The Cal-4 + Notre Dame + Big Game + the Pac-12's "Three Weeks" Rule = No More Students at USC-Stanford?

When the Pac-12 announced last week its new multi-million dollar media rights deal, people across the west were ecstatic.  If there was anyone in the Pac-12 that wasn't exactly enthralled by the new contract, it was the LA schools.  USC fans, being the ever-loving crowd that they are, were immediately skeptical of the deal and openly questioned whether it was good for them or if Pat Haden had sold them out for less money than if they had gone independent.  (I won't even direct you to WeAreSC.com's fan forums or the level of vitriol being directed Haden's way from the peanut gallery over there, although I will admit that there are some posters there who tried to rationally debate the deal).  Because really, USC football exists at the center of the sports universe (alongside the Lakers) west of Austin, Texas.

UCLA fans, while they thought that perhaps some money may have been shortchanged to them with this deal, were far less dramatic about their questioning.  Perhaps it had more to do with them being far more incensed at AD Dan Guerrero's decision to move the student seating at Pauley to get worked up over the TV contract.  Or the fact that UCLA's athletic department draws in one of the lowest alumni donation rates in the conference, according to posters over at BN.

In any case, as Jon Wilner debated this past week, ultimately expansion was good for all schools in that every single school made about $800K more per year with expansion (and the new contract) than if the conference had stayed at 10 schools and negotiated a new TV contract as such.  With that in mind, Wilner said that the schools weren't going to lose money under this contract.

But was he completely right in the long run?

Lost in all the hoopla about how much money each school was due to receive under the new contract were a few stipulations set out by Larry Scott at his press conference.  First, I want to remind you that the California schools (Cal-4, as I've labeled them here) get to keep their rivalries alive despite being in different divisions.  This means that we at Stanford get to see our friends in SoCal every year while our Northwest compatriots only get to fly the smoggy friendly skies of LA every few years.  Let's also not forget that for reasons well documented by Avi over at CGB that neither Cal nor Stanford will EVER allow Big Game to happen on Thanksgiving weekend.  While Stanford was willing to try the first weekend of December in the past, that weekend is now gone because of the football championship game.

OK, back to Scott.  The biggest thing he told the media that seemed innocuous at first was that all schools would be constrained to the first three weeks of the season to schedule their out-of-conference (OOC) games.  I call this the Pac-12's "Three Weeks" Rule.  I'm assuming that this was done to make the jobs of the schedule-makers in Walnut Creek easier as well as being able to project schedules years in advance as opposed to months, as it is now.  The added benefit of giving networks the ability to forecast their possible games in advance certainly helped.  This is one part where I will admit that USC football carries the biggest stick amongst network bigwigs in LA and Bristol, Conn.  To schedule a non-conference game outside of the first three weeks of the season would require a waiver that would have to be approved by all 12 conference athletic directors and the conference commissioner.

There is an exception to the Three-Weeks Rule: USC-Notre Dame.  The conference will allow the Trojans to play the Irish at any point in the season.  But what about Stanford's series with Notre Dame?  Oh yeah, the conference will allow Stanford to play Notre Dame outside of the first three weeks as well.

What do all four of these things have to do with each other, the California rivalries, the Big Game schedule, Notre Dame, and the Three Weeks Rule?  Well, this is where I will tell you I had too much time on my hands this Saturday morning.

When I heard about the Three Weeks Rule, a little bug crawled into my mind.  If Notre Dame was allowed to play USC and Stanford at any point of the season, and Stanford and Cal prevented Big Game from happening on the final weekend of the season, who do the California schools play during Thanksgiving weekend, the traditional rivalry weekend in college football?  So I set about doing what any Stanford nerd would do -- I created an Excel table of the conference schedule for this year and projected it out beyond to 2014.
First, for this coming season the Three Weeks Rule will not be in place, so non-conference games are peppered all over the schedule, such as Arizona playing Louisiana Tech Thanksgiving weekend and Colorado playing Ohio State in week four.  The Arizona game is important because it allows two things: 1) Stanford plays Notre Dame at home during Thanksgiving weekend, and 2) Cal gets a conference opponent to end the season (ASU).

2011schedule_medium

But what about 2012?  This is where I immediately noticed the horror of scheduling that Pac-12 officials are going to have next year.  Note: this is just a projected schedule, not the actual schedule.  I have no idea what the conference is going to do next year.

2012schedule_medium
The first problem is that Notre Dame plays USC on Thanksgiving weekend.  Normally, this wouldn't be a problem, but when combined with everything else, it's a headache.  Next issue?  Big Game.  If officials of both schools would move Big Game to Thanksgiving weekend, it would allow Big Game to be the final game of the season for both schools (a big issue to some alums) and would give schedulemakers only one issue -- who to put up against UCLA.  The conference already said it didn't want non-conference games outside of the first three weeks, but with an odd team out on the final weekend, the Pac-12 is left with the choice of either giving a bye to UCLA (giving them an advantage if they were to head into the conference championship game the following week) or forcing the Bruins into a non-conference game.  Fortunately for them, the Stanford and Cal administrations are stubborn and won't move Big Game, meaning that if the conference wants to keep rivalries towards the end of the season, Big Game and USC-UCLA will go up against each other on the same weekend the week prior.

