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COLUMN: How WVU could fall in the future college football landscape

MORGANTOWN — The conference realignment wagon is once again hitched and ready to go as USC and UCLA announced Thursday they were leaving the Pac-12 and headed to the Big Ten, in a move that caught the college sports landscape off-guard yet again.

The move is similar to what Oklahoma and Texas did a year ago, bolting the Big 12 for the SEC, and with that, a major pay day.

When all four schools officially wind up in their respective new conferences, the Big Ten and SEC will sit at 16 teams each — and this appears to only be the beginning.

Rumors are already swirling a few of the remaining Pac-12 schools, such as Washington and Oregon, are trying to follow USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.

While there is no movement on the SEC’s front, in true “Keeping Up with the Joneses” fashion, it would likely want to add as well to keep up with the Big Ten. Targets could include Miami, Florida State and Clemson of the ACC.

So what does this all mean? There is a strong possibility we’re on our way to two mega-conferences, the Big Ten and SEC, and then everyone else.

Whether or not this is good or bad for college sports can be debated until we’re blue in the face, but for the sake of argument, let’s simply talk WVU.

Football is the driving force for all of this, so we’re also just going to discuss this from a football perspective.

Right now, obviously, WVU is on the outside looking in, along with 11 other schools in the Big 12, 14 in the ACC and 10 in the Pac-12, at the Power Five level.

The Big Ten and SEC are almost guaranteed to expand from their current 16-team alignment, but just how far are each willing to go?

That is the major question that needs answered for a glimpse at what the future might hold for the Mountaineers.

Starting with the best-case scenario, the Big Ten and SEC — which will likely be rebranded in the future, but we’ll stick with their current names — expand to about 24 teams each. That means 16 spots are up for grabs out of the remaining 36 (counting independent Notre Dame, which is clearly a major player in this game), and it’s hard to think of an instance WVU is not one of those final 16 schools.

But let’s move on to a case where WVU does not get in to the mega-conferences. It would be disappointing (perhaps an understatement) for the Mountaineers to be left out, and pretty much any hope for a national championship would be lost.

Similar to the Group of Five schools now, there is a chance a school outside of the Big Ten and SEC could make the playoff, but it would be extremely difficult to do and would take a special season.

But WVU has played football for 130-plus years and has been to one national title game and has just two unbeaten regular seasons in its history. It takes a magical season anyway for the Mountaineers to even be in the conversation for a national title, even under the current format.

Let’s say Tier 1 of the college football landscape are the Big Ten and SEC, while Tier 2 are Power Five schools that didn’t make the cut.

Under this, there is a chance WVU would be in the same tier as the leftover ACC teams fans have wanted to play for years and years.

If you can’t have a seat at the big table, how does playing a meaningful schedule with Pitt, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Syracuse sound? If the Big Ten and SEC expand to just 20 or less, there is a strong chance WVU’s traditional rivals may also be forced to sit at the kids’ table.

Of course, you worry about the financial impact and what it could do for recruiting, but programs in this second tier that embrace what fans want could strike gold in a different way.

Football is football — people want to watch it. That’s what the TV networks such as ESPN and FOX, the reason this is happening to begin with, all want — eyeballs.

Hold on tight, WVU fans. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

But fretting that if WVU is left out, then the Mountaineer football program will cease to exist, is far from reality.

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