Mandel: Here’s how a Pac-12/Big 12 combo conference would play football

At his first conference media days this week, new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark declared “the Big 12 is open for business.” Conference realignment is normally a Clandestine operation, but Yormark all but advertised that he’s proactively Pursuing potential expansion candidates.

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It’s no great secret who he’s likely courting: Pac-12 schools Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.

It would be understandable if some or all of that group is panicking in the wake of USC and UCLA’s recent defections. But it’s not obvious they’d be improving their lot by joining the post-Texas/Oklahoma Big 12. While that conference has stabilized itself nicely, the 10-team Pac-12 still holds more TV leverage. Its new deal comes up a year later (2024); it has the two biggest TV brands in Oregon and Washington, who do not appear to be coveted by the Big Ten; and it’s got Pac-12 After Dark, a major selling point for ESPN in particular, which loves filling those late-night slots with quality games.

But there’s at least one viable scenario in which both the Big 12 and Pac-12 could leverage the latter’s current instability: They could merge.

Jon Wilner of The Mercury News wrote an excellent piece earlier this week explaining why this seemingly Radical idea actually makes a lot of sense in the new world order. A combined Big 12/Pac-12 wouldn’t be on par with the newly turbo-charged Big Ten and SEC, but it would become the clear No. 3. It would boast three College Football Playoff participants in Oregon, Washington and Cincinnati, and 12 schools that have appeared in a New Year’s Six Bowl since 2014. By comparison, the ACC has two CFP participants (Florida State and Clemson) and has had six New Year’s Six participants.

Perhaps most pertinently, the combined Leagues — with the help of a couple of expansion adds — would boast 10 of the nation’s top 30 TV markets. And consolidating their upcoming TV deals into one would likely create more competition among bidders, be it traditional partners ESPN and Fox or streaming services like Apple and Amazon.

“Both Leagues would make more by working together than they would separately,” former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes told Wilner.

I read Wilner’s story this week while sitting poolside with my family while on vacation in France. Being the realignment sicko that I am, I immediately got on my Notes app and started jotting down how such a thing would work. And I’ve got to say: It’s a lot more workable than I initially thought.

First off, we turn what would currently be a clunky 22-team lineup into 24 by adding San Diego State and SMU. The Aztecs are far-and-away the most compelling Pac-12 expansion candidate. They regularly field both Top 25 football and men’s basketball teams, as they Restore at least some footprint in Southern California. SMU is admittedly redundant with TCU, but it’s never a bad thing to have more presence in a huge football market like Dallas.

Having done that, we can now split the league into four “pods” of six teams each. While not exact, they do divide rather closely into four time zones.

Big 12/Pac-12 Merger

As you can see, travel shouldn’t be nearly as difficult for most of these schools as it will be for USC and UCLA in the Big Ten — especially in the non-revenue schools — as they’ll still be able to play most games within one time zone of their own. East-West crossovers will be minimal.

Here’s how that would work in football:

  • Nine conference games in total, eight of which are prescheduled.
  • Those games follow a 5 + 1 + 1 + 1 model: Five games within your pod, and one each against the others.
  • Cross-pod foes rotate every year.

Now here comes a twist:

  • The four teams that finish first in each pod will have their ninth game become a conference championship semifinal on Thanksgiving weekend.
  • The winners advance to a regular-season title game the first week of December.

The other 20 teams get paired off in cross-pod matchups based on similar records — for example, the second-place Pacific team plays the second-place Mountain team for their regular-season finals. Assuming a 12-team Playoff is coming, this will guarantee the league more late-season games with CFP ramifications — candy for TV networks.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of dollar figures this configuration would fetch, but the laws of leverage suggest it would be higher per school than if the current Leagues negotiate separately. ESPN would have one chance, not two, to retain rights to these 24 programs, which between them produced four of the top-12 teams in last season’s final AP poll (No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 5 Baylor, No. 7 Oklahoma State and No. 12 Utah).

And rather than bidding on a league knowing its interest is largely limited to one region — either the West Coast or Great Plains — you’re getting a truly national product. An early-November game between 7-2 Washington and 6-3 Arizona State that previously mattered only to other Pac-12 fans now has consequences for fans in Texas, Ohio and Florida as well.

Figuring out the logistics proved much easier, though, than coming up with a name for this new creation. I welcome your suggestions.

(Top photo of Jonathan Smith and Mike Gundy: Troy Wayrynen / USA Today)

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