Today Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott announced that the Pac-10 is considering expansion with the conference's television contract set to expire in 2012. Some might wonder why the Pac-10 would be interested in expanding, especially since the conference seems so perfectly set up right now.
With 10 teams, the Pac-10 has five natural rivalries. In football each team plays nine conference games, giving the conference a fair way to determine its champion. The schedule plays even more nicely in basketball, in which every team plays 18 games and has an obvious travel partner. The perfect Thursday-Saturday basketball weekend schedule is the envy of just about every other basketball conference out there, and some think it prepares the Pac-10 well for the NCAA Tournament.
That being said, adding two more teams could allow the conference to earn a larger television contract and provide more revenue for the schools. It would also allow the Pac-10 to have a lucrative football championship game. While playing nine conference games sounds good at first blush, it's one more than every other conference in football. That means five Pac-10 teams are guaranteed to have an extra loss, while teams in the SEC and Big-12 fill their non-conference schedule with lackluster mid-majors or I-AA schools.
Expanding the Pac-10 would almost entirely be for football purposes, since I doubt it would help the conference much basketball-wise.
So what schools could join the "Conference of Champions?" Well, adding schools is tricky. Aside from the fact that a team needs to be competitive in football and basketball, and it needs to be in a lucrative market, the Pac-10 has certain academic standards for member institutions. I don't quite know the specifics of Pac-10 policies regarding academic accreditation, but all Pac-10 schools are fairly major research institutions with relatively large student bodies.
Let's take a look at some of the candidates:
Colorado: In 1994, the Pac-10 actually invited Colorado into the conference, only to be rebuffed. At the time, Colorado was just beginning play in the new Big-12 Conference, and did not want to go back on its commitment.
Times have changed though, and Colorado might be more interested this time around. Geographically, Colorado is in an odd location, where road games in Ames, Iowa; Columbia, Missouri; and College Station, Texas; aren't any closer than trips to LA, San Francisco, or Seattle. Most alums would probably rather travel west.
Back in 1994, Colorado was a major football power, but the program has since fallen on hard times and might be looking for a change of scenery. While it has a rivalry with Nebraska on Thanksgiving weekend, that game has lost some luster.
Colorado is highly desirable for the conference as Denver is a major market where the Pac-10 has virtually no presence. While its football team has struggled, there's no reason to believe that Colorado can't be successful on the gridiron again. Its basketball program has little history, but they do have a good coach in Jeff Bzdelik, and they would certainly be competitive.
The fact is, any Pac-10 expansion talk begins with Colorado. The question is, would they accept?
Texas: Another school that was publicly courted by the Pac-10 back in 1994, but rejected an invitation to join the conference. While the Pac-10 would love to have Texas, the odds of the Longhorns leaving the Big-12 are virtually zero.
Geographically, Texas is well-situated relative to its conference foes, and they have long-standing rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M. This won't happen.
Utah: From a competitive standpoint, Utah would appear to be a good fit. Their football program is as good as any Pac-10 school, and their basketball program has enjoyed success over the years. Despite a long rivalry with BYU, Utah would probably jump at the chance to join the Pac-10.
Should Colorado join the conference, then Utah would be its "rival" and travel partner. That might take some getting used to for people in the Rocky Mountains, but it's workable.
The question is if Salt Lake City is a desirable enough television market. It's large enough to have an NBA team, but it's just barely top-50 market. It's not a bad place to be, but it might not be worth expanding to.
BYU: Football-wise BYU is every bit as good as Utah, and actually has more history. Basketball-wise, the Cougars have had success in recent years, and are currently enjoying one of their best seasons. BYU's ability to compete would not be an issue with it joining the conference.
Some on-lookers might think adding BYU and Utah would make sense, because they're both great athletic schools, and the Pac-10's unique rivalry structure would essentially be preserved. But again, if the Pac-10 is going to expand, then why double-down on the state of Utah? BYU and Utah might be roughly the same size schools, but Provo is a smaller city than Salt Lake City. BYU may have some school policies that make it a difficult fit for the conference, and its refusal to play games on Sundays prohibits scheduling flexibility.
Boise State: From a football standpoint, adding Boise State would make sense. Heck, Boise State probably would have won the Pac-10 had it been in the conference this year, and it would be favored to win it again next year.
Boise State's basketball program has never been anything special, but that's not why the Broncos are a longshot to join the Pac-10. I don't believe that Boise State is a strong enough academic research institution to qualify for admission into the conference. It's that simple. However, if a school in the Mountain West Conference joins the Pac-10, then expect Boise State to bolt from the WAC.
San Diego State: The Aztecs have long wanted join the Pac-10 and have tried several times to do so. San Diego would seem like a good market for the Pac-10, since it's not any smaller than Denver. But there are a few factors working against San Diego State.
