On Thursday night, Sept. 2, 2010, the University of Utah will host Dion Lewis and the Pittsburgh Panthers on ESPN. A showdown between two likely top 20 teams.
The elite of the Big East versus the premier of the Mountain West.
Or...will it be a classic Big Ten versus Pac-10 September clash featuring the conferences' newest faces?
Anyone attuned to message board chatter the last few days wouldn't be the least bit surprised. While the Pitt to the Big Ten rumors have been swirling onward and upward for the past few weeks, the latest buzz has the Pac-10 poaching Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the MWC to form the Pac-12.
This rumor may have legs. For starters, it makes perfect sense. So does the timing. These two teams have been widely held as the most likely targets for Pac-10 expansion. The Pac-10 would penetrate two high-growth western markets without cannibalizing any present strongholds. It would keep the conference up to speed with its long-established partner, the Big Ten, who has made no qualms about their desire to expand to 12.
More importantly it would generate revenue by adding a conference championship and enhancing the opportunity for a second BCS berth; something that seems completely foreign to the Pac-10 of late.
The new Pac-10 commissioner, Larry Scott, was brought in to think out of the box and to create new ideas, particularly those centered on generating revenue. His first major task will be to enhance the Pac-10's national TV contract,. The current contract with Fox expires the 2011-12 season.
Regarding expansion, Larry Scott said Monday , "We're looking at it very seriously...But it’s very natural as you look at the value of the conference from a media standpoint. If we were ever going to look at expansion, this would be the logical time."
Just today, Larry Scott announced the hiring of former Big 12 Commissioner Kevin Weiberg as Deputy Commissioner. Mr. Weiberg also served as Deputy Commissioner for the Big Ten.
In the Pac-10's official statement it cites Mr. Weiberg's experience with expansion issues, noting he "was instrumental in the integration of Penn State into the (Big Ten) conference."
That's a pretty bold move to hire a deputy with such a strong resume. Especialy in a conference known for keeping the status quo.
Clearly, Mr. Scott has something big in the works.
Why It Makes Sense
The Pac-10 presidents have been consistent in their collective stance regarding expansion. Unanimously content with the status quo but guardedly open to anything that might increase revenue per program.
In short, new invitees would have to contribute more than they would consume. Out West, outside the Pac-10, that's not easy to come by.
At the same time, Scott has made several overtures displaying his envy over the new billion dollar deal the SEC recently landed with CBS. With that kind of coin on the table for college football, the "conference of champions" would be foolish not to explore their options. And it seems very feasible that a new suitor would ask the Pac-10 to expand their markets and add a CCG game.
Which is in part why Colorado and Utah could prove an excellent fit.
A recent report by Janson Media ranks Denver as the fifth largest TV market out West and 18th overall in the U.S., coming in ahead of St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Portland, OR. That's a substantial market and the largest one in the West the Pac-10 hasn't tapped.
Janson also rates Salt Lake City amongst the top ten TV markets in the West and 36th overall across the nation, just trailing Cincinnati, OH, Columbus, OH, and Milwaukee, WI.
Adding these two markets to the mix could instantly increase the all-important "reach" by millions of households. Leveraged over a long-term deal with a network, it's plausible that this aspect alone can make expansion worthwhile.
Not to mention the augmented national appeal and prestige of adding two compelling programs. Poaching the Big 12 for the storied Buffaloes could add public prestige to the Pac-10.
Over the last decade, Utah has quickly emerged as one of the most respected and most accomplished programs in the West. Two undefeated seasons, two BCS bowl wins, and a nine-game bowl winning streak which includes victories over the likes of USC, Cal, Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt, and Alabama.
The Utes seem well-prepared for the upwardly mobile.
Conference Championship Game
The appeal of the conference championship game is three-fold. First, it would almost be required by any large netowrk suitor. Second, it would provide the conference champion with a marquee win on the last and most impressionable weekend of the season. Third, it would be a revenue boon on its on, likely delivering a sell out crowd, and a nation-wide audience.
Second BCS Berth
Adding two new programs could significantly help the Pac-10 land the elusive second BCS berth. A second BCS berth on a consistent basis should be a primary goal for any BCS conference. In many cases, it defines the BCS haves, from the BCS have-nots. In 2005, when the BCS announced a fifth BCS bowl, many figured the Pac-10 to be one of the primary benefactors. Yet the Pac-10 has failed miserably. Here is a breakdown of total BCS berths by conference since 2005-07:
- SEC - eight
- Big Ten - eight
- Big 12 - six
- Big East - four
- ACC - four
- Pac 10 - four
Not quite the company the Pac-10 likes to be keeping. By adding more prestige to the schedule, a conference championship game and perhaps eliminating the round robin, the Pac-10 could instantly ameliorate their chances for an additional berth.
Scheduling More Conducive to the BCS
The real challenge with the Pac-10, however, has little to do with its ability to compete with the elite conferences. Its largest problem could very well be the round robin schedule. While most coaches, players, fans, and football purists love the round robin because it is the most exciting and most effective way to determine a champion; it is not conducive to success in the new BCS realm.
The flaw of the round robin schedule is that it requires every team to travel to each Pac-10 state every season. That equates to as many as five out-of-state, intra-conference road games; making it nearly impossible to achieve an undefeated season.
How many times has a USC team stocked with NFL-caliber talent been denied entry to the BCS National Championship Game because of a small, forgivable slip-up on the road during conference play?
Not only does losing out to a National Championship to teams from other conferences with the same record affect the Pac-10's reputation, it also makes it harder to squeeze in a second entrant.
Sticking a Fork in the MWC
An oft-overlooked advantage to expansion has as much to do with eliminating threats as it does direct benefits. Since TCU arrived in 2005, the MWC has steadily taken off and seems well on their way towards BCS acceptance. This could create several problems for the Pac-10. The Pac-10 gets very little attention to begin with.
A second BCS conference in the West would force the Pac-10 to share the spotlight. It would dilute current BCS revenues and make it nearly impossible for the Pac-10 to secure a second BCS Bowl berth. In addition, it could have a significant impact on recruiting, where BYU, TCU, and Utah are already making noteworthy in-roads.
Eliminating Utah would eliminate the face of the MWC and stunt their progression towards the BCS. In addition, BYU would make a very attractive replacement for Colorado in the Big 12 North and TCU might even be considered for the Big East if they are to replace Pitt.
Time will tell. In the meantime, enjoy the speculation.