Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-10, has suggested that expanding the conference in the near future is a very real possibility. The conference has not experienced any change since adding the two Arizona schools in 1978.
The benefits are obvious in that in college football the conference would now have a championship game (translation: more television face time!). And, speaking of television, it would help in the Pac-10’s negotiations for a new television contract.
The negatives are that it would break from the current scheduling format for football where all ten schools play one another. And, there is the potential that academic standards for the conference as a whole could be altered. Plus, how will expansion affect other sports?
Nevertheless, the expansion plan is merely talk at this moment. But that will not stop the Uncle from looking at teams that could find themselves at home in the Pac-12?
[NOTE: if you are curious about academic numbers, please check out this file of Academic Progress Rate and graduation rates for these schools, as well as the Pac-10].
Boise State Broncos (from the Western Athletic Conference)
People often forget (or simply ignore) the fact that Boise State became a member of (at the time) D-1A in 1996. Three years later they were playing in their first bowl game, upsetting Louisville. Jump ahead ten more seasons and the Broncos have two BCS bowl game trophies, both upset wins over Oklahoma and TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.
Perhaps it is fitting that Boise State’s official mascot is named “Buster Bronco” as BSU has played the BCS-buster role to perfection. Boise State has dominated the WAC, winning seven titles in nine seasons as a member of that conference. Since joining the WAC the Broncos have only lost four times in conference (two of those four occurred in their first season)!
And the success runs deeper than just head coach Chris Petersen. It all started with Dirk Koetter, who turned his Boise State success into an unsuccessful stint with Arizona State. Koetter’s successor Dan Hawkins was 53-11 as the head man in Boise. He left for Colorado, giving way to Petersen who is 49-4 overall and 31-1 in conference.
Boise State needs to make that jump, although they have shown that they can make it to a BCS bowl game without a BCS conference. The Broncos already schedule Pac-10 opponents and would have a natural rivalry with Washington State (five hours separate Pullman from Boise; and yes I know that the University of Idaho is much closer).
The problem with Boise State is that outside of wrestling, which they compete very successfully in the Pac-10, they are not very competitive in other sports. The men’s basketball team has only been to five NCAA tournaments (the latest in 2008), going 0-5. The women’s team is not much better, only going to two “Big Dances.”
And baseball? Forget it! Boise State does not play it. And the Broncos just started softball last year. So what the Pac-10 gains with Boise State football, they would lose in other sports. Well, except for wrestling (two-time defending conference champion)!
Utah Utes (from the Mountain West Conference)
Like Boise State, Utah has “been there; done that.” The Utes were the original BCS-buster, as well as the first team to do it twice. And, like the Broncos, the Utes are perfect in BCS bowl games having defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers and Alabama Crimson Tide.
Utah’s football success also extends beyond current head coach Kyle Whittingham. While everyone knows that Urban Meyer had a successful turn as the Utes’ head coach, the success of the program goes back to long-time head coach Ron McBride. While his teams faltered at the tail-end of his 13-year tenure in Salt Lake City, McBride re-energized a floundering program and led the Utes to six bowl games, double the previous total of bowl games for Utah.
Speaking of bowl games, the Utes have won nine straight bowl games. That streak is currently the longest in college football and includes the two BCS bowl games.
Utah also has a successful track record in basketball. Although more than a half-century ago, the Utes do hold claim to an NCAA title (1944), as well as one NIT title (1947). They have been one of the most successful programs west of the Mississippi River, having been invited to the NCAA Tournament 26 times, including last season. The program ranks 12th all-time in total wins (1647) and has finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25 a total of 19 times.
The women also bring something to the table. The women’s basketball team has dominated the MWC, winning eight of ten titles and appearing in 16 NCAA tournaments. The women’s soccer team is fairly successful. And the gymnastics team is annually one of the best in the country, winning a total of ten NCAA gymnastic titles.
The only downside to adding Utah is its location. Disregarding Boise, the closest current Pac-10 university is Arizona State, which is still over 660 miles away. Plus, you take away the in-conference, natural rivalry with BYU. While Utah could make it an out-of-conference game as they (and BYU) do with Utah State, logistics could get in the way.
Speaking of BYU…
Brigham Young University Cougars (from the Mountain West Conference)
While the Cougars have not broken into the BCS echelon of bowl games, BYU does possess something that neither Boise State nor Utah can claim — a Division 1 title.
