What if the Pac-12 Took a Play Out of the Big 12’s Playbook?

The Pac-12 should consider Big 12's playbook for expansion and TV deals, reshaping its standing in college sports.

Pac-12 Logo and Big 12 Logo
Source: Redshirt Sports

I was born and raised among the hills of West Virginia. My parents both had degrees from Marshall University and were Thundering Herd fanatics. That meant I grew up watching Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, and Byron Leftwich. I grew familiar with the teams of the Mid-American Conference and later Conference USA.

While my family loved Marshall, most people around me followed the West Virginia Mountaineers. That meant I also grew up knowing the teams of the Big East and later the Big 12.

For college, I decided to move across the country to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” As a Minnesota Golden Gopher, I became a member of the Big Ten. Then, graduate school took me to the Deep South. Moving to Alabama and marrying someone whose family is devout Mississippi State supporters meant I was baptized into the world of the SEC.

All of that to say, having lived in various parts of the country and having attended multiple schools, I have grown familiar with several collegiate conferences. Yet, having essentially spent my entire life east of the Mississippi, the one major football conference I have no association with is the Pac-12.

And yet, here I am writing an article about how the Pac-12 can fight back in conference realignment. Why?

Simply put, I don’t believe an arms race that results in increasing centralization at the expense of many conferences and programs is good for college athletics. At the risk of being a curmudgeon, I am concerned about the future of college athletics: a future where fewer schools and conferences maintain any significant relevance on the national stage.

And I am particularly afraid the Pac-12 is on the brink of falling behind.

As far as the so-called “Power Five,” the ACC is not in the best spot in the current landscape. But they do at least have a measure of stability with what appears to be an ironclad grant of rights.

The Big 12 appeared to be the most vulnerable conference after losing marquee programs Texas and Oklahoma two years ago. But they added Cincinnati, Houston, UCF, and BYU to the 10 remaining conference members and inked a $2.3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox to stabilize the ship.

Now, the tables have turned, and the Big 12 has gone on the offensive, aggressively threatening the Pac-12’s vitality. Commissioner Brett Yormark has made it clear he has greater ambitions than just the four new conference members. Just this past week, Big 12 leaders met in my home state of West Virginia to discuss conference expansion. While various programs from Gonzaga to UConn to Memphis have been mentioned as candidates for expansion, it’s no secret Yormark has his sights set out West. The Four Corners schools are the ones he wants, with rumors of Colorado and Arizona joining the conference gaining steam recently.

The Pac-12 already lost USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. If they were to lose Colorado and Arizona and potentially Arizona State and Utah, they would be down to six members. If the Big Ten poached Washington and Oregon like many have proposed will eventually happen, the Pac-12 would be left with just four teams: Washington State, Oregon State, California, and Stanford. At that point, they would likely be forced to raid the Mountain West Conference or face extinction. Regardless, college athletics in the West would be dealt a severe blow as the center of gravity for college athletics would shift deeper into the Midwest, South, and Southwest.

Facing this existential threat, what would it look like for Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff to take a page out of Yormark’s playbook and go on the offensive in expansion? Obviously, the priority right now is finalizing the conference’s next media rights deal. But assuming that is done soon, where could Kliavkoff turn next? Here is one proposal for expansion that seeks to maintain the conference’s identity as an academically elite company of athletic programs with a center of gravity on the West Coast while also adapting to the modern realities of the current college athletics landscape.


Two programs have been rumored to be all-but-certain additions to the Pac-12 assuming the conference rides out the current wave of realignment: San Diego State and Southern Methodist. Both programs make a lot of sense for the Pac-12.

SDSU provides the Pac-12 a foothold in Southern California, which they lost when USC and UCLA fled for greener pastures. San Diego is the 30th biggest media market in the country and sits just a few hours south of L.A., the biggest media market on the West Coast and the second biggest media market in the country behind New York City. SDSU has an ascending athletics profile, most recently making it to the national championship in men’s basketball. Under coaches Brady Hoke and Rocky Long, the football team has been consistently competitive for the past decade. Since 2010, they have played in a bowl game every postseason (excluding 2020), had five 10-win seasons, been ranked in the top 25 four times, and finished in the top 25 twice. Academically, they are not as high profile as some of the Pac-12’s current members, but they at least are an R2 Research Institution. U.S. News & World Report ranks SDSU as #151 in national universities. As they continue to invest in the school, both academically and athletically, they could become an elite university and a huge pickup for the Pac-12.

SMU would expand the Pac-12’s reach into the heart of Big 12 territory. Picking up SMU—also known as "Dallas' team"—would allow the Pac-12 to gain exposure in the football-crazed state of Texas as well as the fifth largest media market in the country. SMU is a good fit for the Pac-12 academically. Like SDSU, it is an R2 Research Institution. But it has a little more academic prestige as evidenced by its #72 U.S. News & World Report ranking among national universities. The athletic programs are clawing back to the prominence they once had in the 1980s. Former head football coach Sonny Dykes (now at TCU) helped put SMU back on the map with their first 10-win season since the 80s, and Rhett Lashlee is ready to take them to another level. The school is well-positioned to succeed in the era of NIL with a well-connected and well-resourced alumni base. Many sense SMU is on the cusp of making noise at the national level and joining a "Power Five" conference would help accelerate their ascendency.

