Pac-10 Conference Expansion Options: Zipper Format Best

In Sunday’s print edition of the San Jose Mercury News, Jeff Faraudo and Jon Wilner looked at Pac-10 expansion and the possibilities on how the divisions could be split up. In order for the conference to have a championship game, NCAA rules stipulate that there must be two divisions. Without a doubt, the groupings will be the hot topic when Pac-10 officials meet in Los Angeles on Friday.

While each team has many considerations as to which teams they want in their division, one thing is certain. Each school wants to have an annual trip to Los Angeles because it sits in an important area for recruiting. Said former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti, “Playing in L.A. is important–it really, really is. Coaches who are saying it isn’t are probably just saying that.” 

California athletic director Sandy Barbour seems set on seeing the Los Angeles schools each season by asserting, “I would consider the three other California schools together as a must have on an annual basis.”

And this isn’t just Cal’s stance; it seems that the California schools are ready to present a united front. “All of the California schools agree that we would like to play each other every other year.”

There are problems though. When Colorado joined the league, reports surfaced that  the Buffaloes joined with the understanding they would be in a division with the Los Angeles schools, leaving the Bay Area schools with the Northwest schools. To the contrary, Jon Wilner is reporting that one of the Northwest schools is “dead set” on being in a division with at least one of the Los Angeles schools.

In all of these scenarios, the most important part for USC is to hold on to the games with the other California schools. The rivalries are a time-honored tradition that have a special place in the hearts of USC fans. Since 1934, the four schools have played each other each season and now is not the time to put an end to it. No matter how talented the rest of the conference is, USC fans care more about the California schools. No offense to the other conference schools, but there is a certain feeling that comes over fans when opposing the other California schools that adds excitement and intrigue that other teams can’t provide. And this isn’t just one fan speaking. The proof is in the attendance figures. Dating back to 2004, the three highest drawing teams by average are–in no specific order–UCLA, Stanford, and California. The most exciting games in college football center on rivalries, and it would be a disservice to the California schools to break them up. 

In an effort to create the best scenario for all parties, Jon Wilner has proposed the “zipper” format, where travel partner schools–such as USC and UCLA–are placed in opposite divisions but play each other every year.  USC would be grouped with one of the Arizona schools, one of the new schools, one of the Bay Area schools, one of the Oregon schools, and one of the Washington schools. As the map in the article shows, USC could hypothetically be paired with Arizona State, Utah, California, Oregon, and Washington State.

For USC to continue to hold on to their storied rivalries, Wilner’s “zipper” plan is the most appealing. With nine conference games, The schedule makers would be able to allow the California schools to play each other every year, and then rotate between two of the four teams in the opposite division each season. With the Los Angeles schools in opposite divisions, the non-California schools would be guaranteed a trip to Los Angeles every other season at the minimum. 

If one thing is certain about this expansion, it is that some schools are going to feel like they drew the short straw. “Not every team is going to be thrilled,” acknowledged commissioner Larry Scott.

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