What's next for college football after USC, UCLA join Big Ten? Looking at next moves for SEC, Pac-12, Notre Dame and more

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The era of college football realignment and expansion saw another massive wave on Thursday — all the way from the Pacific Coast to the Heartland.

USC and UCLA's defection from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten was a massive surprise in the college football landscape, placing into question once again what this sport will look like once realignment is finished. It could be seen as a direct response by Fox — a huge media rights holder in the Big Ten — to ESPN, which carries rights to the SEC and future members Texas and Oklahoma.

The Big Ten on Thursday voted unanimously to allow admittance to both the Los Angeles schools, ensuring both teams will begin playing in the conference as soon as the 2024 season.

"The unanimous vote today signifies the deep respect and welcoming culture our entire conference has for the University of Southern California ... and the University of California, Los Angeles," Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. "I am thankful for the collaborative efforts of our campus leadership, athletics directors and Council of Presidents and Chancellors who recognize the changing landscape of college athletics, methodically reviewed each request, and took appropriate action based on our consensus.”

MORE: USC, UCLA to join Big Ten: Latest news, updates on college football's next reported conference shakeup

How those moves affect the next phases of college football realignment remain to be seen. The Pac-12, Big 12 and even the ACC must move quickly to avoid further losses to the Big Ten and SEC; Notre Dame must decide what to do about its traditionally independent status; and the SEC must find a way to keep from getting out-maneuvered by the Big Ten.

Oh, and the Big Ten must decide who else it may want to add to its ranks. Here's a look at the biggest questions that remain to be answered:

Will the Pac-12 lose more teams?

The Pac-12 is in perhaps the most precarious position among the traditional Power 5 conferences. The conference’s grant of rights deal ends on June 30, 2024, making it more feasible financially for its remaining institutions to jump ship — if they can find a conference willing to take them in.

Whether that includes the Big Ten has yet to be determined; per Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, several Pac-12 schools reached out to the conference for admittance following news of USC and UCLA heading to the Big Ten.

Per LaMike Black of the Fifth Quarter, two of those schools were Oregon, which has ties to Nike, and Washington, which boasts the Seattle market.

Those two are on the short list of Pac-12 schools the Big Ten would consider adding to its ranks, as is Stanford, if only for its academic prestige. Ryan Kartje of the L.A. Times reported the Big Ten isn’t considering further additions from the Pac-12 “at this time.”

Still, the Big Ten isn’t the only conference looking to further poach the Pac-12 — according to a report from Brett McMurphy of Stadium.com, the Big 12 may attempt to further bolster its ranks with Pac-12 teams:

The two Arizona institutions are among the most recognizable brands in the Pac-12, and make the most sense for addition, geographically speaking. Adding Colorado would add a former founding member to the ranks, while Utah has been among the conference’s better teams since it and the Buffaloes joined in 2011.

MORE: Winners, losers from USC and UCLA's stunning departure for the Big Ten

Who will replace USC, UCLA in Pac-12?

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The Pac-12 on Friday released a statement saying it will "explore all expansion options." The likelihood it could take any teams from the Big Ten or SEC is nil. The ACC is similarly untouchable on the East Coast. The Big 12 — while certainly not as stable as the Big Ten, SEC or ACC — is at least in better condition than the Pac-12.

Assuming the Pac-12 doesn't dissolve after losing USC and UCLA, it has a few teams, geographically speaking, it may consider adding to its ranks.

One of those options is San Diego State, which has enjoyed double-digit win seasons in football in five of the last seven seasons; has national championship history at the Division I, Division II and NAIA levels; and is already an affiliate member in men’s soccer.

Fresno State is another potential member, serving as a rival to the Aztecs and enjoying three double-digit win seasons in the last five years. Boise State, which has 17 double-digit win seasons in football since 1999, could also warrant consideration. Would the Pac-12 add the Broncos solely on their football prowess? Their academic standing doesn’t exactly stand up with those of the Pac-12’s current and former institutions.

Any talks of expansion regarding the Pac-12 will happen at an inopportune time for the conference, considering its media rights deal expires after this season. Fox, which owns a portion of the Pac-12’s broadcast rights, has reportedly reached a deal to carry at least half of the Big Ten’s football package following the conclusion of the 2022 football season.

Would the network be willing to invest further in the Pac-12 now that its two biggest entities will join the Big Ten?

What’s next for the Big 12?