Assuming these two schools join the Pac-12, the conference would be back to 12 members. However, if Washington and Oregon were to eventually leave, the conference would fall to 10 members again. I think Kliavkoff should not stop with just adding two schools. But where else could he look?

Tulane and UNLV

Assuming the Pac-12 picks up SMU, then I think going after Tulane is a no-brainer. The school would gain New Orleans, a top 50 media market, as they expand eastward. Tulane is an elite school academically and would fit right in among the well-established schools of the Pac-12. It is an AAU member, R1 Research Institution, and is ranked #44 among national universities by U.S. News and World Report. Athletically, the Green Wave made noise last year in football under head coach Willie Fritz, finishing as the #9 team in the nation after they knocked off soon-to-be former Pac-12 member USC in the Cotton Bowl. The baseball team recently punched a ticket to the NCAA Tournament after winning the American Conference tournament. I think adding Tulane would pair well with SMU.

Another school Kliavkoff should consider is UNLV. Geographically, the school obviously makes sense. The Pac-12, despite not having a team in Nevada, has increasing ties to Las Vegas. For example, last week the conference announced it would host its football media day there. Las Vegas is the 40th largest media market in the country, and the city is undergoing a sports renaissance. The athletic programs have struggled as of late, but they at least have a historic men’s basketball program. Joining a bigger conference could allow them to participate in the momentum already sweeping across the Vegas sports scene. Academically, they are not the most prestigious school, coming in at #285 in U.S. News & World Report university rankings. However, they are an R1 Research Institution and could work to grow their academic prominence.

Picking up these two schools would put the Pac-12 at 14 members. But why stop there? Again, Kliavkoff could take a page out of Yormark’s playbook and go on the offensive. If Kliavkoff decided to be even more aggressive, what other schools could he add?

Rice and Memphis

There are some good candidates out West to be additions to the Pac-12 such as Fresno State, Boise State, Colorado State, and New Mexico. However, if I was Kliavkoff, I would keep these in my back pocket for future expansion if necessary. Instead of picking up more West Coast teams, I think Kliavkoff should consider expanding around SMU. Obviously this pushes the Pac-12’s center of gravity further east, but it would make travel easier for several schools. And in the current college athletics landscape, being able to market yourself as an expansive conference that covers three time zones is a strong selling point for media rights deals.

One school I think Kliavkoff should consider is Rice. The biggest benefits of Rice are its academic prestige and location. Like Tulane, Rice is an AAU member and an R1 Research Institution. However, it is even more prestigious academically. U.S. News and World Report ranks it as the #15 university in the country, which puts it ahead of Cal-Berkley (#20). If it joined the Pac-12, it would be second only to Stanford in those rankings. Geographically, Rice would extend the Pac-12’s place in Texas and give it a foothold in Houston—the seventh biggest media market in the country. The downside to Rice is its athletic programs are nowhere near the stature of other Pac-12 members. Rice is just now leaving C-USA to join the AAC after its best teams left for the Big 12. However, it is not uncommon for conferences to have an academically well-known school that struggles athletically. Think about Vanderbilt in the SEC or Northwestern in the Big Ten. If Rice was committed to investing in and expanding its athletic profile, I think it is a school the Pac-12 should consider.

Finally, I think the Pac-12 should also consider adding Memphis. Memphis might seem like a strange fit given its location and lack of a strong academic reputation. However, I believe it could work. Memphis to Boulder is actually a shorter trip than San Diego to Seattle. Gaining Memphis would also mean the Pac-12 would pick up the 52nd-biggest media market in the country. Academically, Memphis is an R1 Research Institution. It is ranked #263 among national universities by U.S. News & World Report—slightly better than UNLV. The university is committed to investing in its programs, both academically and athletically. The football stadium is about to undergo major renovations that will cost upwards of $200 million. Athletically, the Pac-12 would gain a storied college basketball program and a football program that has had a notable amount of success in the past decade. Athletically, I think Memphis is in a similar position to SDSU, and together in the same conference these schools could continue their climb.

With these 16 teams, the Pac-12 would likely want to shift to a Western Division and an Eastern Division. The West could have the following eight teams: Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, SDSU, and UNLV. The East would have the rest of the programs: Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, SMU, Rice, Tulane, and Memphis.

Potential Pac-12 expansion
Source: Redshirt Sports - Luke Miller

Is the Pac-12 and George Kliavkoff interested in expanding along these lines? At this point in time, probably not. However, if they want to not only survive but thrive in the changing college athletics landscape, they might have to be willing to.