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Ditching Divisions: CU’s Future Schedule Options

The NCAA Division I Council announced this past week that it will relax restrictions on college football’s conference championship games, allowing conferences to determine the teams which will participate in their respective title games. The decision paved the way for conferences to avoid having title-game matchups determined by division winners as well as possibly eliminating divisions altogether.

It didn’t take long for a Power Five conference to change things up. Minutes after the NCAA announcement, the Pac-12 announced that starting in 2022, the conference’s title game would feature the teams with the two highest winning percentages.

“Our goal is to place our two best teams in our Pac-12 Football Championship Game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships,” said Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff in a news release. “Today’s decision is an important step towards that goal and immediately increases both fan interest in, and the media value of, our Football Championship Game.”

In its release, the Pac-12 outlined how, in five out of the past 11 years, divisions have kept the conference’s title game from featuring a different matchup that includes two teams with better rankings.

That list includes the 2020 season, when Colorado would have been in position to play for a Pac-12 title, instead of Oregon, which didn’t even win its own division.

The list:

Year

Original FCG Participants

Participants under new system

2011#9 Oregon vs. UCLA#4 Stanford vs. #9 Oregon
2012#8 Stanford vs. #16 UCLA#5 Oregon vs. #8 Stanford
2013#7 Stanford vs. #11 Arizona St.No Change
2014#2 Oregon vs. #7 ArizonaNo Change
2015#7 Stanford vs. #20 USC#7 Stanford vs. #16 Oregon
2016#4 Washington vs. #9 ColoradoNo Change
2017#10 USC vs. #12 StanfordNo Change
2018#11 Washington vs. #17 Utah#11 Washington vs. #13 Washington St.
2019#5 Utah vs. #13 OregonNo Change
2020#13 USC vs. Washington**#13 USC vs. #25 Colorado
2021#10 Oregon vs. #17 UtahNo Change

* CFP rankings used from 2014-21, BCS rankings used from 2011-13

** Washington was unable to play in 2020 FCG and was replaced by Oregon as the second-place team in the North Division.

As the Pac-12 made sure to note in its announcement, the conference originally brought this motion of deregulating title games to the council. The motion, according to the Pac-12, was “unanimously supported by all FBS conferences.”

While the announcement will not affect the 2022 schedule, the Pac-12 schedule for the 2023 season and beyond will almost certainly be adjusted.

Where we are now … 

The Pac-12 is split into two divisions, with the Washington, Oregon and northern California schools making up the North Division, with Colorado, Utah joining the southern California schools and the Arizona schools to form the South Division.

The Pac-12 plays a nine-game conference schedule. Teams play the five teams in their own division every season, with a rotation for the other four games in the other division. There is some quirkiness in the scheduling, however, as the northern California schools – Stanford and Cal – insisted on getting to play USC and UCLA every season (and thus preserving a road trip to recruiting hotbed southern California every season).

As a result, the Pac-12 has been playing on an eight-year schedule rotation. Teams from the South play each other every year, play Stanford and Cal two years out of every four (rotating home and home games), while playing the Washington and Oregon teams six out of every eight years. Colorado, for the 2021 and 2022 seasons, has a home-and-home with Cal, missing Stanford and Washington State. As the current 2023-24 schedules are mapped out, CU would drop Cal in favor of a home-and-home with Stanford, would pick up Washington State once again, dropping Washington for those two seasons.

Where we could go … pods and a nine-game conference schedule … 

The Pac-12, along with the Big Ten and Big 12, has been playing at a competitive disadvantage when compared to the SEC and ACC, which only play eight conference games each season.

How large a disadvantage? While the SEC and ACC have been picking up home games against the likes of Alabama State and Chattanooga every season, the other three conferences have been picking up losses against conference rivals.

Put another way … the SEC is pretty much guaranteed to go 14-0 with their fourth non-conference games, the Pac-12 is guaranteed – guaranteed – to go 6-6. For a conference which hasn’t had a team in the College Football Playoffs, and has a distinct lack of respect nationally, that’s tough to overcome.

Still, the argument has been that there will be fewer opportunities for quality non-conference games if the Pac-12 drops its ninth conference game (read: lost revenue in CU playing an extra home game against the likes of Northern Colorado instead of playing a Pac-12 team). The “Alliance” was supposed to help cure that, with deals to be made with the Big Ten and ACC to add non-conference games between the conferences, but the Big Ten is dragging its feet on agreeing to new games with the other conferences.

