Pac-12 survival guide: Examining the Fear Index as vultures circle and uncertainty looms

Arizona Sports News online

With the Pac-12 fighting for survival following the announced departures of USC and UCLA, the Hotline has attempted to sketch the widest range of scenarios for the 107-year-old conference — from mergers and acquisitions to the status quo and extinction.

The situation is extremely fluid, with those in charge unsure of the outcome.

What appears plausible today could be impractical tomorrow.

What feels far-fetched in the moment could seem obvious within a week.

The conference could hold together and not expand, thus dividing the revenue pie 10 ways instead of 12.

If it replaces the Los Angeles schools, two options stand above others for strategic value: San Diego State, because of the proximity to Southern California, and SMU, because of the foothold in Dallas.

We also addressed the benefits of an alliance (or merger) with the ACC or Big 12.

(In fact, the Hotline examined the merits of a strategic alliance with the Big 12 three years ago. Had the conferences partnered back then, they would be in stronger position today despite the defections of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC and USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.)

But in the interest of sketching as many scenarios as possible so readers aren’t surprised by any outcome, we should add this to the mix:

A fractured separation.

In this scenario, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would head to the Big 12, largely because of their geographic fit, while Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Cal would join the ACC because of their institutional alignment.

It’s unlikely, sure. But don’t discount the potential for this wave of realignment to conclude somewhere outside the box.

With that, the Hotline presents the first edition of our Pac-12 Fear Index, a school-by-school breakdown of destinations and anxiety levels.

Fear Index: moderate
Outlook: So long as the administrations in Tucson and Tempe move in lockstep, the Wildcats should land safely. But in the unlikely event that the fracture we saw in California — with UCLA splitting off from Cal despite sharing a board of regents — were to repeat in Arizona, the situation could get worrisome for the Wildcats. As its own entity, the football program brings little value on the open market.

Arizona State
Fear Index: low
Outlook: We have fielded numerous questions about ASU on two fronts: The potential impact of the NCAA investigation; and the significance of the Phoenix media market. The former is a short-term issue dwarfed by a long-term decision and shouldn’t affect the Sun Devils. The latter is more nuanced. Market size matters, but not as much as it used to. Now, the ability to drive ratings (i.e., brand value) is critical.

Fear Index: high
Outlook: Eons of university apathy toward football have thrust Cal into an uncomfortable position, with no guarantee the Bears will find a home if the Pac-12 fractures. As difficult as it might be to envision Cal sharing a conference with Iowa State or Baylor, remember this: the athletic department has 28 Olympic sports to support and hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium debt to service. The Bears cannot afford to be selective.

Fear Index: moderate
Outlook: The Buffaloes were a member of the Big 12 until 2011 and would have the easiest assimilation process. But they don’t bring ASU’s media market or Utah’s competitive success. If the Big 12 undertakes a raid, CU needs the league to conclude there’s safety in numbers and add at least four schools. If the Big 12 turns selective and only adds two — a scenario we don’t think likely — the Buffs could have reason to fret.

Fear Index: high*
Outlook: The Ducks will have a home, whether it’s the ACC or Big 12 or Pac-12. But the level of anxiety in Eugene is significant for a different reason (hence the asterisk): The likelihood that Oregon’s landing spot will 1) be considered beneath a program that fashions itself one of the best in the country and 2) permanently impact its ability to recruit at a high level and compete for playoff bids.

Oregon State
Fear Index: extreme
Outlook: If the Pac-12 dissolves and the Big 12 doesn’t swallow all 10 schools, the Beavers are in serious trouble. Their options seemingly would be limited to the Mountain West or perhaps the Big Sky. We’re highly skeptical that state politics could legally bind OSU to Oregon, thus forcing the hand of a marauding conference. But in an alternate universe, all is well — because Phil Knight went to school in Corvallis.

Fear Index: high
Outlook: The Cardinal is attractive on multiple levels, with the academic reputation appealing to presidents in other leagues and the media market attractive to TV networks. We can envision scenarios in which Stanford lands in the ACC, Big 12 or even Big Ten (with Notre Dame). The greater risk here is philosophical: Given the likelihood that athletes will be deemed employees sooner than later, the university could opt out of Power Five football altogether.

Fear Index: zero
Outlook: The Utes are in excellent strategic position to survive the chaos and thrive wherever they land. Thanks to their geography, in-state recruiting pool, the Salt Lake media market, rabid fan support and granite football infrastructure, the program is poised for success in an expanded Big 12 or reconfigured Pac-12. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Fear Index: zero
Outlook: Even if the Power Five consolidates into the Power Four or Power Three-And-A-Half, the Huskies will have a seat at the table. With its tradition, brand, academic reputation and media market, UW might be the most desirable program not pledged to the SEC or Big Ten and not Notre Dame. (North Carolina, Clemson and Oregon would be on the short list, as well.) That said, the Huskies’ destination might not be ideal competitively.

Washington State
Fear Index: extreme
Outlook: WSU faces the same challenges as Oregon State with the dastardly combination of tough geography, limited budget and low brand value. If the Pac-12 doesn’t hold together or combine fully with the Big 12, the Cougars seemingly are headed for a spot in the Mountain West or Big Sky. This, despite five winning seasons in the league’s expansion era — the same number as UCLA.