First off, San Diego might not formally be in the Pac-10, but it's a city with plenty of Pac-10 alums, and the conference already has something of a television presence there. Secondly, San Diego State football had a good run with Marshall Faulk in the early-1990s, but hasn't been competitive since. In fact, the football program has been downright awful for most of the past decade. Perhaps Brady Hoke can change that. Steve Fisher has done a decent job with the basketball program though, and they would probably be competitive in Pac-10 hoops.
However, another issue with San Diego State could be academics. I don't want to knock the school, which serves its area perfectly well. But I'm just not sure if it meets all of the Pac-10's specific requirements. I have the same question for any school in the Cal State system.
Fresno State: Again, I'm not sure about the academic situation. While Pat Hill's football team would give conference foes nightmares, its basketball program has been penalized one too many times. Also, Fresno just isn't a large enough market.
TCU: A terrific football program and a foothold in a major media market in Dallas-Fort Worth. But TCU might just be too far away to make geographic sense. If Colorado leaves the Big-12, then expect TCU to quickly file its application to change conferences.
SMU: Same geographic issues as TCU, despite being in a desirable media market. Also, not as strong as TCU in football.
UNLV: This might be an interesting fit. Moving into the growing Las Vegas market could be desirable.
UNLV has a terrific basketball history and would be competitive right away. But its football program has never won consistently, and I question if they could compete in the Pac-10. Additionally, there might be concerns from other Pac-10 schools about gambling and sending their students to Vegas every year.
Nevada: The school has had success in football in recent years, but not close to the kind of success of a Utah or BYU. In all likelihood, Nevada would be an also-ran in Pac-10 football, and would struggle to compete. The same goes for its basketball program. Reno is also not a large enough TV market.
Gonzaga: The Zags have been as good or better than nearly every Pac-10 school in basketball for most of the past decade. But Gonzaga has no football program, it's too small of a school to join the conference, and Spokane is already covered by Washington State anyways. That being said, if there was some weird situation in which the Pac-10 added different schools for football and basketball, then Gonzaga would dramatically boost the conference's hoops fortunes.
Colorado State: The only way the Rams get in is if Colorado joins and the conference has a clear fixation on keeping its in-state rival system going. Colorado State hasn't been good in football for several years and its basketball program is mediocre. I'm not sure if it's strong enough academically to get in either. Still, doubling down on the state of Colorado isn't such a bad idea.
Air Force: Another potential rival for Colorado, and it would add a unique fan base to the conference. Air Force would probably be competitive in football too. Still, I'm not sure if culturally this is a good fit.
New Mexico: Not a bad market to be in, and the school has had success in basketball. But the utter lack of success in football makes a move to the Pac-10 unlikely.
Hawaii: This school has had its good teams over the years, but I don't think Pac-10 teams want this long flight on their schedule annually.
Nebraska: Obviously it's not a huge market, and it's not that close to the rest of the conference, but this move could actually make sense.
First off, Nebraska would be a natural rival for Colorado. Secondly, the Cornhuskers do all of their football recruiting in California anyways, so why not just play where the recruits can see you? Third, while it's a small market, every single person in the entire state of Nebraska is utterly obsessed with Cornhusker football. The team's fan base extends beyond just the market, and the program has the brand power to help the conference command a large television deal.
Nebraska might be frustrated with the Big-12 North Division being as weak as it has been over the years, as the conference seems to be centered in Texas more and more. Its longtime rivalry with Oklahoma has effectively ended thanks to Big-12 scheduling that has the Sooners and Cornhuskers playing only once every other year. Oklahoma now has stronger rivalries with Texas and Oklahoma State, while Nebraska seems somewhat more isolated in the North Division.
The Cornhuskers might relish the chance to be seen on TV in Prime Time in LA and San Francisco, even if the start times are a little late for them. They would also give a major boost to the conference's football status.
The Verdict: Without Colorado, I don't think Pac-10 expansion happens. At the end of the day, I think Colorado would ultimately move to the conference, but it won't be an easy decision for them.
As for the second team, my money would be on Utah. Nebraska is really enticing, but it's probably just too far away. That being said, Saint Louis University is in the Atlantic 10, Boston College is in the ACC, and South Florida and Marquette are in the Big East, so there are plenty of awkward conference arrangements out there. Maybe Nebraska would be a good fit after all.
***Corrections: While Nebraska has several high-profile recruits from California, the state of Texas is actually its biggest out-of-state recruiting market. Also, Nebraska doesn't play Oklahoma every other year, as previously stated. It plays them in consecutive years for a home-and-home series, and then goes two years without playing them.