If we rewind the time period in college football in the last 5-10 years, things were obviously different (save Alabama it seems). The college football world was somewhat on a relatively level playing surface, and I don’t mean any polls, committees, systems, or any of that sort.
What I mean is you had conferences that had a top heavy contender (Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon) and some other viable threats running around. But the thing is, all conferences had an argument of why their conference was best, or at least the best team in the conference deserved a shot in the national championship hunt.
When the Playoff format occurred, we thought we could finally get those conference bragging rights answered and the power 5 conferences would up the ante on how great they were.
Fast forward to the last two years. It has really been the SEC, ACC, and Oklahoma (do we really want to say they are fully representing the Big 12 at this point? Yes, I know, Texas beat Georgia…moving on…) Big Ten? Close, but no cigar. But compared to the PAC-12, they are still at least a threat to the Playoff.
Fans of the PAC-12 have constantly griped over the years that there has been the whole “East Coast bias” thing going on. And while I don’t dispute that as most of the media goes shut-eye on the PAC-12 games at 10-11 o’clock at night thus waking up to see “oh, what happened to Arizona?” the conference has no legging. In fact, in the past 4 years, the PAC-12 has really been irrelevant to the college football world.
Prior to this, it was interesting as the fans of the conference really barked about how there wasn’t much respect given to them. Oregon fans took note of it as the Ducks had a high-powered offense that many thought would beat anybody, including the likes of the mighty Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, etc. And would troll those schools saying that those big boys were too afraid to face off against the uniform kings. While it wasn’t escalated to what Oregon fans did, fans from the other teams also did their share of saying “us against the world” or “we are better than many think” (USC, Arizona State, Stanford, etc.)
In the inaugural football playoff, Oregon got the second seed of it, facing off against defending national champion Florida State. The Ducks faced off against a Noles team who won more than a few games by the skin of their teeth during the regular season to teams lucky to make a bowl game, not the team that steamrolled through everyone like they had in 2013. After the first half where the game was close, Oregon pulled away in the second half as Florida State made offensive miscue after offensive miscue to a blowout win.
The Ducks faced Ohio State. Duck fans enjoyed this partly because they trolled Alabama for losing to the Buckeyes but also thinking they got the lesser of the powers. And……………
Ohio State BULLIED Oregon in the National Championship. Oregon had no answers for the physically superior Buckeyes squad on either side of the ball. Marcus Mariota was pretty much a pancake by the fourth quarter thanks to Joey Bosa. And the Ducks were humiliated on the grandest stage in college football.
After that game? It seemed like it was an omen to the PAC-12.
The Ducks lost Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota to the NFL Draft after that and hoped Eastern Washington standout Vernon Adams would be the guy. Adams did well, but nothing compared to Mariota as the Ducks also took one on the chin to then Big Ten power Michigan State, and many felt like the Ducks would regress as it wasn’t the same Oregon team the year before. But still, the rest of the conference also had their issues.
Arizona, who actually took a New Year’s Six bowl the same year Oregon went to the Playoff, lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl and proceeded to fall flat on their face. Arizona State under Todd Graham, couldn’t comprehend what a defense was, and most years could win 6 or 7 games at the most. Washington under Chris Patterson was trying to figure things out. USC and UCLA couldn’t get things going either. Stanford, the outlier as they played a unique style compared to the rest of the PAC-12, was competitive as always, but something kept them from being on that next level. In 2015, the PAC-12 wasn’t even remotely considered for a Playoff (well, it was really a foregone conclusion in 2015 which 4 teams were in even before the championship games were played).
The next year, hope was built up as Washington rolled in the PAC-12 thanks in part to Jake Browning’s stellar play at quarterback, until College GameDay went to Seattle for the Washington/USC game. Of course, it was Washington’s fans turn to chant for “we want Bama!” And then the Huskies got beaten somewhat decisively to USC and a young budding quarterback Sam Darnold. It was the same USC team who got thumped 52-6 by Alabama to start the year. Washington did win out and get to the playoff and faced Alabama.
Of course, Washington and PAC-12 fans loved the idea of seeing their team/conference duke it out with the kings of the college football mountain and talked about how Alabama hasn’t seen a team like Washington yet. While the Huskies played tough and more physical than Alabama had expected probably, Alabama still defeated the Huskies decisively, 24-7. Many thought perhaps the Huskies would rule the PAC-12 after that.
