Pac-10 taking on all comers

When it comes to nonconference scheduling, the Pac-10 has an unofficial motto.

Anyone, anywhere, anytime.

No. 3 Southern California is traveling to eighth-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, the same day UCLA visits Tennessee. Later this month, Arizona and No. 10 California will venture into Big Ten territory, and Arizona State goes to No. 21 Georgia. Four Pac-10 teams are also challenging 18th-ranked Notre Dame.

"Strong out-of-conference matchups capture the public's imagination," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said in a telephone interview.

Pac-10 teams this season will play 15 games against BCS conferences and Notre Dame - more than the larger Southeastern, Big Ten and Big 12 conferences. The Atlantic Coast Conference plays 20 such games and the Big East plays 16.

Pac-10 teams say they play tough schedules because they want to improve the national perception of the league - a strange goal for a conference that went 5-0 last postseason. In some cases, Pac-10 teams also need to sell tickets, and Notre Dame is better box office than North Dakota, which played at the Big 12's Texas Tech last Saturday.

"We need that national recognition," Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said. "When you play good people, the chance is you're going to be on TV, the chance is that the story's going to be reported."

That's also the downside.

Just ask Oregon, which last Thursday wandered onto the blue turf in Boise, Idaho, a place few major-college teams dare to go.

The Ducks, ranked 16th in preseason, lost to Boise State and may have been eliminated from contention for an at-large Bowl Championship Series berth before Labor Day.

The Pac-10 is looking for exposure, but not the kind that came when Oregon tailback LeGarrette Blount punched a Bronco after the game. Given the fallout of the Blount episode, it's easy to second-guess the Ducks for going to Boise.

Asked if it was worth it, Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti replied, "Yes and no.

"It's one of those things that obviously, the timing, you win a Thursday night game early in the season, you're the toast of the town," Bellotti said in a telephone interview. "If you don't do something very well ... it's something that obviously we're not very proud of."

Along with Boise State, Oregon also will play Utah in Eugene on Sept. 19, giving the Ducks the distinction of facing the only two schools from outside the automatic qualifying conferences with BCS victories on their resumes.

"We'll play anywhere," Bellotti said.

In some conferences, this would be considered madness.

In the Pac-10, it's called good business.

There's a financial side to the Pac-10's scheduling strategy, and it has become even more important as schools fight to retain their season-ticket subscribers in an economic slump.

On many BCS-level campuses, football sellouts are almost a given regardless of the opponent. Not so in the Pac-10.

Consider Arizona State. The Sun Devils drew a sellout of 72,955 for Georgia last year, with hordes of Bulldogs fans making the journey to the desert. By contrast, only 42,588 fans showed up for ASU's opener against Idaho State last week.

"If you play in some parts of the country, without naming conferences, people come to watch, and it doesn't matter who the opponent is," Livengood said.

In other leagues, coaches defend weak September schedules by saying they need to get ready for brutal conference slates. If anyone should make that argument, it's the coaches in the Pac-10, who play more regular-season conference contests than any of their BCS rivals.

The Pac-10's nine-game round-robin format allows the conference to crown a "true" champion, as coaches put it, but it also robs Pac-10 teams of the chance to schedule an easy victory, at home.

"As a result of having a tougher conference schedule, you can schedule fewer weak opponents, so it's a double whammy," Scott said.

Scott, who took over the league over the summer, said he wants to see if the Pac-10's conference schedule hinders its schools in their quest for bowl berths. If it does, Scott said he won't hesitate to push for a reduced conference slate.

"I'm not there yet," he said.

The schedule debate heats up every September.

Privately, some Pac-10 coaches express concerns over why their schedules seem to be more demanding than those of rival BCS conferences. But others echo California's Jeff Tedford, who said facing tough teams "does a nice job of getting us ready to play."

Since Mike Riley returned to Oregon State in 2003, the Beavers have gone to LSU, Penn State, Louisville, Cincinnati and Boise State (twice) and lost every time. But Riley said he thinks his teams benefited from those painful trips.

"I'm not sure they didn't result in our team being tougher down the road," Riley said.

USC coach Pete Carroll shares that belief. He's relished taking the Trojans to hostile places such as Auburn, Brigham Young, Arkansas and Nebraska, not to mention Notre Dame every other year, and he's fired up about this week's trip to Ohio Stadium.

"It's better for us to play challenging, difficult opponents because to have a great year you have to win 'em all anyway," Carroll said. "So the harder games that we can get through early in the schedule make us better, particularly the ones on the road like the one coming up. If we're able to find a way to win this game, it's of enormous value to us as we move forward."


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