Up until about two years ago, there was a pretty consistent narrative about how the Pac-12’s 2011 enlargement had gone. The conference’s two expansion teams, Utah and Colorado, had been uncompetitive in the league’s highest-grossing sport, and the disparity seemed so significant that there were even suggestions that the Buffaloes might leave the conference in search of greener pastures.
This year in particular, the narrative has completely flipped. Utah and Colorado sit in first and second in the Pac-12 South, and the league’s competitiveness would be seriously suspect without them.
What’s more, it doesn’t look like this is just a fluke — both teams seem to have truly established a system and are primed for success in years to come. If expansion were a thesis, it seems its defense has been successful.
Now that the previous teams have been fully integrated into the fold, the question becomes, “Is it time to stop?” It’s easy to say yes — a lot of us still haven’t gotten past the fact that the conference is no longer the Pac-10 — but ultimately, I think that the possibilities are too tempting to put a moratorium on growth.
Expansion has already helped this conference improve, and I think a few choice additions are the best way to make it better.
Above anything, expansion offers the opportunity to bring in talented programs that, with a bit of luck, could help the conference end its drought in FBS national championships. The four-team playoff has created a strong incentive system for each conference to have lots of teams with difficult schedules, and while the Pac-12 already rates well in this category, I think there’s room for improvement.
The recent rise of San Diego State and perennial strength of Boise State have broken the Pac-12’s monopoly of power in the West, and integrating them could add two potential contenders to the conference to bolster the resumes of others — or chase a title themselves. Before Boise State lost to Wyoming, a serious case could be made that they deserved a playoff spot above the Pac-12 champion. Had they been folded into the North, it would have helped the conference by adding national intrigue to an already epic North division battle.
Interestingly, however, while the expansion should help the conference’s appearance of competitiveness, it might also actually help some of the old guard by allowing them to rotate more teams through their schedule. To see this, just look at the Big Ten after its leap to including 14 teams. While some of its members, like Wisconsin, are currently stuck with extremely tough schedules, others, like 2015 Iowa, rotated away from most of the conference’s contenders to extremely beneficial results.
Though Stanford put an abrupt end to the Hawkeyes’ fantasy last year, Iowa’s comparatively easy run at things allowed them to put on a show for the fans and ultimately helped them punch a ticket to their first Rose Bowl in over two decades. The nation’s three largest conferences have never missed a playoff, and this greater variance of schedules appears to be at least one reason why.
Football isn’t the only game in town, however, and I think that the impact of adding teams to the Pac-12 would enhance the amateur sporting world on this side of the Mississippi.
With Pac-12 TV revenues boosting their finances, expansion schools will be able to focus more attention on building strong programs in every sport, so they can compete in the conference’s deep leagues. With time, this should help these new communities build new cultures around these activities from youth levels up, helping more students get to college in the process. Put another way, we’re already staying up until midnight to watch these Pac-12 football games — that money might as well be put to promoting a more equitable system for talented athletes everywhere.
Ultimately, I think the evidence is firmly in favor of expansion. While the phrase Pac-12 has a better ring to it than Pac-14 and Pac-16 do, the advantages to staying small really end there. Here’s to hoping that Stanford’s future is full of trips to Boise or Provo, in football, basketball and every other sport.
Ask Andrew Mather whether he thinks sailing should be a Pac-12 (Pac-14?) sport at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.