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Pac-12 football strategy: With playoff expansion secure, Pac-12 to revisit divisions


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The Pac-12's moves to eliminate football divisions and change the championship game qualification process, implemented prior to the 2022 season, could be reversed to account for the expansion of the College Football Playoff.

"Whether to play eight or nine (conference games), changing the championship game and the divisions — we'll look at all that," commissioner George Kliavkoff told the Hotline recently.

"The goal is the same: to optimize for playoff berths and championships."

While the goal is the same, the target has most definitely moved.

Starting in 2024, the Pac-12 will be pursuing berths in a 12-team playoff — not the four-team event that has proved so elusive for the conference.

The mammoth change to the playoff, announced in September, will force the Pac-12 to reconsider the strategic adjustments made last spring and several that were under discussion for future years.

"Now that we know the proposed 12-team format will be in place, we have 18 months to revisit who's in the championship game and 12 months to revisit the 2024 schedule," Kliavkoff said. "And we'll do both."

The Pac-12 announced last May that it would change the championship game qualification process. Instead of matching division winners, the teams with the best winning percentage in conference play would meet for the title. Later, the conference officially eliminated divisions as a means of recording results.

At the time, playoff expansion talks had seemingly stalled. The earliest start date for the 12-team field appeared to be 2026, following the expiration of the current contract with ESPN.

Kliavkoff indicated the new qualification process (winning percentage) would bridge the gap for the Pac-12 until it had clarity on the playoff's long-term structure.

But behind the scenes, the university presidents on the CFP's Board of Managers were working to secure an earlier date for expansion.

In September, the playoff announced a 12-team format beginning in the 2024 season, with access virtually guaranteed for the Pac-12 winner. The six highest-ranked conference champions will receive automatic bids, along with the next six highest-ranked teams (i.e., the at-large pool).

Suddenly, the Pac-12's change to maximize opportunities for a four-team field was potentially a short-term solution (the 2022-23 seasons) before the event tripled in size.

Would returning to divisions — and matching the winners in the championship game — better position the Pac-12 to send both its champion and a runner-up to the expanded playoff?

Merton Hanks, the Pac-12 Senior Associate Commissioner for Football Operations, is skeptical of the need for a policy reversal.

"I could make an argument that structurally, going back to divisions makes no sense if we want the highest-rated teams in the championship game," Hanks said.

"The setup still serves us well. I don't see the value in going back to divisions in (a playoff) expansion scenario."

Kliavkoff and Hanks were also exploring at least two long-term changes to the conference schedule:

  • Playing eight league games instead of nine.
  • Using regionality, not divisions, as the basis for the rotations.

Then USC and UCLA announced their departures for the Big Ten (starting in 2024), and the conference had to scrap plans for the altered schedule model.

Kliavkoff is currently focused on securing a media-rights deal and whether to add membership. He's expected to present a deal to the schools for approval in early 2023.

Once those issues are solved — and assuming the 10 remaining schools stick together — the long-haul football strategy will be formalized to match the expanded playoff.

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Jon Wilner
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.

Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

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