When it comes to propaganda and publicity, the Pac-10 is woefully ill-prepared in this arms race. Of all the BCS conference, no one undersells itself better than the Pac-10.
If USC isn't such a media darling and hated around the country for its glitz and glam (not to mention excellence), the Pac-10 would be completely unheard of. Out of sight, out of mind. It's a pity because you can make a reasonable argument that the Pac-10 really is the best conference in college football, perhaps 10 years running.
But in the BCS Era, the college football cognoscenti (the self-anointed ones, that is) have been lapping it up at the SEC trough. And the last three seasons, coming on four, an SEC team has been crowned the BCS national champion.
That isn't so much affirmation of SEC's superiority as the sign that it's adroitly winning the media war. If the old Confederacy wasn't able to conquer America, its rightful descendants have made sure that the South indeed has risen, again.
Don't blame the SEC for understanding and leveraging the system to its maximum benefit. But do blame the Pac-10 for not doing its job.
The SEC has an exclusive contract with CBS, which in essence becomes its mouthpiece and lobbyist (see Florida vs. Michigan, 2006). It has a new 15-year deal with ESPN, which also shepherds the nascent SEC Network. The Pac-10, on the other hand, is just a rumor.
Of all the conferences in the ABC/ESPN umbrella, the Pac-10 has arguably the worst deal. Except for the occasional USC prime time games, all Pac-10 games on ABC are regionally televised, which meant they are never seen east of the Rockies. The Pac-10 also plays on Versus (which isn't on DirecTV nowadays) and Fox Sports Net, which is a regional alliance, not a national presence.
Unfortunately for the Pac-10, lacking TV exposure is merely part of its failure to communicate.
Do you know that the Pac-10 teams play nine conference games each? Yep, they play a true round-robin, which means that of all the BCS conferences, the Pac-10 plays the toughest schedule by default because it plays the most conference games. And don't just take my word for it, Jeff Sagarin has the goods.
According to Sagarin's data, of the top 19 schedules this season, nine belong to Pac-10 teams, with five in the top 10, including Oregon at No. 6 and USC at No. 7. How many SEC teams are in the same range? Two: Georgia at No. 10 and LSU at No. 17. You have to go to No. 25 to find Alabama and No. 42 for Florida. (And these numbers will only get worse for the top SEC teams.)
Alas, there's the unmentionable. Part of the SEC's success is that its best teams almost never play anybody outside of conference. And with only eight conference games, they fatten up their records on overmatched opponents at home.
Look at the schedules from 2006-2009, a period where an SEC team has played for the BCS title and USC has been shut out (we're treating 2009 as fait accompli):
+ Traditional rival Florida State
Middle Tennessee State
+ Traditional rival Tulane
(*I-AA opponent at the time when the game was held)
So here's the break down. Over the past four years, in Florida's 12 OCC games excluding its annual rivalry game with FSU, it has played just one BCS conference team (Miami). The rest is mostly against I-AA roadkill (4) and hapless Sun Belt squads (4). It's a little better for LSU (12 games: 3 BCS, 1 I-AA, 5 Sun Belt) and Alabama (16 games: 4 BCS, 2 I-AA, 7 Sun Belt).
Contrast that to USC's schedule since it last played for the BCS title:
San Jose State
+ Traditional rival Notre Dame
Out of those eight games, six were against BCS opponents, and each was a home-and-home series. For the record, USC is one of only three teams (UCLA and Notre Dame are the others) that have never played a game against I-AA teams.
The point here is not necessarily that the SEC's elite teams are overrated. It simply states the fact that they take the path of least resistance. And for the most part, they get rewarded handsomely for it after trotting out the convenient (and false) disclaimer that "just playing in the SEC is tough enough."
The point here also is to say that the Pac-10 does its conference members a disservice for not disseminating the fact that annually, the conference on average plays a tougher schedule than anyone else and that it has also fared better against other BCS conference teams than anyone else over the past decade.
Why is this the case?
In the BCS Era, when college football has become a national game, the Pac-10 has stayed mostly regional and provincial. But don't blame this on geography. The time difference isn't an issue any more as most games are now finished well before midnight Eastern. Do blame it on apathy and a lack of ingenuity, and that starts with the conference headquarters in Walnut Creek.
The Pac-10 likes to call itself the conference of champions, but the reality is nobody gives a flying hoot how many women's underwater squash titles or NACDA Directors' Cups (do you even know what that is?) your conference has won. The thing that really matters is the crystal ball, and the Pac-10 has only one to show for it - besides being routinely shut out of a second BCS bowl berth by an inferior conference such as the Big Ten.
The irony of all this is that unlike most other conferences, the Pac-10 universities play in some of the biggest media markets. Two in Los Angeles, two in the San Francisco Bay Area, Phoenix, Seattle. Only Washington State is in the middle of nowhere. There is no shortage of media outlets (print, online, radio, television, whatever) to get the word out. Yet, other than USC, the rest of the Pac-10 might as well be playing in Belarus.
In the 11 years of the BCS, only twice has the Pac-10 received two BCS berths. And none since 2002, when the Trojans finished as co-champs and played Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Cal came close in 2004, but was cheated out of a Rose Bowl berth by Mack Brown. This may finally be the year that the conference gets that coveted second BCS spot, but probably only because USC is nudged out of the Rose Bowl.
If the Trojans work their way back into Pasadena (not at all inconceivable, all they need is an Oregon loss to Arizona for a three-way tie), then will the Pac-10 still claim that second BCS bowl slot? Probably not.
It's time for the Pac-10 to seriously consider what kind of player it wants to be in college football. In the meantime, it should probably hire a PR firm, as the WAC did. When it comes to publicity, the Pac-10 needs all the help it can get.