The Physics of College Football Expansion
A look at conference expansion in the West.
Physics teaches us there are four fundamental forces in the Universe: the strong, the weak, electromagnetism, and gravity.
They forgot the fifth fundamental force: College Football. Come on, Einstein. Geez.
And since the Universe is expanding, shouldn’t we expect the Pac-12 to do the same?
Naturally, the Pac-12 has been expanding throughout history already. In the beginning, there was the old Pacific Coast Conference. This turned into the five school AAWU. That grew into the Pacific-8. The Pac-8 grew into the Pacific-10. The Pac-10 expanded into the Pac-12. See? You can't argue with astrophysics.
Now, the rest of this is hypothetical. So, don’t freak out.
With Wednesday’s report that Oklahoma and Texas have made overtures to join the SEC, the biggest black hole in the college football world, it becomes urgently clear that the Pac-12 and new Commissioner George Kliavkoff, after a decade of inertia and decay under Larry Scott, need to take an active role in expansion. Kliavkoff comes from an entertainment and marketing background. So, let’s hope he realizes that 60% of the US lives East of the Mississippi and they aren’t tuning into football games after 10 pm. The Pac-12 desperately needs to get out of its overpriced office space, replace the SPTRs, and then get its Pac-12 Network on every TV and streaming carrier, and kick off every football game between noon and 5 pm. That’s a must, and that’s even before expanding.
But if expansion is happening, how should be Pac-12 handle it? Where? When? Who gets the (egotistically) coveted invitation to join the Conference of Champions?
Certainly, expansion makes a dumber conference but, while I’m an idealist and would first add Princeton and MIT, I’m also a realist and recognize that’s not happening. MIT doesn’t even have D-1 football – sheesh. Joke institution. This scenario is looking solely at athletics and impact and dollars. And, really, what else is there?
Like physics, there are some rules for how expansion must occur. Let's start with some fundamentals.
First, there needs to be mass and, in this case, mass equals football. it’s all about football. Simply put, if you don’t have football, you don’t have much effect on the Universe. In fact, the football doesn’t even have to be any good, see Ole Miss. But it does have to exist to be marketable, see Ole Miss. Therefore, any school invited to join the conference has to cater to the laws of physics and have a D-1 football program.
This eliminates several respectable Universities with quality athletic programs in our neighborhood right off the bat. Baseball, basketball, and Olympic sports are like dark matter. We know they exist, but we can’t see it. So, we can’t figure out how it affects our everyday behavior. Gonzaga plays outstanding basketball. UC Irvine plays good volleyball and baseball. Santa Clara traditionally has great soccer teams. Denver University is a hockey power and won a lacrosse title recently. UC Santa Barbara is strong in beach sports, water polo, and bike theft. Alas, it's all for naught. No football? No Pac-12 Conference for you.
Next, distance matters. Forces act over distance, and the shorter the distance, the stronger the effect. Therefore, geographic proximity should have major weight when adding to the conference. Sure, bringing in Notre Dame and Ohio State would be a real power play, but considering practical factors like travel, time zones for programming, regional histories, etc, Pacific and Mountain time zone schools are a more obvious addition simply because of proximity. Inverse square laws, and all. Having said this, massive bodies can still exert significant force. So, anyone outside of our geographical neighborhood better be pretty huge. And there are a few who rank…
Additionally, like binary stars whose behavior governs and is governed by its cosmic partner, natural relationships and rivalries play an important role in the conference. OU-OSU, UofA-ASU, Cal-’Furd. Those relationships work and they shouldn’t be separated. Even the shining alpha star that is U.C.L.A. and its ominous orbiting death star, Southern Cal belong together, as far as sports go. Notably, Utah and CU don’t really work as partners and that needs correction. So when considering expansion, creation and maintenance of those binary rivalry patterns plays a role.
Other factors that should be considered in expansion include TV market rank, alumni base, quality of destination, and other things including academics (hahaha, no, but, seriously). These are more subjective and harder to measure, but multiple little effects can add up.
So, with these basic laws of conference expansion relatively in effect, let’s look at some candidates. Here are the 16 schools with D-1 football in the Pacific, Mountain and Hawaiian time zones and their media market rankings (a relatively powerful force) listed in alphabetical (a relatively lesser force) order.
