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I Want a Conference Realignment Story for Christmas

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Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to college baseball conference realignment. For those of you who missed the first class, here’s a quick summary: The people who run college football are drunk with power, and are tearing up decades of geographical and cultural alignment in order to chase the biggest TV deals they can get. Good for them. Unfortunately the rest of college sports — perhaps the whole of American higher education, less those Ivy League dorks whose personal grievances become national news — is merely a vestigial appendage of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The realignment of 2023-24 leaves two important questions to be answered, one urgent, the other existentially important. The urgent question: What happens to Oregon State and Washington State, the two schools left without a chair by Pac-12 collapse? This question is arguably more important for baseball than it is any other sport, as Oregon State is a national powerhouse. The important question: Can the ACC hold it together, or is it too bound for a Pac-12-type implosion?

We got some clarity on both of those questions this week, as Oregon State and Washington State found a new partnership with the WCC (though not for baseball), while Florida State is taking its first step toward leaving the ACC.

On Thursday, Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic reported that the two Pac-12 orphans (incidentally, “The Pac-12 Orphans” would have been a great turn-of-the-century indie rock band from the Pacific Northwest) are on the verge of joining the West Coast Conference as affiliate members in most non-football sports for the 2024-25 school year. Oregon State and Wazzu have already forged a scheduling partnership with the Mountain West for the coming football season; they’ll both play a slate of MWC teams, but will not join the conference officially. The WCC does not sponsor football.

This is good news for the two schools, mostly because it buys them time to find an ideal permanent home. Oregon State and Washington State want to stay at the power conference level, but in the meantime they just need someone to put on the schedule next season, and the WCC is geographically appropriate, with teams up and down the West Coast. (You might think it’s redundant to point that out, but in the age of Cal, Stanford, and SMU in the ACC, nothing can be left to chance.) Culturally, it’s interesting that these two big state schools are joining a conference hitherto composed entirely of private, sectarian institutions, but athletics are a great ecumenical institution.

The really interesting part of the burgeoning alliance is that baseball is explicitly carved out of the agreement; Oregon State and Washington State could join the conference at some point, but for now they’re going on as independents.

That might sound a little scary, but it signifies that these two schools — particularly Oregon State, which for the past 20 years has arguably been the top baseball school on the West Coast — are taking care to plot the fate of their baseball programs specifically, rather than just chucking them at the nearest convenient safe harbor.

The idea of Oregon State as a nationally marauding independent, menacing whoever is foolish enough to schedule them, is a pretty fun concept to consider. There was one independent Division I baseball team in 2023: Hartford, which was in the process of transitioning to Division III. The Hawks played just 37 games all year and went 4-33. I would expect an independent Oregon State to be a little more successful.

The major concern I’d have for Oregon State continuing as an independent is scheduling. Certainly there’d be no shortage of teams willing to come to Corvallis for midweek games, but once conference play picks up in March, it’ll be difficult to find serious opponents to slot in for weekend series, all the more so now that the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 are all expanding.

There are programs from other conferences with the branding and competitive bona fides to be worth OSU’s while; Cal State Fullerton, which plays in the 11-team Big West, usually finds at least one weekend late in the season for a big-name opponent. (Last year, the Titans played Texas and Pepperdine in March and TCU in May toward the end of the regular season, the latter being the Kirk Saarloos Derby.) But with almost a year’s worth of lead time, I think the two remaining Pac-12 teams will be able to negotiate and cajole their way into competitive schedules.

Ultimately, though, it’d be easier for them to find a conference. Have a gap year, go barnstorming, then settle down to start a family. If that is the WCC, that’d be… fine, I guess. Last season, the WCC was a two-bid league, with Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara making the NCAA Tournament. Other teams in the conference include Saint Mary’s, BYU, Gonzaga, Pepperdine, and San Diego.

That’s the University of San Diego, alma mater of Kris Bryant. Not to be confused with San Diego State, alma mater of Tony Gwynn and Stephen Strasburg, which plays in the Mountain West. Or the University of California-San Diego, where Billy Beane attended school but did not play baseball, which plays in the Big West. Not to be glib, but there are five schools with Division I baseball programs in New York City; not one of them has New York in the name. (That includes Manhattan College, whose campus is in the Bronx and whose baseball team plays in Pomona.)

Adding Oregon State and Washington State would probably make the WCC into a three-bid league. But the strongest mid-major conference in the area, or at least the most storied, is the Big West. That’s the home of Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC-Santa Barbara, and UC-Irvine. My original proposal back in August was for Oregon State and Wazzu to join with these Big West powers to form a sort of independent baseball-only super-conference. Keeping the WCC plan on the back burner leaves that option on the table; if such a baseball-only conference were to take shape, that could serve as a blueprint for schools that are more successful in baseball than football.

That’s about to be very relevant in the ACC. Since the last round of realignment chatter, Florida State’s football team went undefeated, but lost its starting quarterback to injury. The College Football Playoff selection committee then elevated Texas and Alabama, both one-loss conference champions, to the playoff ahead of FSU. The reason being that while the Seminoles might have accomplished more by going undefeated, Texas and Alabama are better teams.

People in Tallahassee are pissed. And they have a point; is the ACC really a power conference if the undefeated champion can be passed over for a playoff spot in favor of teams that took losses? And if not, why should Florida State — a program with resources, history, and ambition to match anyone in college football — stick around?

The technical reason: The ACC owns FSU’s media rights until 2036. The Florida State board of trustees is now contemplating avenues for getting out of that agreement. There’s no precedent for a legal challenge to a grant of rights, but there is also no contract so ironclad that a sufficiently angry group of southern college football boosters can’t find a way to void it. It’s in the Constitution.

If FSU does manage to escape, that’d be the beginning of the end of the ACC as a football conference. Clemson’s recent run of dominance notwithstanding, FSU is the motivating ACC football power. If the Seminoles leave, Clemson could tag along. Even if that doesn’t happen, we’re seeing the first signs of cracking in the rock that William C. Swinney has built his program on. What is an ACC without FSU or a dominant Clemson?

Not much, in football terms, just a venue for future state legislators to go 8-4 and get stomped by SEC opposition in the Gator Bowl. In baseball, Clemson and FSU are huge programs, but they don’t prop the conference up. Virginia, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Miami, Louisville, and NC State are all huge programs in their own right, and they’d make up one of the best leagues in college baseball on their own. Plus Stanford, which just went to the College World Series, is in the conference now too.

Whatever legal pretext Florida State finds to try to force its way out of the ACC, the league isn’t going to dissolve overnight. That gives the other ACC schools time to find a solution, whether that’s to stay the course or get more creative. More than that, Oregon State is now a test case for what happens to a major college baseball program when its conference up and vanishes. If the Pac-12 orphans do manage to pioneer a baseball-only power conference, ACC baseball could use that as a blueprint. The remaining teams could lose Florida State and barely even notice — at least on the baseball field.

Both of these stories are a long way from their conclusions, but how they turn out will help determine the shape of college baseball in the years to come. The next domino isn’t anywhere near falling, but it’s out of the box.

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