Mailbag: Why Utah is best positioned of Pac-12 schools to thrive in next era and more

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The Hotline mailbag publishes weekly. Send questions to and include 'mailbag' in the subject line. Or hit me on Twitter/X: @WilnerHotline.

Please note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Media dollars aside, except for their impact on recruiting, which of the Pac-12's departing schools will benefit the most (and least) from the move to their new conferences? — @bogeycat85

It depends entirely on the framing. Are you referring to competitive benefits or financial benefits? What about exposure? And is your focus on football, men's basketball, the Olympic sports or a combination?

The Hotline prefers a football-first approach: Which of the 10 programs will experience the greatest competitive boost from the restructuring?

In our view, it's clearly Utah.

Success in the next era will be defined, almost exclusively, by participation in the expanded College Football Playoff, which has 11 spots available for the power conferences (and Notre Dame) and one berth for the best team in the Group of Five.

As a result, we believe Utah's prospects for regular CFP participation have improved more than any of the other departing schools, for two reasons: The current quality of the program and the competition for CFP bids within the new conference.

The Utes will possess the best football program in the Big 12 the minute they enter the conference on Aug. 2.

Oklahoma State is usually competitive, Kansas and Kansas State are on the rise, Arizona is loaded with momentum and either Baylor, Iowa State or TCU is good for a high-level season in any given year.

But Utah, which won at least 10 games for three consecutive seasons (2020 excluded) before an insane number of injuries struck last fall, has been the most successful program in the new Big 12 on a consistent basis since the late 2010s.

With a Hall of Fame-level head coach (Kyle Whittingham), terrific staff cohesion, a playbook perfectly married to the recruiting pool, a track record for first-class player development and the needed institutional support, the Utes are well positioned to thrive immediately in their new home.

And they don't have a heavyweight in their way.

There is no USC in the Big 12. There is no Washington or Oregon or Texas or Oklahoma.

The conference is devoid of football blue bloods, which is both a weakness and a strength. The resulting parity will create a pathway to first place for the Utes on a regular basis.

And first place in the Big 12 will mean a berth in the CFP.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 teams entering the Big Ten have to deal with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, plus each other.

We envision the Big Ten receiving 3.5 berths, on average, in the 12-team playoff. Same with the SEC. Add the Group of Five slot and Notre Dame's frequent presence, and there are roughly three spots for the ACC and Big 12 to share.

In other words, the respective conference champions and one at-large team.

Given the caliber of the program, the expected CFP berths available and the number of teams competing for those spots on a regular basis, the Utes are better positioned to earn a berth in the Big 12 than any other departing school is positioned in its new home.

But you also asked about the school that will benefit the least from conference restructuring.

From the standpoint of football success, that answer is fairly clear, as well: UCLA.

The Bruins have struggled for relevance in the Pac-12 (last conference title: 1998) and are now entering a vastly more difficult league with all the well-documented financial issues.

Cal and Stanford aren't far behind UCLA. Life in the ACC will be difficult for both Bay Area schools, which face financial and logistical challenges that make success unlikely.

Put another way: Any weakness or flaw in your football program that existed in the Pac-12 will be exacerbated by the conference changes.

From the standpoint of football success — of reaching the expanded CFP — it could be a very difficult stretch for a handful of the departing schools.

Which Oregon and Washington games do you foresee being broadcast on CBS and/or NBC, if any? — @draywilson29

I fully expect the Ducks and Huskies to appear on both networks throughout the season, although it's impossible to make a reasonable guess because we don't know the weekly in-season selection order.

Remember, the Big Ten's media rights deal assigns specific networks to specific windows: Fox has the 9 a.m. (Pacific) slot, followed by CBS at 12:30 p.m. and NBC in the late afternoon/primetime window.

But the networks won't necessarily pick the games in that order. One week, NBC could pick first; another week, Fox could have the top selection; then CBS.

Generally speaking, the assigned windows would suggest that Oregon and Washington make fewer appearances on Fox because they won't play home games at 9 a.m. Half of their schedule is effectively unavailable for the Fox time slot.

However, the networks should have some flexibility with their windows.

