One of the biggest debates in the wake of the Pac-12's expansion revolved around how many conference games the league would play. The SEC, which, I think we can all agree is pretty much the premier college football conference right now, plays eight and it affords every program the opportunity to load up on cupcakes to pad their schedule - potentially giving each team three or four wins on the path to bowl eligibility.
The Pac-12, though, decided, as it has in the past, to go with a nine-game conference slate, which has limited the opportunities for out of conference scheduling. I know Utah fans have been vocal in their criticism of the nine-game schedule and it really proved problematic last season when, on the cusp of bowl eligibility, the program failed to win a sixth game. Had they been able to schedule another out of conference game, preferably against a lower-level non-BCS team, at the expense of maybe playing Washington or Oregon State, they would have gone bowling and all would've been right in the world.
It's a legitimate argument, especially for those programs that are fighting for bowl eligibility year in and year out. Certainly this move doesn't impact programs like Oregon, who pretty much dominate the conference anyway - but the added toughness of a nine-game schedule does mean a lot to a coach who's trying to get his team turned around, or, as is the case with Kyle Whittingham, trying to find any positive momentum.
And yet, I can't help but think it's taking the easy way out. I know that the number one goal of Utah football is to play in a bowl game year in and year out, but the satisfactory level of just getting there only holds temporary enjoyment. If, year after year, we're becoming bowl eligible solely because of an extra out of conference cupcake, what does it say for our program? Conversely, if we're easily clearing the hurdle of bowl eligibility, which the team did in 2011 without the benefit of four out of conference games, is it worth dropping a potential marquee conference game for a contest against, I don't know, Idaho?
I'm not so sure.
Basically, it comes down to whether you envision a program that is barely doing enough to stay afloat and producing, most years, 6-6 seasons, or a program that really does compete. If it's the latter, no matter how many out of conference games Utah plays, it won't mean a lick. If it's the former, if we're really only succeeding because of wins over Idaho and New Mexico and Wyoming, is that worth it? I don't think so.
Beyond all that, it's not like the Pac-12 is alone in this anymore. The Big 10 is set to move to nine games too and they're even implementing a ban of sorts on playing FCS teams. The SEC is also potentially looking at expanding their conference slate to nine, though, I'm skeptical of that move knowing how the SEC operates.
When you get down to it, though, what the Pac-12 is doing is not rare anymore. It could very well be the future, especially with a college football playoff and the potential of strength of schedule really coming into play (no more being a lock because you won your conference).
I guess a better question is this - would you rather see Utah play a cupcake at home at the expense of a really good Pac-12 team coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium or a home slate like we're getting this year? Sure, there will be years where Oregon and USC and Stanford and UCLA and highly ranked teams roll into town, but if you're putting down some cheddar on season tickets, you don't really want a home schedule that consists of Utah State, Weber State and Idaho State.
Leave that to the team down south, right?
But I don't. I mean, it's a legitimate point - is that extra win worth watering down the schedule? Sure, you could say it'll mean Utah is going to schedule better teams, but we know that's not true. The coaches, who are the ones who want the eight-game schedule, are not fighting for this because they want more scheduling diversity. They want it for the additional win and I'm not going to fault 'em on it, but let's not pretend Kyle Whittingham wants to schedule Ohio State the same year Michigan comes to Rice-Eccles Stadium.
I think it'd be an easier answer if the Pac-12 was alone in embracing the nine-game schedule. But soon enough, it'll be just the SEC playing an eight-game conference schedule and maybe the pressure there will be strong enough to force their hands too.
At the end of the day, the coaches can want it, but it's not going to happen. I think the conference is set with its current direction, especially with the increase in TV revenue.
But it does present an interesting discussion.
Where do you stand?