Monday, December 5, 2011
Assessing Year One of the Pac-12
By Ted Miller
The first year of the Pac-12 looked about like the last year of the Pac-10, didn't it?
Oregon won the conference. Stanford and Andrew Luck were good enough to get a second BCS bowl invitation. There was a lot of inconsistency and mediocrity thereafter.
The biggest differences? The obvious: Two divisions. Two new teams. And USC returning to the elite after an 8-5 season.
The big question for you guys, though, is this: Did it feel different? Was something gained? Or lost?
On the typing, interviewing, analyzing and being snarky end of things -- my job -- I enjoyed the changes. It felt like growth.
I like a conference championship game. If USC had been eligible -- it will be going forward -- we would have had a fantastic top-10 matchup. The folks at Oregon and the Pac-12 seemed to work well together well putting on a good show. Sure, the new marketing push is something different for a patrician conference, but things didn't go overboard. And I think the No. 1 seed hosting the game makes sense.
I liked the new additions -- Utah and Colorado -- in the preseason and nothing changed my mind, even if the Buffaloes struggled more than I thought they might. For one, both schools are quality road trips. I'm sure those of you who visited Salt Lake City and Boulder enjoyed your time.
The Utes won enough to become an immediate factor. There might not be as many 10-win seasons in the future as their fans are used to, but Utah is firmly in the middle third of the conference. Colorado has a ways to go, but the program has won before and there's no reason it can't shortly compete in the South Division.
There, of course, were downsides. The South Division was a mess due to USC's ineligibility due to NCAA sanctions. Further, how things went -- and have gone in other conferences with divisions -- revealed some unavoidable downsides to 12 teams.
In the Pac-10, the nine-game conference schedule made sense. It crowned a true champion. It makes zero sense now. It only hurts the conference, adding six defeats that could be 12 potential victories with a fourth nonconference game. It hurts getting teams bowl eligible. It hurts in the BCS standings.
What about designated opponents, such as California and Stanford playing USC and UCLA every year? Hey, it's great that fans like to go North and South in California for their weekenders. Fantastic. Only it's a negative for the teams. Let's put it this way: Do you think Jeff Tedford and David Shaw want to play USC every year, knowing that the teams they compete with in the North Division won't?
Tradition is great. But it won't feel so good when, say, Cal is looking up at Oregon winning the North Division only because the Bears lost to USC in a year the Ducks didn't play the Trojans.
Look, athletic directors, I get it that scheduling is difficult and scheduling a potential fourth nonconference game is a burden. But you are hurting your teams. Your job is not to make your job easy. It's to help your team be successful. The nine-game conference schedule is a negative for the Pac-12, period.
The conference eventually needs to go to an eight-game schedule and have a natural rotation of three games in the opposite division.
Scheduling -- eight games or otherwise -- also becomes a bigger issue in a 12-team conference, mostly due to conference schedule misses. Utah didn't play Oregon or Stanford. Would the Utes be playing in the Sun Bowl if they played both, as Arizona, USC and Colorado did? What about North teams that missed USC? A late-season game with Arizona State or UCLA might have bolstered Washington instead of one with the surging Trojans. Cal might have liked a piece of Arizona or Colorado (the Bears game at Colorado counted as a prescheduled, nonconference game) more than the Trojans.
That's just the reality of a 12-team conference, though: There will be schedule inequity. Nothing can be done to change that.
Change was the name of the game in the Pac-12 this season. My general impression, however, is the new and different didn't unsettle many of the great things about the conference.
And those big checks from ESPN and Fox from the new $3 billion TV contract that begin next year should sooth most institutional irritations.