Friday, December 18, 2009

The Pac-10: College Football's Flagship Conference

Given the recent buzz over the Big Ten's search for a twelfth member, it's no surprise that the Pac-10 has followed suit in saying that it will examine possible additions that would, if added, most likely being Pac-10 play in 2012 (the Pac-10's TV contracts expire after the 2011-2012 season).

Doing so, however, would be incredibly foolish.

"There's a pretty high hurdle for us, academically, athletically, geographically," commissioner Larry Scott commented in a press conference held earlier today. "We're hard-pressed to really see how you improve upon the structure of the Pac-10 as it is with five sets of natural rivals in four states."

Scott couldn't be more right in having reservations about conference expansion, specifically for the Pac-10. Of all the conferences in the FBS, the Pac-10 is the one that actually got things right in terms of balancing academics, quality football and conference structure.

The Pac-10 takes the term "student-athlete" seriously: five of its schools are ranked in the top-50 in the US News "Best Colleges" rankings (including Stanford at #4), which places them in a tie for second with the Big Ten (the ACC has six schools). Both the ACC and Pac-10 also have four teams ranked in the top-30, but all four of the Pac-10 schools are bowl-bound this season, whereas only UNC will be representing the ACC in the postseason this year. The SEC has two top-50 schools, Florida and Vanderbilt, and Texas is the only representative from the Big XII.

Quality Football
USC has won two (nearly three) of the last six national championships.  Stanford-Cal, USC-UCLA, Washington-Washington State and Oregon-Oregon State are all celebrated rivalry games. Ten Heisman winners have come from the Pac-10, and its schools have claimed 20 national championships over the course of college football history.  Over 200 former Pac-10 players currently hold roster spots in the NFL, accounting for more than 10% of the league.  In the last six years, the Pac-10 is 22-11 in bowl games.  Stadiums like the LA Coliseum, the Autzen Zoo, Husky Stadium, Sun Devil Stadium and the Rose Bowl provide storied venues in which one can see great football played.  Given the atmosphere, the history and the talent on the field, the Pac-10 gives fans one of the best college football tickets around.

Conference Structure
The Pac-10 has ten teams from a well-defined geographic region. There are clearly defined rivalries for every team, and each team plays every other team round-robin style in order to determine the conference champion, something that no other conference of its size (or larger) guarantees.  For example, in 2005, Georgia went 10-3 en route to an SEC Championship and a loss to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.  Georgia's conference record (the factor that sent them to the SEC Championship) was 6-2, including wins over SEC West opponents Arkansas and Mississippi State, both of whom had losing records.  Florida beat Georgia in '05 but ended up 5-3 in conference with losses to SEC West Opponents Alabama and LSU, both of whom had winning records.

Did Georgia really win the SEC East that season? Many would say yes, but the argument can be made that things might have been different if Florida and Georgia had both been forced to play the same schedule.  With the Pac-10, scheduling arguments like this one are irrelevant because everyone plays the same schedule.  This is the advantage of a 10-team league: everyone plays everyone else, there is still room for a few non-conference matchups, and the conference champion is undisputed. (Even the Big 10, with 11 teams, could do this, but they choose to have more non-conference games instead, which muddies the waters of conference champion talk in many years.)

So What?
If the Pac-10 were to expand, who would they take? BYU and Air Force seem like good candidates, given their competitive academics and recently resurgent programs, but the Mountain West Conference wouldn't be too keen on giving up two of their better competitors, especially when they are statistically very close to being eligible for a BCS spot. From a competition standpoint, Boise State and Fresno State would be two teams worth looking at from the Western Athletic Conference, but that risks watering down the academic standards of the conference. Hawaii, Nevada and UNLV would open the Pac-10 up to more TV markets (Honolulu, Reno and Las Vegas), but only Nevada has proven itself to be a consistently decent team as of late, and only once since 2000 have they won the WAC title.

The only reason for the Pac-10 to expand is the money they might be able to garner if they hold a championship game. According to data provided by the US Department of Education, the Pac-10 brought in approximately $255 million in revenue last year, which is on par with the figure given for the ACC, a conference that already has a championship game. That's not to say that the Pac-10 is rollin' in the dough (according to ESPN's Tim Griffin, they're not in the top four in conference revenue sharing, and they're also way behind the non-championship Big Ten's revenue total), but considering that the Pac-10 is keeping up with a conference that already holds a championship game, they aren't doing too badly.

I'm sure you can make the argument that you can find better football in the SEC, better scholarship in the Big Ten and a better game structure in the FCS playoff system, but nowhere will you come as close to getting all three in the same place as you will in the Pac-10.  It would be great to get the revenue from an additional school or two, but realistically, the Pac-10's drive for dollars would be shortchanging itself in regard to football and academics.  Whatever cents a twelve team conference may make, it wouldn't make sense for the Pac-10 - they already have all the ingredients to market themselves as the conference that best exemplifies the ideals of college football.

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