The Big 12 reportedly is considering an aggressive, proactive approach in regard to college football expansion, looking to add as many as four Pac-12 teams to its ranks (as opposed to allowing the Pac-12 to poach its teams).

Those conferences’ member institutions must determine whether it’s worthwhile to jump ship for the other or wait for feelers from the Big Ten or SEC. According to a May report from USA Today, they ranked in the bottom two of the Power 5 conferences in annual revenue for the 2020-21 academic year. The Big 12 reportedly made $356 million, with the Pac-12 making $343.5 million.

Per a report from ESPN, those numbers represent significant losses in revenue for those conferences: a 36 percent year-over-year decrease for the Pac-12, and a $53 million loss in revenue for the Big 12.

By comparison, the SEC ranked first among all Power 5 conferences with a reported revenue of $777.8 million; the Big Ten was second, with $680 million; the ACC was third, with $578.3 million.

One option both the Pac-12 and Big 12 may consider is a potential partnership with the other, if not for increased revenue, then for outright survival. As it stands now, a partnership between the Pac-12’s remaining institutions and the Big 12 — which added UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU following the defection of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC — would result in a 22-member superconference.

The conferences have a commonality in that Fox owns at least a portion of the conferences’ football broadcasting rights. A superconference involving the Pac-12 and Big 12 could potentially make for a more appealing investment for TV networks. Any such discussions for a merger would need to take place almost immediately, considering the Pac-12’s current grant of rights deal ends next June, and the Big 12’s the following year.

Fox — or any of ESPN, CBS, NBC or Apple, among other TV/streaming entities — could step in to facilitate such a merger. The question is: Would they consider it worth the investment? And, if so, would the conferences be happy with the resulting arrangement?

MORE: Big Ten's poaching of USC, UCLA leads to more questions than answers

What’s next for the ACC?

The ACC is better off than its Big 12 and Pac-12 counterparts inasmuch its grant of rights deal ends in 2036 that makes it difficult for any school to leave. Any institution that decides to jump ship must pay an exit fee and give all of its media revenue back to the ACC every year no matter where it lands.

That is why Texas and Oklahoma, to this point, are waiting until its grants of rights deal with the Big 12 expires in 2025 to join the SEC. The financial penalty is too great to leave early.

For a team to leave without that financially crippling penalty, the ACC would need to renegotiate with the schools, and it has little incentive to do so. Still, if the league's biggest football brands — Clemson, Florida State, Miami — all threaten to leave and pay the penalty, it will leave the league in such a weakened state from an on-field product perspective, the league's future may be in doubt and television contracts may be re-worked. That may crack the door for some modifications of the grant of rights penalties.

So: It’s not set in stone that the ACC’s member institutions will remain where they are. North Carolina and Duke, traditional basketball powers that boast significant academic prestige, are prime targets to be poached. Clemson, Florida State and Miami will garner significant attention, as well.

The ACC cannot sit idly by and assume its teams will stay loyal to the conference while potential billion-dollar deals are on the line. It will likely consider adding schools from either the Big 12 or Pac-12 to bolster its ranks.

It’s possible, however, that the ACC simply won’t be able to compete with the Big Ten and SEC’s new media rights deals, even if it adds teams to its ranks.

That includes Notre Dame, a pseudo-member of the conference and the single-biggest unaffiliated team still on the college football expansion board.

Will Notre Dame remain independent?

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Notre Dame is a college football institution, one whose national clout has allowed it to maintain its independent status even as conferences around the country signed multi-million dollar TV rights deals. The Fighting Irish have used that ability to maintain their independent status in football, allowing them flexibility in scheduling.

(It’s worth noting that Notre Dame is not only a member of the ACC in every sport but football and men’s hockey, but also has entered into a five-games-a-year football scheduling agreement with the conference that runs until 2037. Moreover, it is contractually obligated to join the ACC if it renounces its independence prior to 2036).

Notre Dame must now consider its options carefully: retain its independent status and pseudo-affiliation with the ACC, become a full-fledged member of the conference, or move on to either the Big Ten or SEC?

Notre Dame is a massive entity that any conference would jump at the chance to attain. In that sense, the Fighting Irish hold significant power in any ensuing negotiations. If Notre Dame decides 1) that it’s no longer advantageous to remain independent and 2) the ACC is not the best conference to join as a full-time member, then what conference would it consider joining?

