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Mike Sorensen: Mike Sorensen: Zipper plan may be best for Pac-12

Published: Sunday, Aug. 8 2010 10:54 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the big unanswered questions concerning the University of Utah's move to the Pac-12 next year is which division the Utes and other schools will play in.

We did find out last week that the Utes will be playing a nine-game schedule in the Pac-12, which I found a bit surprising. That's because it will put the league at a disadvantage for national titles compared to leagues such as the SEC, which has played in four straight BCS Championship Games. We'll get back to that in a minute.

As for the division alignments, the Pac-12 athletic directors discussed those in a meeting last week and went over four or five different proposals, according to Utah A.D. Chris Hill, who said the decision may not come for a couple of months.

Hill isn't saying which of the handful of proposals is the frontrunner, but I know what I would prefer.

I call it the modified zipper. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott calls it a "hybrid" model.

Scott has indicated that the north-south division plan may not work, mainly because that would keep half of the league's schools out of the Los Angeles market for too many years in a row.

The north-south alignment would put the two Washington schools and two Oregon schools with either Utah and Colorado or Cal and Stanford in the north and the Arizona schools with USC and UCLA in the south.

Scott also talked about the "zipper" format where each of the natural rivals is split into different divisions, but with the idea that every year teams would play their rival in a divisional "crossover" game.

For instance, Utah might play with Washington, Oregon State, Stanford, USC and Arizona State in one division with Colorado joining Washington State, Oregon, Cal, UCLA and Arizona in the other. However, every year Utah and Colorado would play each other.

The idea I like best is a modified zipper format or a hybrid as Scott called it, since it is a cross between geographical divisions and the zipper.

The best hybrid I can figure out would put Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State in a division and Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State in the other. Then the four California schools would split with one northern and southern team in each division. That way, Utah would have one of the L.A. schools and one of the Bay Area schools in its division, perhaps Stanford and UCLA.

This scenario would satisfy every school's desire to play a southern California team every year and to play in southern California at least every two years. Meanwhile, the league could make sure the California schools could still play their rivals every year in crossover games.

The SEC does something similar with a "permanent rival" game played every year in addition to the five division opponents. The two other non-division games are rotated from year to year.

However, the 12-school SEC also plays just eight league games, which means fewer losses to league opponents, thus increasing the chances for higher rankings and a spot in the BCS championship game.

The SEC teams schedule some of the easiest opponents possible with the vast majority of the games at home. Of the 40 non-conference games this year, only nine are road games, meaning three schools — Arkansas, Auburn and LSU — play all four non-league games at home while everyone else has three home games.

And every SEC team plays at least one patsy with the likes of Georgia State, McNeese State, Jacksonville State, Akron, Idaho State, Appalachian State and Charleston Southern dotting the schedules.

On the other hand, this year's Pac-10 plays 10 fewer non-league games because of its nine-game schedule but has 13 road games out of 30, with every school playing at least one road non-conference game.

With nine conference games starting next year, Utah will have just three games to fill each year and if the Utes decide to keep BYU and Utah State on the schedule, they'll have just one game to fill the schedule every year. It's unlikely the Utes are going to want to play a tough opponent for their other non-league game.

No matter which division they are in.

e-mail: sor@desnews.com

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