Texas and Oklahoma are officially on their way out of the Big 12 and of the many, many lingering questions hanging over the college sports industry, one of the biggest is what happens to the rest of the conference. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the conference office itself and even Bill Snyder have stressed the importance of putting forth a united, optimistic front, and there's no doubt they'll be a lot of that.
Will the Remaining 8 publicly keep a stiff upper lip about their vision for the Big 12 3.0? Yes. Of course they will. They'd be stupid not to. The Big 12 is still their home until it's not, and so they need to keep a brave face so as not to destroy any leverage they have with potential expansion targets and their TV partners.
At the same time, will each and every one of the Remaining 8 slip their name into the free agent portal and see if anyone calls? Also yes. Again, they'd be dumb not to.
So what we'll have moving forward are a series of public statements toeing both lines. Like, say, this one dropped Monday night by West Virginia AD Shane Lyons.
For the past nine years, West Virginia University has been a loyal member of the Big 12 Conference. We have valued the partnership with the other nine members and have served the league as a prestigious academic institution and a nationally recognized athletics program. We are disappointed that two of our Big 12 institutions have indicated their intent not to extend their media rights beyond 2025.
Reading between the lines: Everything here is in the past or present tense. Nothing about the future.
West Virginia University's top priority continues to be our student-athletes. We are focused on ensuring that we provide opportunities to elevate their academic and athletic experiences at WVU. However, in addition to our student-athletes, we also understand the impact this announcement has on our University, our state and our Mountaineer fans around the world. We will continue to be highly engaged and extremely diligent in finding connections that strengthen our academic mission and allow our student-athletes to thrive in one of the most successful athletics programs in the country.
Reading between the lines: Changing circumstances beyond WVU's control may force us to look for a new home. It wasn't our fault, you see. It was OU and Texas!
WVU is proud to be a proven academic leader ranking at the highest level of research activity in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. In fact, we are among a select few that are land-grant, doctoral research universities with a comprehensive medical school. The University's faculty are increasingly recognized for excellence, and our legacy of student achievement includes 25 Rhodes Scholars, 25 Truman Scholars, 46 Goldwater Scholars.
We also are proud that during these past nine years, our athletic programs have competed at the highest levels, winning multiple championships and crowning numerous student-athletes on the biggest stage of their respective sports. We have excelled in the classroom and built an infrastructure that is attracting elite student-athletes world-wide. We have created an atmosphere of Mountaineer hospitality, rooted in sportsmanship and fellowship. We thank each one of you for being a part of what makes Mountaineer Nation so special.
Reading between the lines: Just wanted to make sure these paragraphs didn't go unwritten in case anyone on an ACC campus happened to be curious.
As was stated earlier by the Big 12 Conference, athletics is an ever-changing landscape. We look forward to working with our colleagues in the Big 12 and across the country to navigate this new terrain. Together, we will continue to Climb Higher!
Reading between the lines: Again, guys, even the Big 12 itself said the landscape is changing. Our hands are tied here!
In all seriousness, there's more than enough plausible deniability that WVU could be marketing itself in either direction. Nowhere in that 5-paragraph statement does Lyons say WVU is committed to remaining in the Big 12 moving forward. Are the Mountaineers batting their eyes at the ACC or are they trying to make the Big 12 seem attractive to potential new members? The answer is they're doing both.
West Virginia's affinity for the ACC is the worst kept secret in college sports. Of course they want in the ACC -- it's always been better fit than the Big 12 even with Texas and OU, and especially so now. Morgantown is right smack dab within the ACC footprint, and an ACC bid means they'd be reunited with Backyard Brawl rival Pitt (104 all-time games) plus former Big East foes Syracuse (61), Virginia Tech (52), Boston College (33), Miami (20) and Louisville (13). (WVU has also played UVA 23 times historically, albeit just once since 1985.) The Mountaineers would be a football-first school in a conference that could use another football-first school.
But does the ACC really want WVU?
As it stands, the league sits with 14 football members, plus Notre Dame. In recruiting parlance, the Fighting Irish will always have a committable offer and in the event Notre Dame is willing to commit, it'd make sense to add another school to bring the league to 16 members.
But there's no sign, even after Wednesday's bombshell, that Notre Dame is willing to join. In fact, AD Jack Swarbrick said Notre Dame came away from 2020, when the Brian Kelly's team played for the ACC championship and reached the Playoff, more committed to independence. Not even a new playoff system specifically incentivizing conference champions was enough to budge the Irish. "I look forward to never hearing again about how we played one less game and don't have a conference championship," Swarbrick said. Football independence is as crucial to the University of Notre Dame's identity as Catholicism.
So in the event Notre Dame doesn't join, does the ACC move to 15 football members? Expansion reportedly gives the ACC the right to renegotiate its all-encompassing media contract with ESPN, but what's ESPN's incentive to play ball here? The conference signed away its immediate future to the Worldwide Leader in order for the company to create the ACC Network, and as a result the league is under contract through the middle of the next decade.
A new member -- specifically, a new, non-Notre Dame member -- probably needs to grow the overall pie by at least 10 percent to be worth its while for the conference and for ESPN. Is that really West Virginia, a good-not-great program representing less than 2 million people?
After all, if West Virginia-to-the-ACC was a slam dunk, the Mountaineers never would've join the Big 12 in the first place.
I'm not going to sit here and say the ACC can't or won't add WVU this time around, though. I doubt anyone knows right now, not even the ACC. But in case they are, West Virginia is ready to talk.