BENDER: Why Notre Dame to the Big Ten makes more sense than ever

Make no mistake: Football will be the driving force for any decisions the Fighting Irish make. With that in mind, and considering all options available to it, Notre Dame’s most likely landing spot if it forsakes its independence is the Big Ten — even with a history of bad blood between the two entities.

Notre Dame is a natural fit, both culturally and geographically, and has the academic and athletic prowess the Big Ten covets. Joining the league would also allow the Fighting Irish to maintain their traditional rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State and USC, though its series with Stanford and Navy would become jeopardized.

For what it's worth, a report from CBS' Dennis Dodd suggests the Big Ten has already reached out to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame must also consider the College Football Playoff when deciding its next move. The scheduling flexibility that comes with independence is no longer an advantage in CFP expansion — not with the Big Ten and SEC likely becoming superconferences in the coming years.

Those conferences will likely command at least 40 voting members when realignment is said and done. That’s a disproportionate amount of power that will come in handy when negotiations resume on how best to expand the CFP. With more at-large bids and less of a focus on automatic qualifiers, does it make sense for Notre Dame to remain unaffiliated?

MORE: If the Big Ten wants to get B1GGER, who are the most attractive candidates for expansion?

Who else could Big Ten add?

Reports indicated the Big Ten isn’t done yet in its expansion bid, and it’s possible the conference adds several more teams before it concludes. The question is, who is the Big Ten targeting?

Notre Dame must be at the top of that list. Apart from the Fighting Irish, Duke and North Carolina out of ACC would be worth consideration. They are basketball blue bloods, though it’s worth noting that sport does not typically drive discussions or decisions in college sports realignment. Their status as premier academic institutions, however, certainly make them more valuable additions.

Kansas out of the Big 12 would be another consideration, just one state removed from Nebraska, which joined the conference in 2011. The Jayhawks are among the biggest powers in men’s college basketball and are the defending national champions. Kansas’ football team is laughably bad, however. Would its basketball program be enough of a bargaining chip to join the Big Ten?

Who else would the Big Ten take? It may reconsider Oregon, Washington, Stanford or Cal out of the Pac-12, though it stands to reason that any of those schools would have been included in Thursday’s news if the Big Ten wanted them.

If the Big Ten wants to expand further down the East Coast, it may consider Clemson, Florida State and Miami out of the ACC. The Tigers are among college football’s most elite teams, and FSU and Miami are traditional powers that would not only add the Florida market, but expand the Big Ten’s recruiting footprint deep into SEC territory. Speaking of which. …

How will the SEC respond?

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The SEC dealt the first blow in the college football realignment war by adding Texas and Oklahoma last year. Now, it must respond to the Big Ten’s retaliatory strike.

The Big Ten, which is currently negotiating its next media rights deal, could very well offer more outright money than the SEC if the two conferences got into a bidding war over a school. The latter has a deal in place with ESPN worth $300 million annually from 2024 through 2034. But the SEC’s additions of Texas and Oklahoma promise for more lucrative TV deals down the line; further invitations to ACC teams could also set the basis for an outright renegotiation with Disney.

Greg Sankey and Co. aren’t in danger of getting left behind — not after claiming five CFP championships since 2015 and fielding both teams in the 2016 and 2018 playoff championship games — but they can’t afford to be out-maneuvered by the Big Ten, especially as expansion looms.

It likely will add more teams to its ranks. If the conference wanted anyone else from the Big 12, it would have already done so. Does that thinking change with the Big Ten potentially expanding to 20 or more teams? The SEC can’t simply dismiss the notion.

Kansas, with its status as a basketball blue blood, and Oklahoma State, the natural rival to Oklahoma, would be among those teams considered. West Virginia would make for a natural fit in terms of geography and culture.

The more likely option is for the SEC to look to the ACC. Duke and UNC are obviously basketball gems. Clemson — the only non-SEC team to win a national championship in football since 2015 — is another option. Florida State and Miami also make sense, considering their status as traditional football powers and the fact they have existing rivalries with Florida. Other options include Georgia Tech, a former member of the SEC, and the Virginia schools.

Regardless of whether the SEC (or Big Ten, for that matter) adds additional teams to its ranks, one thing is certain: College football as fans have come to know it will be changed forever once the latest wave of realignment has finished.

Who’s left standing atop the heap once the dust settles — and who is left standing at all — remains to be seen.

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Zac Al-Khateeb is a content producer for The Sporting News.