Everyone in the college football world, from national reporters to expert analysts to diehard fans, are giving their takes on where West Virginia could end up in the aftermath of a joint departure from the Big 12 by Texas and Oklahoma.
Those two schools likely will begin official dialogue about joining the SEC soon, a move that’s bound to shake up college football.
At some point between now and June 2025, those two schools will drop their Big 12 affiliation, leaving behind the conference’s eight other members. Could WVU follow suit and join another league as well?
Let’s examine some of the possibilities that could exist for West Virginia — purely for entertainment purposes, of course.
The fan favorite: Joining the ACC
From a geographic standpoint, migrating to the ACC makes sense for WVU. Based on social media chatter, it’s also the preferred landing spot for many Old Gold and Blue faithful.
As a member of the Big 12, the Mountaineers are forced to travel halfway across the country for every road game. In sports like basketball, that road schedule can become a grind for players — and it often results in several late tip offs throughout the course of a season.
In the ACC, West Virginia’s longest road trip would be 1,116 miles to Miami. Six of the other nine current Big 12 members are more than 1,000 miles from Morgantown. (The longest road trip? The Mountaineers travel 1,468 miles when they take on Texas Tech in Lubbock.)
And let’s face it: the Mountaineers never have developed any true rivalries as a member of the Big 12. Fans may love flashing “Horns Down” every season, but head coach Neal Brown has made it clear that his coaching staff does not view that series as a rivalry — and even though the Mountaineers joined the conference at the same time as TCU, running back Leddie Brown said at Big 12 Media Days that he doesn’t consider the Horned Frogs as a rival, either.
A move to the ACC would immediately rekindle multiple storied rivalries with Pitt, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. Other regional connections abound.
But there would be some possible downsides to that move. As of the 2019-20 school year, the ACC ranked last among Power 5 programs in average payouts, with the low end of that league’s payout range hovering right around $30.9 million. The Big 12 paid out roughly $37 million to member schools that year and paid roughly $34.5 million last year as revenues fell due to the pandemic.
It’s possible that realignment could lead to a more lucrative TV deal for the ACC. It’s also possible that Notre Dame could become a full member of the league, which would almost certainly bolster those TV negotiations. If that happens, and WVU is invited along for the ride, the Mountaineers could end up in a terrific position after the Big 12 was apparently blindsided by Oklahoma and Texas.
The money move: Jumping from Big 12 to Big Ten
If West Virginia were to somehow end up in the Big Ten, it would also have an opportunity to face more regional opponents and some college football powers. It would also join a very strong basketball league.
But from a financial perspective, this could be the most lucrative option for West Virginia, according to figures from previous seasons.
During the 2019-20 school year, the 14-member Big Ten led all Power 5 conferences in average payouts. (Note that these numbers are skewed slightly due to fallout from the pandemic, including the cancellation of that year’s NCAA Tournament.)
- Big Ten – $54.3 million
- SEC – $45.5 million per school
- Big 12 – $37-40.5 million
- Pac-12 – $33.6 million
- ACC – $30.9-37 million
The Big Ten also led all Power 5 conferences in total revenue that year, outpacing the SEC by about $40 million. Notice here that the Big 12 ranked last in total revenue, but its average payouts were higher than the Pac-12 and ACC due to a smaller number of members:
- Big Ten: $768.9 million
- SEC: $728.9 million
- Pac-12: $533.8 million
- ACC: $496.7 million
- Big 12: $409.2 million
Of course, this hierarchy of conference payouts is likely to change drastically if/when Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, but from a financial perspective, the Big Ten’s ability to make money is enticing.
Then there’s the element of regional matchups. WVU vs. Penn State was once an iconic fixture on the Mountaineers’ schedule. Maryland is back on the WVU non-conference schedule beginning this fall. The Mountaineers also have some Big East history with Rutgers.
Imagine a conference matchup with Ohio State at Milan Puskar Stadium — only once before has that happened, back in 1998. WVU lost that game and is 1-5 all-time against the Buckeyes, with its lone victory coming in 1897.
OK, maybe that’s a “be careful what you wish for” type of thing, but it’s neat to think about.
Striking a deal with a Group of 5 league
The American Athletic Conference originally emerged when a group of football-playing schools in the Big East needed a place to play after the first wave of realignment occurred. Could WVU, in a sense, end up where it all began?
The AAC features some quality football programs. UCF and Cincinnati have been in the College Football Playoff conversation over the last few years. Dana Holgorsen’s Houston is also a member of that league — though the Cougars haven’t been very competitive in his two seasons at the helm.
But while an AAC with West Virginia would still be a very competitive football league, WVU would stand to experience a shock in the pocketbook.
The AAC recently struck a new TV agreement with ESPN that went into effect last fall, but that deal is only valued at about $83 million per year — a much less lucrative contract that the one the Big 12 enjoys. Thus, the league’s annual payouts to schools are also substantially lower than the Big 12’s.
Remaining parts of the Big 12 stay in tact?
There’s also a possibility that the Big 12 could withstand the tribulation it currently faces and rise anew by recruiting additional members. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Monday that those remaining eight Big 12 members with work “in a collaborative manner” to position the Big 12 for future success.
Could that mean adding some top Group of 5 programs like UCF, Cincinnati and others to replace Texas and Oklahoma? It’s not a like-for-like swap by any means, but if the ACC and Big Ten aren’t interested in expanding, it may be in WVU’s best interest to stand united with its current conference.
West Coast Virginia and a Pac-12 merger?
According to Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, this was something that was discussed during a recent meeting between Big 12 executives and the leaders of the eight remaining member schools:
This seems like a really unlikely scenario, though, and unless the TV deal is completely earth-shattering, it seems like more of a headache for West Virginia, which would be the only Eastern time zone representative in that merged league.
Some Big 12 schools are reportedly showing interest in the joining the Pac-12, though, so don’t be surprised if one or more of the Texas schools do end up there.
The least likely outcome: Independence
West Virginia has a long history as an independent. The 1988 team that played for the national title didn’t have a conference affiliation. In fact, West Virginia has played more seasons as an independent than it has as a member of the Southern, Big East or Big 12 combined.
But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where WVU goes back to being an independent, especially after enjoying the Big 12’s hefty annual payout over the last decade.
As mentioned previously, interest from Notre Dame in joining the ACC could help the Mountaineers, but the Irish have thrived throughout their history as an independent. A big reason for that is the TV deal with NBC that reportedly pays the school $15 million per year.
It’s unlikely that WVU could strike such a deal as an independent now, and the six other independents at the FBS level do not generate comparable revenue to the Irish.