Two teams likely BCS bound, but Pac-10 bowl picture not all rosy
Heading into the final weekend, the Pac-10 has only three bowl eligible teams
The conference's unique scheduling philosophy is both a blessing and a curse
Schedule strength big reason why Stanford is in position for at-large BCS berth
The reception took place at the Whiskey Blue lounge at the W Hotel in Manhattan last July. Arriving guests were greeted by a giant ice sculpture engraved with the recently unveiled Pac-12 logo. Jerseys and helmets of the league's teams adorned the entrance, and inside, Lane Kiffin, Chip Kelly and the conference's other eight head coaches mingled with sponsors, television executives and media members.
At the center of the room, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott held court with whomever happened to be walking by at the time. The opulent event, part of a two-day East Coast junket that included league coaches ringing the bell at NASDAQ and four star quarterbacks visiting ESPN's Bristol campus, was part of the second-year commissioner's effort to create more awareness for his often overlooked football conference and more buzz for the upcoming season.
Once the season began, ice sculptures played no part in Kelly's 50-points-per-game offense or Andrew Luck's 70 percent completions. But if Scott's goal was increased attention, he couldn't have asked for much more than one of his teams (Oregon) playing for a spot in the BCS championship and another (Stanford) expected to earn the conference's first BCS at-large berth in eight years.
"If you had told me back in New York, at the beginning of season, that's where we'd end up, I would have told you I'd feel fantastic," Scott said this week.
But the postseason isn't looking entirely rosy for the Pac-10. Due in part to USC's NCAA sanctions, the conference is in danger of producing as few as three bowl-eligible teams. Washington (5-6) can become the fourth with a win over 2-9 Washington State on Saturday, or Oregon State (5-6) could get there with an upset of No. 1 Oregon. Most likely, however, at least one of the league's longtime bowl partners (the Sun Bowl) will be left scrounging for a replacement team.
By comparison, the SEC finished with 10 bowl-eligible teams, the ACC with nine, the Big Ten and Big 12 with eight.
"This year, the bowl picture is concerning for the Pac-10 because of everyone knocking each other off," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, whose 5-7 team will miss a bowl for the first time since 2002. "As we move forward, it's really important that you don't overschedule [out of conference] because our conference is so difficult."
The Pac-10's unique scheduling philosophy -- playing nine conference games instead of eight and the most collectively challenging early-season schedule of any major conference -- proved to be both the league's best asset and worst enemy in 2010. While some might look at the mishmash of six- and seven-loss teams in the league's standings as a sign of mediocrity, most of the computer ratings used by the BCS standings view those teams more favorably.
In fact, in Jeff Sagarin's ratings for USA Today, the Pac-10 is ranked as the No. 1 conference, just ahead of the SEC and Big 12. The top eight teams in Sagarin's strength-of-schedule rankings all hail from the Pac-10.
"The program goes by how teams do against each other, and you'll find that the Pac-10 did very well in games against other conferences," Sagarin said by e-mail. "And the reason they all have a high schedule strength is that the ... nine-game round-robin leaves only up to three cupcake games, while other big conferences can have up to five."
Indeed, the Pac-10's 10-4 record against fellow BCS conferences tops all six leagues, and its teams played seven of the AP's current Top 25 teams (No. 3 TCU, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 9 Boise State, No. 13 Nebraska, No. 14 Nevada, No. 16 Oklahoma State and No. 24 Hawaii) along with Notre Dame, Iowa, Tennessee and Texas. Meanwhile, league teams played a combined seven games against FCS opponents, as opposed to 13 by the ACC and 11 by the SEC.
Pac-10 proponents often point to the fact that seventh-place Arizona State (5-6), which finishes its season Thursday night at rival Arizona, lost 20-19 on the road to Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin earlier in the season.
"I was looking at the Sagarin ratings today in the paper, and saw that Arizona State is in the top 30 [at No. 26]," said Arizona coach Stoops. "I just look at it, and that's staggering. ... It speaks volumes about our ability to compete with anyone."
That schedule strength played a big part in boosting 11-1 Stanford to No. 4 in the latest BCS standings, which, if it holds up through the weekend, will garner the Cardinal a guaranteed at-large BCS berth. Sagarin ranks Stanford second in the country behind Oregon, and its schedule eighth, despite the fact that Jim Harbaugh's team beat just three teams with a winning record.
But human polls still account for two-thirds of the overall standings, and the voters' perception is generally based less on schedule ratings than what they see with their own eyes. To that end, some of Scott's behind-the-scenes initiatives may have helped the Ducks and Cardinal.
For years, Pac-10 teams have been saddled by outdated television deals and games played in late time slots that limited their exposure in the eastern half of the country. Scott won't get to negotiate new contracts for the expanding league until next year, but in the meantime he convinced the members to abandon some traditionally rigid practices like setting televised kickoff times weeks or months in advance.
The Oct. 2 Stanford-Oregon game, which turned out to be the league's biggest game of the season, was originally slated for a 11:15 p.m. EST start time. But thanks to Scott's more flexible approach, ESPN moved the game to 8 p.m. on ABC on six days' notice. On the season, ESPN networks aired 17 Pac-10 games in primetime on the East Coast, up from 10 last year.
"I've tried to work hard with our members and our partners to make sure they realize the college football season is a narrative," said Scott. "We want to put our best foot forward. We have to put our product in the best possible window even if it means jumping through some hoops at the last minute."
Plenty of viewers will be seeing the league's two best products this season come January. After this weekend, however, they won't be seeing very much Pac-10 football in the rest of December. Barring an Oregon State upset Saturday, the Mountain West will place more teams in bowls (five) than the Pac-10.
For coaches like Tedford, whose job performance is measured in large part by making bowl games, it's not hard to see why "overscheduling" would a concern. One of Cal's losses this season was an early-season game at Nevada. How many other schools voluntarily play a successful mid-major away from home?
Oregon State, for one. Mike Riley's Beavers agreed to play both TCU (at Cowboys Stadium) and Boise State (at Boise) in September. Had the Beavers kept their original season-opening foe, Eastern Washington, they wouldn't be staring down the face of their first losing season since 2005. Oregon State was also one of several teams hampered by injuries to key players, losing star receiver James Rodgers for the season after just five games. Five Pac-10 teams lost their starting quarterbacks for at least one game.
Yet despite concerns expressed by some coaches about the extra conference game (which assures five extra losses across the conference each season), the league has no plans to cut back to eight next season, even with the split into two divisions. And that's beside the fact that the conference championship game will add one more hurdle for BCS aspirants.
"We really had a chance this past year to shine a light on [scheduling] with expansion issues," said Scott. "Our discussions revalidated the importance of keeping the competition within the conference, not padding the schedule or buying wins, even though the way the system is set up, there are some potentially negative consequences."
This year, the Pac-10 got a little of both the positive and the negative. But for the first time in a while, it seems the system is on its side.
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