Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Rose Bowl For All?

In a historic move for college football, the Pac 12 and Big Ten officially expanded their Rose Bowl partnership to the regular season.  Rumors about the announcement had circled for weeks regarding all sorts of things including the Michigan - Notre Dame rivalry, the move of Michigan v Ohio State, and about Penn State's Big Ten status.  Although none of these issues were officially recognized, there is no doubt things such as Michigan - Notre Dame will be impacted with these new games.

These new games have all sorts of implications, but first, let's break down the announcement itself.  While most conferences have been attempting to expand and add more teams, the Big Ten has avoided much of this controversy and has only added one team in more than a decade.  Unlike the Big Ten, the Pac 12 had a significant impact in the conference re-alignments by adding teams like Utah, but never had the massive changes like the ACC or Big East.  Although the Big Ten and Pac 12 haven't been the leaders in conference re-alignment, this new partnership was essentially a re-alignment in disguise.

This was a disguised re-alignment because neither conference wanted to alienate schools and fan bases by changing the regularly scheduled teams, but it still has the same goals and aims of a re-alignment.  This new partnership primarily revolves around 12 Big Ten v. Pac 12 football match-ups by the 2017 season, but does talk about other sports.  Granted, 2017 is pretty far ahead, but this still means that every team in the Big Ten will face a Pac 12 opponent every season and vice versa.  Only one game on each team's schedule will be changed as a result, but it will be the most inter-conference play of any two conferences in college football (assuming no other conferences steal this concept).

I think the concept is a big step forward for college football, but it's essentially a re-make of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.  The change revolves around a full conference match-up to remove one "cupcake" from the schedule and equalize opponents based on performance.  I say this because the comments from Delaney and Scott (Big Ten and Pac 12 Commissioners) implied that teams with similar performance will be scheduled together.  For instance, Michigan (10-2) is likely to be scheduled against USC (10-2), while Purdue (6-6) will probably get somebody like UCLA (6-7).

Although the advantages are significant, especially for the conferences and college football, there are also some significant problems in this inter-conference partnership.  The loss of a "cupcake" opponent may seem unimportant, but it has significant impacts on both good and bad teams.  For instance, let's look at Purdue and Michigan.  Purdue finished 6-6 this season during regular season play, while Michigan finished 10-2.  At first glance, increasing the strength of schedule would appear to hurt Purdue more than Michigan, but after further analysis, this is quite debatable.

Instead of scheduling a team like Southeast Missouri State (3-8), Purdue would probably play a team like UCLA (6-7) or Washington (7-5).  Obviously, this is a significant increase in opponent quality.  As a result, Purdue 's 6-6 record would have been much tougher to achieve.  Along with this, Michigan would probably be forced to replace an opponent like Eastern Michigan (6-6) with a team like USC (10-2).  Removing a team like Eastern Michigan and replacing them with a quality opponent wouldn't have been that significant to Michigan's chances this season, but Michigan would be forced to play a very difficult opponent, not just a legitimate team.  This would be a very tough game and make seasons such as this year's at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl much less likely.

This is crucial to analyzing this new agreement between the Big Ten and Pac 12 because it's pretty easy to see how quickly it could impact the conferences.  If the new agreement had been instituted this season and Purdue and Michigan lost their match-ups against the Pac 12, the Big Ten would probably have one less bowl team and one less BCS team.  This is pretty unlikely to please Big Ten fans and schools, but the advantages should outweigh these problems.

I believe this because the Big Ten is very unlikely to lose all of the new games with the Pac 12.  In fact, I think the conference will fare pretty well in the long-term against the Pac 12.  Even looking at this season, which was a weak year for the Big Ten, the Big Ten would have had some great match-ups.  Sure, Oregon, Stanford, and USC would have been tough opponents, but I don't think there's anybody that believes Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Michigan would have lost all three of those games.  Along with that, the Big Ten has other teams such as Nebraska (9-4) that could run over teams like UCLA (6-7) or Washington (7-5).

In the long-term, the Big Ten and Pac 12 are probably going to have overall records that are slightly worse than years past, but the increased schedule strength should counter out the losses, especially for teams that win their inter-conference match-ups.  Keeping this in mind, I believe this is a very good change for both conferences and will work to equalize the schedules across conferences.  The only major fallout I anticipate is with the remaining non-conference scheduling.  As discussed in an earlier article, adding tough non-conference opponents in road or neutral environments is not something most schools are going to be excited about.

This concern is one of the major reasons why Notre Dame will be at risk for being dropped from schedules by teams like Michigan, Michigan State, USC, and Stanford.  With one legitimate non-conference opponent guaranteed through this Big Ten and Pac 12 agreement, there is no real reason to keep a team like Notre Dame on the schedule, other than preserving a "cherished" rivalry.  Will Michigan drop the Irish soon?  Nobody can be sure of that, but it at least seems safe for the next few seasons.  However, fans across the country can be excited for every Big Ten team's miniature Rose Bowl during the first few weeks of every season.  While there was typically only one or two match-ups between the Big Ten and Pac 12 every year, there's going to be a lot more from now on, which should make for some great football.

Photo Credit: Danny Moloshok

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