Trying to deduce the next steps in this summer’s version of College Football Bingo has become a full-time obsession around the country ever since the news broke last week that USC and UCLA were bolting the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2025.
Apparently, the Big Ten has told various media outlets that the conference is done expanding, for now. Yet who actually believes that?
There are theories to support any scenario you can dream up, from the entire remaining Pac-12 merging with the Big 12, to the Big Ten absorbing the rest of the Pac-12 to create a “West” division of the traditional Midwest conference, to much smaller moves such as the Big Ten inviting Stanford to join, largely as an enticement to lure Notre Dame since that would mean two traditional opponents of the Irish would be in the same conference.
As CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd wrote on Sunday, nothing happens “until Notre Dame decides on its future.”
Notre Dame next? No so fast
If the Big Ten is still looking to expand, a likely target would be Notre Dame. The conference has long coveted bringing in college football’s singular national brand name, but Notre Dame has steadfastly stuck to its independent roots, bolstered since beginning a relationship with NBC in 1991 to show Irish home games exclusively.
Notre Dame does have conference memberships beyond football. The Irish are ACC members for most Olympic sports, and are part of the Big Ten hockey league. A major reason for the latter is the ease of traveling within the conference.
The Big Ten has made runs at Notre Dame many times over the years, and came close several times. Interestingly, when USC and UCLA join the conference in 2025 that’s also when Notre Dame’s current contract ($15 million annually) expires with NBC.
However, as Mike Berardino notes in the South Bend Tribune, there would be a huge catch if Notre Dame fully jumped to the Big Ten.
He wrote that the ESPN contract with the ACC, which runs through 2036, includes a provision that if Notre Dame were to join any conference in football before that date, it would be contractually obligated to join the ACC. The exit fee to get out of that deal probably would offset the windfall from joining the Big Ten. Then again, Dodd surmised, maybe the other Big Ten schools could help share the financial hit.
Apparently none of that is cooling Big Ten interest in the Irish. Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, who used to hold the same job at Arizona State and played on two Notre Dame national championship football teams in the 1970s, was not shy in expressing his feelings.
"I love my alma mater," Smith told reporters in a Friday news conference in Columbus, Ohio, "and I’ve always thought they should be in a conference. I don’t know what a next step would be (for Notre Dame), but I hope they consider that opportunity and I hope it’s the Big Ten."
Arizona schools on fast track to Big 12?
The most obvious move for Arizona and Arizona State, should they choose to leave the Pac-12, is to the Big 12. There is built-in familiarity with some of that conference’s schools, such as BYU (joining next year) and Texas Tech; there is powerful basketball in the Big 12 including Kansas and Baylor, which plays to UA's strength; and the Arizona schools are used to recruiting in Big 12 country, especially Texas.
Playing into this possible scenario is the Big 12’s apparent sudden interest in going on the offensive, writes Brett McMurphy of the Action Network. According to his sources, “The Big 12 has never been aggressive (in conference realignment), but they should contact those four Pac-12 schools and tell them ‘come on board because there’s nothing left’ in the Pac-12. Added another source: “We’re not sitting back this time. That killed us in the past. We’re looking to strengthen our conference.”
Looming over all of this is the SEC, which started the current realignment carousel when it lured Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12. Speculation is flying that the SEC will be looking next to bring aboard some of the jewels of the ACC, such as Clemson and Florida State.
Matt Leinart understands USC's move
Former Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, who won the Heisman Trophy playing for USC in 2004, says he understands why his school is making the jump from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten.
“It’s still, like trying to process them being part of the Big Ten in a couple of years … I was shocked at the initial announcement, but I can’t say I’m surprised that it happened,” he said Friday on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. “I think when you look at the current landscape of college football and where it’s going … Oklahoma and Texas really being that first domino last year to say we’re going to the SEC for obvious reasons, USC being a massive national brand still despite the lack of competitiveness on the field, it was just a no-brainer.”
Leinart went on to say he thinks the move “will greatly benefit them and UCLA.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: From Arizona State to Notre Dame, speculation on next moves rampant