The Pac-12 made waves in the ever-rippling college football pond earlier this week, as it was reported by Jon Wilner of The Mercury News that the conference was considering opening up their non-conference scheduling slate. This represents a shift from their previous policy of a shortened, conference-only schedule that has already been shaken by cancellations to two Cal and two Utah games.
This is not yet a rule ratified by athletic directors, as Bruce Feldman reports that universities are still in the information-gathering stage. With that said, it’s clear why this move would be to the advantage of the conference as a whole: with games getting canceled on a weekly basis, healthy Pac-12 teams may find themselves without viable in-conference opponents. Such is currently the case for Colorado, who is 2-0, playing well, and open on Saturday, with a scheduled opponent in Arizona State unavailable to play according to COVID-19 protocols. Those games both generate revenue for the conference, and in the case of some teams, serve as important resume builders.
That was the source of the excitement for college football fans, as the Pac-12’s suddenly opened doors not only give their top teams the ability to juice up their resumes—it affords other teams the same opportunities.
There are currently seven teams in the AP Top 25 that don’t belong to a Power 5 conference. Cincinnati (#7) and BYU (#8) are both top-10 teams with College Football Playoff aspirations; Coastal Carolina and Marshall are equally ranked at 15th; Liberty (#20), Louisiana (#24), and Tulsa (#25) round out the Top 25. All seven are open for non-conference games, and all would benefit from a Power-5 win, even against a lower-level Pac-12 program.
Take BYU and Cincinnati for example. Fans have been clamoring for both BYU and Cincinnati to beef up their current schedules with ranked opponents to make stronger plays in the College Football Playoff landscape. Both are undefeated with ranked wins, but neither has as strong of a feather in their cap as a win against 11th-ranked Oregon or even 20th-ranked USC (assuming USC holds onto that ranking long enough) would be. BYU especially, as a team on the west coast with multiple weeks open on their current schedule, is a no-brainer dance partner for a suddenly solo Pac-12 team.
The Cougars face North Alabama this weekend—an 0-3 FCS program—then take two weeks off before a season-ending bout with San Diego State on Saturday. Those open weekends—November 28 and December 5—make BYU the primary candidate to fill an open Pac-12 slate. A source in the Mercury News piece noted that both geography and history would come in to play for out-of-conference scheduling: BYU has the geography, and in that they have the geography, they’ve played every Pac-12 team in recent years—and, of course, regularly face Utah in the Holy War that would otherwise go unplayed this year.
Cincinnati doesn’t have such advantages. They have games scheduled out through December 4th (UCF, Temple, Tulsa), and the AAC championship game which Cincinnati figures to host will be scheduled for either December 12 or 19. Add in the travel factor, and Cincinnati is a harder sell for an impromptu Pac-12 dance. Tulsa is in the same boat as Cincinnati’s likely opponent as the AAC championship game.
Liberty (NC State, UMass, Coastal Carolina) has the same concern as Cincinnati—though they’ll be open on December 12, without a conference championship game to play. The Pac-12 championship game, currently scheduled for the weekend of the 19th, does give the Flames that one-weekend window. Marshall? Open this weekend with their Charlotte game postponed, but we don’t yet know which team had the COVID-19 issues that contributed to that postponement, and this rule isn’t even ratified. Louisiana currently has COVID-19 issues of their own, and both the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Thundering Herd have conference championship games to worry about.
Unfortunately, the majority of the Pac-12 non-conference scheduling is conditional conjecture, waiting on the exact game cancellation and available team to dictate potential matchups. The only real beneficiary from this new opening, at least from a national perspective, is BYU: they have the openings and the proximity to pick up an impromptu Pacific opponent.
And if they get a good one? All the better for them. The Cougars have perhaps the best chance of any non-Power 5 team to make the College Football Playoff—something we all want to see—and a win against a quality Power-5 opponent helps that case.