Sampath: With the Pac-12 in free-fall, how will conference realignment work for Stanford?

When Stanford won the Rose Bowl, it became a dream school for 12-year-old me. What distinguished it from the Ivy League and other schools, for me, was its willingness to pursue both academic and athletic excellence. Now, as a Stanford fan and student, I want to see this school continue to compete at the highest athletic level possible. Covering one of this country’s most successful athletic departments has been one of the highlights of my time here, but recent Pac-12 crises are making me realize that I can not take for granted the ability to see your alma mater play on an important stage. 

Last Friday, five programs decided to leave the Pac-12 for conferences with more lucrative futures. After we heard the terrible news of Oregon’s and Washington’s departures, reports that Utah, Arizona and Arizona State would follow escalated a putrid situation to a firestorm. Now the only teams left are Stanford, Cal, Washington State and Oregon State. The latter two, overshadowed by larger programs within their states, are unanimously agreed to be the odd men out when it comes to power conference expansion — leaving the ball in Stanford’s and Cal’s court. 

The energy that competitive collegiate athletics bring to a campus is unparalleled. The sun seems to shine brighter, classes feel less of a slog and people generally seem more upbeat. 

There are really only two conference options that would evoke this level of competitive spirit: the Big Ten (B1G) and Big 12. There haven’t been many reports about Big 12 negotiations with Stanford, but recent reports suggested the Cardinal could be a prime candidate to move to the B1G. This, along with Cal joining the B1G, could keep alive some of the West Coast rivalries that we know and love. The Cardinal could continue their rivalries with Cal, Oregon, UCLA and USC, while also rotating matchups with other B1G foes to spice things up. 

That would be the optimal scenario. But what about the scenario where the Big Ten Conference fails to pick Stanford up? With the news of Utah, Arizona and Arizona State moving to the Big 12, this may make it easier for Stanford to join, since there could be a “Western pod” that decreases travel times for athletes. Add in Cal and that wouldn’t be a terrible plan. 

Some reports floated the possibility of the remaining Pac-12 schools joining the ACC. But how long will it be until top teams like Clemson, Florida State and others decide to take off for greener pastures? Plus, the travel times would be even more of a nightmare than the other power conferences. 

While the power conference scenarios above are the best possibilities for the Cardinal, there is a very real chance that Stanford will need to settle for a second-tier conference. This could comprise those currently in the Mountain West like San Jose State, San Diego State, Boise State and others. While I would be deeply disappointed if this were the result, it may be the reality we have to settle for. With revenue sports performing poorly the past few years, I am not sure how attractive Stanford is compared to a decade ago. And with the relative reluctance to dive head-first into NIL like other big-name programs, some athletic directors and commissioners may not evaluate Stanford as a worthwhile program long-term.

Don’t get me wrong: I think these presumptions are incorrect. Just look at the 2024 football recruiting class and the basketball recruiting classes of the past few years. Stanford can definitely attract a ton of talented scholar-athletes. But the outside narratives may not work to our advantage as much as we would hope.

I think I am writing this all to say that in the midst of this uncertainty within college athletics, Stanford certainly stands out as a program teetering on the edge of playing with the big boys or being left out. But as a fan and student, I know that Stanford boasts some of the most impressive student-athletes in the country and I feel anybody would be lucky to have them in a conference.


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