BYU won the 1984 football title in December, rendering the New Year’s Day games meaningless. That title is credited to hall of fame head coach LaVell Edwards. Edwards, whose name adorns the beautiful football stadium for BYU, turned a dismal program into a national powerhouse. His 258 wins (all with BYU) is sixth all-time.
BYU continues to be a major player in college football even after Edwards’ retirement in 2000. After a hiccup under Gary Crowton (who did go 12-2 in his first season), the Cougars regrouped under current head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Mendenhall is 49-15 with two MWC titles and sports a 3-2 bowl record.
BYU is also successful in men’s basketball. The team has reached the NCAA tournament a total of 22 times, including the past three seasons. As of this moment, the team is ranked 17th with a 22-3 record. The Cougars have also seen success in “minor” sports, such as men’s and women’s volleyball, as well as women’s soccer.
BYU faces the same issue as Utah with regards to distance and loss of natural, in-conference. It is not inconceivable that both BYU and Utah would be invited to join the Pac-10, but not likely. BYU’s prohibition on playing on Sundays could be an issue, although the Pac-10 does not typically schedule many basketball games on that day of the week.
Fresno State Bulldogs (of the Western Athletic Conference)
These next two are less likely than the first three, but both could be taken into consideration.
Fresno State’s football program, under Pat Hill, has become a household name on the college football landscape. But like Utah and Boise State, Hill can credit his predecessor Jim Sweeney for building up an historically abysmal program. Sweeney won 143 games with Fresno and took home eight conference titles.
Hill took over for Sweeney in 1997 and has compiled 100 years during his time with the Bulldogs. Hill has scheduled many of the big boys and has done admirably against BCS teams (14 wins since 2000). Admission into the Pac-10 would boost Fresno’s profile.
In basketball, the women’s team is solid, having gone to the tournament in each of the last two years and currently undefeated in conference play (18-5 overall). The men’s team…well, let’s not talk about them.
But Fresno baseball is very good. The team has made a total of 31 NCAA tournament appearances, including four trips to Omaha. The last appearance in the College World Series (2008) brought an NCAA title to Fresno.
Fresno State’s problem is two-fold. First, did they carry enough flair to be seen as an improvement for the conference? Yes, the Bulldogs’ football program lives by the mantra “anybody, anytime, anywhere,” but they have not been to a big bowl game, let alone a BCS bowl game. Is that hidden success enough to raise the Pac-10’s profile.
Second is the low academic track-record. While things have improved under Pat Hill, they would still have the second lowest graduation rate of any Pac-10 school (Arizona has the lowest). You have to wonder if the Pac-10 would accept athletics over academics, even if we are really talking sports.
Hawai’i Warriors (from the Western Athletic Conference)
I list the Warriors here because they have been to a BCS bowl game. Hawai’i also faces a lot of trouble scheduling big time opponents given logistics. Despite scheduling Alabama, Florida, USC and Wisconsin in the past, they have seen teams back out of contracts.
But beyond football, Hawai’i does not have much else to offer. The women’s volleyball team is very successful, but none of the other programs are worth noting. And even the football team does not bring a long track record of success as the Warriors were destroyed by Georgia in their only BCS bowl game appearance.
Additionally, Hawai’i’s academic performance is on par with Fresno State;s record. Add to that comparatively poor athletic facilities and travel distances that make BYU and Utah seem like easy drives and Hawai’i probably does not warrant discussion at all.
What happens to the WAC and Mountain West?
Obviously any expansion by the Pac-10 will come at the expense of one or both of these conferences. No matter which two schools are selected (if it were to happen) there would be an odd number of schools remaining. And while Montana would be a logical choice to move up to the FBS, the Grizzlies have no immediate plans to do so.
A superconference of 16 teams is out of the question as this has already been attempted in college football (the WAC had 16 members from 1996 until 1999). A seven-member conference would render the conference as a whole obsolete.
The most likely combination for the Pac-10 would be Boise State and either Utah or BYU. This would leave both the Mountain West Conference and the WAC with eight members.
But in the event that the Pac-10 took two teams from the same conference, one team could move from one conference to the other. For example, if the Mountain West lost two then either Boise State or Fresno State could leave the WAC. If the WAC losses two, the perhaps UNLV could join the WAC. However, this latter scenario is less likely as the move could be viewed as a step down for the Rebels.
And what of TCU? Logistically, they are too far from the core of the Pac-10. But such a reach would give the Pac-10 a foot in the enormous recruiting field that is Texas.
TCU could replace Baylor in the Big 12, with that conference pulling a move the Big East did to Temple. But that is a topic for another day.