This is a story about the Big Ten, but it can be filtered through the lens of this coming Saturday’s showcase matchup between USC and Alabama.
When the Trojans and Crimson Tide play in JerryWorld, the college football community will be reminded that the Pac-12 and the SEC rarely if ever meet in bowl games, playoff games, championship games, the biggest games of a college football season.
Get this: Since the 1946 Rose Bowl between those same two teams — USC and Alabama — the Pac-12 and SEC have met exactly once in any of the major bowl games (Rose; Sugar; Orange; any BCS title game; the post-1981 Fiesta; the pre-1996 or post-2014 Cotton; the post-2013 Peach).
Oregon-Auburn in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game is the only time since 1946 that the Pac and the SEC have met in what historians would consider a top-tier postseason event.
How did this happen? First of all, the SEC stopped coming to the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten-Pac-8 (then 10, then 12) lock-in took effect.
Second, conference runners-up weren’t given high-end bowl invites until the mid-1970s, the result of the 10-10 tie between Michigan and Ohio State in 1973 which left Michigan out of a prestigious bowl and created a climate conducive to reform.
Third, Pac-12 schools simply don’t travel well. Unless able to play in a national title-level game, such as Washington in the 1985 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma or USC in the 2005 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, Pac-12 schools very rarely play in the Orange or Sugar Bowls. (UCLA played Arkansas in the 1989 Cotton Bowl, but remember, Arkansas was in the Southwest Conference at that time, not the SEC.) Stanford against Virginia Tech in the 2011 Orange Bowl was the exception which proved the rule.
Pac-12 schools have a very tough time playing SEC teams in bowl games because Pac-12 fans are less likely to fill stadiums in New Orleans and Miami — the weather is already ideal in California and Arizona, so why should large numbers of fans leave their home bases? SEC fan bases would rather stay in Nawlins or Miami and welcome a visiting contingent from the Central Plains or Upper Midwest, where the weather is something to be escaped from in the middle of winter. Economics and logistics have played large roles in segregating the Pac-12 and SEC in the postseason.
This is where we segue into the central focus of our story.
One other argument — a claim made by Pac-12 fans — for the lack of Pac-12-versus-SEC bowl games over the years is specifically connected to the Bowl Championship Series and the College Football Playoff.
The thought process is not complicated: The Pac-12, by playing a nine-game conference schedule unlike the SEC (which plays eight), puts itself at greater risk of being booted from the BCS and the playoff. The inability of USC to make the BCS title game — and play SEC teams in said title game — from 2006 through 2008 was attributed to the nine-game schedule, which was in effect by then. The inability of Oregon and Stanford to make the BCS title game or the playoff on a more consistent basis is viewed by many Pac-12 adherents as the product of the nine-game schedule.
Here’s an important distinction to make: Unlike the Big 12’s nine-game schedule — in which 10 league teams play each other with no exceptions — the Pac-12’s nine-game schedule involves selected cross-division opponents. There is an arbitrary nature to the cross-division games, at least to the extent that there is always a degree of fluctuation from one season to the next. The Big 12 has a fixed schedule, but the Pac-12 doesn’t.
Given the relentless success of the SEC in placing teams in the BCS title game and — over the past two seasons — the playoff, it’s been hard to refute the notion that the SEC’s eight-game schedule has been a more effective approach than the Pac-12’s nine-game conference slate. There is no question that the SEC games the system the best; to that extent, Pac-12 fans are correct.
The more difficult part of the equation: Is this more about the SEC being smart — and getting the benefit of the doubt from voters — or is there something about the Pac-12’s nine-game schedule which is uniquely harmful?
This is where the Pac-12 perspective — while still valid and owning a measure of truth — loses a measure of its force.
Last year, Oregon beat Stanford, a crushing blow for the Cardinal in their pursuit of the playoff. A few years earlier, in 2012, Stanford knocked Oregon out of the playoff. It’s true that the collective difficulty of a nine-game schedule might have left Stanford (2015) and Oregon (2012) more weary than they otherwise would have been. However, the fact that Stanford and Oregon lost to each other, in divisional matchups which would have occurred under an eight-game schedule, erodes the idea that the nine-game schedule was uniquely at fault.
Had Stanford or Oregon been knocked out of the playoff by USC or another Pac-12 South opponent, that argument would hold more weight. It’s not an empty argument — it contains a considerable degree of merit — but that merit flows more from how the SEC has been able to manipulate the system to its benefit; it’s not as much a negative commentary on the Pac-12.
With this as prelude, what will happen in the 2016 Big Ten season? The conference is joining the Pac-12 in the nine-game, non-round-robin pool. You can imagine the firestorm which will emerge if the Big Ten is shut out of the playoff. However, would the nine-game schedule be the culprit?
These arguments can look extremely good on paper, but they need to be subjected to a more rigorous test. It’s true with the Pac-12, and it will be just as true with the Big Ten.
Consider: Ohio State could lose to Oklahoma, go 8-1 in the nine-game Big Ten schedule, and get left out of the playoff as the Big Ten champion. Would that ninth game be the reason for the Buckeyes’ exclusion? Last year, the table was all set for the Buckeyes, but they lost within the context of an eight-game league schedule. The scenario outlined above — a 10-2 record with losses to OU and the Big Ten — would not make the case that the nine-game slate knocked the Big Ten out of the playoff.
The better scenario — for anyone who hates the adoption of the nine-game Big Ten schedule — would be this: Ohio State beats Oklahoma in Week 3 (September 17) but loses in the middle of its Big Ten schedule in October. The Buckeyes wanted a bye week after playing Oklahoma (September 24), so the cost of that bye week is that they couldn’t gain needed rest in late October or early November. A stumble in that part of the season — against Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska — followed by a loss to Michigan State or Michigan would create a 10-2 record and very likely remove the Buckeyes from the playoff conversation.
The key point to make is that the architecture of the Big Ten schedule would play a role in harming Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ win over Oklahoma — should it happen — would improbably lose its value, at least within the context of the playoff race. Only a 2007-style chaos scenario (read: nearly everyone ends up with two losses) could save OSU.
Will the nine-game Big Ten schedule hurt the league, much as many Pac-12 fans think “nine” has been anything but fine for their own conference?
We’ll just have to let the season unfold. More precisely, we’ll need to see which games teams lose, more than merely looking at the final records and playoff results.