Air Force Academy - Colorado Springs, CO, Media Market #82
The Air Force Academy gets ultimate respect because of the commitment that the men and women there have made to serve our country, but from a purely athletic expansionist viewpoint, Air Force is not a big player. The football program is respectable and they have a surprising number of sports, but it is clearly not a focus of the Academy. The Falcons would make a convenient travel partner with Colorado, but there is no rivalry to speak of between the two. The medium-sized media market is already covered by CU and Denver region (#18). Air Force gets sentimental and respectful, but not serious, consideration.
Boise State - Boise, ID, Media Market #101
Boise State is an interesting case and not just because of the famous smurf turf. BSU is the most consistently high performing football program on this list of candidates. One wonders how they would do in a major conference, though their bowl opponents might recommend them highly. Beyond football, though, the Broncos don’t offer much to the conference other than an awesome nickname. Boise is a beautiful area but not a frequent weekend travel spot, and the average market and meh academics are hard hurdles for a quality football program to overcome.
Brigham Young University - Provo, UT Media Market #30
BYU has the most complete athletic program of any school on this regional list and football is a strong contributor. The Cougars bring in a premade rivalry (read: utter mutual hatred) with Utah and make an obvious travel partner that Utah currently lacks. The culture of BYU and its strict religious affiliation and behavioral code make it, let’s say, unique among the candidates. The Cougars don’t play on Sundays and aren’t supposed to tailgate on any other day, and they’re already making a plenty good living as an independent. Religion and economics have historically both been shown to be negotiable, though, so should BYU adjust to accept a bid? I doubt it, but it would be very nice for the Pac-12.
Colorado State - Fort Collins, CO, Media Market #16
CSU hasn’t had a high profile football program since Sonny Lubick’s retirement in 2007. The Rams have long-targeted CU as a rival though the Buffs wouldn’t deign to consider that. But the Rammies would make a great travel partner with CU and Fort Collins is a great travel destination with nearby Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and an outstanding microbrew industry. CSU is a top notch vet and ag science school and they just happen to have a brand new on-campus football stadium. Oh, if only…. Fort Collins also boasts an unusually high concentration of great ‘02 hockey players. CSU isn’t a highly attractive candidate on its own but it does make a very convenient fit.
Fresno State - Fresno, CA, Media Market #55
The Bulldogs have a respectable football history and solid all around athletic department, especially in baseball. Location is very convenient for the entire conference, but who in his right mind would want to travel to Fresno on purpose? On the other hand, plenty of athletes already sign up to play in Corvallis and Pullman, so who doesn’t think FSU wouldn’t out-recruit those places if it were in a major conference. And the California central valley has a lot of TV watchers. Fresno State has a surprisingly decent ceiling.
Hawai’I - Honolulu, HI, Media Market #72
I’ve included Hawai’i as it would be hypocritical of me to be all martyrlike about BSPN ignoring the west, and then for me to exclude the only other school further west than our conference. However, travel and time zones are not in the Rainbow Warriors’ favor, especially for Utah and Colorado, to say nothing of how away games would affect the current conference teams. Hawai’i football is respectable but their number of sports is limited. You can’t argue with the attractiveness of Honolulu as a destination, but the logistics of travel for athletics to play just one school makes Hawai’i unfortunately impractical.
Idaho - Moscow, ID, Media Market #101
Vandals is a pretty awesome, if un-PC, school nickname but there isn’t much else to strengthen Idaho’s resume. Idaho was once a member of the PCC but was not invited to remain with the other schools when they reformed and that’s as close as Idaho will get to being back in the conference. Boise State would get an invite long before these guys.
Nevada - Reno NV, Media Market #104
The University of Nevada has had a few good football seasons, but Reno is not much of a big seller, not when Las Vegas exists, too. The “Biggest Little City in the World” isn’t a great marketing schtick if you are courting a big-time football program and the Wolfpack would have no convenient travel partner. I won’t even acknowledge their basketball “coach”. In this case, the size of the Wolfpack is one.
New Mexico - Albuquerque, NM, Media Market #48
New Mexico may be the Land of Enchantment, but there isn’t much enchanting about adding the Lobos to the Pac-12. Albuquerque is a seriously lovely area and New Mexico State is a natural travel partner, but the partnership outside of Lobo Basketball doesn’t add much and inviting the pair wouldn’t make much of a ripple on the national stage.
