Two things became equally clear in Indianapolis last weekend, on the field and in the boardroom.
On the field: The disparity between Alabama and Georgia and the best teams in the Pac-12 looked as great as the disparity between the Bulldogs or Crimson Tide and an NFL team.
The Pac-12 simply cannot match the size, speed and physicality of the players in a sport where size, speed and physicality mean everything.
That’s the case every year, regardless of which SEC behemoth is the last standing — Georgia this season, Alabama last season or LSU in 2019. Match the Pac-12 champion against any of them, and it’s 35-3 at halftime.
(Of course, few teams in the country can play with the SEC champion. Sure, you see Ohio State and Clemson do it regularly, but they’re exceptions. Check the scores of past playoff games: Notre Dame and Oklahoma haven’t fared any better than Cincinnati did.)
In the boardroom: The conference commissioners and university presidents aren’t close to agreement on expanding the College Football Playoff.
The event will grow to 12 teams eventually — there’s too much money at stake for the conferences to stick with four indefinitely. The issue is timing: Expansion is increasingly unlikely during the current contract cycle, which runs through the 2025 season.
Any structural change within the existing term requires unanimous consent of all 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame, and as the Pac-12’s statement Monday indicated: “It is clear none of the six most-discussed expansion models has unanimous consent, with most having considerable opposition …”
The Pac-12 has smartly staked out the neutral ground — it’s Switzerland in this turf war — and is on record as supporting any expansion model, whether it’s eight teams or 12 teams and regardless of the process for awarding automatic bids.
But the entrenched positions of so many conferences make unanimity a heavy underdog and suggest every facet of the sport’s machinery should brace for four more years of a four-team event.
That would be bad news for the Pac-12, which hasn’t reached the playoff since 2016 and needs expansion as soon as possible. The repeated absence has undermined its reputation and recruiting, giving elite West Coast prospects a reason to leave the footprint in their quest for competitive glory.
So let’s assume expansion is delayed until the 2026 season. What immediate steps could the Pac-12 take to improve its competitive and strategic positions for the final years of the current model? How can it maximize short-term opportunities for securing playoff berths?
Four come to mind.
1. Eliminate the divisions
The moment it becomes clear to commissioner George Kliavkoff that expansion won’t happen until ’26, he should gather the Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors and push to dump the North and South division format.
The divisions create two unnecessary risks in the conference championship game:
— That a team with no chance to reach the playoff upsets a team with a good chance to reach the playoff — the Pac-12 at its eat-your-own finest, in other words.
Example: The North winner, with a 7-5 record, upsets the South winner, with an 11-1 record.
— That a highly-ranked team will be matched against an unranked opponent that provides no last-minute resume fuel for the playoff hopeful.
Example: The fifth-ranked South winner with an 11-1 record beats the unranked North winner with a 7-5 record, and the playoff selection committee responds with a yawn.
Without divisions, the two best teams would meet for the title and increase the likelihood of the winner, whether it’s the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, having a playoff-caliber resume.
2. Tweak the schedule
Any move to reduce the number of conference games from nine to eight hinges on the replacement options. The Pac-12’s media partners would ask for their money back if the conference tried to swap the ninth conference game for a non-conference creampuff. The newly-created matchups must be equal to, or better than, the existing inventory available to ESPN and Fox.
For that reason, there seemingly is one short-term solution: the Big Ten, which also plays nine conference games.
If the Big Ten dropped to eight, the extra non-conference game for each league would be against the other. The matchups scattered across the regular season to create an ongoing challenge series.
For the Big Ten, the nine vs. eight issue is part of a broader decision on media rights strategy. Its contracts expire in the summer of 2023, one year before the Pac-12’s deals, and the conference is either about to begin negotiations or already immersed in them.
It might conclude, based on feedback from media partners, that adding a challenge series against the Pac-12 is good business — or bad business. Either way, the Pac-12 must wait on the Big Ten’s decision. (It won’t happen before 2023, as both leagues have released their schedules for next fall.)
But there could be internal options available to help the Pac-12 widen its playoff path. Perhaps it implements a flex-scheduling component, revamps non-conference contracts or adjusts the round-robin rotation — anything to provide the best teams in any given season the best chance to succeed.
3. Push for NIL oversight
The early months of the Name, Image and Likeness era have brought anarchy to the recruiting process — partly because of the nature of the process, which allows athletes to be paid for endorsement opportunities, but mostly because the NCAA has declined to provide oversight.
NIL opportunities aren’t supposed to be used as recruiting inducements, but without a national framework or the threat of NCAA sanctions, it has become exactly that.
Pac-12 schools potentially are facing a disadvantage compared to conferences that are willing to make NIL commitments not justified by market realities or sound business practices.
To the extent that the Pac-12 can expedite the implementation of NIL oversight at the federal level, it must. Otherwise, the talent drain will continue.
4. Borrow against future earnings
This will take a few minutes, so work with me …
For years, Pac-12 fans heard former commissioner Larry Scott preach the virtues of his media strategy — in particular, that retaining 100 percent ownership of the Pac-12 Networks would allow the conference to remain flexible in an ever-changing media environment.
Personally, the Hotline can’t count the number of times we heard Scott use the term “nimble” to describe the Pac-12’s strategic position.
But the reality is quite the opposite: There is zero flexibility with the Tier 1 partners (ESPN and Fox) or the Pac-12 Network partners (Comcast, DISH, etc).
The conference doesn’t have an early-out option, nor can it stream Pac-12 Network events directly to consumers. It’s locked into the current existence because of a 12-year agreement that was far too long, provides far too little exposure and produces far too little revenue for the campuses.
Consider this: The Big Ten’s current Tier 1 contracts were signed after the Pac-12’s deal, but they expire before the Pac-12’s deal. That’s nimble.
As a result, the Pac-12 is stuck with its low-exposure, low-revenue agreements for two more football seasons.
In both years, you will see the same number of games on the Pac-12 Networks, the same number of night games on all networks and only modest increases in the annual revenue checks sent from the conference to the schools.
However, major media deals are always negotiated in advance of their start dates. Sometime in the late winter or early spring of 2023, Kliavkoff will sign the contracts for the next cycle.
Once that happens — and perhaps even before it happens — the Pac-12 presidents must plow resources into football.
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They know tens of millions of additional dollars are coming in 2024-25, so why not allow the athletic departments to borrow against the future revenues to improve the conference’s competitive position during the final years of the four-team playoff?
Let the football programs increase their recruiting budgets.
Let them spend more on coordinators and assistant coaches.
Let them proceed with facility projects.
Let them buy their way out of non-conference games that don’t maximize playoff potential.
The presidents know the money’s coming. Why not make the financial commitment necessary to bridge the brutal gap until the playoff expands and relief comes. (Kliavkoff favors investment.)
A comprehensive, sustained football revival will take time to execute, but the longer the Pac-12 waits to start, the greater the chasm to cross.
The imbalance of power isn’t static, folks. The SEC’s advantage is increasing every year.
The moment it becomes clear to Kliavkoff that the playoff won’t expand until 2026, the conference needs to act.
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