What Are WVU’s Realignment Options?
News cycles can move quickly. Indeed, the word that Texas and Oklahoma might consider moving to the SEC broke days ago. Immediately thereafter, we heard that the other eight Big 12 schools met to discuss the future. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, we learned just the next day that Texas and Oklahoma have been working with the SEC for six months. In short, the discussion between the relevant parties is mature (many call it a “done deal”). But there is still much we do not know. In light of the news, though, we must ask what are WVU’s realignment options?
Did WVU Know?
Realignment rumors circulate annually. In fact, many of us keep a running joke about this: who will be the first to write the “grand-plan” Super-Four article this year? As a result, we are certain that many of our readers jumped to quick conclusions. “Another year, another rumor,” they said. It did not take long, however, for us to realize that there was some fire behind this year’s smoke.
As writers, and as fans, this puts all of us in a weird place. If Texas, Oklahoma, and 13 schools in the SEC (if you really believe that Texas A&M was kept in the dark) knew about this for six months, who else knew? Even if nobody knew for certain, who else had good reason to speculate?
These questions remain unanswered, and we do not, as yet, have any inside information that would help us do much more than guess. That being said, West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons and President Gordon Gee offer experience and veteran leadership. As a result, it remains tough to believe that West Virginia stands completely blind-sided without having considered contingency plans.
So What Are WVU’s Realignment Options?
We do not, at present, have inside information that we could cite to say one option is more likely than the other. We rely on educated guesses instead, as are most writers at present. Nonetheless, we rank WVU’s realignment options from most to least likely.
WVU Moves to the ACC
Everything we say in this list comes with the following caveat. Just because the SEC seems set to add two more teams, the remaining Power 5 conferences do not have to follow. If expansion does not advance the others’ goals, the remaining conferences could hold serve. In fact, we cannot argue that any schools likely to consider a move could improve the status of a conference as much as the SEC’s looming (likely) additions. This is just a fact. (Though the networks could compel it regardless.)
ACC Could Make a Splash with Notre Dame
The closest match any conference could find rotates around a single team: Notre Dame. The ACC, of course, remains laser-focused on convincing Notre Dame to join the conference as a full member. This move makes all the sense in the world for the ACC.
The move, however, would leave the conference at 15 schools. The ACC would not want to field an odd number of teams. First, as we understand the ACC’s broadcasting rights, they can renegotiate only if they add two teams. Second, an odd number of teams creates too many logistical problems. But who else would they add? The Big 12’s uncertain future provides an opportunity.
The biggest question here, of course, is whether Notre Dame has reason to give up its independent status. And many other writers have written about this at length. We do not wish to repeat their work here. That said, the 2020 season might have offered Notre Dame the trial run needed to convince them to join.
West Virginia Fits as a Second Addition
West Virginia makes the most sense out of the remaining Big 12 teams for a number of reasons.
First, West Virginia has historic rivalries with many of the ACC schools. In other words, the bridges are already there. Pitt and Virginia Tech provide two more bitter rivalries. Then, Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, and Virginia reunify former Big East foes. All of these games could make for interesting storylines (and viewership). This is especially true for those between West Virginia and Pitt and Virginia Tech.
Second, West Virginia offers the best fit geographically. Even though Notre Dame would expand the ACC to the West, the move is slight (compare South Bend to Louisville).
Third, WVU offers the most to the ACC. West Virginia routinely ranks in the Top 25 in terms of merchandise sales, and its fans travel well (and would travel even better to its new ACC venues). The Mountaineers have a longer sustained history of modest success in football than the remaining schools (despite recent success by Oklahoma State and, to a lesser extent, Iowa State). West Virginia also adds more to the other sports.
What About Past Rejections?
As fans, we have to overlook the recent past here. Simply, things are different than they were when WVU last sought entrance into the ACC. WVU has used its Big 12 revenue wisely, investing across the board in upgrades to its facilities in all sports, including the Olympic sports. West Virginia has sustained success in basketball. And while it never fit very well into the Big 12, absent its current rebuild after the end of the Holgorsen era, has still had some competitive and exciting years over the last decade.
