What Would WVU Fans Do?
Late last week, we explored WVU’s realignment options. For dozens of reasons, we believe the most likely option (that WVU joins the ACC) is also West Virginia’s best option. Measured against that, however, we think the next two likeliest options could spell trouble. Based on the feedback we have received talking with hundreds of fans, we do not believe that to be an overreaction either. Indeed, if a move to the ACC fails, the next two options follow. Either the Mountaineers remain in an expanded Big 12, or West Virginia joins a G5 conference like the AAC. Based on those potential outcomes, we asked our readers what would WVU fans do in either event?
Is One Outcome Better than the Other?
Again, if WVU does not land in the ACC, then the options remain limited. We try to assess, though, whether one is better than the other.
The Expanded Big 12
An expanded Big 12 might look like this. In one division, we see West Virginia, Cincinnati, Memphis, Iowa State, Kansas State, and Kansas. In the other division, we see Oklahoma State, SMU, Houston, Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech.
Simply, this looks a bit like a band of misfit toys. Sure, some programs have exciting pasts. Before the “death penalty,” SMU offered some of the best football in the country. Since 1985, however, they have more ten-loss seasons (eight) than ten-win seasons (one). Still, some teams have had recent success. Cincinnati has two 11-win seasons in the last three years. They only lost one game in last year’s COVID-shortened season. Oklahoma State carries six 10-win seasons since 2010. Iowa State appears to be an upstart program on the rise under Matt Campbell.
The question, though, is whether this would provide enough excitement to keep up. How do the networks view this conference? How much money do they actually pay each member to play? The best figures circulating this week estimate a drop from over $30 million per team to just under $10 million per team. Budget cuts mean lower coaching salaries, less improvement of facilities, and more.
The other option is that West Virginia joins the AAC. Their joining would give the conference 12 members. We might see one division feature West Virginia, UCF, South Florida, East Carolina, Temple, and Navy. The other division would see Cincinnati, Tulsa, Memphis, SMU, Houston, and Tulane.
Sure, WVU found success under this model before. It looks a bit like the Big East after Virginia Tech, Miami, and company left. But this was when the conference still laid claim to a guaranteed BCS bowl berth and sometimes featured two teams in the big slate of games. Now, bowls mean little. An expanded college football playoff format would not guarantee any team a spot in the 12-team bracket. And perhaps the best WVU could hope for is that it avoids transfer-market attrition and lays claim to a UCF-style competing national championship claim that nobody else recognizes.
The AAC payout falls under $7.5 million in a good year. The best teams lose their coaches every third or fourth year. The recruiting is subpar by comparison to the Power Five schools. And the resulting product is less visible and less exciting outside of fans of those schools.
Both Outcomes Are Bad
In short, neither outcome is desirable (to put it mildly, and to state the obvious). An expanded Big 12 would really just be a stop-gap measure for a couple of those teams to make their final case to be seated at the end of the next round of musical chairs. The AAC would allow for a single yank of the bandage. Both options drastically reduce revenue. Both reduce the excitement of the football being played. Either option would result in fewer top-tier recruits. And both would present far fewer opportunities for WVU to stay relevant in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
But What Would WVU Fans Do?
For the most part, there are two schools of though that dominate WVU fans’ current thinking.
The Outside Looking In
On the one hand, we see the lifelong fans are so resigned to the fact that WVU lands outside the soon-to-be Power Four conferences that they really seem to prefer that outcome. The darker side of realism offers them good arguments, too.
Questions abound if WVU ends up in the ACC. What changes? Will West Virginia climb enough to legitimately compete for the second or third spot in the ACC? If not, will the Mountaineers be able to retain good, young coaches like Neal Brown and build upon its current recruiting momentum? If so, is there even a remote chance that WVU could challenge for a spot in a 12-team playoff at least a few times in the next decade?
The answer is: maybe not. Maybe the forces in play, including the transfer portal and NIL compensation, will grow the current divide between the elite and the lower tiers even further. If so, then maybe nothing matters much if you are not a fan of the top eight to ten programs in the country.
And if one’s attitude is that both of these changes will inalienably alter the game for the worst, then perhaps resignation to a lower tier of football is appropriate. And if the program cannot sustain itself as a result, then perhaps that is for the best. At the very least, this is what a substantial number of WVU fans currently believe.
The Inside Looking Up
On the other hand, we see plenty of fans dreaming big. Maybe the ACC itself is not good enough. Why not the Big Ten? Why not the SEC by any means necessary? There are certainly plenty of voices across all of college football who believe the next round of realignment (if dominoes even fall after Texas and Oklahoma leave the Big 12) is really just the prelude for the final countdown. At the end of that, those voices believe that there may only be 40-50 relevant upper-level football programs left that would comprise the eventual “Power Two.”
For those who see that writing on the wall, they have accepted that the transfer portal and NIL compensation are simply just rewarding athletes for their hard work and disregard any remaining notion of the “student” part of the student-athlete equation. These are really just semi-pro athletes fighting at the top level for the 250-or-so roster spots that open in the NFL each year.
As a result, they say bring it on ACC, or SEC, or Big Ten. Bring the best competition, and let these overlooked West Virginia players (like a Darius Stills, for example) give you our best shot over the next five to 10 years while the college model coalesces around the top remaining semi-pro teams.
These fans are scared of the reality (though they acknowledge it). If West Virginia finds itself outside of a Power Four conference, then the football program at least has very little chance to survive. They might be right. (They might not, too, but there is probably a stronger chance that they are.) So let us go down swinging.
Measuring the Whole
Whichever side you fall on, we can be relatively sure of this. If WVU finds itself on the outside looking in, the Mountaineers will lose fans, many of whom are already disillusioned by the new reality of college athletics. They will see that outcome as their cue to exit stage left. Maybe they adopt a new team. Maybe they just walk away from college football altogether. But tens of thousands of them will leave. If WVU finds itself in a Power Four conference, however, the fans doubtful of that outcome now will retain every bit of their passion for WVU for so long as the game allows them.
(None of this, by the way, is to say that WVU will find itself on the outside looking in. We think fans should have faith in their program and their top-notch leadership. And we reiterate that the most likely option appears to be a move to the ACC. But we also thought it worth exploring how fans would react if any effort to move to the ACC, or any other soon-to-be Power Four conference, fails.)