New Mexico State - Las Cruces, NM, Media Market #93
See above, only more so.
San Diego State - Whale’s V…errr…San Diego, CA, Media Market #28
SDSU boasts a really good all around athletic department and in a bigger conference they would improve recruiting to a football program that is already quite competitive and which has no NFL football team to compete with. San Diego is a fantastic travel destination, though they have no natural partner – unless we boot Southern Cal and the Bruins and Aztecs share weekends. SDSU is a pretty legendary party school and doesn’t offer a ton of academic assets, but then the networks aren’t televising engineering lectures. Overall, the Aztecs are in the top 2 or 3 regional invitees.
San Jose State - San Jose, CA, Media Market #6
SJSU offers some attractive qualities in location, but the conference already has the local travel and media markets covered between Cal and Stanford, and the Spartans just aren’t competitive enough to make them a standout contender among the candidates. If the Pac-12 is looking to add 4 schools, being number 3 in the Bay Area (#4 if you count Fresno, which Fresno residents inexplicably do) isn’t going to cut it.
UNLV - Las Vegas, NV, Media Market #40
Road trip! Let’s face it, if we’re already going there, why not just play some games while we’re in town? Vegas is a major market and travel is easy. They don’t have a natural travel partner, though a partnership with current Mountain West rival SDSU makes some sense. With the advent and growing wave of gambling partnerships with sports, the once-taboo association with Vegas has done a 180. There are more attractive regional options, but this one is pretty practical.
Utah State - Logan, UT, Media Market #30
Logan is close enough to Salt Lake that Utah State doesn’t offer a lot new in market share that Utah (and BYU) don’t already bring themselves. The Aggies would make a natural travel partner with the Utes without the glorious animosity that BYU offers. If the conference didn’t want to go off the board and invite an outsider like BYU, then Utah State, like Colorado State, is an easy and convenient fit. Does it offer enough besides that to justify the invite? Does a hooker make a good girlfriend? Sorry, Utah State.
UTEP - El Paso, TX, Media Market #93
A quirk of the mountain time zone boundary includes the Miners in this list and makes them an interesting thought as it’s a foray into Texas, but UTEP doesn’t add much currently. They’ve had some great track teams and they won a basketball title in 1967, interrupting a two-year streak by a galactic treasure named Wooden (he did fine after that). Their natural partner would be New Mexico Stat and that says a lot, which isn’t much.
Wyoming - Cheyenne, WY, Media Market #195
Wyoming suffers because no one lives there. It is the least populous state in the U.S. (they are #51 if you include the District of Columbia, and #52 if you include Canada). The small media market and low academic offering don’t do it any favors, and I’m still mad at Phennis Dembo. Sorry, Wyoming. The Pac-12 won’t be calling. But if any of you have a few days off and are tired of city life, go visit the Tetons. You just might end up permanently adding to Wyoming’s population.
So, from that group of D-1 football schools out west, I’d put Fresno State, San Diego State, UNLV, and BYU - if they’ll adjust to accommodate the rest of the conference - on the tentative invite list. If BYU won’t play nicely, then maybe Boise State or Colorado State gets the final nod.
But let’s hope it doesn’t go that far…
Remember the part about a more massive object having a notable effect even if it is farther away? Well there are three Jupiters, all west of the Mississippi, that merit special consideration.
University of Nebraska - Lincoln, NE, Media Market #72
Before they moved to the Big TEN (read: FOURTEEN!), I thought Nebraska would be a great add for the Pac-12. The Huskers have an incredible fan base with a national image and market that outweighs its small media market size. They have an excellent all around athletic department with 21 national titles (a good start) and would up the level of competition across the board. Lincoln may not be a glamorous destination, but the local fans make up for that and more. Lincoln is relatively equidistant from all the west coast schools and a short flight to Utah and CU. Nebraska would make a reasonable travel partner with Colorado, and the Buffs already hate the Cornhuskers, in part because the Huskers really don’t consider CU as a worthy rival. Nebraska is getting a bunch of money to belong to the Big 10 (14), but they have become an afterthought behind the blueblood conference powers Ohio St, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. They deserve better. Make them an offer they cannot refuse.
