Pac-10 Follies

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
course).

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.

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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10 Responses to Pac-10 Follies

  1. Ed Newman November 19, 2010 at 7:42 am #

    Another good read. Well done.

    I hope we don’t see the changes you’ve described, but unless college football suddenly loses popularity I think the money involved is like a tidal wave. It will wash over everything and completely change the landscape.

    On the plus side, 4 super conferences make a playoff easier more likely. Maybe we can rename them too. Let’s start with Norris, Adams, Patrick, and Smythe. They’re available and I miss them.

  2. Hoag November 19, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    You completely lost me when you said the Pac-12 would ever add Boise or SMU. Boise is a commuter school in a small city with a lousy recruiting base. They’re performing well now, but if the coaching staff leaves, the broncos are sunk. Nevada and UNLV are in much bigger, more attractive cities, and have better recruiting bases. You could easily argue that San Diego State would be a better option as well.

    The Pac-12 would never take a tiny religious university like SMU.

    Lastly, why are you assuming the Pac-12 would sit on its hands when the Big-12 scatters? The Pac-16 was a hair away form becoming a reality, so why would none of them want anything to do with them now? Texas to the Big 10 makes little sense.

    The point that makes this whole article moot is that both the Big10 and Big12 are moving to nine-game conference schedules themselves in 2011. Why not write about how they’re “throwing money away” as well?

    Your mentality that money is the most important thing, is how the BCS got started.

  3. mb November 19, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    Hoag–Money is not the only (or maybe even the most important) factor, but it is a HUGE factor. Why did the Pac 10 expand in the first place….MONEY. Particularly for the public schools that have major budget issues…money is a big factor.

    WRT Boise, no doubt they are a small market school (and a former community college like ASU), but I tried to be thoughtful in how the Pac 12 would think about this. There are no viable schools that will be incremental to the monetary pie (more on this below re Big 12), so the Pac should try and maximize the competitive pie. There is no doubt that the 2 best (by a wide margin) competitive schools that are viable are Boise and TCU. By the way, Boise has been very successful under Koetter, Hawkins and now Petersen so they have done it through 3 coaching changes.

    WRT SMU, I agree this is a stretch. However, the Pac is very focused on “travel partners” (listen to Larry Scott’s presser) so if you add TCU you need to add a travel partner. SMU is a very easy travel partner and gives the Pac a decent presence is DFW. I fully admit it could be Texas Tech or that the Pac could go a completely different direction. I was working under the assumption that the Pac would maximize competitive opportunities to take Boise and TCU.

    San Diego St is possible, but the Pac already has SoCal and SDSU does not add much competitively (though that is changing this year). Nevada is also a possibility, but I could not make the “travel partner” concept work without significantly restructuring the conference. It is a possibility.

    I do think it is possible that the Pac 10 could pick up some Big 12 teams and I said as much in the article. I think it is unlikely however. How realistic does this pitch sound “Hey Texas, come to the Pac 12 and make the same as Washington St”? Possible however.

    The Big 10 recently announced it will delay going to a 9 game schedule until 2016 (really means they will evaluate it). They have already posted their 2011 and 2012 schedules (see this link http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/big10/sports/m-footbl/auto_pdf/fb-11-12-schedule-charts.pdf)…with 8 games. I would highly doubt the Big 10 goes to a 9 game schedule until the conference expands again to 14 or 16 teams. The Big 12 is not going to exist in its current form for more than 2 seasons….just a stop gap.

  4. JMod November 19, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    I agree that the Pac-10 handicapped itself when it had a 9 game conf schedule and everyone else still have an 8 game conf schedule. However, now that the Big 12(10) and Big Ten(Twelve) are moving to 9 game conf schedules, isn’t it less of a disadvantage in terms of a BCS at-large bid?

    Also, this article is framed like the Pac-10(12) made an unwise decision but in reality it just shows how the BCS should change it’s selection process (or just be scrapped altogether). Maybe the Pac-10 chose this because they are predicting change in the way teams are chosen and money is distributed?

  5. mb November 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    JMod–Big 10 not moving to a 9 game schedule. They have released an 8 game schedule for 2011 and 2012 (link above) and have said they will consider 9 games for 2016. The Big 12 will not stay in its current form for more than 2 seasons in my opinion.

  6. philnotfil November 19, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    “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 SEC starts conference play the third week of the season.

