DENVER — The Pac-12 comes down to two as the season enters the home stretch.
Two teams — No. 5 Washington (9-0) and No. 6 Oregon (8-1) — remain in prime contention for a College Football Playoff spot.
Two programs — Washington State and Oregon State — are about to be left behind when Pac-12 teams scatter after this season.
For the 10 bolting Pac-12 schools, it’s off to the promise of greener pastures in mega-conferences. But just how big is too big for a league? The Big 12 expands to 16 with the incoming Pac-12 arrivals, the Big Ten balloons to 18 and the ACC to 17.
That’s a lot of teams, time zones and money. Some programs may end up getting lost in the reshuffle, which may be part of the price for playing a lucrative game of musical chairs.
“If you’re a smaller school or a smaller brand moving into a bigger conference, it’s OK to get lost if you’re going to get paid,” said David Carter, founder of the Sports Business Group, a consulting firm, and adjunct professor at Southern California. “It’s that old notion about aren’t you better off being the least expensive house in a great neighborhood than the top house in an average neighborhood? That’s really where a lot of this realignment is for the remaining schools.
“It’s always been a case of you either poach someone for your conference — or you get poached.”
There’s certainly been a lot of poaching, too, with Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado going to the Big 12. And with Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA heading to the Big Ten. And with Stanford and California going to the ACC. Remaining on the Pac-12 sideline are No. 12 Oregon State and Washington State.
All this in such an entertaining Pac-12 season, too. The Huskies and Ducks are the league’s top contenders, with another clash potentially taking place in the conference championship game on Dec. 1 in Las Vegas. Hypothetically speaking, the Ducks would be a 6 1/2-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Don’t pencil Oregon and Washington into the Pac-12 title game — or beyond — just yet.
Washington’s path still includes No. 13 Utah this weekend, followed by a trip to Oregon State and closing the regular season against rival Washington State. The Ducks still have to go through Caleb Williams and USC, travel to Arizona State and then host Oregon State.
“The Pac-12 is absolutely awesome at eating their own late in the season,” Carter said of a conference that has roots dating back more than 100 years. “So I would just gently caution a lot of folks that where we are now may not be where we are a few weeks from now.”
And a title in any conference, especially after a move to a super-conference, is a difficult proposition. That resonates even more for those teams who’ve hovered in the middle-to-lower end of the Pac-12 pack.
“If you know that the very best team you can possibly field given your program’s resources, history, coaching, recruiting, all that stuff … and you know that’s still not good enough to win your league, that hurts fandom a little bit,” said Bud Elliott, co-host of the “ Cover 3″ college football podcast and a CBS Sports analyst. “The number of teams who are able to assemble that level of talent to win their league, they’re really small. So I worry about it.
“Because fans don’t root for balance sheets and budgets.”
For the Pac-12, the media rights plan became a stumbling block after UCLA and USC announced their intention to leave. Colorado followed, leaving before Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff presented a proposed deal with Apple. Although it guaranteed yearly payouts of $23 million to $25 million to each Pac-12 member school, there were also escalators based on subscriptions to the Pac-12 package. The deal proved too risky for many members and left them in danger of falling behind schools in other Power Five conferences.
In USC and UCLA, the Big Ten receives programs from the “Conference of Champions,” which includes rich histories in Olympic sports. The ACC gets the high academic standards of Stanford and Cal, while the Big 12 receives the passionate following of Colorado coach Deion Sanders, whose team, even at 4-5, has been a TV ratings and attendance bonanza.
Sanders said the Buffaloes aren’t concerned with what league they call home.
“They just want to win,” he said of his players. “They don’t care what package you wrap us up in.”
With Texas and Oklahoma exiting the Big 12, a Colorado or Utah could become a cornerstone of the conference.
“The door is open right now for those two particularly to be one of the big dogs in their new conference,” Rece Davis, host of ESPN’s “ College GameDay,” said while in Boulder two months ago, referring to the Buffaloes and Utes. “Great recruiting classes certainly put them in good position do that.”
That is, until the next wave of realignment.
“Conferences don’t typically last as long as people think they do,” Elliott said. “Conferences change all the time.”
AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton and AP freelance writer Monica Costello contributed.