Monday, October 26, 2009

The Time for the Pac-12 Has Come

[After-the-fact edit: As of 2010, the Pac-12 became reality!  In my speculative post below, I had not considered the possibility that the Big 12 might be vulnerable to losing schools, but that's what ended up happening, and in the end I think the Pac-12 is much stronger for the addition of Colorado than any WAC school.  I view the addition of Utah from the Mountain West as more or less equivalent to having added a WAC school.  Sure enough, Fresno State and Hawaii (and also Nevada) left the WAC... but they went to the MWC, along with Boise State, the latter of which I did predict.  And I hope you'll observe that the Pac-12 football divisions, southern and northern, are exactly as I predicted, except with the two new schools being Colorado and Utah, not Fresno State and Hawaii.  Finally, the Pac-12 Championship Game has been established as I predicted.]

Arizona State University and a certain unnamed southern Arizona school departed the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in 1978 to join the then-Pacific 8 Conference, or Pac-8, making it into the Pac-10 that we know today as one of the NCAA's premier athletic divisions. After 31 years, it is time for the Pacific Conference to expand once again at the WAC's expense -- but also to the WAC's benefit.

When ASU and UA left the WAC for the Pac-10, it was abundantly clear that the move was necessary. During the decade prior to the move, ASU either won the WAC in football or shared the conference title seven times, losing a combined four conference games during that stretch. UA won once and was ASU's only legitimate spoiler. ASU and UA dominated WAC baseball: ASU won the WAC eight times during that stretch and the NCAA national championship twice, while UA won the WAC the other two times and were national champions once. In basketball, UA dominated the WAC, never finishing worse than 4th in the conference, after the hiring of their first "elite" head coach, Fred "the Fox" Snowden, and made multiple deep NCAA March Madness tournament runs.

A similar level of disparity currently plagues the WAC, courtesy of Boise State, Hawaii, and Fresno State. BSU and Hawaii have won every WAC football title since 2002, and FSU has been the only likely spoiler in most of those years. The three schools combine for six WAC basketball championships or runners-up in the past decade. Hawaii is the all-time WAC baseball conference championship leader, while Fresno State has won every WAC baseball championship since the WAC resumed its conference tournament in 2005. It is abundantly clear now, as it was in the late 1970s, that the WAC is top-heavy and noncompetitive.

The other teams in the WAC, though occasionally seeing the stars align for a magical season here or there, simply cannot compete at that level. Louisiana Tech (which really belongs in some other conference geographically) and Nevada have each won or shared the WAC football title once since the Mountain West split from the WAC in 1999. New Mexico State and Utah State have finished well in the WAC basketball tournament a couple of times, but were a far cry from being March Madness contenders. San Diego State won the WAC in baseball three times, most recently 18 years ago. The two remaining schools, Idaho and San Jose State, have not had much success in any of these areas.

The WAC's status as a non-BCS conference has combined with the competitive disparity to cheat the three schools out of opportunities to compete for national titles -- and cheated the viewing public out of what could have been wonderfully entertaining and competitive games. Boise State has the strongest claim, having run the table in 2006, undefeated, en route to a 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, but no title. (NCAA national champion Louisiana State had two losses that year.) BSU has subsequently "scheduled up" with home-and-homes against perennial powers such as Pac-10 Oregon. BSU swept the Oregon series and is, as of this writing, ranked #4 nationally in the BCS poll. Unfortunately, no strong teams remain on BSU's schedule, because they are playing out their conference opponents. BSU will almost certainly win out, but if they are not ranked at least #2 by then, BSU will not even be given a chance to play for the national title. Hawaii experienced a similar letdown in 2007, going undefeated in the regular season -- but losing the 2008 Sugar Bowl and their season-opening "power game" against Florida, each after coach June Jones had already announced his departure for a Texas-sized paycheck at SMU. Hawaii still struggles to schedule enough quality opponents due to travel distance issues; for years, Pac-10 schools routinely visited (and trounced) Hawaii simply because the distance was manageable, but now those same schools have shied away in order to avoid potentially costly nonconference losses. Meanwhile, FSU has an ongoing policy of playing "any team, anywhere" -- effectively offering road games to football-factory schools without requiring a home-and-home -- but BCS schools fear to play the Bulldogs and leave FSU in the lurch to schedule strong enough opposition to make a serious BCS bowl run. Within the conference, FSU rarely loses to anyone other than BSU or Hawaii. These three schools have done as much as they can where they are. There is nowhere for them to go but outward and upward.

The Mountain West conference, currently the strongest mid-major, is attempting to lure Boise State (depending on whom you believe). As much as BSU could certainly compete in the Pac-10, it makes more sense for BSU to remain in the intermountain region for its conference games. BSU's schedule strength will increase considerably with annual matchups against TCU, BYU, Utah, and Air Force. If the Mountain West is serious about this, BSU needs to cooperate and get it done. If they haven't actually extended an invitation, they need to do so. Everyone wins in that scenario: BSU gets its stronger schedule, the MWC increases in overall power, and the WAC becomes more balanced and competitive.

That leaves Hawaii and Fresno State. Rather than letting them dominate the WAC for another decade the way ASU and UA did in the 1970s, the Pac-10 needs to become the Pac-12. This accomplishes many things for all parties. Hawaii and FSU get stronger schedules and won't have as many holes to fill every year by begging teams to man up and take the field with them. The most distant Pac-12 teams from Hawaii will be Washington State and a certain unnamed southern Arizona school, and in neither case is the travel as far as for Hawaii's current WAC opponents Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, or Utah State. It would be a simple matter to place those schools in the other Pac-12 division so that they only play away games at Hawaii every fourth year. The existing Pac-10 teams not only get to add variety to what has become a stagnant and insular annual schedule, but (most importantly) could add a conference championship game between the champions of the two divisions on the first weekend in December each year, and that means big-time revenue. The arrangement also opens up one more game slot per year for Pac-12 teams to schedule home-and-homes against strong schools elsewhere. (Schools would play their five division opponents and half the opposite division each year, alternating home and away as applicable.)

A look at the possible alignment of the Pacific 12 Conference:

Southern Division
Fresno State
Arizona State

Northern Division
Washington State
Oregon State

In Year 1 of this arrangement, Hawaii's schedule might run:
Year 2 would run:
Year 3 would run:
Year 4 would run:
Then the sequence resets. Every year, every Pac-12 team has a perfect four-home, four-away conference slate. (Current Pac-10 schedules are unbalanced, an inevitable consequence of playing nine conference games every year.) Hawaii's farthest-flung opponents would only travel to Honolulu three combined times every four years: WSU once and UA twice. Travel distance as an obstacle becomes minimized.

Obviously, I am neither a decision-maker nor a stakeholder in this, aside from my twice-over alumnity with Arizona State. Nevertheless, the recent history and competitive results at play here clearly indicate that this is the way to go. The time for the Pac-12 has come.

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