As a result of Big Game not moving and the Cal-4 still wanting to play each other, in addition to preserving rivalry weekend for the other schools and keeping the USC-ND game intact, I had three schools without an opponent on Thanksgiving weekend -- UCLA, Cal, and Stanford.  The easiest way to give all three schools an opponent without scheduling a bye during that weekend was as follows:

  • Cal and UCLA would need to play each other on Thanksgiving weekend.
  • Stanford would need to schedule a non-conference game Thanksgiving weekend, due in part to scheduling Notre Dame earlier in the season and having only played two non-conference games up to that point (I would think that the most logical choice for opponents here would be the return of the end-of-season SJSU game, something old alums will remember from the seventies and eighties).
  • Stanford and USC MUST play the second week of the season because there are no other open weekends for either school and other schools are confined to non-conference games those weekends because of the Three Week Rule.

Clearly, this is nowhere near ideal for several reasons.  First, the conference has to give up a game the final weekend of the season so that all 12 teams can play, due to the Notre Dame-USC game giving the conference an uneven number of available teams.  For Stanford fans, the Notre Dame game(s) prove even more costly because now the USC game is moved to the front of the season to September 8th.  Theoretically, the game could be moved to the 15th (and the Duke game wouldn't need to be moved), but because of the need for a bye week fit into the schedule, Stanford would have to choose between a second week bye or a third week bye.  Neither is particularly good for Stanford, especially the second week bye because it means 11-straight games played without a break.  So I went ahead and made the least painful decision for Stanford in this case and had them move the Duke home game up to the first, moved the SJSU game from the first to the last game of the season, hoped the Trojans move their Syracuse game back a week, and gave the Cardinal a third week bye as opposed to a second week bye, meaning the USC game had to go on a weekend when no students are scheduled to be on campus, September 8th.

All because of the Notre Dame games, the Cal-4, Big Game, and the Three Week Rule.

Let's look at 2013.

2013schedule_medium
This season was much easier to schedule.  Again, because of the Notre Dame game, Stanford was burdened with a bye week during the first three weeks.  This time, though, USC also gets a bye week during the first three weeks.  I choose the third weekend for both schools arbitrarily, although I could have easily chosen any of the first three weeks.  As of right now, according to fbsschedules.com, USC has an open weekend the first weekend of September, so they theoretically could put their bye week there, but in the end it doesn't matter.

Another thing that made this schedule easier to make was the fact that there are 14 Saturdays in the season as opposed to only 13.  The final weekend of August is at the end of the month, and given that Hawaii and USC are scheduled to meet then, the first weekend of college football is actually in August.  The good thing about this is that every team gets two bye weeks (except USC, who because of their travel to Hawaii, get the luxury of playing 13 games instead of the traditional 12, unless they cancel their game against Utah State currently scheduled on September 21st).

However, the same problems from the previous year arise (three teams without an opponent the final weekend of the season, one team without a non-conference game at the end of the season, reluctance to schedule a bye before the championship game).  In this case, I decided to apply the same scheduling philosophy to USC as I had applied to Stanford the previous season.  USC would need to play an out-of-conference game Thanksgiving weekend and Cal and UCLA would need to play that weekend as well.

Finally, what about 2014?
2014schedule_medium
Different problems arise in this season than in the two previous seasons, although some of the same solutions can be applied.  Notre Dame still plays USC on the final weekend of the season, so USC doesn't have an open weekend problem after Thanksgiving.  As a result, Cal and UCLA must play each other that weekend as well (unless Stanford can convince Cal to get a waiver for a non-conference game that weekend, in which case Stanford would play UCLA and Cal would get the OOC game).

However, and here's the kicker, the game between Stanford and USC in Palo Alto, because of the Three Week Rule and the Cal-4 requirement, would need to be played the second weekend of September.  There simply aren't any available weekends for the game to take place.  Even with 14 Saturdays and two byes, because Hawaii isn't playing USC that year, USC gets two bye weekends.  Because Notre Dame plays Stanford in Indiana that year, meaning an early-October Notre Dame game, Stanford would have played at a minimum two non-conference games before the end of October, meaning that in order to satisfy the end of season non-conference game (against, say, SJSU), a bye week is needed at the front of the season.

One of the things you'll note is that both USC and Stanford have a bye week concurrently later on in the season.  Why couldn't the two schools just play each other then?  Because if they do, Stanford gets two bye weeks in three weeks at the beginning of the season.  Having two bye weeks in three weeks to start the season is not the same as two bye weeks in three weeks in the middle or end of the season (sorry Washington schools -- no disrespect meant there).  As a result, Stanford gets a home game against USC in September without the students present two consecutive times.

In conclusion, this little exercise of mine made me discover some very interesting things.  First, Cal and UCLA would need to play each other on the final weekend of the season after Thanksgiving unless one can get a waiver.  Second, Stanford and USC would need to play an OOC game every other year on that same weekend if they keep up their Notre Dame games.  Third, Stanford and USC must play each other during the first three weeks of the conference due to the Three Week Rule, unless there are 14 weeks in the season.

After reading all this, what do you think?  Is Stanford's new income because of the new contract worth the loss of the student section at USC games?  If I had continued the exercise, I probably would have come across a 14-Saturday season where I could have a Stanford home game against USC later in the season, but as of right now, it isn't possible, and really, 14-Saturday seasons are rare.  All this could be solved if both Stanford AND USC canceled their ND games in the future.  Stanford could do it, despite Irish AD Jack Swarbrick's insistence in previous seasons that he wants to continue the series with the Cardinal and that the Notre Dame game is a surefire moneymaker for Stanford in what is traditionally a slow weekend in the Bay Area, but Hell would need to freeze over several times before USC would even consider that.
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