The domino effect of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC (leading to the dismantling of the Pac-12 two years later) is a turn of events that would’ve been nearly impossible to predict. The catalyst for the Power Five’s west coast entry point being almost no more wasn’t UCLA and USC trading in road trips to Salt Lake City for New Brunswick, New Jersey. That move from the Big Ten was in response to the college sports shift that occurred during day three of the SEC’s Media Days in 2021. Texas A&M’s Ross Bjork’s all-time whiff of believing the league wouldn’t admit another Lone Star State school without his express written consent, to Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz poking fun at the decision by asking SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey from the lectern if horns down would be a penalty in conference play happened 17 hours apart.
The response from the rest of the college sports landscape is ongoing, with several more chapters being written over the last three weeks, all because of one piece of the kaleidoscope going out of place in Colorado’s exit. The Pac-12 is now slated to be the Pac-4 after this season, as Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah all then decided to jump ship. The most prone team in college sports at the moment is Stanford because, on a national level, who cares where Cal, Washington State, and Oregon State end up?
Stanford is a completely different beast. Most of the Cardinal’s non-revenue teams are excellent and compete for conference, if not national, titles. The conference carousel is a football-driven decision, because the gridiron is where the most money is made. Drinkwitz has polished up a thing or two in his time in Columbia, and said possibly the most conscientious thing to ever come out of a college football coach’s mouth on the subject last week.
Stanford football aren’t slouches, but the hierarchy of brand recognition has made itself crystal clear. The Cardinal are on an island of fourth-to-last of its current colleagues. Everyone else found a lucrative new home and they’re the only “loyal” ones with the credentials to deserve the same. Sorry to those in Berkeley, but you don’t. And to those in Corvallis and Pullman, welcome to the Mountain West. Stanford was a great fit in the Pac-12 and its next step isn’t exactly clear. While the ACC has considered adding it and Cal, that move truly doesn’t make sense without the league whose first two words stand for Atlantic Coast admitting geography isn’t important to them. The Big 12 and Big Ten have more wiggle room toward that sentiment.
If the ACC doesn’t add Stanford, where does it go? What makes the most sense to me (and goes against what Cardinal football coach Troy Taylor said Tuesday night) is Stanford going independent until all the chips fall and a better spot opens up. A better dance partner for future negotiations with conferences is Notre Dame. Having two huge brands of college football combine to be one of the biggest prizes of this decade’s round of conference realignment is a riskier move, yet would yield the best long-term scenario for Stanford, where the Big Ten could swoop in and make the pair of private schools an offer they can’t refuse. Of course the Fighting Irish have more equity in that decision, but Stanford going along with whatever happens in South Bend, regardless of geography, is a damn-good place to be.
Moving to the Mountain West is better geographically, but the Cardinal’s competition would take a hit. Becoming the Gonzaga men’s basketball in every non-revenue sport is alright, I guess. It’s absolutely not where Stanford dreams of being. In terms of academic fit, nowhere is better than the Ivy League. But an FCS-level conference that doesn’t play in the classification’s postseason? There couldn’t be a worse athletic fit for football. Trying to beg the Big 12 to get in could be the move, but it added four teams from the Pac-12 and didn’t think to include you. Not exactly a warm welcome.
There isn’t a clear option or lifeline coming for Stanford, and it deserves better. A reformed Pac-12 would be the Mountain West lite, and vaulting schools like Colorado State and Nevada into the same standing as Ohio State and Alabama would cause the College Football Playoff to need to rethink its format, again. Right now, Stanford stands as the biggest loser of this round of college athletics’ realignment, simply because it hasn’t found a new home.