After the departure of Utah, Arizona and Arizona State to the Big 12, it was announced on Friday that Washington and Oregon would be joining the Big Ten. After the additions of USC and UCLA, the conference now stands at 18 programs and is a true national grouping, spanning from Seattle and Los Angeles to Piscataway and College Park.
The announcement rattled the college sports landscape like a West Coast earthquake, and with a few dominoes still left to fall, it remains to be seen just how widespread the ramifications will be. Ultimately, this move is not the “death of college sports” like some pundits claim, but the situation is complex and, unsurprisingly, motivated by money.
For starters, the days of conferences being regional entities are gone. The Big Ten covers coast to coast, the new Big 12 stretches from Orlando to Salt Lake City, and rumors of Cal and Stanford joining the ACC would destroy the “Atlantic Coast” element of the “Atlantic Coast Conference.”
One of the biggest draws to college football was how each conference and each region had it’s own distinct style of play. The Big Ten was run-first, physical and gritty while the Big 12 featured high-flying offenses and exorbitant point totals. That is no longer the case. In a few years, it’s possible that nobody will care about regional identities as they continue to tune into exciting Oregon-Michigan matchups, but for diehard college football plans, this loss is notable.
Traditional rivalries also become a casualty of the new conference structure. Although both schools have indicated they intend to keep state rivalries intact, the loss of Oregon-Oregon State and Washington-Washington State on the conference schedule, matchups that have faced off 126 and 114 times, respectively, is a major blow. Instead we will get matchups like Oregon-Maryland and Oregon-Rutgers, who have never played each other in program history. Even Washington-Penn State, which seems exciting on paper, will not draw the same fervent passion as the annual Apple Cup and the geographic rivalry that those two schools have built.
In terms of logistics, the Big Ten, now clearly a mega-conference, could realistically field as many as five playoff teams in the expanded 12-team playoff format which will begin in 2024 — the same year all four West Coast teams will join the conference.
The conference’s 2024 and 2025 schedule, which had already been announced, will have to be revised to account for the two new additions. The current “flex protect plus” model, which allowed for each team to have up to three protected rivals and guaranteed that each team would play a home and away matchup against every program in a four-year span, no longer works.
The Big Ten may have to implement a plan that gives each team one protected rival to play every season. The remaining sixteen teams would be split into two, with eight more games each year to fill out the nine-game conference gauntlet. This would still allow for each team to host every other opponent in the conference once every four years, ensuring matchups once every two seasons. However, this would take away annual rivalries such as Michigan-Michigan State with only Michigan-Ohio State being able to be protected. The schedule-makers will have to find a format that maintains rivalries, limits the amount of cross-country trips and ensures that teams will play one another with some regularity.
It is possible that the conference could re-implement some sort of division structure. Although the new model was supposed to strip the conference of the West and East divisions, especially if the conference continues to expand, it may make logistical sense to create a West Coast division to cut down on travel and keep those rivalries in place.
For Northwestern specifically, Washington and Oregon’s arrival only further crowds the competitive field. The ‘Cats won their only meeting in program history against the Ducks but are 0-3 all-time against the Huskies. Without being able to rely on a historically weaker West Division, the Wildcats face an uphill battle to be one of the two best teams in an 18-team conference — what it’ll take to have the chance to play for a conference championship. Oregon and Washington are consistent powerhouses, and despite USC and UCLA typically being recognized as the biggest brands of the conference formerly known as the Pac-12 (technically, it is still alive as the Pac-4 or something), Oregon and Washington were the only teams to represent the conference in the CFP.
Years down the line, eyeballs will still be glued to Ohio State-USC matchups on the gridiron as TV contracts continue to get more and more lucrative. The Pac-12 may be talked about the way sports hipsters discuss the USFL, Southwest Conference or Montreal Expos. The basketball will probably be fun and exciting too. The biggest negative impact will be felt by the dozens of sports that don’t get quite as much exposure.
Washington and Oregon’s addition upends the athletic programs for both schools from top to bottom. Several softball athletes from Pac-12 schools have spoken up about conference realignment, pointing out the failure of the NCAA to protect all athletes:
Several softball players who compete for schools that are leaving the Pac-12 have spoken out against the latest round of conference realignment.— Andy Wittry (@AndyWittry) August 5, 2023
They cited mental health and further distances for their families to travel for road games. pic.twitter.com/jeURfGGqjC
These claims are completely justified. Will student-athletes at one of the West Coast schools have to make double-digit trips to the Midwest each season? As University of Michigan regent Jordan Acker explained in a thread of tweets (X’s?) that I highly recommend reading, it would take less time for non-chartered travel from Ann Arbor to London than from Ann Arbor to Eugene for a matchup with Oregon.
Ultimately, this decision was dictated by money. Television dollars and profit were front of mind, and as a result, football was prioritized above all else, creating a trickle down effect that adversely affects every other sport while killing the Pac-12 in the process.
In those other sports, Northwestern faces a similar crowding issue as in football with the introduction of two more competitive programs. Historically, Oregon has fielded strong teams in women’s basketball, track and field, baseball and golf. Washington boasts competitive teams in golf, rowing, men’s soccer and softball.
At Big Ten Media Days, the commissioner and several football coaches discussed how the transfer portal is the single biggest issue in college football, yet in the past calendar year, we have seen the programs themselves participate in their own version of the transfer portal, hopping from conference to conference in search of the most profitable arrangement. How fair is it to condemn athletes for attempting to do the same?
Finally, on a lighter note: Washington Huskies, you’ve been warned. Don’t think you can waltz into the Big Ten late to the party and be the primary purple-wearing team of the conference. That crown belongs to Northwestern. Although you may actually reside in the Northwest of the United States, WE are Northwestern, and purple belongs to us.