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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

May 2, 2013 at 2:12 PM

The Pac-12 and the issue of eight or nine conference games . . .

There’s some buzz out there today concerning the Pac-12 Conference and programs playing nine league football games as they have done since 2006. Bruce Feldman, the widely respected football writer, says that there’s much sentiment among Pac-12 coaches to go to eight, particularly since the 2014 season brings the four-team college football playoff, and playing a ninth conference game only makes the road that much more treacherous.

Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, was on KJR-AM radio this morning and told Mitch Levy the subject wasn’t an issue at this week’s conference meetings in Phoenix.

I’m not surprised, because this is a topic those ship seems to have long ago sailed.

Feldman’s piece centers on Stanford coach David Shaw, saying he believes the SEC should step up and go from eight league games to nine, especially since that’s the growing climate in the game. “If we’re all pouring into a college-football playoff, we should have similar paths to get there,” Shaw argues.

Here’s the problem: Let’s face it, it’s an SEC world these days, and those outside it are just groveling for a few square feet in the crawlspace. The SEC can bloody well do what it wants in this regard, because when you’ve won seven straight national titles — a truly stunning accomplishment — you can tell the rest of the leagues you’re so far and away superior within the league that you need to play a forgiving non-conference schedule, and that any sort of impingement on your style is unfounded and unfair.

Now if, a couple of years into the playoff, it becomes apparent that the SEC is suffering because other leagues’ strength of schedule is enhanced — and those leagues are gaining an advantage — then look for the SEC to succumb and go to nine. Until then, the selection committee — whatever its makeup and whenever it’s finally formulated — ought to very well be able to parse the scheduling differences in college football, just as the NCAA basketball committee has to judge how Colorado’s schedule lines up against that of some Atlantic-10 team when they’re vying for an at-large berth. It seems to work then.

It was only 2 1/2 years ago that I questioned the Pac-10’s ¬† wisdom in playing nine league games, because it was clearly hurting the membership’s collective chances at bowl eligibility. The conference was frequently coming up short of its bowl contracts, which was not only hurting the league’s image, it was becoming a source of embarrassment.

But so much has changed since then. The most dramatic shift, of course, is that the league’s expansion from 10 to 12 schools brought about a rigorous debate on division alignment, and with it, how many league games schools would play, and against whom. The resulting choice — putting the Bay Area schools in the North, mandating that every program would play all teams in its division but stipulating that the California schools would always play each other — was a bit of a stroke of genius.

It also requires all schools to play nine league games, of course.

Since then, there’s been a significant shift nationally toward playing nine. It was the only logical move by the Big 12, when it saved itself and dropped to 10 schools. Now the Big Ten is going to playing nine in 2016. So the trend is toward muscling up, not dumbing down.

There are both practical and philosophical problems with the Pac-12 going to eight league games. From a pragmatic standpoint, it would virtually require that either (a) the league abandon the concept of playing all teams within the division, which creates a potential competitive problem vis a vis qualifying for a division title; or (b) it would require a revisit of the whole thorny issue of how often Northwest schools would get to play in Los Angeles (the recruiting/visibility debate). I don’t think that’s one the league really wants to entertain again.

Moreover, let’s remember this is the West, where there are multiple entertainment and outdoor options on fall Saturdays. Not everybody is so into college football that they’re going to forgo a weekend at Yosemite for a game in Berkeley between Cal, and say, New Mexico State. Most teams have to schedule attractively to draw fans.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for coaches who want to drop to eight league games. Yes, it’s more of a competitive challenge for them to play nine, and yes, there’s ever more pressure on coaches to produce. And along with it, coaching salaries have risen dramatically in recent years, now filtering down to the assistant-coach level.

If this discussion is being driven by the move to a playoff, I’d suggest the sentiment to drop to eight is misguided. Sure, everybody would like to crash that final four of football, but there will still be Rose Bowls out there and plenty of other worthwhile goals.

It does, however, suggest a possible reason the Pac-12/Big Ten alliance so abruptly fell through last summer. Recall, in the last days of 2011, the two leagues had a joint press conference to announce they were  going to go to a cross-conference arrangement in which everybody would be playing a game a year against a team in the other league. And the two leagues would step up scheduling in all sports.

Suddenly, little more than six months later, that plan was called off, for reasons that have never been quite clear to me. All the obstacles — the existing schedules, the traditionals featuring USC-Notre Dame and Stanford-Notre Dame — were already there when the plan was announced.

Speculating here, but it makes more sense now that the plan might have bit the dust partly because with a playoff coming, and with nine league games, the Pac-12 knew it was overloading itself to add an automatic game with the Big Ten, especially atop games by USC and Stanford with Notre Dame.







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