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January 3, 2013

Digging Deeper into Expansion...Could PAC12 Be Next?

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The expansion craze has hit college athletics again with Maryland and Rutgers deciding to join the Big Ten on the promise of riches in exchange for greater access into the Washington D.C./Baltimore and New York City cable TV markets. More recently, seven Catholic basketball schools broke away from the Big East, creating chaos that could extend all the way to Boise, ID and San Diego, Calif. Many analysts believe we're inching closer to 16-team super conferences. Right now, the Pac-12 has 12 schools, but an increase to 14 could be inevitable in the future if the current expansion climate continues across the country. If the Pac-12 does choose to expand, which two schools should garner coveted invitations to join the league? We rank the candidates.

1. Hawaii: Football in paradise? You bet! The distance across the Pacific Ocean is a hindrance, especially for the Olympic sports, but the enormous revenues from the Pac-12's new TV deals should ease any concerns about the cost of flying to the Hawaiian Islands. The Mountain West (Hawaii was a football member only) and Big West conferences have dealt with the travel concerns for years, and so should the Pac-12. Hawaii produces a fair share of elite high school football players and the stadium is large enough (50,000), enabling the Warriors to compete in the Pac-12 fairly quickly. The best reason to add Hawaii: all teams that travel to Honolulu are allowed by the NCAA to play an additional game to help defray the costs. If that rule (called the "Hawaii Exemption") stays in place, it could produce additional programming inventory for the Pac-12 network. TV executives rejoice!

2. Nevada: The Wolf Pack joined the Mountain West Conference in 2012 after years of laboring in the weak WAC and came close to knocking off Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl on December 15. Nevada has appeared in a bowl game every year since 2005 and should be able to compete at the Pac-12 level. Where did San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick play his college football? Nevada. The Reno metropolitan area has about 500,000 residents, which should assure the attention of TV executives, which is the ultimate objective these days of BCS conferences.

3. Boise State: Would the ultimate underdog, the classic Cinderella, the program that has caught the fancy of BCS haters everywhere, break down and join an elite BCS conference if offered the chance? Of course. Frankly, it's only a matter of time before the Broncos' ill-advised decision to join the Big East blows up. The value of the Big East's potential network TV deals in football have diminished considerably with the upcoming exits of Rutgers and Louisville, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh already have one foot out the door. Connecticut and Cincinnati officials have said they want out as well. The four-team playoff looming in 2014 eliminates automatic bids for conferences, so there is little incentive for BSU to continuously fly into the Eastern time zone in their misguided quest for a BCS bowl game bid. That will last until the end of the 2013 season. According to reports, Boise State is already talking about staying in the Mountain West because of the shifting winds. We'll see.

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4. New Mexico: Presently, the Lobos are best known as the alma mater of Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. Sure, recent history hasn't been kind to UNM fans, but New Mexico did appear in five straight bowl games between 2002 and 2007. Bob Davie took over as head coach in 2012 and led the Lobos to a 4-9 record (they played an additional game due to the conference road game at Hawaii). The metropolitan population of Albuquerque, N.M., is almost 900,000. That's a lot of new TV sets watching Pac-12 action.

5. San Diego State: Shouldn't the Aztecs be higher up the list? Not really. Why? Because Southern California already has two teams in the Pac-12 and adding San Diego State would produce little more than oversaturation of the local TV market. Southern Cal and UCLA have plenty of fans already residing in San Diego, so adding the Aztecs would bring little fresh to the table. However, SDSU is a fairly large school with a decent stadium, so the conference might have some interest. But there are better alternatives and new TV markets to attack first. Ditto for San Jose State.

6. UNLV: Will the Pac-12 plant a seed in Las Vegas beyond holding its annual conference basketball tournament there? It's an intriguing possibility. The major problem? The UNLV football program is atrocious (23-75 in the last eight seasons; no bowl game since 2000), the stadium is substandard and the commitment level of the school's administration towards fielding a quality football program must rightfully be questioned. It will take years - more than a decade likely - before UNLV has the facilities and mindset in place to compete in the Pac-12.

7. Fresno State: The salad days of the early 2000's when the Bulldogs regularly whipped BCS schools on the road may have vanished, but Fresno State has been one of the best non-BCS programs on the West Coast for years. They were Boise State before there was Boise State. Pat Hill's tenure finally ran out of gas in 2011 when Fresno fell to 4-9. Hill was fired and new coach Tim DeRuyter led the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record and a berth in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl opposite SMU in his first season at the helm. Adding Fresno would bring the San Joaquin Valley region into the Pac-12's sphere of influence, but how much incentive does the conference have to add another team from the Golden State? If enough, Larry Scott could do worse than bringing the Bulldogs aboard. Fresno State would also add muscle to the Pac-12's baseball reputation with the 2008 national championship trophy residing in the baseball offices there.

8. Wyoming: What would the Cowboys bring to the table? Very little, which is why their fairly low on this list. College football has never been a big deal in Laramie, and falls somewhere behind skiing, snowboarding and elk hunting on the list of things people like to do there.

9. BYU: If the Pac-12 was truly searching for a school where football was king and would bring a national audience with them, the Cougars are the perfect choice. But multiple conference schools, most notably California and Stanford, are dead set against adding a religious affiliated school into the fold. Moreover, the Pac-12 might feel strongly they have the Beehive State market cornered with the recent addition of Utah (for the same reason, Utah State has zero chance to join the league). Thus, while BYU would be an excellent addition from a competitive standpoint, the chances of the Cougars joining the conference are very, very slim to none. Too bad, because BYU and Utah could continue the 'Holy War' rivalry on an annual basis.

10. Texas and Oklahoma: A couple of years ago, it appeared the Longhorns and Sooners were about to jump to the Pac-12. But the deal fell through and the Big 12 survived. If Larry Scott was totally truthful, he would insist Texas and Oklahoma remained his top two targets. But the existence of the Longhorn Network, the joint venture between Texas and ESPN, would be a deal-breaker, and Texas has given no indications that it is willing to surrender the millions of dollars the school receives annually from the four-letter network to carry the struggling LHN in exchange for a new conference. Thus, bringing Texas and Oklahoma (they'll follow the Longhorns' lead in this matter) aboard will always remain wishful thinking unless and until the LHN folds. If and when it does, all bets are off.



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