Conference Realignment: Can the Pac-12 just sit this one out?
Do the machinations of Texas, Oklahoma, and the SEC necessarily HAVE to impact west coast football?
A quick catch up, for those of you who were maybe focused on the Olympics over the past week: On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle broke the news that Oklahoma and Texas were seriously exploring joining the SEC. Continued reporting has indicated that the move is very likely to happen; Texas’s 247 affiliate reported the move will happen quickly, “barring unforeseen circumstances,” and The Athletic substantiated that reporting.
Of course, all we really care about is whether or not this will impact Cal and the Pac-12. And it’s entirely possible that these changes won’t directly impact west coast football. But this could end up impacting Pac-12 membership in some capacity, and obviously a shift of this magnitude will have indirect impact at a minimum, so we have no choice but to examine how this might shake out.
How might this shift impact the Pac-12? Well, there’s the possibility of the Pac-12 accepting some or all of the Big-12’s cast offs:
Reaching out to the Pac-12 about a potential 20-school merger was discussed during Thursday’s Big 12 leadership call. Such a move seems to be a more favorable alternative for the Big 12 than expanding on its own,which would possibly involve raiding the American Athletic Conference to bring its membership back into double digits.
ESPN contacted new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, and got the following quote in response:
"I consider the Pac-12 an exclusive club with a high barrier to entry," Kliavkoff said. "We love the schools and teams we have today. We're not actively seeking to poach any teams from any conference, but we'd be foolish not to listen if schools call us."
So: should the Pac-12 make a move? Well, will adding anybody improve the following:
Money, culture, recruiting, competition, entertainment?
I’m generally agnostic about Pac-12 expansion. Back when the Pac-16 was proposed, some of the proposed set-ups seemed pretty cool and made football sense. But for a variety of reasons, I don’t see why anybody in the Pac-12 footprint would want to consider any of the teams likely to be in need of a home. So let’s examine the arguments.
If Texas and Oklahoma leave, then Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and West Virginia will be considering a new home. With the possible exception of West Virginia, I’d wager that every single other program would jump at the chance of a soft landing in the Pac-[numeral] conference.
Would these teams bring the Pac-12 conference more money on a per-school basis? While the TV contract would grow, it would be split 20 ways rathe than 12. Thus, almost certainly not. With the exception of TCU (in the Dallas/Fort Worth area), the rest of the Big-10 are in small metropolitan areas. And as importantly, none of them have consistent cache as a football program to attract national eyeballs. The fact that ESPN and FOX declined early negotiation to extend their Big-12 TV rights even WITH Texas and Oklahoma in the fold, and dissatisfaction with TV rights is almost certainly one of the drivers behind both schools leaving the conference. In short: the other 8 schools aren’t worth that much.
Culturally, this all might be a non-starter anyway. We can debate whether or not the Pac-12 should be high-and-mighty about perceived culture academics, but the reality is that some of these 8 schools are very different culturally and academically than the Pac-12. Baylor alone deserves their own level of scrutiny with a laundry list of recent scandals that indicate a deeply broken internal culture that should be all but disqualifying.
Would this help current Pac-12 schools in recruiting? I doubt it. These days the Pac-12 has enough trouble keeping their best recruits on the west coast, let alone winning battles east of the Rockies in areas that are now firmly SEC country.
Competitively, none of these schools would add anything unique that the Pac-12 doesn’t already have. That’s not to say that these schools wouldn’t be competitive; I don’t think Arizona is any different from, say, Texas Tech. Oklahoma State isn’t much different from, say, Arizona State. But none of these schools are on the level of USC or Oregon and Kansas is the single worst power 5 football school in the nation.
And finally, entertainment. Granted, that’s a factor that only us fans care about and will be roundly ignored by decision makers until it’s too late. But consider the addition of Rutgers to the Big-10 for TV contract reasons. I’ve seen some Big-10 fans refer to them as ‘the Rutgers Cable Subscribers’ because that’s literally all they bring to the league. Who would want to play Rutgers rather than Iowa or Wisconsin or Michigan?
And that’s exactly where I land when I think about having conference games against Kansas State or Iowa State. It’s fine to have a home-and-home against, for example, TCU. But if it means playing Washington State or Oregon or USC less . . . well, that’s a big downgrade. I CARE about beating Washington. Playing Oregon State brings up actual emotions (dread, but it still counts). If Cal got assigned to play Kansas State, I’d just shrug. Wildcat fans probably would too.
In short: I can’t think of a good reason to add any of the Big-12’s cast offs into the Pac-12. Unless . . .
A selfish preference: The return of the Pac-10
What if we added the eight castoffs (or seven minus West Virginia but plus Houston), gave them Colorado and Utah to create a Pac-20 east, and then the original Pac-10 get to play a round robin to see who gets into the Pac-20 championship game vs. whoever wins the east? With no cross-division games?
This probably wouldn’t work for all of the reasons I just listed above (most of all $$$), plus Colorado and Utah would probably haaaate it, but if the goal is to maximize playing games that we as fans care about, this would be the way to do it!
Is this the beginning of a migration from the Power 5 to the Power 2?
Here’s where we talk about the indirect impacts of this move. Over the last decade or so, the SEC and the Big-10 increasingly opened up a revenue advantage that the other conferences simply couldn’t keep up with. And how, two of the biggest powers in the country are explicitly joining one of those two conferences, probably to get in on the payday. Hell, the latest news has led to speculation that this will lead to a college football version of the ill-fated European Super League, except that college football fans won’t engage in mass protest to kill the idea. To whit:
I have no idea if this guy is remotely trustworthy, but if Texas and Oklahoma are willing to blow up a ton of longstanding rivalries for the $$$, then I can guarantee that other teams would at least listen.
For many, the fear of being left behind will be the motivation for blowing up the existing structure of the sport. And if there were anything that might force the Pac-12 into a (panic?) move, it would be the fear of feeling left behind.
I think it’s more likely than not that the Pac-12’s position within the larger college football world will diminish. But there are going to still be 12 slots in the new playoff, and the SEC can’t take all of them. And if the conference stays intact, nothing that happens outside of the conference will change the fact that Cal will compete with Stanford and Washington State and Arizona State for a conference title each year. Like I said a few weeks ago:
Pac-12, if you’re listening, thanks for getting rid of Larry Scott, please fix your distribution packages so it’s not a gigantic pain to see all your games, and don’t let the fact that the rest of the country is obsessed over who gets into the playoffs distract from the fact that you have a fun product. Just keep the Pac-12 after dark flowing into my veins and we're cool.