One thing to remember about the first year of an expanded Pac-12 is that it changes the nature of the conference schedule just a little bit.
The Pac-10 had been the last remaining BCS conference to play a round-robin schedule. Going to 12 teams and two divisions obviously means that can no longer happen.
While many coaches would have preferred to use expansion as an opportunity to go back to playing eight confernce games — four home, four road — the conference stuck with nine, in part to make it easier to get more teams games each year in Los Angeles (which a lot of schools want for recruiting purposes).
Some conference coaches argue that playing nine conference games — the Pac-10 and Big 12 will be the only teams to play that many of BCS conferences (fixed from earlier) — only adds to the losses the conference will endure and will make it unnecessarily more difficult to get BCS bids and post-season slots.
Playing nine games, however, means each conference school misses two others each year (and always outside of their own division), something that could obviously influence the conference race.
Let’s look at each team’s “misses” this season, meaning the two schools it won’t play.
Washington: UCLA, Arizona State.
UCLA: Oregon, Washington.
Oregon State: USC, Colorado.
Colorado: Cal, Oregon State.
Utah: Stanford, Oregon.
USC: Oregon State, Washington State.
Oregon: UCLA, Utah.
Arizona: WSU, Cal.
Cal: Colorado, Arizona.
Arizona State: Stanford, Washington.
Stanford: Utah, Arizona State.
WSU: Arizona, USC.
Obviously what you’d rather do — from a purely competitive standpoint, anyway — is miss the two best teams that you can.
So from that standpoint, the most favorable “misses” are undoubtedly Utah’s, which doesn’t have to play either of Pac-12 North favorites Oregon or Stanford, which also figure to be the two highest-rated teams from the conference this year.
Contrast that with Arizona, a team Utah will be competing with in the South, which instead misses WSU and Cal, which each will enter the year expected to be lower-division teams in the North and in the bottom half of the conference overall.
For the majority of teams, such as UW, it’s kind of a wash, most teams missing one teaam that projects to be pretty good and another that doesn’t.
The Huskies miss Arizona State, which will be the consensus favorite in the South and maybe a Top 25 team in the pre-season, and UCLA, which won’t be either of those things, instead considered by some as a threat to finish last in the South. Instead of those two teams, which UW has been playing regularly for years, the Huskies get both of the new entries into the conference in Utah (on the road) and Colorado (at home). That, too, is probably pretty much a wash (though one of the tradeoffs for missing UCLA was having to go to USC for a second straight year, something UW didn’t fight since it gives the Huskies an appearance in Los Angeles).
The Pac-10 had played a round-robin schedule since 2006, able to claim the last five years that it has crowned as “true” a champion as possible. That obviously won’t be the case any longer (though the tradeoff is obviously a conference title game that will pit what are theoretically the two best teams at the end of the season), and it will be intriguing to see how the vagaries of scheduling — always a huge deal in college football — influence conference races going forward.
And one thing to remember about Cal and Colorado is that they miss each other in conference play — but play each other out of conference. The two schools had a series arranged prior to expansion (which included Colorado’s visit last year to Berkeley, an easy win for the Bears) and couldn’t find a suitable replacement on short notice. So the two schools will play each other as a non-conference game early in the season that won’t count in the conference standings.