Pacific-12 Conference athletic directors and incoming commissioner George Kliavkoff have engaged in preliminary discussions about significant changes to the structure of the football season as expansion of the College Football Playoff appears inevitable.
Potential changes are months if not years away, but they include the elimination of divisions and the reduction in the number of conference games from nine to eight.
While the proposed expansion of the CFP to 12 teams is fueling the strategic reassessment, conference officials also have an eye on the upcoming media rights negotiations.
The amount of quality content available to potential broadcast partners will impact the valuation of Pac-12 football for the next contract cycle.
“We have to look at the equation in totality, because it’s so big that it doesn’t allow you to focus on one piece,’’ Washington State athletic director Pat Chun told the Hotline. “How do you balance the short-term needs with the long-term needs?”
Chun’s comments came in the wake of an in-person meeting last week in Las Vegas between the 12 athletic directors and Kliavkoff, whose tenure begins July 1.
Designed as a get-to-know-you session, the day-long meeting included a discussion about football strategy and the need for a thorough examination of Pac-12 football as the CFP expansion moves through the procedural pipeline.
On Tuesday, the university presidents in charge of the playoff are expected to “authorize the solicitation of feedback over the next few weeks and months … and also to begin feasibility assessments of any new format,” according to the CFP.
Formal approval of the 12-team playoff is expected this fall.
“When you’re talking about CFP expansion, it makes sense to continue to discuss the conference schedule,’’ Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes said. “More than ever, football strategy is important. And as it relates to the schedule, it’s really important.”
In interviews with the Hotline, several athletic directors made reference to the Pac-12’s strategic planning committee for men’s basketball: The data-driven group of conference officials, established several years ago and led by deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, crafted the scheduling policies that many believe laid the foundation for the Pac-12’s success in March Madness.
It could be the model for an equivalent committee for football.
“There’s a blueprint, for sure,” Barnes said. “Certainly, there is some nuance, but in principle, it’s there.”
Added Chun: “Basketball is a great example of what we can do when we get together, with push from the center” – meaning an assist from the conference office.
There has been no movement to form a football strategy committee under outgoing commissioner Larry Scott, but Kliavkoff’s arrival has allowed the athletic directors to hit refresh – and at exactly the right time.
The Pac-12 likely will begin negotiations on its next media rights contract in the second half of 2022, while the playoff could expand as early as the 2023 season.
“We talked through how we worked diligently elevating basketball, and we can work on the same thing next with initiatives for football,” Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton said. “The best part is that it was an open discussion.”
Following a meeting on CFP expansion late last week, Scott issued a statement in which he made clear the Pac-12 favors a model with automatic bids for the Power Five champions.
However, a source indicated the 10 commissioners of Football Bowl Subdivision conferences strongly favor the format outlined in the current proposal: Automatic bids for the six highest-ranked conference champions, with six more slots allocated to at-large teams.
If adopted, the format would dramatically increase the likelihood of the Pac-12 participating in the sport’s showcase event but stop short of assuring a berth.
That detail likely will weigh heavily on the athletic directors and Kliavkoff as they evaluate options for the conference schedule and the future of the division format.
Scrap the divisions, and the first-place team would meet the second-place team for the championship.
A single 12-team league would eliminate the nightmare scenario in which, for example, a four-loss division winner with no hope for making the playoff upsets a two-loss division winner that would have qualified.
The lack of a guaranteed berth would also have repercussions for the regular-season schedule: Combine the nine-game league slate with at least one high-level non-conference game, and Pac-12 teams have a treacherous path to compiling the record necessary to qualify for the CFP.
“All the issues have pros and cons,” Knowlton said, “but they aren’t made in a vacuum. What does a 12-team playoff mean for playing eight vs. playing nine?”
But there are drawbacks to playing an eight-game conference schedule, starting with the vacancy itself.
Only two of the 10 FBS leagues, the Pac-12 and the Mountain West, are located in the western half of the country. Adding a non-conference game would increase the demand without an equivalent change in supply of logistically reasonable quality opponents.
Yes, there are Football Championship Subdivision teams available (the Big Sky, for example), but many Pac-12 teams already play one FCS opponent, and there is little appetite for adding a second.
For the purposes of ticket sales, fan engagement and TV dollars, most campus officials believe the Pac-12 non-conference schedules cannot become less attractive.
“We’re so challenged,’’ one conference source noted. “If we drop to eight, where do we go (for an opponent)?”
One answer, outlined two years ago on the Hotline, could be the Big 12.
A schedule alliance between the conferences would create quality competition and cover all the TV broadcast windows. Because Big 12 teams can start games on campus at 12 p.m. Eastern, quadruple headers would be possible.
But an alliance with another Power Five league does nothing for the overall risk-reward calculation. The path to the type of record needed for the Pac-12 champion to be guaranteed a playoff berth (12-1 or 11-2) would grow no wider if a conference game were replaced by a date with the Big 12.
In other words, there are no easy answers with the schedule. But the conference plans to take a deep dive into the issue in the coming months.
“The football solution we need to get to,” Chun said, “is really a big puzzle that we have to put together.”
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