At this point, the only thing left for optimists to cling on to is that the leak was meant to prevent madness. All the alternatives are too absurd.

Respected Pac-12 insider Jon Wilner revealed Thursday that talks are underway for USC and UCLA to join the Big Ten as soon as 2024.

At first glance, it feels too implausible to be real. But it is. A pair of connected Pac-12 sources confirmed with Saturday Tradition that their grapevine is providing the same information as Wilner’s. One described the chances of it actually happening as “high.”

And reading between the lines, it seems clear that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been up to something.

Warren initially said the B1G would announce its new media rights deal around Memorial Day. When you make that kind of pronouncement, people begin to notice when July 4th is approaching and nothing has happened yet.

But apparently something is happening. Something seismic.

In SoCal parlance, The Big One. Or A Big One, at any rate.

From a Big Ten perspective, I understand the appeal. The conference would stretch from sea to shining sea, or whatever visual effect the water provides off the Jersey Shore. The B1G would live up to its caps lock billing. A nationwide behemoth.

It’s also the worst idea I’ve ever heard of, and must be stopped. It holds a knife to the throat of everything fans hold dear about college sports.

Indeed, the whole thing feels reminiscent of another time a group of Midwesterners attempted to do something groundbreaking in Los Angeles.

College sports jumping the shark

Season 5 of “Happy Days” opened with a 3-part episode where Fonzie and the gang travel from Milwaukee to Hollywood for an audition. It culminates with The Fonz jumping over a shark on water skis in the final episode.

From that, the phrase “jumping the shark” was eventually born. It pinpoints the precise moment when a beloved institution catapults into the bag of very bad ideas. Some fans will stay for the ride no matter what. But others will say, “This is ridiculous,” and walk away.

And if the shark jump is too ridiculous, the number of fans who walk away will eventually outnumber those who stick around. The enterprise will run itself into the ground.

This is the future Warren is inviting for all of college sports.

Regionalism has always been what makes college sports great.

Major cities — Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, Houston, Dallas, etc., etc. — are homes to thousands of alumni from the universities in their respective regions. Even in cities where college football is an afterthought, such as Boston and Philadelphia, there are college events that stir the drink. Boston has the Beanpot hockey tournament and Philly the Big 5 basketball series. It matters because it is intensely local.

And it’s perhaps an even bigger deal in rural areas, where access to pro sports is more distant. An Iowan might have in-laws in Illinois whom they can talk trash to over the water trough rather than the water cooler.

The pride in your team is derived so much from the fact that you personally know people who root for the other school. It’s a social event.

That’s not always the case in pro sports, where teams tend to be more spread out. How many Cowboys fans actually know an Eagles fan they can taunt in person?

USC and UCLA would be throwing that all away should they run toward however many suitcases of cash Warren seems to be offering.

The SoCal-NorCal rivalry is real. Do you really think USC and UCLA fans want to trade in Stanford and Cal for Rutgers and Minnesota? Or the ability to make fun of Arizona State grads? How would Trojans fans celebrate a big win over Iowa? Heckling Ashton Kutcher and Tom Arnold since there are no other Hawkeyes fans in Hollywood?

All of those rhetorical questions spell out the risks involved here. Even the Tom Arnold one. There is a lot to do in Los Angeles. College sports don’t have to be anybody’s priority. And removing natural rivalries runs the risk of putting UCLA and USC even lower on the pecking order.

The Big Ten’s investment would lose quite a bit of its luster if every L.A. crowd felt like a Penn State basketball game at Bryce Jordan Center.

Obviously, that type of thing isn’t weighed very carefully by the decision-makers involved here. It’s all a giant TV show to them. But how seriously is the student part of student-athlete supposed to be taken when the UCLA volleyball team is on a round-trip flight to Maryland for a match that lasts 3 sets?

In the words of Dick Vitale: Are you serious?

Will the Rose Bowl wither on the vine?

Perhaps the most shocking element of this potential move is what it would do to devalue the thing that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have nurtured together for decades: the Rose Bowl.

The tradition of having a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup as the sun sets over the San Gabriel Mountains on New Year’s day is part of the bedrock of American sporting culture. The lengths both conferences have gone to protect it are quite an irritant to anyone seeking a more streamlined College Football Playoff schedule.

It’s difficult to see that relationship continuing to bear fruit if the B1G swipes the Pac-12’s largest TV market — especially when 1 of those teams plays its home games at the Rose Bowl.

Why would the Pac-12 want to continue that working relationship with a pickpocket? Even worse, a lying pickpocket who previously formed an “Alliance” with you? Call it skullduggery or scumbaggery, but neither is good for building a lasting relationship.

That Warren — and frankly, UCLA — would be willing to throw that away is beyond gross. Much like the pro golfers currently jumping from the PGA Tour to LIV, it’s a matter of telling tradition to buzz off in order to bleed every cent out of a billion-dollar beet. Nothing is done for the sake of competition. It’s for a few dollars more.

Nobody likes a mercenary.

The power brokers here are glossing over that detail. But at some point, the fans won’t. And because of it, there won’t be as many of them as there used to be.