Pay for Play: What conference realignment means for USC football

Is the Pac-12 a good long-term fit for the Trojans?

“Pay for Play” is a column by Wyatt Allsup about the role of money in the world of sports.

With Texas and Oklahoma eyeing a move to the SEC, the landscape of college football has begun to shift: The SEC becomes more powerful than it already was, the Big 12 shrinks to just eight teams and the Pac-12 becomes a bit less relevant out on the West Coast. So where does USC, once a football powerhouse, belong in the bigger picture as it looks to climb back to the top?

The Pac-12 has two major problems. The first is that the College Football Playoff committee doesn’t believe the conference is competitive enough to send teams to the playoff. Since the introduction of the CFP and its committee, the Pac-12 has been an afterthought, with only two teams — Oregon in 2015 and Washington in 2017 — landing a playoff berth in its seven seasons. Because of its weaker competition, a Pac-12 team almost has to go undefeated in order to earn a top four seed.

The second problem is that national interest in the Pac-12 is low compared to the SEC and the Big 10. Around three quarters of the U.S. population lives in the Eastern and Central time zones, meaning that a large chunk of fans aren’t staying awake to watch a game that kicks off at 7 p.m. PT; a USC game in the Pac-12 Network’s nighttime slot won’t end until 1 a.m. in New York. This means less television revenue.

Furthermore, the Pac-12 makes athletes with an NFL future less visible to scouts, and athletes’ accomplishments are less meaningful because the level of competition is lower. Quarterbacks and high-production offensive skill players don’t get overlooked, but for everyone else, it’s much better to be in the SEC where pro teams can see you regularly compete against other future NFL athletes, increasing the possibility that you get drafted early with a nicer signing bonus.

The SEC is already in a league of its own, and adding two more historic football programs with massive funding to the sport’s best conference is only going to further tip the balance of power. The best talent will end up in the SEC, and the conference’s revenue, which was already nearly $200 million higher than the Pac-12′s in 2019, will jump far ahead of that of the Pac-12 and the other conferences, perpetuating the imbalance of talent.

For example, Oklahoma, already somewhat of a regular in the College Football Playoff, will land even more talented recruits and solidify its place near the top, leaving schools like USC behind. The SEC could routinely send two or three teams to the playoff, and more if the playoff is expanded in the coming seasons. In a future that could hold an eight-team playoff, it’s likely that SEC teams will make the cut with three losses. That’s an impossibility for a Pac-12 team.

None of this is to say that USC football will spiral into college sports limbo if it remains in the Pac-12, but it is certainly worth considering other options, the most obvious of which include joining the Big 10, which actually reported the highest revenue of any conference in 2019, or becoming independent for football, like Notre Dame.

Should USC join the Big 10, it would be mutually beneficial. The Big 10 adds another competitive football school to help compete against the SEC, and USC brings home a bigger slice of TV revenue from a more popular conference, making it more attractive to potential recruits.

USC sacrifices its “rivalry” games against schools like Cal and Stanford, but the reality is that hardly anyone cares about those games outside of California anyway. Playing against teams like Michigan and Ohio State gives USC more credibility with the CFP committee, which is a win if the ultimate goal is to compete for a championship.

Remaining in the Pac-12 for all other sports and going independent for football is perhaps a bit less realistic. The biggest reason to leave the Pac-12 is for greater TV revenue and visibility. Notre Dame, who competes independently in football and in the ACC for all other sports, received less athletic revenue in 2019 than schools in either the ACC or the Big 10.

However, it would still be worth discussing USC’s market value with TV networks like CBS to determine the value of an exclusive contract for USC football; maybe USC would bring more TV revenue than a school like Notre Dame. In either case, a national prime time slot for USC football on a national network could very well be more valuable for the school than its games on the Pac-12 Network.

It would take time for USC to put together a plan to leave the Pac-12 if it chose to do so, but it might be necessary for one of college football’s most historic programs to remain relevant and competitive in a new college football environment. The standard for a program as great as USC football should be championships, and that goal might become increasingly difficult to achieve in the lesser Pac-12.