Let's consider Oct. 12. The marquee game that Saturday — and one of the top games in the country all season — is Ohio State's showdown at Oregon.

It stands to reason that Fox, which controls the Big Ten's media rights, arranged to have the first pick in the weekly draft for Oct. 12 and will grab the Ducks-Buckeyes duel — but not at 9 a.m. Instead, Fox will switch the windows and show the game at 12:30 p.m., in the slot usually occupied by CBS.

We're guessing, of course. But the networks would build flexibility into the selection process in order to maximize their audiences and accommodate the time zone issue.

Am I wrong to think that Washington can win eight or nine games this year? I'm very optimistic about the Jedd Fisch hire. — @Moneyline_RAY

I don't think eight wins is unreasonable for the Huskies. After all, they have a favorable non-conference schedule (Weber State, Eastern Michigan and Washington State) that should produce a 3-0 start.

Can they win five of their nine conference games?

It won't be easy — not with their flawed lines of scrimmage and a schedule that includes Oregon (road), Michigan (home), Iowa (road), USC and Penn State (road), plus a trip to Rutgers that's far more challenging than it appears.

In our view, an 8-4 mark is the high end for UW in the first season under Fisch, particularly considering the transfer portal is, at this point, unlikely to produce additional impact players where they are needed most.

With the power conferences increasing in size but not increasing the number of conference games, there will be more opportunity for Group of Five schools to schedule matchups with the Power Four. Do you think this will help Group of Five schools with strength of schedule for the playoff? — @KevinGH158627

True, the power conferences will be bigger in 2024. The Big Ten and Big 12 have added four schools, the ACC has added three and the SEC has grown by two.

But the number of non-conference games will remain fixed. It doesn't matter that Oregon is in the Big Ten; the Ducks still need three non-conference opponents. The demand side hasn't changed.

Meanwhile, the number of teams not in the power conferences (the supply side) will actually increase with one subtraction (SMU going from the American into the ACC) and two additions (Washington State and Oregon State losing power conference status).

In other words, we don't see the calculus changing in any significant manner. And playoff access is certainly fixed: The highest-ranked Group of Five team will participate, but that's it. The G5 isn't getting two bids. No way, no chance.

Are we to believe that UCLA was the lynchpin for the collapse of the Pac-12? I haven't heard a peep from Stanford fans, but Cal, Oregon State and Washington State fans seemingly blame UCLA for the tectonic shifts in college football. — @tsdaffern

The Bruins are getting the blame primarily because of their status as a public university connected to another public university in the Pac-12 — and because their governing board considered reversing the campus-level decision to join the Big Ten.

USC is private and can do whatever it wants without regard for anything or anyone.

Reverse the situation (i.e., imagine USC and Stanford as the public schools), and the same ire would be directed at the Trojans.

The Hotline has always viewed the demise of the Pac-12 like the plot in Murder On The Orient Express: Numerous entities were responsible.

Unlike the death scene in the Agatha Christie classic, the demise of the Pac-12 occurred over many years.

We went so far as to explain the evidence against each of the 10 departing schools in a column published in October.

The UC Regents' statement about UCLA payments to Cal says $10 million, starting this year (2024) through 2027. Isn't that four years of payments? — @lucky_dawg7

The statement was confusing in that regard; there should have been more clarity.

But our understanding is the payments will cover three fiscal years starting with 2024-25 and ending in the spring of 2027.

After all, Cal and UCLA are receiving the same revenue from the Pac-12 in the current fiscal year. The massive disparity in distributions from the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, don't begin until 2024-25.

That said, many specifics have not been made public.

Will the Bruins send one check annually for $10 million? Will they pay Cal in monthly installments? Also, will UCLA use campus funds to compensate Berkeley, or will the cash come entirely from the athletic department's budget?

There are still plenty of unknowns.

Timeline for next round of conference realignment? — @CelestialMosh

Impossible to know at this point, but we could have some clarity by the middle of the summer.

ACC schools must commit to the conference each August for the upcoming academic year. If Clemson and Florida State don't commit for 2025-26 in the next three months, we'll know realignment is starting soon.

If they do commit this summer for 2025-26, then the next wave could be a few years away.

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Jon Wilner
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.

Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at

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