Assessing the Pac-12: The Balance of Power

With the 2010 college football season almost in the books, it's never too late to start looking forward to 2011, the first season of the new Pac-12 Conference. The conference will undergo pretty significant changes: Utah and Colorado will begin playing current Pac-10 teams and the conference will split into two divisions for football, North and South.

Commissioner Larry Scott decided to split the Pac-12 geographically, because it would make it easy for the casual fan to distinguish between divisions, and would make travel simpler. It also allowed the conference to preserve the annual rivalries amongst the four California schools; without that structure in place, none of those schools (including Stanford) would have signed off on the plan. However, in splitting the divisions up purely geographically, the first year of the Pac-12 could see some major imbalances between North and South, significantly impacting Stanford's 2011 campaign.

The Pac-12 North will have three programs on the rise next year in Stanford, Oregon and Washington. Both the Cardinal and the Huskies won their bowl games—Stanford thumped Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and Washington upset Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. The Ducks, obviously, are set to play in the BCS National Championship Game on Monday night. In addition, Oregon State and California both barely missed bowl eligibility this year, going 5-7, and the two programs have traditionally been among the Pac-10's stronger teams. The only true laggard is Washington State, and even it is showing signs of life with a good core of young playmakers.

On the other side of the coin, the Pac-12 South appears to lack more than two really strong programs heading into 2011. It looks like the division's standard-bearer will be Arizona, which ended the season with a five-game losing streak and a 36-10 beatdown at the hands of Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Utah, which lost to Boise State the Las Vegas Bowl in its last game as a Mountain West member, has had a strong team for a number of years, but is a bit of a wild card—it's hard to know for sure how the team will handle the transition to a BCS-conference schedule. Arizona State is probably the division's only team that's on a real upswing, barely losing to Wisconsin and playing well against both Stanford and Oregon. As for the rest, Colorado and UCLA are both atrocious and USC, while talented as always, is stuck in NCAA sanctions hell.

So the power in the Pac-12 will rest firmly in the North next season, meaning that North Division teams will have a tougher road to the conference title game and the Rose Bowl. While the strength of the division also means that its second-place team stands a better shot at a BCS at-large berth than the South Division champs, keep in mind that the Pac-10 usually doesn't have two BCS teams. Due to its nine-game conference schedule and a tendency to play tough nonconference teams, it's much harder for a Pac-12 team to finish the season with one or fewer losses, often the prerequisite to get an at-large berth.

What does this all mean for Stanford? Taking a quick look at next season's schedule, the Cardinal looks to have a fairly favorable road, and will be poised to compete for the North Division crown despite the program's impending head-coaching change. In addition to its division schedule, Stanford will face the Southern California schools, Arizona and Colorado. UCLA and Colorado should be easy wins, and USC looks set to be the toughest out-of-division matchup. It's pretty hard to forecast how good Arizona will be next season, but it might well be an easier game than if Stanford had to play ASU or Utah.

Looking beyond BCS possibilities, the Pac-12's top bowl slots are also likely to go to North teams, so if Stanford doesn't make it to the conference championship game, it would have a better chance of ending up in the Alamo or Holiday Bowls than if it had the same record in the South.

In sum, the divisional imbalances will both help and hurt the Cardinal. Because of its tougher division, it will gain more respect for its conference record, but also faces a tougher road to a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl berth. It will all make for an interesting year as the Pac-12 makes its debut in September.

Ed: The Bootleg welcomes new writer Kabir Sawhney, fresh off the plane from Miami in his "day job" as the Stanford Daily Managing Editor of Sports. Welcome, Kabir!


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