We know that WVU fans tend to carry the chip on their collective shoulders proudly, our resources have improved our standing in the last decade. As a result, we cannot fairly judge any potential interest by the ACC against our standing a decade ago. We also have better (and more stable) leadership.
WVU Finds Itself On the Outside Looking In
This option is the least favorable one for the Mountaineers, but, unfortunately, it seems more likely than its Plan B or C options. We doubt the ACC would expand for expansion’s sake. Thus, unless they are able to poach a team from elsewhere (doubtful) or pair WVU with Notre Dame, the ACC would be an unlikely dance partner in the immediate future. In this event, West Virginia has other options (explored below). Those options, however, rely on a larger number of other factors to fall into place.
As a result, we think that if an ACC bid fails, West Virginia may well find itself either downgrading to a G5 conference or reverting to “independent” status. Neither of these options would sit well with most fans, nor should they. An independent WVU does not carry the same weight as Notre Dame. The school would presumably face challenges scheduling opponents. It would definitely see an immediate and drastic reduction in revenue (unless they explore and spearhead more creative options).
Finding a home in a G5 conference would be better than seeing an independent WVU. But that would also come with an immediate loss of revenue. The recruiting momentum Head Coach Neal Brown has amassed would likely cease. And absent the hire of a deeply loyal coach, WVU would also be subject to an unceasing coaching carousel that could further destabilize the program.
WVU Remains in the Big 12
Maybe the eight remaining Big 12 schools agree to keep the conference around for a while. Oklahoma and Texas, in fact, signaled that absent an implosion of the conference, they would stick around until the current Grant of Rights expires in 2025. We think this is a ploy. Oklahoma and Texas are counting on the leaked news to spur remaining members to find other homes leading to a consensual, penalty-free dissolution.
What if the remaining members, who would be owed over $100 million by the two if they left early, called their bluff? The imminent playoff expansion could still give a Big 12 school a set path to the playoff, and that path would be the easiest in college football. (Is this bringing back late-Big-East memories for anyone?)
In this scenario, the Big 12 could itself expand. It would look to add two to four teams from some combination of the likely suspects. Cincinnati, UCF, BYU, and Boise State would add the most quality. Houston, SMU, and Memphis might make more sense geographically. This would cause the Big 12 to lose revenue, but the moves could keep it alive as a Power 5 conference for several years.
Circulating rumors make this unlikely, though. Rumors abound of an aggressive push by the Pac-12 to merge with some or all of the remaining Big 12 members. Reports suggest Kansas already reached out to the Big Ten. TCU sources suggest that at least one other member has been in serious talks to join another conference. This option would require all eight remaining members to reject these possibilities outright. That is a tall order.
WVU Joins the Big Ten or Pac-12
If the ACC seems unlikely to expand (which, again, likely depends on Notre Dame’s willingness to join), then WVU would have to look to the Big Ten or Pac-12. Rumors abound that the Pac-12 might be willing to absorb the rest of the Big 12, but we doubt those rumors match reality. We could easily see the Pac-12 adding four of the remaining teams, but it does not seem likely they would expand to a 20-team conference. This move would also impose even more burden on West Virginia, which was always the odd fit in the conference. As a result, this is the least likely option (but if it came down to a choice between the Pac-12 and a G5 conference, we know what West Virginia would do).
The Big Ten is more likely than a move to the Pac-12, but it’s still not very likely. The main thing going for WVU here is geographical fit, but the Big Ten does not offer the familiarity that the ACC does. The Big Ten also carries an AAU requirement that has only been waived once (for Nebraska). Finally, the Big Ten’s academic profile does not align with WVU’s. While this latter point may not be quite as important, it is also otherwise difficult to imagine that the Big Ten would see West Virginia as a needed addition to its conference.
As a result, neither of these seemed feasible as we examined WVU’s realignment options.