The Pac-12 placed just three teams in the Associated Press preseason college football poll on Monday, tying the Big 12 for the smallest contingent among the Power Five leagues and continuing a downward trend for the conference that isn’t as meaningless as it seems.
Utah landed in the No. 7 spot, the highest starting position in school history, and was followed by No. 11 Oregon and No. 14 USC. The SEC led all leagues with six teams in the top-25, including No. 1 Alabama.
The preseason human polls and computer rankings are often dismissed as meaningless projections, but they matter locally as a potential spark for ticket sales and philanthropy.
The AP poll also carries lasting impact at the conference level because of the multiplier effect. The more ranked teams to start the season, the greater the likelihood of large-scale representation during the season.
Those in-season rankings affect decisions made by TV networks, which tend to devote premium broadcast windows to matchups between top-25 teams.
“The preseason rankings aren’t real, but they affect how teams move up and down once you start clobbering each other in conference play,” said Sam Schwartzstein, who served as the XFL’s director of operations, innovation and strategy in 2018-20 and has studied the analytics behind attendance and TV ratings at the college level.
“You want to end up with as many ranked vs. ranked games as you can get.”
The Pac-12 has followed a fairly clear arc in the AP preseason poll since adding Colorado and Utah in the summer of 2011.
Poorly represented at first, it enjoyed a stellar middle stretch before the recent downturn:
2011 (3): No. 3 Oregon, No. 7 Stanford, No. 25 USC
2012 (3): No. 1 USC, No. 5 Oregon, No. 21 Stanford
2013 (5): No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 Stanford, No. 21 UCLA, No. 24 USC, No. 25 Oregon State
2014 (6): No. 3 Oregon, No. 7 UCLA, No. 11 Stanford, No. 15 USC, No. 19 ASU, No. 25 Washington
2015 (6): No. 7 Oregon, No. 8 USC, No. 13 UCLA, No. 15 ASU, No. 21 Stanford, No. 22 Arizona
2016 (5): No. 8 Stanford, No. 14 Washington, No. 16 UCLA, No. 20 USC, No. 24 Oregon
2017 (4): No. 4 USC, No. 8 Washington, No. 14 Stanford, No. 24 Washington State
2018 (4): No. 6 Washington, No. 13 Stanford, No. 15 USC, No. 24 Oregon
2019 (5): No. 11 Oregon, No. 13 Washington, No. 14 Utah, No. 23 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford
2020 (3): No. 9 Oregon, No. 17 USC, No. 22 Utah
2021 (5): No. 11 Oregon, No. 15 USC, No. 20 Washington, No. 24 Utah, No. 25 ASU
2022 (3): No. 7 Utah, No. 11 Oregon, No. 14 USC
Schwartzstein, a former Stanford offensive lineman, used predictive modeling to devise business strategies for the XFL.
He believes the Pac-12 should take whatever steps are necessary to “get your content engine in front of as many people as possible.”
That process starts long before the first kickoff and tracks closely with a page from the Pac-12 playbook that hasn’t been used in years: The conference should consider sending the head coaches and top players on a late-spring media tour to the East Coast, Schwartzstein said, with stops in New York City and ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.
It did just that during the early years of former commissioner Larry Scott’s tenure as he attempted to raise the conference’s national profile. But the annual trips eventually ended, in part because of resistance from the head coaches.
Stanford’s David Shaw made a solo appearance in Bristol in the summer of 2018 for the so-called “car wash,” in which college coaches experience a barrage of interviews with ESPN reporters, make appearances on ESPN shows and chats with ESPN executives.
The conference could send coaches and players to New York City, as well:
Of the 63 media members who vote in the AP poll, 11 live in New England or the mid-Atlantic region. (The dispersal of AP voters is based on the total number of FBS teams in each state.)
With the growth of video-conferencing options like Zoom, in-person trips to the East Coast aren’t essential for preseason promotion.
But the timing of any endeavors is vital: The Pac-12 should make every effort to commence its PR campaign before the middle of July, when other Power Five leagues stage their in-person media festivities.
The accepted approach of laying low through the first half of the summer, until the Pac-12’s own media bash in Los Angeles at the end of July, makes it difficult for teams and players to gain meaningful traction with voters – especially when the AP’s preseason ballots are due Aug. 1.
But above all, changing the PR dynamic requires buy-in from the coaches and players.
The conference office simply has no mechanism to require key football personnel to participate in late-spring and early-summer media events that could sway voters, impact the rankings and position the Pac-12 to benefit from the multiplier effect.
“The rankings drive attendance, and they drive TV decisions,” Schwartzstein said. “The Pac-12 needs to be thinking about how it can get as many teams in the preseason rankings as possible.”
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