In the largest revenue producing and highest profile sport the Pac-10’s current model has set itself up for failure via complacency. Limiting progress, failing to adapt and leaving large sums of money on the table.
A typical year may go something like this: USC starts in preseason top-five, but falters on a conference road game and is held out of the championship game in favor of teams with identical records. USC wins the conference and receives the league's lone BCS berth.
USC pummels a markedly inferior Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl for a top-five finish. The Trojans divide their BCS spoils with the other nine teams.
Stale, predictable, and underachieving.
(Forgive my over-usage of USC in this article. It is in part designed to convey the predictability and boredom that has become Pac-10 football)
The 2008-'09 Pac-10 football season may be viewed as another successful season capped—saved may be a better term—by an astonishing 5-0 Bowl Season. The Pac-10 put a beat-down in the Bowls on top representatives from nearly every major conference—Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, ACC, and the MWC.
Impressive but underachieving. Oregon was the only underdog. A 5-0 record is impressive, but it may also be the result of weak bowl alignments.
Either way, 2008-09 offered little progress. Another year, another champion confined to the Rose Bowl while three other conferences—including a less-than-stellar Big 10—received lucrative jackpots from a second BCS berth.
National Championship Aspirations
As it stands, USC would almost have to go undefeated or maintain a better record than premier BCS champs for a sniff at the Crystal Ball. The Pac’s distinct Round Robin system may be traditional and beloved by coaches, but it is prohibitive to BCS success.
Each team is inherently placed on the road in conference play at least four or five times every year. Even the best teams would falter at one point. Making it difficult to sustain a strong enough record to for a national championship and/or a second at-large bid (2005 Oregon, 2007 Arizona St. come to mind).
Second BCS Bowl
No other conference has seemingly been hit harder by BCS buster party crashing. In 2004, a very deserving Aaron Rodgers-led Cal team was denied BCS entry in favor of the Texas Longhorns.
While much of the attention centered on the Cal-Texas debate, it should be pointed out that the other at-large spot went to undefeated Utah—the first ever BCS buster, starting a new trend.
Since the BCS expanded to the fifth Bowl in 2006 and made the path easier for non-BCS teams, they also made it easier for second tier BCS conferences to get in an additional bid.
Since then, the Pac-10 has failed miserably while the Big 10 has had two BCS Bowl berths in each of the last three years. Is the Big 10 really on a higher plane?
In fact, no other Pac-10 team besides USC has even cracked the BCS jackpot since Washington St. in 2002-03—and they are a long ways from going back.
Within that same time frame Utah, Hawaii, and Boise St. have all cashed in. Is it safe to say that a Utah or a Boise St. has an easier path to the BCS than Oregon, Arizona St. or Cal? A compelling case that may continue to erode the Pac-10 monopoly on top western recruiting.
The Emergence of the MWC
The MWC is headed for the BCS. It may not be until 2012 or further beyond that but it’s a strong possibility. The MWC is now 2-0 in BCS Bowls. Compare that to the ACC (2-9) or the Big 10 (2-5 since ’04). Utah’s commanding win over Alabama has prompted serious discussion for MWC acceptance.
MWC entrance as the seventh BCS conference could prove detrimental to the Pac-10. It would make the a second berth improbable, threaten to change recruiting dynamics in the west and force the Pac to share what little attention western football seems to receive.
It would also mean that the smaller MWC conference would enjoy roughly the same BCS spoils as their larger and more popular neighbor.
Current litigation efforts may force the BCS hands. In turn, an easy compromise would be to strengthen ranks of the MWC. Could you imagine the MWC with Tulsa, Fresno St. and Boise St.? Colorado? I know it’s a stretch, but there is potential the MWC could narrow the gap considerably in a short time.
Benefits of Expansion
Expanding the Pac to 12 teams could help immensely. It would make conference play easier and less rigid by bifurcating teams into two separate divisions. It would add the prestige, national draw, and lucre of a conference championship game. New markets could be tapped and threats from up-and-coming conferences can be stunted.
Expansion would make the Pac champion look stronger, enhance the chance for a national title, dramatically improve the possibility of a second berth and help the conference ascend as an elite BCS conference.
The Pac-10 is heightening its effort to replace long-time commissioner Tom Hansen who retires on July 1. The selection will innately play a huge role in the direction and future of the Pac-10. Do they select an old hand and maintain status quo or pursue a visionary looking to reach new heights?
Plus, if the MWC obtains BCS acceptance, teams like Utah and TCU may be inclined to stay. They would (likely) be BCS Bowl contenders every year—a key selling point that would attract several top programs out west.
My Top Five
While the current model is not conducive for progress, a 12-team conference is not the end all be all. Expansion only makes sense if you bring in the right schools. Schools that fit within the academic model, contribute more than they consume and offer the Pac as a whole more prestige, more revenue and a better chance at closing the gap on the premier conferences.
Here are my top five candidates.
1. Utah—Decent academics. Strong football and basketball programs. Well-rounded in other sports.
2. Colorado—Currently in a BCS conference. Strong football name. Large Denver market.
3.TCU—Strong football program. Solid Dallas market. Could extend recruiting bases deeper into Texas.
4. BYU—Well-balanced athletics. Nationwide fan base. Excellent academics. Sunday scheduling, conservative politics and non “research institution” may be issues.
5. Boise St.—Exciting football. Weaker in other sports. Small market. May lack academic prowess.
Fresno St., San Diego St, New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado St. are all worthy of discussion. Some of these may bring attractive markets but may not be competitive enough, lack the budget, tradition or academics to contribute meaningfully.
Hard minds are hard to change. It’s no surprise most Pac-10 university presidents adamantly oppose expansion. That said my guess is Hansen will be replaced by an old hand. Someone who will maintain the current course to mediocrity.
Granted, expansion is a much more complicated process than many of us fans can understand. There are a multitude of sports and other programs that would be impacted. Travel is complicated.
Old rivalries may be parsed. But the opportunity costs for ignoring expansion are too great. And certainly profitable enough to make everyone happy.
Even the university presidents.