Ted Miller seems to think it's inevitable, as Larry Scott seems to be pushing the conference back into the spotlight after the notorious neglect of Tom Hansen's regime.
As for a championship game, that's also being considered, with or without expansion, and I'd say the odds are pretty good (again, with or without expansion) that the Pac-10 decides to start playing one. Why? New inventory that would appeal to media partners, which would provide a revenue bump.
About a year ago, I presented the question of whether it's fair or foul for the Pac-10 to continue with the round robin format, a system which intrinsically harms the conference's chances of earning a second BCS at-large bid and hurts its overall chances at a national championship. The Pac-10 hasn't earned an at-large bid since 2003, and hasn't been in the BCS title game since the 2006 Rose Bowl.
I'm not a huge fan of conference title games. There's a slight upside to a 12-0 team going to 13-0 and a HUGE downside of a 12-0 team succumbing to an 8-4 upstart. However a Pac-10 championship game could provide our top teams with an extra win (boosting their national championship resume), or if they fall, give two teams a chance at BCS bids. Let's take a look at more of the pros and cons.
Pro: Excitement. Say there's a dominant power in the conference, like USC (which rolled off BCS bid after BCS bid seven years straight). The Trojans were the best team in the conference almost each season, bar none. If you had the second place opponent given a second chance to knock heads with USC, or an opponent from the second division in the conference. Letting the Trojans take the Rose Bowl bid by just winning the conference outright became rather anti-climactic year after year, especially when their challengers faded late in the season. Adding a conference championship gives a lot of teams hope deep into November as they battle for that second position.
People forget that the last two or three weeks of a season are generally meaningless to 70% of the teams. This proposal brings an extra incentive to at least 20-30% of our teams to play hard the final week of the season rather than jostle for position for the Sun Bowl.
Cons: Pasadena. The best performer throughout the regular season doesn't necessarily get rewarded the roses. Ask the Big 12 how many upsets they've had to deal with that have sidelined their top team from the Fiesta Bowl They're laughing all the way to the bank though, since their team with the top record that lost their conference championship still ended up in the BCS title game at least twice. You get the feeling Pac-10 teams would be a little more attached to the Rose Bowl though.
Pro: Revenue. Championship games (just like conference tournaments) make lots of money. The SEC Championship generated $14.3 million in revenue in 2008, the Big 12 $11.1 million. The Pac-10 is a distant fifth in revenue, leading only the Big East among the six major conferences. Imagine the extra millions from TV revenue and ticket sales. It'd be hard to pass up an opportunity like that. Like Miller said, when in doubt, conferences follow the money.
Con: Redundancy. The round robin already has every team playing each other. Unless you're a big fan of rematches, a Pac-10 Championship Game provides a second (and some may say superfluous) resolution to a conference that already has its routine down pat. (Note: I can't see a scenario in which the round robin stays and a Pac-10 championship gets put in its place. It's too many conference games.)
Conditional Pro: Rematch? Say the Pac-10 expands (or it might not, you never know), BUT the teams don't necessarily move into separate divisions--a legitimate possibility. This would provide the only legitimate 1st place versus 2nd place matchup of conference championship opponents. That the SEC, Big 12 and ACC select the top team from each of their "divisions" is a little absurd, especially if you have a scenario like 2008 Big 12 South where the top three teams all reside in that division and Oklahoma-Missouri ended up being the grand finale (rather than, oh, say, Oklahoma-Texas). It makes no sense that the top two teams in each conference aren't required to be in the championship game.
Con: Logistics. Say there was a Pac-10 championship game the first week of December. Where would it be?
People forget, but our conference fans have not been proven to travel in huge numbers. We don't want this horrifying scenario playing out.
To maximize crowd turnout, conventional wisdom dictates playing it in LA...which would mean playing it either at USC's coliseum, or at the Rose Bowl. A lot of you can probably glimpse the unfairness of such a scenario, as it'd be a virtual home game for anytime USC & UCLA qualifies for the title game.
If there were to be a Pac-10 championship game, I'd insist on rotating sites, like Glendale/Seattle/LA/San Francisco/Oakland, or a totally neutral site (like San Diego or VEGAS!), similar to the Pac-10 tournament proposal of moving away from Staples and what the Big 12 Championship game currently does. If there's anything stopping a Pac-10 Championship Game, it would be deciding on how to rotate the sites while maximizing attendance.
Pro: Guaranteed big TV game the final week. As fun as it is for the conference to finish its seasons with rivalry games, it does feel a little discordant to be playing games like that this late in the season. I'd much prefer finish our regular season the week before or week of Thanksgiving, and then moving onto a conference championship the final week. It could be the afternoon game on ABC (although that'd be challenged by the SEC title game) or a late night game on ESPN (unchallenged). There are plenty of possibilities, all of them beneficial for the conference.
Now the question for our fans. Does this benefit or hurt our Golden Bears?
Say it's 1st place versus runner-up. Well, Cal has been in position to finish in second place a few times. In 2004, it'd have given us a juicy rematch with the Trojans. Ditto 2006. In 2005, 2008, & 2009 we were in contention for second as late as the next-to-last week of the season. Think we would've played better a few of those seasons if we knew we still had a shot the final week of the season going to Pasadena?
But if it's divisions, it's hard to see a scenario where Cal and USC aren't playing in the same conference. So nothing would really change. We'd have to beat the Trojans in the regular season to get to the Pac-10 Championship game (Well, unless sanctions come down and USC is eliminated from postseason play...). The impact on our team could be minimal or ginormous, depending on the way Scott sets it up.
Are we ready to open the box on a conference championship? Sound off with your opinions.