It’s almost football season for West Virginia. The fall camp is in full swing and the Mountaineers are fine-tuning the minute details of the offense, defense and special teams in anticipation of the first game of the season against Maryland on Sept. 4. If one hadn’t been paying attention to the landscape of college athletics, it would feel like the world of college football was almost back to normal.
The looming threat of realignment still hangs over college athletics, college football and basketball specifically, and West Virginia is directly at the forefront of the upcoming realignment battlegrounds.
With Oklahoma and Texas’s Big 12 exits officially old news now, the Big 12’s battle to maintain its autonomy and relevancy in the wake of losing its two premier members has taken somewhat of a backseat as the upcoming season overshadows the implications coming in the seasons to come.
As for Dan Wolken, a USA TODAY Sports national columnist, he feels like West Virginia and all of the remaining schools in the Big 12 are just seeing what their options are now.
“The reality of the situation could very well be that there aren’t any good options right at this particular moment,” Wolken told WV Sports Now. “If that’s the case, there’s not a lot you can do about that.”
With Texas and Oklahoma out, Wolken spoke to the complexity of working on navigating the college football landscape with the two Big 12 powerhouses jumping ship.
“So much of what happens in realignment is unpredictable,” Wolken said. “It’s political, it’s backroom dealing, it’s personal relationships and there are just all these different things that might or might not go into the decisions these leagues make.”
In referencing the realignment chaos from a decade ago, Wolken brought up how fans often feel like events aren’t moving quickly enough to suit their own standards. There can sometimes be a commotion about why schools aren’t doing one thing or why they’re doing another.
“It’s fair to say that whatever the fans want the school to do, the people at the school are already a couple of steps ahead of you,” Wolken said. “They’re already working the phones, trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to see what might happen down the road.”
However, while events can move quickly in collegiate athletics, the opposite can be true. It’s highly possible, even likely, that events are moving slowly behind the scenes — and that there just may not be much for the remaining teams to do right now. Not to say there’s nothing to do, but that events of this magnitude take time. As evidenced by Oklahoma and Texas’s long-term plot to exit the Big 12. In the event that the three Power Five conferences not named the SEC choose not to act, WVU and all Big 12 teams are stuck.
A lot of talk has centered around WVU once again attempting to make a push to join the ACC should the Big 12 collapse or even just exiting outright. With the ACC denying WVU’s push to join when exiting the Big East a decade ago, eventually landing with the Big 12, the potential for rejection is there again.
However, a lot has changed since then. WVU isn’t — and won’t ever be — a school that contends among the best in the nation. It’s fair to question whether WVU fits the ACC’s academic standards, but it’s undeniable that the academics in Morgantown have improved since 2011. Not enough to join the Big 10, without the AAU academic accreditation the Big 10 wants, but maybe enough to sway the ACC this time?
Wolken wonders though whether there’s any incentive for the ACC to add any school, regardless of whether their academic or athletic standing has improved in the past decade.
“At this particular moment, what is the ACC’s incentive to add any teams? I don’t know I have an answer for that,” Wolken said. “It’s really not anything specific to do with West Virginia, it’s just more that the ACC has 14 members in football. They’ve got Notre Dame as kind of a half member they have a scheduling agreement with. And they have a television contract that goes out for quite a long time. So, unless the ACC was being forced by events outside of its control to add teams, then I don’t know, at least for right now, why they would want to add anyone at all.”
The only school Wolken mentioned that he could see the ACC could possibly looking into adding was Kansas, in order to bolster the basketball scene in the conference. However, he said that event was also unlikely.
“It’s not any sort of insult to West Virginia, which has a very good tradition and fan base, to say that they don’t necessarily add a lot to the ACC right now on their own in the environment,” Wolken said. “So, as much as West Virginia would want to go to the ACC for obvious reasons, you have to put the pen to paper and say is this going to make sense financially and benefit the ACC schools already there? I’m not sure that it does.”
With the Big 10 officially out of the question, the SEC an extremely unlikely situation and the ACC likely not rolling out the red carpet for the Mountaineers, what other options are currently on the table?
The Mountaineers must exhaust all options to stay in a Power Five conference, so that would leave the AAC on the outside. The Pac 12 is the other Power Five conference that could potentially have interest in WVU, but it certainly wouldn’t come from an individual invitation. It would be a collaborative effort between the Big 12 and Pac 12.
And in the wake of the rumors of the ACC, Big 10 and Pac 12 discussing scheduling options and alliances, leaving the Big 12 out to dry as the only Power Five conference without serious traction, it doesn’t bode well for the remaining schools.
“The fact the ACC, the Pac 12 and the Big 10 are sort of talking about some concepts and saying, ‘hey, how can we pool our interests to maybe make some headway here,’ and that doesn’t include the Big 12, I think that’s definitely a statement that the prospect for the Big 12 long-term and the schools that it will have remaining, it is not a real promising situation long-term,” Wolken said.
There had been rumors of a potential Big 12 and Pac 12 alliance, with the two commissioners meeting to discuss matters, but it appears such talks may have been the Pac 12 gauging the Big 12’s situation — the ACC, Big 10, Pac 12 rumors coming out after the previous meeting. It isn’t exactly encouraging for the Big 12.
“The Big 12 has a tough hand to play here, but the only thing they can do for right now is to try to collect the exit fee money, and literally every dollar, from Oklahoma and Texas,” Wolken said. “Or else, keep them in the league until the current television contract runs out so the schools currently in the Big 12 can get the entire payday they’ve been budgeting for the next few years.”
If the Big 12 is going to continue to exist, Wolken said, the conference will certainly need to add schools. Whether that’s two, four, six schools or whatever, that’s up to others to decide. The debate surrounding whether the Big 12 needs to pull from the AAC or other Group of Five conferences will likely continue to go on.
It’s a challenge for the schools remaining in the Big 12, Wolken said, to remain together as one in the face of potential exits. If another Power Five conference comes calling for any school in the Big 12, that’ll be it. It’s not even a discussion, Wolken said, to turn down interest from one of the other four Power Five conferences. Even in the face of geographical hardship, like WVU would face in joining the Pac 12. However, that doesn’t mean an offer is coming.
“As of right now, there’s not a single school in the Big 12, or a combination of schools in the Big 12, that you can add to one of these leagues and guarantee that the money distributed per school is going to increase — in fact, it may go down,” Wolken said.
With a potential College Football Playoff expansion giving the Big 12 a sure-fire berth every year and the addition of teams like UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis to the conference, the Big 12 could potentially survive moving forward. The new TV deal wouldn’t compare to the current one, but it would be a way for the Big 12 to survive.
For Wolken, he feels that sort of situation would be about as good as any for the remaining Big 12 teams — aside from gaining admittance to another Power Five conference.
The road ahead for WVU will likely be long and windy, but the Mountaineers do have options. Even if those options don’t look too good or haven’t appeared yet. It just likely won’t be easy for WVU.