?), and current athletic prowess, they’ll be alright if the Pac-12 dissolves. The University statement also felt fairly noncommittal to the Pac-12, showing they also know the value they present.

Arizona & Arizona State

As the Arizona’s will probably be picked up in a group, it’s fair to put them together here. Arizona State boasts around 739,000 viewers annually for football, with Arizona raking in 337,000. The Wildcats do however, boast one of the top basketball programs in the country.

Out of the two universities, Arizona is the least appealing in terms of program and performance. However, the Arizona fan base and TV market will likely save the two programs, keeping their southern location appealing to conferences looking to add West Coast teams. The Herm Edwards NCAA violation allegations should be noted, but most likely will not affect Arizona State’s ability to find a new conference of note.

Overall, the universities that should be worried are the ones that can’t pony up viewers, promise for the football program, or profits. There’s also the worry of state legislation to keep certain in-state schools together. Either way, the fate of the universities do not rely on a single factor, which illustrates the grave complexity of conference realignment moving forward.

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