University of Oklahoma - Norman, OK, Media Market #61
All the things that count for Nebraska apply even more so to Oklahoma. The Sooners are a perennial power in every sport including football and have 39 NCAA titles (not bad) and bring a big national footprint. I can’t speak to the generosity of the Norman residents to visitors, but there is no denying their passion. Oklahoma is a huge power that is a huge asset to its conference, and they already recruit strongly out West. So, this would only help them. Why would they take a step down to join the SEC when they can be an immediate power broker in the Pac-12?
University of Texas - Austin TX, Media Market #38
Ah, Texas. The eyes of the Pac-12 are still upon you. Remember the Pac-12 tried hard to add Texas back in 2010. Well, the attraction hasn’t faded. UT is a very good academic school with an incredible fan base and big national market presence. Like Nebraska and Oklahoma, the Longhorns have a fantastic all around athletic program with 47 NCAA titles (respectable) that would be a boon to the conference. Travel is a bit of a haul for the northern schools but division alignment could temper that and Austin is awesome. UT has their built Red River Rivalry with Oklahoma that they could maintain. Texas’s overbearing dominance led to the fractures in the old Big 12 (10) so they don’t like to play second fiddle (note the country music allusion), but going into the SEC would only magnify that. Come on, Texas, you’re bigger than those clowns. Horns up from the Pac-12!
And speaking of the Ace ayy see, it’s pretty clear that the good ol’ boys down South aren’t really into equality and democracy. So, Oklahoma and Texas will be sacrificing a ton of their enormous personal cache and identity to fit in amongst the likes of cultural stalwarts like Ole Miss, Tennessee, Kentucky, and LSU, to say nothing of Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama. Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas all become undeservedly small fish in the SEC. In the Pac-12, however, those schools maintain their individual prominence and raise the conference as a whole, further increasing their own value. A new TV contract with those schools on board changes the game and makes the Pac-12 the second most prominent football conference in the land. I would add that their academic reputations would fare far better in the Pac-12, if that matters to many. They also frankly have better chances of qualifying for lucrative and prestigious playoffs and tournaments in a more nationally prominent Pac-12. Seriously, if they are moving out of the Big 12, going west is easily in their best interests.
Think of the Pac-12 adding Oklahoma and Texas as a pair. Or Texas and Nebraska. Or, gasp, all three. Despite the distance, their collective mass is simply too big to ignore. So, with those options on the board and the presumption (far from any certainty, of course) that a Pac-12 invite would be accepted, who should the conference add?
If I were god and intelligent design were really a thing, or if I were just the Pac-12 Commish, I’d bring in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and BYU, and create the Pac-16. I’d then create a North with UW, Wazoo, Oregon, OSU, Utah, BYU, and Colorado and Nebraska and a South with Stanford, Cal, UCLA, u$c, Arizona, ASU, and UT and Oklahoma. Being god, on the next day, I’d rest - with a O’Dells 90 Schilling from sadly excluded Fort Collins.
If I can’t get UT and Oklahoma together, then I’ll rain down some frogs and then I would take either one of them and pair them with Nebraska. They have a common history going back to the Big 8 and those awesome looking tear away half shirts and each would be a good complement to each other.
If I can’t get some combination of two of those three, locusts, then I’d take Nebraska along with BYU and fall back to a closer pair of schools and invite UNLV and San Diego State. The Colorado and Utah schools would move to the North with Nebraska and Cal and Stanford would rejoin the LA school and Southern Cal and the Arizona schools in the South with newcomers Vegas and San Diego.
And if BYU and Nebraska say no, then it’s a flood and Fresno’s and Boise’s lucky day, though the same can’t be said for the Pac-16 if things fall that far. I’m not sure the addition of those 4 schools is turning on a lot more televisions on the East Coast.
One of my personal mantras is that every action in the Universe occurs for one of two reasons: physics or money. In the curious case of Pac-12 expansion, they turn out to be the same thing. Ah, the entropy of economics.
Expansion will happen. Physics and money dictate it. But if the Pac-12 sits by, it will become a smaller and less powerful player in the arms race that is college football and risk getting our existing schools poached by bigger and more powerful conferences in the future. But since circumstances allows us a chance to direct the outcome, it’s critical that the Pac-12 be the driving force that brings its selected Universities into its orbit.
The Pacific-16, the Galaxy of Champions.
Say it in Bill Walton’s voice. It sounds awesome!