Over the summer, HP reader MB produced some exhaustive research on program talent rankings over the last decade that shed a lot of light on which schools were doing the most (or least) with the players they had. MB is back again now with a look at the recent expansion move by the Pac-10 and what it means for the conference and college football.
Recently the Pac 10 officially expanded to twelve teams (becoming the Pac 12) and announced the new divisional alignments, scheduling details and revenue sharing plan.
While many East of Denver did not pay much attention, this is the first step down a path that will likely end with four “super conferences” with 16 teams each. Below are some comments and opinions on how this impacts the Pac 12 and how the Pac 12’s actions could impact the landscape of college football. I would like to point out that much (if not
all) of the credit for the analysis of the 9 game conference schedule goes to a friend of the site we will call Hoya. Thanks Hoya.
Did the Pac 12 Get it Right?
In a word……”no”. The Pac 12 had a great opportunity to learn from what has worked and not worked in the SEC, Big 12, Big 10 and ACC (conferences with more than 10 teams). Those conferences have pursued some smart and effective strategies to best position their conferences for competitive and economic success. The Pac 12 had tons of data available from those conferences about divisional splits, scheduling and revenue sharing…yet the Pac 12 managed to make some critical mistakes, mistakes that will cost the conference a ton of money and more importantly cost the conference the ability to equitably compete for BCS National Championships.
To analyze the mistakes made in 2010, we first need to look at a BIG mistake the Pac 10 conference made before the 2006 regular season. Prior to 2006, each Pac 10 team played an 8 game conference schedule and 3 non conference games. This was a similar strategy used by the SEC, Big 12, Big 10 and ACC. When the NCAA expanded the regular season to 12 games for the 2006 season, the Pac 10 moved to a 9 game conference schedule while all other major conferences maintained an 8 game schedule. With expansion, the new Pac 12 had an opportunity to revert to an 8 game schedule, much like other 12 team conferences (particularly the SEC and Big 12) have successfully utilized for years, yet the Pac 12 stuck with a 9 game schedule. This mistake has material negative consequences for the conference, both competitively and economically. More on this below.
Creating an Unnecessary Impediment to Compete for BCS National Championships
While playing 9 conference games instead of 8 may seem innocuous, the reality is that it creates an uneven playing field in the Pac 12’s quest for the BCS National Championship Game (and for a BCS At Large Bid). When a 12 team conference plays 9 games instead of 8, it guarantees that conference 6 more losses for the year. Conference games are zero-sum for the conference overall—each game must produce a winner and a loser. With a nine-game conference schedule, the best possible record for the Pac-12 Conference is 90-54 (or 62.5%) — 54-54 in conference, 36-0 out of conference. With an eight-game schedule? 96-48 (or 66.7%) – 48-48 in conference, 48-0 out of conference. This built-in net 12-game differential wreaks havoc on the BCS rankings for all Pac-12 teams, particularly in the computer rankings that account for one-third of the BCS formula.
The SEC and Big 12 created a roadmap where teams play 8 conference games and fill their non-conference schedules with home games against lesser competition. This leads to the SEC and the Big 12 having many teams 4-0 while by definition half of the Pac 12 will be 3-1 (assuming non conference games are played in the first 3 weeks).
The perception of lesser teams (created by more losses for the conference) makes it harder to get Pac 12 teams ranked by the human polls, particularly early in the year when perceptions are built. Lastly, A nine-game conference schedule with four interdivisional games produces a 16.67% greater chance that the conference title game will be a rematch over an eight-game conference schedule with three interdivisional games. Rematch games are less attractive to fans and television networks while also discounted heavily by the computer polls (a team gets no credit for beating the same team twice in many computer polls). These mathematical and psychological (human voters see more losses disadvantages are crippling to Pac-12 BCS aspirations.
To put all of this in perspective one needs to look no further than the 2008 USC Trojans. USC finished the regular season at 12-1, the same record as both Oklahoma and Florida. However, even if USC had won every single game 100-0 (except for the loss to Oregon St) and received every #1 vote in both the Coaches Poll and the Harris Poll, USC would not have made the BCS National Championship Game without massive voter manipulation (significant number of voters moving Florida and/or Oklahoma way down in the polls). I make this point NOT TO SAY THAT USC DESERVED TO BE IN THE BCS GAME, but rather to illustrate how much of an uphill battle is created by playing a nine game conference schedule. An uphill battle that is completely unnecessary.
Throwing Money Away
In addition to the competitive disadvantages discussed above, the 9 game conference schedule also results in the Pac 12 giving away millions in revenue each year. The most obvious monetary hit comes from giving up an additional home game every other year (with an 8 game schedule there are 4 conference away games each year, with a 9 game schedule there are 5 conference away games every other year). For a team like USC that routinely draws over 80,000 for a home game that could easily be a $4mm reduction in potential revenue. Not only does the extra away game reduce revenue, it increases travel expenses….draining resources from the overall athletic department budget. In addition to the lost revenue from additional home games, the Pac 12 is foregoing money from bowl appearances. The 9 game conference schedule makes it much harder for Pac 12 teams to become bowl eligible. To illustrate this point, lets compare the SEC (plays an 8 game schedule) to the Pac 10 (9 game schedule).