If the Alliance doesn’t provide a chance for a quality fourth non-conference games, and the Pac-12 doesn’t want to add 12 games against Mountain West schools as a substitute, the Pac-12 may stay with a nine-game conference schedule.

The options:

  • Keep the same rotation, with five home games against former division opponents, and a rotating schedule against the remaining schools. While it would still preserve the goal of having the top two teams (instead of the division winners) play for the conference championship, it wouldn’t make much sense keeping that schedule if you have only one set of standings; or
  • Moving to a “pod” scenario for scheduling.

How would the “pods” work?

Each school would be part of a “pod”. There would be three pods: the California pod (UCLA, USC, Cal and Stanford), the northwest pod (Oregon State, Oregon, Washington State and Washington) and the mountain pod (Arizona State, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado).

Schools would play the other three teams in their pod every season, with a rotating schedule of six conference games against the remaining eight schools. Much like the current schedule, schools would play on an eight-season rotation, playing each school six out of every eight years.

The difference for Colorado?

Not much.

The Buffs would still play Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State every year. The Buffs would also still play the Oregon and Washington schools on a six seasons out of eight schedule.

The difference would come in games against the California schools. Instead of playing USC and UCLA every year, it would be six years out of eight. Instead of playing Cal and Stanford on a four-year rotation home-and-home schedule (with four games against each every eight years), the Buffs would now play the Bay area schools six out of every eight years.

The net difference?

Every eight seasons, the Buffs would play the Trojans and Bruins two fewer times, while picking up two more games against Stanford and Cal.

That’s about it.

But … If the Pac-12 goes to an eight-game schedule … 

It doesn’t seem likely at this point, until or unless the Big Ten moves off of its insistence on staying with a nine-game conference schedule. If the Big Ten doesn’t want to add a Power Five non-conference game, the Pac-12 may not want to make the switch to an eight-game conference season.

But … if the Pac-12 does …

There are several questions to be answered:

  • Does the conference keep the “pod’ system, with three set games, then five games against the remaining opponents?;
  • Does the conference just have teams just keep one “rivalry” game (in CU’s case, Utah), with seven games rotating against the other 11 teams?; and
  • If so, will Stanford and Cal have to give up their requirement that they have a guaranteed southern California game every season?

If you ask me … 

I would prefer that the Pac-12 go with the eight-game conference schedule, until or unless every other conference agrees to go with a nine-game conference schedule (not going to happen with the SEC). Assuming other conferences are going to go with (or stay with) eight, so should the Pac-12.

With the eight-game schedule, though, I would have the Pac-12 require that at least two of the remaining four games be played against Power Five conference schools. This wouldn’t be a problem for schools like Colorado and Stanford, who regularly play tough non-conference opponents. But it would even things out a little bit against schools like UCLA (Bowling Green, Alabama State, South Alabama in 2022; Coastal Carolina and NC Central in 2023). The extra non-conference game shouldn’t be against a patsy – Pac-12 teams should seek out quality opponents.

The 2022 Pac-12 schedule is set. The Pac-12 will take the top two teams for the conference championship, even though the division schedules from the past 12 years will be maintained.

For 2023 and beyond, though, the slate is clean. The Pac-12 has a chance to give its teams a boost in their hopes for a College Football Playoff berth.

For a conference like the Pac-12, trying desperately to regain national relevance, it’s not an opportunity which can be missed.

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4 Replies to “Ditching Divisions: CU’s Future Schedule Options”

  1. The four team pods as proposed with 8 games would keep ALL the old rivalries alive, The CA schools play each other and the WA and Oregon schools play each school in their own state and for both WA schools the big games against OU. And the two Arizona schools would play each other, each of the old rivalries and the manufactured one of CU and Utah would be preserved while giving 5 games to play the remaining 8 teams.

  2. – 8 Conf games
    – No Pods (Big XII doesn’t pod)
    – Not sure CU playing in SOCAL really does us any favors, to be honest
    – As for rivals – I’d like to play UCLA and Oregon every year. I HATE those teams.

  3. How does the sec not go to a nine conference game schedule with 16 teams? Only one cross over division matchup a year? Sounds like two eight team conferences then, to me.

    Go Buffs

  4. Nice article thanks.
    I’ve always rooted against USC, but I am happy Lincoln Riley is here and it will help the PAC 12.
    Its been tough watching Oregon light it up in regular seasonand then melt against tougher competition “representing” the PAC 12
    Go Buffs

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