The Pac-12 Big Ten Challenge That Should’ve Been But Wasn’t

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A little more than five years ago, the Pac-12 and Big Ten entered into a landmark agreement for college football. Two of the sport’s preeminent conferences agreed in principle to an annual crossover of nonconference games, extending the decades-old partnership shared in the Rose Bowl Game; upping the ante for postseason positioning; and addressing fans’ long-held concerns about nonconference scheduling.

The concept lasted roughly six months and received surprisingly little national media attention. For the best, I suppose, as it’d have been wasted energy; the idea was scrapped in July 2012.

Said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany:

“We recently learned from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott that the complications associated with coordinating a nonconference football schedule for 24 teams across two conferences proved to be too difficult. Those complications, among other things, included the Pac-12’s nine-game conference schedule and previous nonconference commitments.”

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby hinted earlier this year at a similar partnership discussed between the Pac-12 and Big 12, as well as possible alliances with the ACC and SEC.

Based on the murky details and lack of publicity, however…

As Delany’s statement in 2012 suggests, logistics prove too much to overcome for conferences in the FBS to establish a crossover series. Emphasis on FBS; double-emphasis on BS, because the Football Championship Subdivision is making it work.

Two of the most consistently strong FCS conferences, the Big Sky and Missouri Valley, announced a formalized scheduling series on Tuesday.

The Challenge Series features eight games over the course of three weeks, the bulk appearing on Week 2 of the 2017 slate, and all featuring at least one nationally ranked team in the preseason FCS polls.

Marquee matchups include perennial national title contenders North Dakota State and Eastern Washington, who met last year in a 50-44 shootout; South Dakota State and Montana State; Cal Poly and Northern Iowa.

Such a series makes sense for the FCS, both in generating more buzz for the regular season, and for contenders to build impressive FCS Playoffs resumes.

The FCS concept is actually quite comparable to college basketball, which showcases top-flight nonconference games early in the season via the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Coincidentally, the Pac-12 (then as the Pac-10) faced the Big 12 in a short-lived Hardwood Series last decade, though it failed to gain much steam because: 1. it overlapped with arguably the worst stretch in the Pac-12’s basketball history and 2. the dumpster that was Fox Sports coverage tucked the games away in obscurity.

A central pillar to one of these challenges is providing exposure. FBS doesn’t need the exposure.

FBS also doesn’t necessarily need a challenging nonconference slate to improve a team’s College Football Playoff outlook. While the CFP lacks enough precedent and empirical data to determine definitively how nonconference scheduling impacts a team’s chances, last year does wave a red flag: One-loss Washington played an especially weak out-of-conference docket and finished 12-1, beating out Big Ten champion Penn State.

Penn State was 11-2, sporting a nonconference loss to a good Pitt team.

Returning to Delany’s statement, there’s the added challenge posed by prior scheduling commitments. Power Five schedules are mapped out further and further out every year, with some programs filling their nonconference dates as far out as a decade.

The growing prominence of one-off marquee dates in NFL stadiums adds another dimension that would prove too much for conferences to mutually negotiate.

Yes, there’s plenty of explanation as to why the FBS, and Power Five conferences in particular, would balk at locking in conference crossovers. It’s just unfortunate for the fans, who are missing out on some potentially exciting and unique nonconference matchups.