In 2008, the Pac-10 had only five of 10 teams bowl-eligible. Stanford and Arizona State finished 5-7, but played its ninth conference game on the road, where both teams finished 1-4 during conference play. Substitute that ninth game with a winnable home game, and the Pac-10 would have had seven teams at 6-6 or better. Conversely, In 2009, the SEC had 10 of 12 teams bowl-eligible, even though four teams finished 3-5 in conference play. Each of these four teams finished 4-0 in non-conference play for a 7-5 record, thanks to 14 of these 16 games played at home against weaker competition, instead of a likely extra loss in a ninth conference game. Those lost bowl appearances cost the conference millions. Further, I don’t think it is a coincidence that from BCS inception in 1998 through 2005 (last year the Pac played 8 conference games), the Pac 10 had 2 teams receive at-large BCS bids (and Cal should have received an at-large bid in 2004) while since 2006, the Pac has not had a viable candidate for an at-large BCS bid (2010 pending of
What was the Pac 12 Thinking?
Tough question to answer given the facts presented above, but in short, the conference members put other priorities ahead of competing for national championships and maximizing revenue. Based on the comments made by the Pac 10 Conference Commissioner as well as several member school athletic directors, it is clear that the number one priority in these decisions was maximizing the number of visits for the schools in the Pacific Northwest to California (Los Angeles in particular). In order to get those schools down to Los Angeles on a regular basis the conference decided to play a 9 game schedule…it is as simple as that. Shocking that these schools would forgo millions when their institutions are in dire straights financially (Cal just cut its baseball program) so they can make trips to Los Angeles.
Even more disturbing is that these schools know the facts about a 9 game schedule, know that it will make competing for national championships that much more difficult, yet chose a 9 game schedule anyway….so that Washington St can play in Los Angeles more often. I have no idea why USC and UCLA would vote for this type of structure so they can give up millions and reduce their competitive standing for the privilege of letting the rest of their conference invade their home market.
How Does this Impact the Broader College Football Landscape?
Enough about the Pac 10/12…the bigger question is does this expansion signal a broader movement within college football? I think the answer is “yes”…..primarily because I am not convinced the new Big 12 is viable in its current form. Playing a 9 game schedule without a conference championship game is not a long term answer for the Big 12 for all the reasons outlined above. How the Big 12 proceeds from here could have a dramatic impact on the entire college football landscape. Lets review a few illustrative scenarios of what could happen.
1) Big 12 Adds 2 Teams—While this may seem like the logical and easiest path for the Big 12, I don’t think it is likely. The choices for which teams could be added are fairly limited in my opinion. While the Big 12 could add TCU and Houston,those teams do not bring new geographic markets and would ultimately be economically dilutive to the current 10 teams in the conference. It could happen, but I think it is unlikely. The Big 12 would love to add USC and UCLA, but USC is not leaving the Pac 12 without bringing along several traditional Pac 10 teams with them. Tradition trumps all at USC so for USC to switch conferences it would require 5 of their traditional conference foes to go with them. More on that below. This scenario (adding 2 schools) would have little impact on the rest of college football.
2) Big 12 Add 6 Teams—The Big 12 could be the first conference to jump to 16 teams and this would make a ton of sense. Given all the conversations that took place over the summer, it is clear there is real merit to having USC, UCLA,Texas and Oklahoma together in one conference.. The Big 12 could take USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Arizona and Arizona St….creating an economic and competitive powerhouse, on par with the SEC and the Big 10 with very attractive demographics. While this makes the most sense for both the Big 12 and those six teams from the Pac, it remains a long shot because USC will resist moving no matter how compelling the new situation would become.
This could have a major impact on the rest of college football as the Big 10 and SEC would likely move to 16 teams as well. Missouri may move to the Big 10 (Big 12 may replace them with TCU) along with Notre Dame, Pitt and Rutgers. Clemson, Florida St, Virginia Tech and Miami could join the SEC. The Big East and ACC would effectively merge and maybe add Southern Miss and/or East Carolina. The Pac would take Boise and several other MWC and WAC teams. The race would be on.
3) Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma St Join the Pac 12 -Very unlikely to happen, but is possible. Would set off a similar race as described above with several current Big 12 schools being left out in the cold.
4) Big 12 Scatters—I think this is the most likely scenario. Texas and Missouri go to Big 10 with ND and Rutgers (great conference). Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St and Clemson join the SEC. The SEC West would have an old SWC feel with Oklahoma, Oklahoma St, Texas A&M, LSU and Arkansas in that division. Pac 12 would add Boise, TCU, SMU and UNLV. Big East and ACC merge and divest a few teams.
Who knows what will happen, but I do believe the Big 12 needs to make a move and will make a decision on this soon (before the 2012 season). Texas, in particular, is in position to really shape how the college football landscape looks in the future. In the meantime, the Pac 12 will continue to give away millions and face an uphill battle in competing for national championships.