Clickbait or the next major move in the ongoing shift of college athletics?

It’s almost impossible to tell the difference these days.

So how do we process the latest news/rumor/fantasy scenario that has been making the social media rounds?

If you haven’t been following along, the story goes something like this: Utah is apparently having buyer’s remorse over joining the Big 12 and has sent out feelers about joining the ACC.

It sounds crazy at face value. But then it would have been considered just as nuts a year ago to suggest that the ACC would even consider adding Cal, Stanford and SMU.

Let alone actually doing it.

The other reason not to immediately dismiss the reports as nonsense is the voices who have been floating the story.

We’re not talking about some wackadoodle podcaster broadcasting from his mom’s basement. Among those giving the possible Utah-ACC connection credence is Dick “Hoops” Weiss, a long-time writer and columnist for the New York Daily News and a member of the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame.

The story has gained so much mainstream traction that Utah’s athletic department issued a statement Tuesday addressing it.

“We are proud to be entering into membership in the Big 12 Conference in the coming months and (are) excited to join our new colleagues and member institutions. A report over the weekend that suggested otherwise is completely fabricated and irresponsible.”

So there you have it.

Clickbait.

Right?

It sure sounds that way. Until you flashback to last July 21 in Las Vegas at what turned out to be the last preseason football media event in Pac-12 history.

According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan defiantly pledged his school’s support for the soon-to-be-defunct conference.

“I think our words and our actions speak for themselves,” he said. “We are a proud member of this conference and look forward to its future success.”

As if that weren’t enough, he punctuated the statement with a social media post addressing speculation that the Utes were about to jump ship.

“Give me a break,” he said.

Two weeks later, Utah announced it was following the crowd of Pac-12 defectors to the Big 12.

So stay tuned.

Until (or if) something more concrete emerges from the clickbait abyss, let’s put aside all the specifics of why Utah would want to leave the Big 12 for the ACC. Or why the ACC might sign off on such a move. And what effect it would have on the league’s much-maligned media rights deal with ESPN.

Let’s also forget the “this move doesn’t make any sense” conversation. That sailed out of the port – in either ocean – the minute the “Atlantic” Coast Conference expanded to include schools on the Pacific Coast.

After that, nothing makes sense anymore.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this actually happens and the ACC adds to its Western frontier by admitting Utah. The conference did reportedly show interest in the Utes shortly after Colorado set off the chain reaction that led to the end of the Pac-12.

It wouldn’t be the absolute worst move the ACC could make.

From a competition standpoint, it would certainly help the league’s standing in football – the sport we’re told is the driver of the financial bus – and add to its value. Dissident members Florida State and Clemson should like that.

The Utes are also competitive in baseball and both men’s and women’s basketball, something that would make everyone else happy.

Geographically, they would help anchor the Western flank by adding a travel partner for the 3 new members set to join the conference next month.

But why stop there?

If you’re going to continue to expand, why not also add Washington State and Oregon State? Or better yet, raid the Big 12 for 2 more members to get to an even 20?

That’s where this is headed, anyway. Better to fire a preemptive shot the way John Swofford did in raiding the old Big East when all this realignment nonsense first started than being reduced to picking over scraps the way Jim Phillips did last summer.

This is all speculation, of course.

Just because there’s smoke, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s fire. Reports of Utah’s interest in leaving the Big 12 really could turn out to be nothing more than clickbait.

But after some of the head-scratching moves that have already taken place around college athletics, it would be a mistake to summarily dismiss a report just because it sounds ridiculous.

Especially one that seems to be gaining as much traction as this one.