Pac-10 expansion could hinder Stoops’ rebuilding project

Mike Stoops can’t seem to catch a break.

The University of Arizona football coach has worked six years to try to return the program to respectability and it looked like he was beginning to turn the corner.

Then he comes off an 8-5 season, gets a bowl bid, and then gets clobbered by Nebraska on national television.

An now he finds he may have to meet Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State on a yearly basis.  Oh yeah, he also gets to play his brother Bob’s Oklahoma Sooners.

The Aggies had the only losing record in the group last year.  The other four schools combined for a 38-15 mark, with Texas playing for the national championship.  Pac-10 teams have not fared well in the past when matched up with the more physical style of play of teams from the Big 12.

If the Pac-10 expansion rumors play out, Arizona and Arizona State will be in a new mega-conference of 16 teams, likely beginning in 2012.  If the conference is able to steal away half of the Big 12, it will have to split into two divisions.

It was just announced yesterday that Colorado has already been invited to lead the defection from the Big 12, and has accepted.  The school will make a formal announcement in a press conference later this morning.

The other school that was expected to get an invitation, should the larger expansion not occur, is Utah.  That would likely mean the Pac-10 would settle for becoming the Pac-12.

If the conference does go to 16 teams, the most likely alignment would be along regional lines and would put the Sun Devils and Wildcats in with the new kids on the block.  The other division would be made up of the old Pac-8 conference as it existed before ASU and UofA joined in 1978 to create the Pac-10.

A bit of irony comes with the whole situation.  Stoops and his Cats had built momentum coming out of the last season, beating rival ASU and then taking down USC for the first time in the last game of the season.

But then their invitation to the Holiday Bowl to recognize their achievements on the year ended in what can only be described as a nightmare.  They were soundly beaten by Nebraska in a 33-0 drubbing.

And Nebraska is the school that has started the domino effect among the conferences, as it is scheduled to announce later today that it is accepting an invitation to leave the Big 12 and join the Big Ten.

Without Nebraska, the other football powers in the Big 12 are more inclined to look elsewhere for their own invitation.  And the Pac-10 is the best option.

The new “Pac-16” would become arguably the nation’s best college conference, based on the strength of its football teams (which is what is driving everything since they are the revenue-producers).  The conference would give each member school even greater national exposure and likely generate its own television network, as the Big 10 has already done.  A television deal, which ABC or ESPN couldn’t turn down, would be expected to bring something in the neighborhood of $20 million to each school.

So the clock is ticking for UofA and ASU.  They have just a couple of years to finish turning their programs around before Texas and Oklahoma contingent arrives.

ASU is coming off two losing season in a row.  The Devils finished in ninth place in the conference and aren’t picked to finish above the middle of the pack next season.

Head coach, Dennis Erickson, has turned over his offense to new coordinator, Noel Mazzone, in the hopes they can make the changes necessary to leave last year’s 4-8 finish a distant memory.

The Sun Devils could still be struggling when the new teams arrive, which will make it all the harder to get back on top again.

But Stoops has led the Cats to a slow, methodical rise to reach second place in the conference this past season with a 6-3 mark, following years spent as the doormat of the Pac-10.  The Cats are coming off back-to-back 8-5 finishes – which hasn’t happened since 1993/1994.  And Stoops has now beaten every team in the Pac-10 at least once.

The Wildcats were feeling good about next season.  And probably still are.

It’s the games that are still a couple of years away that have them worried.