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Murray's Mailbag: How would conference realignment impact Nevada, Mountain West?

Nevada football
While{ }Nevada football is focused on its 2021 season, massive conference realignment appears ready to unfold. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

I'm back from a week in Maui, and instead of having one Monday Mailbag, I'm going to post two today (here is the other Mailbag). This one will focus solely on conference realignment because more than half of the questions I got this week had to do with Texas and Oklahoma's potential move to the SEC and how that might impact Nevada and the Mountain West. I want to stress that everything below is speculation because that's all we have to work with right now. Nobody inside the Nevada athletic department or in the Mountain West's offices knows how this is going to turn out, but it's fun to discuss the possibilities as college athletics appears on the verge a couple of momentous months. So let's get to the questions. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

Well, I have been predicting something coming the last couple of months because there's massive realignment in college athletics every 10 years, and we're hitting the 10-year period since the last realignment. So Oklahoma and Texas looking to jump to the SEC is unsurprising. It would the first domino to fall, and it'd be a major one that could completely change college athletics. If Oklahoma and Texas do move to the SEC, the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 will all have to react, and that's going to cause ripple effects on Group of 5 conferences like the Mountain West, which is not ideally suited to handle another round of major realignment because it doesn't have a lower-level Western-based FBS conference to raid to regroup like it did in killing the WAC a decade ago.

Honestly, if we do see major changes in the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12, the Mountain West will be lucky to survive as an FBS conference (or whatever the new top level of college football will be called). It's going to test the conference's leadership led by Craig Thompson as the Mountain West's top two departments, Boise State and San Diego State, should be highly sought-after. While it's early, my best guess is the Mountain West becomes a second-tier conference between what the current FBS is and what the current FCS is, and that's honestly not the worst thing in the world.

As for the Mountain West's mid-tier schools, the more chaos the better if they're looking to move up to the current Power 5 level. If it's just a couple teams shifting from each conference, the mid-tier Mountain West schools don't have a chance. If it's a more massive realignment, I could see one or two "mid-tier" Mountain West schools being elevated. And for the record, I'd consider mid-tier Mountain West schools in terms of conference realignment to be Nevada, Colorado State, Utah State, New Mexico and Fresno State. The top tier is San Diego State, Boise State, Air Force and UNLV. The bottom tier is San Jose State and Wyoming.

I'd say neither. The Mountain West isn't going to fail to exist if we see massive realignment in this cycle. But there's also a good chance it's no longer at the top level of college football if the SEC is able to create what amounts to a Super League. Again, I don't think this is the worst thing in the world. The Mountain West can revert to what was the original purpose of college athletics, which was to educate athletes and compete within a reasonable financial framework. It's never going to have the money to build the same facilities and pay the same coaching salaries as Power 5 schools, so why try and do that, especially when there's currently no chance of making the College Football Playoffs? Sitting in a middle tier between the Power 5 and FCS in football (while maintaining access to the national tournaments in basketball, baseball, etc.) would be a good outcome. Nevada drew some of its largest football crowds when it was in the FCS because it was one of the nation's best teams and started each year with a realistic goal of winning a national title. Getting back to those roots in football while being able to compete at the highest level in other sports would be a fine outcome.

As for your second question, my best guess is Nevada still resides in the Mountain West when all is said and done.

I think it'd be for football only. We already have a Division I split for football between the FBS and FCS, yet FCS departments still make the NCAA basketball tournament (look at Gonzaga, which doesn't even have football but is still Division I for its other sports). A worst-case scenario would be a Super League is created for all college sports. That's not ideal for Mountain West schools because it would nuke the potential of Nevada's non-football sports, namely basketball, which is still the most supported sport on campus (both by the university and by the community). If there is a split into four 16-team super conferences (the SEC, Pac-16, Big Ten and ACC), Nevada and the Mountain West would almost certainly be on the outside looking in. Again, the hope would be that the split is for football only. If it's for all sports, that's a much bigger issues for the Wolf Pack and the conference in maintaining the prestige it has as a Division I FBS member.

Yes. San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State, Air Force and UNLV have all had various desires to leave the conference for greener pastures, and this is the first crack in the wall to potentially make that happen. SDSU, with its huge media market, great basketball program and new football stadium, is ideally suited for a jump up to the Big 12 or Pac-12. Boise State, with its football pedigree, also can make a compelling case to the Big 12, which needs to grab at least two or three schools to add stability. As a military academy, Air Force has appeal. Colorado State has a new football facility it can sell to bigger conferences. And UNLV has a huge media market, great facilities and was good at basketball a long time ago. I can't see the Mountain West being 100 percent the same if these dominoes continue to fall. Change is coming.

Best-case scenario: The Mountain West somehow pillages the Big 12 and jumps to the power-conference level (that's not happening).

Worst-case scenario: The Mountain West loses Boise State, SDSU, Air Force, UNLV, Colorado State and falls to the FCS level.

Most sense to add: Current FBS programs from the Big 12, AAC or Conference USA because adding FCS programs right now doesn't make any sense.

Most likely to leave: 1) SDSU; 2) Boise State; 3) Air Force; 4) UNLV; 5) Colorado State; 6) New Mexico; 7) Nevada; 8) Fresno State; 9) Utah State; 10) Wyoming; 11) San Jose State

Most interesting scenario: A 64-team Super League is created for football only with the leftovers remaining at the Division I level in all other sports. At least that's what I'd like to see happen. I think it'd be a win-win for both the Super League teams and The Leftovers.

