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The Pac-10 Cannot Expand Without Both Utah and BYU

Since I raised the issue of Big Ten expansion last night, I suppose it’s only fair that I mention the much more immediate likelihood of Pac-10 expansion while I’m at it. There has been talk to the effect that it’s Colorado or it’s no one, but I disagree, for three reasons. These are they:

1. With Missouri strongly in play as a Big Ten expansion candidate, the Big 12 cannot afford to lose Colorado. Since neither Notre Dame nor Texas represents a viable option for the Midwestern BCS league, the Big Ten’s best bets are Missouri and Pittsburgh. While the Panthers make the most sense in many respects, Mizzou offers the only sensible geographic fit. The Big 12, knowing it soon may have to replace one of its member institutions, cannot countenance dropping down to ten teams.

Since the Pac-10 is likely to try poaching Colorado before the Big Ten is prepared to make what almost assuredly would be a successful push to add the Show Me State to its coverage area, the Big 12’s top priority must be to keep the Buffaloes in the fold. Despite the desirability of the St. Louis media market, Colorado would be both easier and more important to retain in the current conference.

The border war between Kansas and Missouri means a great deal to both schools, but the Jayhawks already have a natural conference rival in Kansas State. This is not the case for Nebraska, which annually ends the season in a widely-televised Thanksgiving game against the Buffaloes and does not have another natural rivalry of national significance now that the divisional split has divorced the Cornhuskers from the Sooners.

Missouri is not new to the conference, as the Tigers joined in 1928 what was to become the Big Eight, but the program is nouveau riche, having until recently been noteworthy mostly as a doormat and as a stepping stone for coaches such as Frank Broyles, Dan Devine, and (egad!) Woody Widenhofer. Despite toiling in the Mountain States Conference until 1948, Colorado has since the late 1980s been by far the superior program. The Big 12 would be better off with the Buffs and better able to keep Colorado from bolting, which is bad news for the Pac-10.

2. Structurally, the Pac-10 is predicated upon paired rivalries. If the Pacific Coast conference operated in a vacuum, bringing in Colorado and Utah might make the most sense . . . but Pac-10 expansion is occurring not in a vacuum, but in a context. That context is this:

Cal-Stanford. UCLA-USC. Oregon-Oregon State. Washington-Washington State. Since 1978, Arizona-Arizona State. Northern California, Southern California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona are represented in pairs. Bringing in Colorado and Utah in tandem with one another would represent a stark departure from every previous move the Pac-10 has made.

A BYU-Utah pairing, by contrast, would be perfectly consistent with the league’s past practices and a natural extension of the course the conference charted when the Sun Devils and the Wildcats were brought on board. Tossing the Buffaloes and the Utes into the mix with the current Pac-10 would create a jumble, whereas inviting both major Beehive State programs would create a seamless transition. After a series of public relations disasters for the league, from the recalcitrance to surrender its hold on the Rose Bowl to a series of bad postseason tie-ins and television contracts, the Pac-10 needs to handle expansion professionally and correctly. Too many questions are raised by the issue of what to do with Colorado and Utah.

3. The Pac-10 cannot afford to leave the Mountain West in a viable position to become a BCS automatic qualifier. Let’s not kid ourselves; Pac-10 expansion has been a part of the college football conversation for a while now, but what pushed that issue to the front burner was the MWC’s strong push for full-fledged major-conference status. After decades of hegemony as the West’s only top-tier power, the Pac-10 is not prepared to share its stature with an upstart league inside its own geographic footprint.

That makes it imperative that the Pacific Coast conference completely undermine the Mountain West’s chance at joining the big boys formally. The Pac-10’s addition must be the Mountain West’s subtraction, and not just because "if you can’t beat ‘em, get ‘em to join you" represents a sensible maxim for bolstering the Pac-10’s reputation.

The loss of Utah alone would wound the MWC, but not fatally. If BYU and TCU remained, the Mountain West would be in a position to snag Boise State from the WAC and perhaps Houston from Conference USA to keep the dominant mid-major league’s permanent BCS bowl hopes very much alive. A bigger and better Pac-10 would not be better off having to share Bowl Championship Series status with a bigger and better Mountain West.

If, on the other hand, the Pac-10 poached both Brigham Young and Utah from its neighboring mid-major conference, the Broncos would have far less incentive to leave the WAC for the Mountain West. The departures of two of the MWC’s top three programs might even signal the death of the league and allow the Western Athletic Conference to reabsorb what remained of value in the Mountain West, which spun off from a WAC to which Texas Christian belonged for the five years just prior to the turn of the 21st century.

The Pac-10 cannot merely injure the Mountain West as a potential BCS competitor; the Pac-10 must land a killing blow. Poaching Utah would leave a scar, but BYU must be grabbed, as well, if the West Coast league intends to remain the only perennial BCS power on the block. Cultural and religious objections to the inclusion of Brigham Young will not be enough to overwhelm the Pac-10’s justified fear of a Mountain West with a guaranteed major bowl slot.

At the end of the day, the addition of BYU and Utah would be easier, would perpetuate the league’s traditional practices, and would keep the MWC at bay. Bringing in Colorado would be tougher, would represent a break with the past that carried a whole host of difficulties, and would fail to address the threat that moved conference expansion to the front burner in the first place. If the Pac-12 does not include both the Cougars and the Utes, there is no good reason why it should not remain the Pac-10.

Go ‘Dawgs!