  7. Alex November 20, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    Your explanation of what happened to USC in 2008 is completely disingenuous. The fact that the PAC-10 played more conference games had nothing to do with USC’s problems in the computer polls. Those were due almost entirely to the fact that the PAC-10 was 19-17 OOC, while the SEC and Big 12 were 43-13 and 42-13 respectively in OOC games.

  8. jeremy November 20, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    Isnt that exactly the point? The Sec/Big 12 plays a cupcake OOC schedule and the Pac 10 doesn’t for the most part which is exactly why the Sec/Big 12 has a great OOC record and the pac 10 doesnt? The original post was alluding to the fact had the pac 12 switched to a sec type schedule this would help their teams inflate their records and get into better bowl games.

  9. Solon November 20, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    First off, thanks to MB for his input. Well done.

    Now, then, four points of contention related to MB’s post and some of the commenters:

    (1) There’s nothing more absurd than the way Pac 10 fans get the vapors over the SEC’s scandalous scheduling, and how it supposedly results in the perception of the SEC as the best conference. The actual effect scheduling has on the national perception is negligible, and the true reason the SEC is regarded as the best conference is because it generally is.

    To the extent any conference benefits from scheduling shenanigans, it is either the Big 10 or the Big 12, largely because as a general rule they play all of their OOC games before they start conference play. This allows early-October games to be billed as some sort of matchup of teams that have accomplished something due to gaudy records when they actually haven’t.

    The best example of this was Mizzou 2008. They were considered some sort of legitimate conquest by virtue of their win over 5-7 Illinois, I guess, and then when Oklahoma State beat them they were considered a legitimate conquest by virtue of the fact they’d beaten Mizzou. But in truth both teams were kind of shit.

    The way SEC schedules are set up, ranked SEC teams don’t achieve their ranking solely by beating up on overmatched OOC opponents, since the conference games are mixed in during the early part of the schedule. Auburn, for example, had OOC games in weeks 1, 3, 5, and 10. By the time they’d played 3 OOC opponents (one of whom was Clemson, by the way), they’d already defeated 2 SEC teams. So they were a 5-0 team with 3 BCS wins, not some 5-0 team with 4 joke wins who had also happened to win their conference opener.

    (2) The greater absurdity is all of this bollocks about how softening up the schedule leads to extra bowl teams. What’s most absurd about it is that we have quantifiable data we can interpret.

    The SEC has had its current configuration since 1992. Since that time, 63% of all SEC teams have been bowl-eligible (by which I mean they amassed a record good enough to go to a bowl).

    The Pac 10 has had its current configuration since 2006. Since that time, 65% of all Pac 10 teams have been bowl-eligible.

    In other words, if there’s some sort of grand plan by SEC teams afoot to finagle their way into bowl bids by scheduling bad OOC schedules and limiting themselves to 8 conference games, it’s been a colossal failure.

    (3) The reason SEC teams have something like 10 teams contracted to bowls is because most bowls are located in the South, and their fans will go to their games. It’s really quite simple.

    By the same token, SEC teams (along with Big 10 teams) have a MASSIVE advantage in terms of being selected for BCS at-large spots, because their fans deliver.

    This season, 10 of the 12 SEC teams are drawing at 96% of capacity or higher; in the Pac 10, only the Oregon schools do as well (and each of them play in pretty small stadia). And this despite the fact that the Pac 10 schedules more attractive OOC games, and 1/2 of the teams play 5 in-conference games at home.

    I mean, if Tennessee fills their 107K capacity stadium when they play Tennessee-Martin, is there any doubt they’ll sell their allotment for a BCS Bowl game?

    (4) The point about USC in 2008 makes no sense whatsoever. From what I can tell, the point was one of two things:

    ~the Pac 10 was so bad that year that USC had no chance to make up for their shitty conference schedule because they could only play 3 OOC games that year.

    ~the extra 5-5 record accumulated by USC’s opponents due to the extra conference game somehow created the massive disparity in the computer polls that season.

    Neither of these seems feasible. I really don’t know what this was about.

  10. Alex November 21, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    @Jeremy,

    He was arguing that the extra in conference losses were the reason for the worse computer rankings when the real problem was the OOC record. The idea that the SEC and Big 12 played seriously inferior OOC just don’t hold when you look at the numbers. Prior to bowl games, the SEC played 15 games against AQ teams, the Big 12 played 15, and the PAC 10 played 11. Even if you want to go by percentage, the PAC 10 was at 35% of OOC games against AQ teams, while the Big 12 and SEC were both at 31%.