Again, this is all speculation, but I imagine it will impact Nevada and the Mountain West. I highly doubt Oklahoma and Texas are going to leave for the SEC and the Big 12 will sit there with just eight teams. That's too precarious of a situation. It will try and add a couple of Mountain West schools and a couple of American Athletic Conference schools and hold things together. I don't see Nevada being at the top of the wish list for the Big 12. There are at least five Mountain West schools (SDSU, Boise State, Air Force, UNLV, Colorado State) and at least five AAC schools (Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, Memphis, Navy) ahead of Nevada on the pecking order. That's one of the reasons I wrote above, "the more chaos the better" for mid-tier Mountain West schools. It's going to take a lot of craziness to get a school like Nevada into a power conference.

Best-case scenario: It gets into a power conference, which isn't super realistic, but you asked for a best-case scenario.

Worst-case scenario: Nevada is left in a Mountain West that consists of San Jose State, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah State, Colorado State, UC Davis, Sac State, Montana, Montana State, Idaho and New Mexico State. That's a watered-down WAC!

I mean, I don't love the Texas and Oklahoma move, but I understand it. It's all about money. That's all college athletics has been about for the last 20 years, if not longer, with the explosion of television rights deals. It's what the world is all about. So I get why Texas and Oklahoma want to make the move to the SEC, which is the biggest, best and richest conference in the country. I'd prefer a little more conference loyalty and geographical sanity, but Nevada has skipped conferences three times since 1992, so every school is going to do what is in its best interests even if that has a negative impact on other schools and the general health of college athletics.

If the Texas and Oklahoma move is the first big domino, the next one to fall is the reaction from the Big 10 and Pac-12. Do they join powers to make one super conference to challenge the SEC? Or do they try and fortify ranks by adding some of the Big 12 leftovers? The AAC and Mountain West can't really make a move until the Big 10 and Pac-12 decides a course of action. I could see the top teams from the AAC and Mountain West trying to join together to advance to the power-conference level, but Nevada is probably not in that mix if that happens. And the Big 12 is in a fight for survival. It's easy to forget, but the Big 12 isn't that old. It was formed in 1994, so I wouldn't be surprised if it ceases to exist, which would be good news for the Mountain West.

This is also something I wanted to point out: The last time there was massive realignment, Nevada football was coming off a season in which it was No. 11 in the nation (the 2010 season) and Nevada basketball was coming off a strong run as well (four straight NCAA Tournament berths from 2004-07 with seven WAC titles from 2004-08). The Wolf Pack would have earned a spot in the Mountain West anyway (the conference invited San Jose State, after all), but it was part of the second wave of invitees to the Mountain West rather than the third in part because of that football and basketball success. Nevada potentially being a Top 25 school in football and men's basketball this season couldn't be better timed given the wave of realignment that appears to be upcoming. I don't believe that's enough to get Nevada into a power conference, but it's better than having a down cycle in the two revenue sports at this crucial time. I'd put the chances Nevada is not in the Mountain West when this is all said and done at a low mark — lets go 15 percent.

A 16-team WAC and a 16-team SEC are two different beasts. The SEC is basically trying to create a Super League like the world's top soccer clubs attempted in April. That was a disaster and was quickly disbanded because of fan reaction. The fans seem to love college realignment and appear on board with this, so I don't see Texas and Oklahoma reversing course. From the SEC's perspective, adding those two programs is huge and will increase its prestige and, more importantly, it's media rights deal. I wouldn't be surprised if the SEC eventually tries to break away from the NCAA. The Power 5 and NCAA have been adversaries for some time now, and this could be the tipping point to allow at least one of those conferences to break free of NCAA oversight, if not all of the power conferences by the time this realignment ends.

One of the most interesting aspects of the upcoming months is what happens to the Big 12. Will that conference be able to raid the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference (plus BYU) and regroup as a full-fledged conference or will it wither away? The Big 12 commissioner can't be happy with Texas and Oklahoma, which almost certainly pushed back against the conference adding schools like Boise State and BYU in recent years in an attempt to add stability only to leave the conference for the SEC and leave the Big 12 in this horrible situation where schools like Boise State and BYU might not even jump to the Big 12 given its uncertainty. It's a tough spot for the Big 12. To get more to your question, I don't see why BYU would join the Mountain West at this stage. That doesn't make any sense. Maybe TCU returns to the conference if the Big 12 crumbles and it has no other options, but that can't be at the top of the Horned Frogs' wish list, which would include keeping the Big 12 alive, joining the Pac-12 or Big 10 and joining the AAC before returning to the Mountain West.

No. There's still no viable path for this realignment to result in Nevada getting into the Pac-12. Maybe there's a chance at the Big 12 if all hell breaks loose in that conference and it has no other options. But the Wolf Pack doesn't have the academics, the facilities, the history, the current team success, the media market or the money to join the Pac-12. That's wishful thinking even for schools like Boise State and San Diego State. It's delusional thinking for a school like Nevada, which has a perfect fit in the Mountain West. Whether that perfect fit still exists in six months, I don't know. Realignment can be a scary time for schools and conferences, and this latest cycle won't be any different. The Wolf Pack has been a beneficiary of previous realignment cycles, so it's a survivor. But it feels like this realignment period we're about to enter will be the most influential in college sports history. As Dr. Strange said in Avengers: Infinity War, "We're in the end game now."

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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