Notre Dame is the most valuable free-agent commodity in college football.

And potentially, its most destructive domino.

If the Irish elect to join the Big Ten Conference — which last week poached USC and UCLA from the perhaps mortally wounded Pac-12 — the Big Ten (er, Big Seventeen?) would then add either one or three additional members to maintain even numbers.

Would Washington earn an invaluable invite? And if the Irish continue to cling to their independence, what happens then? Would the Big Ten continue its westward expansion, or settle — for now — with 16 schools?

Of course, that answer would accompany additional questions. If the Big Ten’s door stays shut, where does that leave UW? The Big 12? The Pac-12? The ACC or SEC?

As UW’s athletic future stalls at a conference crossroads, let’s examine each conceivable landing spot.


Big Ten Conference

For UW, this is the best-case scenario. Big Ten membership would provide financial stability, as each school is expected to net roughly $100 million annually in the conference’s next media rights deal. (For context, the Pac-12 distributed just $19.8 million to each school in 2021 — that number diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic — after splitting $33.6 million apiece in 2020.)


It’s true, entry into the Big Ten would leave the Huskies with legitimate travel headaches, both in football and the department’s other athletic programs. Outside of USC and UCLA (and any other Pac-12 program the Big Ten might poach), their closest competition would be Nebraska — located nearly 1,700 miles away.

Still — for the players and coaches, though not for the fans — that’s nothing a charter flight won’t fix.

The Big Ten also offers the most realistic route to the College Football Playoff, with the Big Ten and SEC establishing themselves as college football’s dominant conferences. The feeling is that those two conferences will eventually absorb the country’s most valuable programs, form a super league and stage an exclusive playoff … with the excluded universities forced to fend for themselves.

Whether now, a year from now or five years from now, Washington will want to be included in the Big Boys Club.

But will the Big Ten want Washington? Multiple reports have suggested if Notre Dame doesn’t eventually join, the Big Ten is content to stay at 16 — for now. And even if the Irish do become Big Ten bedfellows, there’s no guarantee UW will earn an invite. The Big Ten might prefer to pair Notre Dame with Stanford — its longtime rival — and add the Cardinal’s academic prestige and Bay Area television market. Or it might only add Oregon, acquiring Phil Knight’s coveted coffers.

Ultimately, does UW provide the Big Ten enough annual value to justify its inclusion? If not, the Huskies could agree to accept a smaller share of conference revenue for an established period, as Maryland and Rutgers did when they entered the conference in 2014. But that still might not be enough to sweeten the pot.


It’s also possible USC and UCLA might play defense against the Big Ten’s addition of UW (or Oregon, or Stanford), in order to maintain a recruiting advantage out west.

UW certainly has plenty to sell — namely, its tradition, its history, its academic credentials and its television market. But will that be enough?

If it isn’t, Jen Cohen and Co. might be forced to consider Plan B (or C, or D).

Big 12 Conference

It’s time to talk about the battle for No. 3.

The Big Ten and SEC are, and will continue to be, the top two conferences in college football. We already know that. But there might be an opportunity for the Big 12, ACC or Pac-12 to emerge as the clear No. 3 conference in the country.

For the Big 12 to do that, it would need to raid its primary competition — the Pac-12. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are obvious regional fits (and the conference would love to reunite in-state rivals Utah and BYU). But UW and Oregon would present the biggest prizes of all. The Big 12 is in discussions to add all six programs, CBS reported Tuesday.

Granted, there’s nothing the Big 12 could do to place itself on an even plane with the Big Ten and SEC. But a conference comprising UW, Oregon, Utah, the Arizonas, Oklahoma State and four Texas programs (Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Houston) would be undeniably valuable in its own right when the Big 12’s media rights agreement expires following the 2024 football season.


Of course, this isn’t a perfect plan. For UW, a conference road game in Lubbock, Texas, doesn’t exactly move the needle (though it would allow the Huskies to continue enthusiastically recruiting the state). The Big 12 also can’t offer the same academic reputation as the Pac-12 (or the Big Ten, for that matter).

But we’re past the point of perfect plans.

Pac-12 Conference

The Pac-12 announced Tuesday that its board of directors has authorized the conference to immediately begin negotiations for its next media rights deal, set to begin in 2024.

Essentially, the conference needs to quickly convince UW, Oregon and others why it’s financially viable to commit to the conference long-term. And it won’t do that simply by adding San Diego State, Boise State or Fresno State.

For the Pac-12 to survive, it must keep UW and Oregon and either poach the Big 12, merge with the Big 12 or form a bicoastal super conference/partnership with the ACC. ESPN — which, along with Fox, has an exclusive negotiating window as existing partners — could theoretically bankroll an expansion or merger (and also owns the ACC’s rights). John Canzano reported Tuesday that the Pac-12 is considering a “loose partnership” with another conference, presumably the ACC or Big 12.

According to Canzano, a Pac-12-ACC partnership could include a shared media rights deal with ESPN, a Pac-12 vs. ACC championship game in Las Vegas, and attractive regular season crossover games in football and men’s basketball. Of course, it could also implode if ACC properties like Clemson or Miami eventually clear legal hurdles (more on that later) to flock to the SEC.

A UW athletic department source told The Times on Tuesday that “it’s a reasonable question to ask” whether the ACC might be interested in such a partnership.


If money didn’t matter, UW would prefer to maintain regional ties to Oregon, Washington State, Oregon State, etc.

But given USC and UCLA’s decisions, it seems — more than ever — that money matters most.

Southeastern Conference

OK, so here’s the Hail Mary.

Say the SEC sees the Big Ten add USC, UCLA and possibly more, and decides to make a counter move. Several ACC programs — like Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and Florida State — would be obvious regional options, but the ACC’s grant of rights ties those programs together through the end of its ESPN contract in 2036. It’s possible an ACC program could fight for its freedom in court, but the SEC is likely unenthusiastic (for now) about the prospect of a lengthy legal battle.

So … could the SEC look west?

Theoretically, adding UW or Oregon would bring with it new television markets and audiences. The travel issues would be significant, but that’s not stopping USC and UCLA. In turn, the SEC would provide Washington a financially lucrative and competitively elite conference to plant its flag.

Such a move, of course, is exceedingly unlikely.

But in the current state of college football, it’s not impossible.