And, nope. Browning struggled big time (many attribute his receivers being injured/doing to the draft) and Washington failed to get to the Playoff (despite a Fiesta Bowl appearance, where they lost to Penn State). And the PAC-12 champion, USC, had two stinging losses, losing to two ranked teams in Washington State and Notre Dame (the Trojans only played 3 ranked teams in the regular season and they beat Stanford twice). And then the Trojans got embarrassed by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
In 2018….well, the PAC 12 was not a factor at all in the Playoff. Washington was really the lone hope for the conference, but an early season loss to Auburn and Browning’s inconsistencies put the Huskies pretty much out of the race after their loss at Oregon.
So, why has the PAC-12 gone ker-plunk in the college football world?
#1 COACHING STYLES: For the longest time the PAC-12 was built on quick-strike, spread offenses. Arizona under Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State under Todd Graham and Oregon loved to spread the ball out and let their skill guys go nuts. You have Mike Leach and the air raid in Washington State, Sonny Dykes at Cal, etc. (Washington runs a spread but also does some things that keeps them from being an all-out offense) Those offenses are great and exciting, but they do not keep their defenses rested and those schools also had major vulnerabilities on defense. Save for Oregon because they were able to create a lot of turnovers, the rest have not sniffed a PAC-12 title. It is also interesting that Stanford and Utah, both of whom are not really spread-style but more of a traditional way, were more competitive than those schools. What also stung was coaches like Graham, would be so stubborn not to implement a new style that it really cost them their jobs.
#2 LACK OF PHYSICALITY: We saw it with Oregon vs. Ohio State. We have seen it with USC against Alabama. We saw it against with USC and Ohio State. Pretty much any time the PAC-12 faces off against a legit power 5 team outside the conference, they get pushed around pretty good. Now, again, Washington and Stanford are outliers here because they do play that physical style which in the past has given Oregon at their height fits and would keep the Ducks from a national championship. Washington State is trying to do the same thing, but as we saw in the Apple Cup last year, if the conditions are bad and you can’t pass, it doesn’t matter what the defense does. UCLA when they’ve done well, the defense had some physicality to them. But really, those teams just can’t match up to the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan, etc. They just can’t do it. The good news is that you are seeing some of the schools (Arizona State, USC, Cal) trying to beef up.
#3 INCONSISTENT QUARTERBACK PLAY: Oregon got to the Playoff with Marcus Mariota. Mariota did a lot of things for the Ducks including hide offensive line woes (until Ohio State). You really have to appreciate what he did in Eugene when he was there. “But what about Darnold, Rosen, and others?” Darnold and Rosen came in with a bang and then fizzled out in their last season at the school. People can yell at me and go “Darnold couldn’t do as well with a sketchy offensive line” and “Rosen was great and if not for the concussion issues, he’d be a stud!” But they were still at times struggling, badly with or without an offensive line or injuries. And Browning, well, there’s no excuse after last year. But if you want to know why Washington wasn’t in the Playoff discussion the last two years and should have been? That’s why. Khalil Tate I thought could have been a great move under Kevin Sumlin, but it went south fast. Justin Herbert is in line to be the next great quarterback at Oregon so there is hope (and if Oregon’s defense can keep improving, who knows?)
#4 COACHING? If you look at the make-up of the PAC-12 coaches, there are some good coaches who get a lot out of their players (Peterson, David Shaw, Kyle Whittingham, and even Mike Leach). But others have been plagued in the past such as Chip Kelly and his disaster in the NFL (yes, he did guide the Ducks to a national title appearance in 2010-only to get pushed around by Auburn on the lines) and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Arizona State went outside the box and got Herm Edwards, which many (myself included thought it was a joke) but he held his own in 2018 but time will tell. But questions will be abound for the likes of Clay Helton at USC, Justin Wilcox at Cal, and Mario Cristobal at Oregon. Jonathan Smith and Mel Tucker are still getting their feet wet in their respective schools (both of whom haven’t endured a lot of success in the past 15 years). But really, there isn’t a coach out there that people will go “I want to play for that guy!” like you have at Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, etc. Kelly does have name recognition, but how much of it has waned since he last coached in college (while his NFL stint was less than stellar to say the least)? Kevin Sumlin recruited well when he was in College Station, but will he be enough to get kids wanting to go to the desert? So there are questions with these coaches even now.
Overall, the PAC-12 still has more questions than answers. Their brand of football is overlooked largely because they haven’t put on a good showing in the big games like they needed to. And from the looks of it, not much has been changing in the way the conference is overall. Every year is a different year, and we never know if Kelly’s UCLA team stuns everybody and goes 12-0 or if Oregon returns with a bang. But until one of these programs makes the right moves, the PAC-12 will still keep at the bottom of the Power 5.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat