How a new ‘alliance’ proposal involving Washington State, Oregon State could impact College Football Playoff

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On Oct. 14, inside of Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Oregon, the Oregon State Beavers exacted a dose of salty revenge.

They bludgeoned the UCLA Bruins, at one point leading by nearly 20 points before eventually cruising to a 36-24 victory over coach Chip Kelly and his Big Ten-bound program. Many believe that the Bruins’ decision in 2022 to leave the league, along with L.A. partner USC, served as the ultimate trigger that toppled the Pac-12 and left abandoned the remote Pacific Northwest school, as well as its neighbor Washington State.

In a situation dripping with irony, the Beavers moved to 6-1 with the win — their only loss, fittingly, against the fellow Pac-12 straggler — and they are on the cusp of being ranked in the top 10 and should be favored in their next three games, starting this weekend at Arizona.

But while their teams march forward on the field, Oregon State and Washington State officials continue to explore their future off it. Some of those plans remain murky, but the fog of uncertainty is beginning to clear.

Barring something unforeseen, the two schools are expected to operate as a two-member conference at least for next year and have been in deep discussions with Mountain West officials over a one- or two-year scheduling alliance — a move that could eventually serve as a first step in a long-term partnership or even merger with the league.

The scheduling proposals are being socialized among Mountain West administrators, and feedback is expected soon from the conference’s presidents. Multiple officials who have reviewed the scheduling proposals spoke to Yahoo Sports.

The league has proposed a wide variety of models. One version would have OSU and WSU each playing eight Mountain West opponents in 2024. Another has them playing seven. One has their games counting toward conference records. Another has them as non-conference matchups.

A scheduling alliance is being mulled that could see Oregon State and Washington State play Mountain West Conference schools. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports)

A scheduling alliance is being mulled that could see Oregon State and Washington State play Mountain West Conference schools. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

Any scheduling alliance is likely to feature a compensation package and/or a long-term commitment from Oregon State and Washington State to the Mountain West built around the idea of eventual full membership.

However, a decision from OSU and WSU remains absent as they await the results of legal fight with the other 10 members of the Pac-12. Ahead of a scheduled court hearing next month, the parties are in mediation in efforts to reach a resolution on control of the Pac-12 and its assets, which includes millions of dollars.

That will determine a more clear course of action.

In the meantime, Oregon State and Washington State are barreling toward at least a year as a two-school conference while potentially assembling a football schedule built around a Mountain West partnership.

If it seems complicated, it is.

It’s also important. Any such decision has national implications on the college football postseason.

Playoff impact

From a national perspective, Washington State and Oregon State’s future is significant in at least one way.

It is at the center of potential changes to the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff format, which is set for implementation next fall. The current model calls for the six highest-ranked conference champions to receive an automatic qualifier (AQ) and the next six highest-ranked teams to get at-large spots (AL) — a format often described as 6+6.

The format was developed and approved last year based on FBS having 10 total conferences.

The math has changed. The Pac-12’s collapse leaves FBS with nine conferences.

The CFP’s original format was intended to provide at least one automatic playoff spot for a Group of Five team. However, the Pac-12’s collapse now opens the door for two Group of Five teams to automatically qualify for the playoff under the current 6+6 format.

It sets up what some believe to be an inevitability: the CFP eliminating one automatic qualifying spot and adding an at-large selection. An adjusted format — a 5+7 — would grant AQs to the highest-ranked five league champions and ALs to the next seven highest-ranked teams.

CFP decision-makers — the conference commissioners and their corresponding league presidents — have yet to make such a change or even deeply discuss it. They are practicing patience and remaining “respectful” of Washington State and Oregon’s State’s situation, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Yahoo Sports.

“But we’ll get to it,” Sankey said, “and there will be a difference of opinions.”

The rub lies in the timing.

Changing the format immediately, starting with next year’s CFP, requires a unanimous vote among the 11 members of the CFP governing board, a group that still includes a representative from the Pac-12.

Another hurdle to unanimity is American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, who has spoken publicly against changing the model immediately, instead wanting to keep the current 6+6 format for the final two years of the contract — the 2024 and 2025 playoffs.

Unanimity is not required for changes starting in 2026. In fact, the CFP’s existence spans just three more editions. There is no binding agreement after the 2025 football season for both a playoff format and a television contract.

Washington State and Oregon State administrators have been in communication with those from the CFP about both playoff access and revenue distribution.

“We want fair consideration under a Power Five umbrella,” Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes told Yahoo Sports. “We want access and distribution is important. We didn’t put ourselves in this position. We’ll continue to invest at a Power Five level. We have an expectation that we’ll be able to discuss what access and distribution look like while creating our path forward.”

In a message presumably meant for conference commissioners whose leagues have swelled with the addition of existing Pac-12 schools, Barnes added, “We didn’t cause this. Those that did need to help us with the solution.”

While most believe that the two schools are in line to receive from the CFP their individual school distribution as a Power Five program — an annual payout of about $6 million each — there is no guarantee of an automatic qualifying spot.

If they remain a two-school conference, Oregon State and Washington State may be considered independents within the CFP format and only eligible for at-large berths. Though such a decision has not been made, most believe that to be the expectation.

In 2024 and possibly in 2025 as well, the two schools are expected to assemble a schedule that includes previously scheduled non-conference opponents, games with their respective in-state rivals (Washington and Oregon) and as many as eight games against Mountain West Conference teams as part of the scheduling alliance.

It’s a schedule that most resembles that of Notre Dame, which itself has a scheduling alliance with the ACC. Notre Dame, like all independents, is not eligible for an automatic berth in the expanded CFP or a first-round bye. Byes are reserved for the four highest-ranked conference champions.

Where the CFP lands on a format change — and when — is unclear. CFP commissioners were scheduled to hold several virtual meetings between their last in-person meeting in Chicago last month and their next one in Dallas next month.

Washington State and Oregon State met in Pullman earlier this season. The Cougars won 38-35. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports)

Washington State and Oregon State met in Pullman earlier this season. The Cougars won 38-35. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

For some, an unchanged playoff format is a non-starter. Granting one Group of Five champion an automatic berth is “hard enough to explain, but it was a compromise,” Sankey said. Granting two G5 champions access would, in many years, mean leaving out two top 12-ranked teams for an unranked team.

“The system really can’t justify that,” Sankey said. “If you displace the 11th best (at-large) team with an unranked team, the system can’t explain itself.”

Those at OSU and WSU are aware that a 6+6 model in a nine-conference FBS could impact the “integrity” of a playoff, Cougars athletic director Pat Chun said.

“Both schools respect the playoff and understand the need to keep the integrity of the playoff,” he said. “The conversations I’ve had and we’re going to have with CFP, we will get there. There’s a lot of noise and bluster, but our side of the fence does understand the key factors. We are committed to keep the integrity of the playoff.”

What about the money?

The Pac-12 as a league has more than $100 million in revenue tied to its existence.

The cash is from several different avenues, most notably the NCAA men’s basketball tournament units for the last six years (at least $50 million); the final two years of distribution from the Rose Bowl contract with ESPN and the Big Ten (the Pac-12’s portion is an estimated $40 million each year); and the Pac-12 Network production equipment and space, which recently saw $30 million in renovations.

Control of those assets is what’s at stake in a legal fight between Oregon State/Washington State and the 10 outgoing members of the conference. The governance of the league is, for now, in limbo as the parties mediate ahead of the case’s next hearing, set for Nov. 14 in Whitman County (Washington) Superior Court.

If a settlement is not reached by Nov. 14, the hearing is likely to determine voting rights, and thus control, of the Pac-12’s cash haul. However, this legal fight could drag on months, if not more than a year, experts say.

The uncertainty around the legal fight is delaying a decision from the two schools over their future. A deadline, though, looms. School leaders hope to have at least a resolution to next football season by the time the NCAA football transfer portal opens following the regular season.

On the table is a lifeline from the Mountain West to piece together a 12-game football schedule next season. But at what cost? Will the league force upon the schools an agreement for eventual full membership or some kind of merger? How much financial compensation will be required?

For the Mountain West, a scheduling alliance could beef up their league schedules in an effort to grab the CFP’s Group of Five qualifying spot; attract more television viewers; and generate more season-ticket sales for home games against the Cougars and Beavers.

It might also bring the two entities — Mountain West and OSU/WSU — closer to a long-term membership agreement. A proposal for a merger between the two is still on the table — a potential 14-team conference participating under the Pac-12 brand.

But Oregon State and Washington State’s issues go well beyond football. Finding a place for their Olympic sports is a challenge. The goal is to position their sports to have an opportunity to obtain an automatic qualifying spot in NCAA championships. The two schools have held discussions with several leagues around affiliation agreements to park their Olympic sports, including the Mountain West, West Coast Conference and Big West.

For OSU and WSU, the clock is ticking in a variety of ways.

They plan to use an NCAA grace period that allots a league two years to regenerate to the minimum eight members necessary to be recognized as an FBS conference.

In 2026, the clock is up.

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