Pac-12 football faces important decisions about division format and schedule model

The Pac-12 is nearing decision time on a number of strategic options for the near future of its football product – from division viability and the process for determining its champion to the structure of its nine-game conference schedule.

The spark for changes could come today, when the NCAA Division I Council is expected to lift restrictions on how conferences determine the matchup for their championship game.

But the framework for any Pac-12 restructuring has been in place since January, when it became clear that the college football playoffs would not be expanded until the 2026 season. The delay has forced the Pac-12 brain trust to consider ways that would better position the conference to participate in the four-team event over the next four seasons.

And the vision for all changes was set 53 weeks ago, on May 13, 2021 – the day George Kliavkoff was appointed Commissioner. In his first public statements, Kliavkoff emphasized the need to improve football and win the Pac-12’s first national championship since USC in the 2004 season.

Back then it seemed like sooner or later the playoffs would expand to eight or 12 teams. With that process now derailed, the Pac-12 must construct a model optimized for the current selection process.

Up to this point, the NCAA has required conferences with at least 12 teams to meet division winners in championship play.

If the Division I Council deregulates that process today, it would appear that the Pac-12 would have three issues it would need to address for its football model:

— The matchup of the championship game

Without limitations, the conference would have multiple avenues for selecting its finalists: 1) division winners, 2) best conference records, and 3) top-ranked teams in CFP scoring.

It’s hard to imagine the head coaches (and sporting directors) supporting a process dependent on the CFP rankings, in part because of course that would factor off-conference performance into the calculation and schedules vary wildly. Also, the CFP leaderboards are announced on Tuesdays, so three days later there would be logical hurdles with a title game.

Matching division winners introduces an additional risk, as an unranked team can upset a high-ranked team – for example, Team X (8-4/6-3) surprises Team Y (11-1/8-1). ) and thus rejects the conference from the GFP.

If the Pac-12 simply matched the two teams with the best conference records, it would reduce the potential for a CFP derailment in the event of a jam. The second-placed team, fresh from a marquee win, could secure a place in the semifinals.

Granted, that difference might play out on the margins — the Pac-12’s second-place team is unlikely to be ranked high enough to jump into the playoffs. But the conference must take every precaution after missing the playoffs six times in eight years.

— The future of the divisions

If the Division I Council removes the division requirement for determining championship game matchup, the structure itself will have far less value.

In fact, departments would have no value except to provide an underlying model for the schedule.

Additional important point: The conference is expected to maintain its nine-game rotation, mainly due to supply chain issues.

With the Big Ten opting to keep their nine-game model, the Pac-12 teams would be missing a high-profile opponent to take the fourth non-conference spot. They can’t replace a conference opponent with a cupcake without expecting their media partners, Fox and ESPN, to demand their money back.

— The conference schedule

In our opinion, the most interesting and complex topic of the conference.

Even if the Pac-12 eliminates divisions, it could keep the current schedule rotation, which runs through the 2026 season.

However, that is not our expectation. Multiple sources have indicated support for revising the schedule model in a departmentless future.

With 12 teams and nine games, everyone has to miss two teams a season. But before the annual misses are determined, the conference must determine the number of consistent opponents for each team.

It could use the natural rivals as the only fixed opponents except:

— As a condition of attending the 2011 conference, Colorado was guaranteed a game in Los Angeles each year.

— California schools probably want to keep playing each other every season.

— Washington vs. Oregon.

The Buffaloes don’t have the political clout to ward off a reorganization, but California schools certainly do if their presidents and chancellors are united on the matter.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Oregon and Washington is one of the most valuable encounters in the Pac-12 inventory. When support for this annual showdown isn’t unanimous, someone needs to be turned on their head.

In our estimation, a pod system with three solid opponents would serve the conference best competitively and would garner the broadest support from the Presidents and Chancellors.

Pod A: The Northwest Schools

Pod B: The California Schools

Pod C: The Mountain/Desert Schools

This model would perpetuate important regional rivalries and increase the frequency with which schools in Oregon and Washington face USC and UCLA.

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