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 this afternoon, 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 behind all the changes can be traced back 53 weeks to 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 appears the Pac-12 has three issues it needs to address for its football model:

— The matchup of the championship game

Without limitations, the conference would have multiple ways to select 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 leaderboards are announced on Tuesdays, so there would be logical hurdles if there were a match three days later.

The division winners matching process, in place since 2011, 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 beats the conference from the CFP.

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 win, could secure a place in the semifinals.

Granted, that difference might play out on the margins – the Pac-12’s second-placed team is unlikely to be ranked high enough to jump into the CFP. 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, it would have no value other than providing 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 appearing to be sticking with nine league games, the Pac-12 teams would lack a quality opponent to take the fourth non-conference spot.

They can’t replace a conference opponent with a cupcake and don’t expect their media partners Fox and ESPN to reclaim some money.

— The conference schedule

In our opinion, this is the most interesting 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.

We’re not sure the Buffaloes have the political clout to stave off a reorganization, but California schools certainly have it if the four presidents and chancellors agree on the matter.

Meanwhile, the Oregon-Washington rivalry is one of the most treasured encounters in the Pac-12 media inventory. If support for this showdown, which continues annually, isn’t unanimous, someone needs to have their head checked.

In our estimation, a pod system would best serve the conference competitively and receive 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 preserves important regional rivalries and increases the frequency with which schools in Oregon and Washington would compete against USC and UCLA.

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