Two takeaways from Monday’s announcement that the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conferences will pair representatives in the Holiday and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowls: the College Football Playoff has pushed conferences more into comfort zones than away from them, and any hope of a Pac-12/SEC rivalry developing beyond message boards in the near future is rendered null-and-void.
The SEC embarks on the new era of college football postseason sharing bowl game affiliations with every power conference but the Pac-12. Meanwhile, the Pac is investing largely in its relationship with the Big Ten, as opposed to branching out.
Pac-12 vs SEC is to college football, to an extent, what Pacquiao-Mayweather is to boxing. Imagine Oregon and Texas A&M lighting up the scoreboard, and the Alabama and Stanford defenses bringing smash mouth football at its highest level. Flip the match-ups and they’re no less intriguing: can Stanford slow A&M the way it did Oregon, and can Marcus Mariota have the success against Alabama Johnny Manziel had?
All are fun bouts to envision, but various circumstances repeatedly prevent them from happening.
Before scoffing at the notion SEC fans, a few things to consider: the closest any league has come to ending the SEC’s reign of national championship dominance is the Pac-12, via the Oregon Ducks, which came a wild Michael Dyer play shy of forcing overtime in 2011.
The Pac also hosted the last dynasty before the emergence of Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide, as USC appeared in seven straight BCS games and won consecutive championships — one of which was split with the SEC’s LSU Tigers. Amid that run, USC also planted its sword in the heart of SEC country with blowout wins over Auburn in 2003, and Arkansas in a 2006 season the Razorbacks reached the conference championship game.
More recently, the SEC has asserted itself with the aforementioned Auburn defeat of UO, followed immediately when LSU pulled away from those same Ducks in the 2011 opener. It’s an all-too-small sample size though, and quality match-ups have not compensated for the lack of quantity.
LSU-Oregon was the exception in the current relationship, which typically features uneven match-ups. Steve Sarkisian is still in the process of rebuilding Washington into a contender, which was apparent in the Huskies’ trip to LSU last season. Washington State is in the midst of its own rebuilding project, which has persisted for a decade. The Cougars travel to Auburn — also rebuilding — in Week 1.
Tennessee fulfills its traveling end of a home-and-home series with Oregon. No one would confuse the current Vols for being on Oregon’s level, readily apparent the last time the two programs squared off, in 2010.
Tennessee was involved in the last Pac-12 vs SEC interconference series that was really intriguing on paper. The Vols faced the Cal Golden Bears in 2006 and 2007. Neither game was especially competitive, as UT won by 17 in Knoxville and Cal by 14 in Berkeley. Ironically, the loser went onto a stronger finish than the winner in each case.
In retrospect, the Cal-Tennessee series provides insight onto why the conferences do not land on common ground more often.
Much like with real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. UT and Cal brought quality teams to the opponent’s venue, yet were routed. The losses had major implications on the ensuing season for each.
The Golden Bears were left out of the BCS mix in the 2006 postseason. Had Jeff Tedford’s team not gone to Rocky Top and instead played a less challenging opponent, Cal wins 10 regular season games and earns the at-large invitation that went to either Notre Dame or Boise State.
Likewise for Tennessee in 2007, a different non-conference opponent means a 10-2 regular season finish and playing for the BCS championship spot LSU gained after that SEC title contest.
Traveling into the other’s territory is taxing for Pac-12 and SEC alike. The two are as much polar opposites as one can find in conferences, both geographically and culturally.
The difficulties of traveling into such foreign territory are evident. A byproduct the uncertainty of how the College Football Playoff will be determined is teams scheduling in their comfort zones. Thus conference perception will continue to go a long way in determining strength of schedule, and said perception is established in the postseason.
Regional challenges increase the probability for losses, and losses diminish the conference’s value. Look no further than the Big Ten, which has struggled in recent bowl seasons yet plays virtually no games within its geographic footprint because it lacks desirable locales.
The SEC and Pac-12 have no such problem, which allows them to be picky with their match-ups.
With Florida and Atlanta, California and Arizona, the SEC and Pac-12 are flush with desirable bowl locations and have no need to venture out of their regions. Why send UCLA to say, Orlando, when it can head about 100 miles south to San Diego and entice Michigan State to meet it there?
The furthest east the Pac goes for a bowl game is San Antonio. The SEC goes no further West than the Dallas Metroplex. Texas is logical middle ground, but the prominent Lone Star State bowl games understandably cater to the Big 12 first.
A playoff is the only avenue through which fans can hope to see marquee Pac-12 vs SEC games.