Every conference touts their league as great: SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC. We will examine why the Pac-12 is far and away the most difficult, challenging league of them all.
Coaching. Pac-12 coaches have impressive resumes. First-time California head coach Justin Wilcox (defensive coordinator at Boise St., Tennessee, Washington, USC, and Wisconsin), second-year USC head coach Clay Helton (Duke, Houston, and Memphis), UCLA’s Jim Mora (San Diego, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle), Stanford’s stalwart David Shaw (Philadelphia, Oakland, Baltimore, and San Diego) and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham (BYU, Idaho State, and Utah) all have found success coaching as assistants for quality teams in college or the NFL. Rich Rodriguez (West Virginia 156-113), Todd Graham (Pitt 88-55), Gary Anderson (Utah St., Wisconsin 51-49), Mike Leach (Texas Tech 113-77), Chris Peterson (Boise St. 119-26), Willie Taggert (So. Florida 40-45) and Mike MacIntyre (San Jose St. 35-52) have been successful HCs elsewhere.
Constantly evolving methods to succeed, these coaches are managers, teachers of technique, skilled innovators and motivators. No conference has HCs utilizing such diverse philosophies for college football. Top to bottom this league has the best coaches.
Schemes. Head coach’s have unique styles. WSU under Leach is pass first (often on every down), with five or six eligible receivers. This sets up the run by spreading out defenses. Stanford under Shaw is a Big Ten team in disguise, using front-seven power and domination around the line of scrimmage.
Helton at SC has gone back to the Power I formation with superior athletes. He uses the toss sweep and play-action-pass options. UCLA under Mora has a modified pro-style west coast offense.
We wait on Cal and Wilcox to see what their evolutionary style will be. Oregon under Taggert will blend excellent talent at running back and quarterback, with greatly improved line play (Oregon until recently, had relied on boat-racing teams with pace of play and speed in space). OSU under Anderson wants a power/dive run game with a QB optioning off the edge. Peterson at UW instilled a culture of precision, discipline, intimidation and trick plays. The other three coaches use different variations with their players’ unique talent.
This diversity is a nightmare to defend weekly!
To maintain an HC job in the Pac-12, coaches must manage and adapt consistently. Fail and they are shown the door (e.g. Rick Neuheisel, Mark Helfrich, Sonny Dykes, Lane Kiffin). This conference has an abundance of INNOVATION. Creativity is a changing seasonal spice, making this game we love entertaining and exciting!
Football minds understand that perennial National Championship contenders have developed a simple formula: (1) massive, talented road-graders up front, who blot out the sun and (2) eight other fast, hard hitting guys that can bring it defensively. Offensively, they (1) maul you with behemoths, (2) open massive holes and (3) run, or play-action pass and scramble with great athletes. That is not creative.
Climate. Our conference has the most diverse weather conditions anywhere! This is significant! In the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC, the weather is basically the same. If it is hot and humid in Athens you can bet it will be the same in Knoxville, Starkesville, Oxford and Lexington! Throw a hat over Norman, Waco, Ames, Manhattan, Stillwater and Lubbock. Ditto for Columbus, Ann Arbor, Madison and Lincoln. Weather conditions in these areas vary little.
Consider playing every other week in the Pac-12. You get 100 degree days in Tempe and Tucson. Snow, cold, and altitude can be problems in Boulder, Pullman and Salt Lake (some folks in the south can’t even spell snow!). Monsoon conditions arise in Eugene, Corvallis and Seattle, washing you and a soggy football away. In LA, deal with painted green grass, serious smog, glitz and hype.
We are familiar with the Bay Area and its windy weirdness. You get one week to prepare for those extremes. Weather in Pac-12 land is simply unpredictable, altering preparation and playing conditions!
Scheduling. In the Pac-12 we play a big-boy nine-game schedule. Most other conferences play eight! Toss in our championship game and you must win 10 times to reach the final four. Playing Mercer and UL Monroe in November is shameful! Ponder this: most Top-10 teams always seem to have eight regular home games.
Admission standards. College football ought to level the playing field with academic standards, entrance and eligibility requirements for all student athletes regardless of conference. Visiting some Auburn fans when Oregon played them for the Natty was a tell. The question asked: “how are some of your players even eligible?” Several wealthy donors coyly responded, “Well sir, y’all got to understand that we know how to bend the rules better than other folks do.” This is crazy wrong!
Finally, the Nick Sabans and Urban Meyers of the world wouldn’t go undefeated consistently here in the Pac-12! Their stellar win/loss ratios against SEC and Big Ten opponents would take a serious hit. The complexity and variables on the left coast are too great. Getting four weeks to prepare for a bowl game, or an opening intersectional on a neutral site is completely different than the weekly grinder of playing in the Pac-12.
Coaches elsewhere know this fact. Many Top-20 teams seem unable to find a flight here for home/home games. Why won’t they come? (Do chickens have feathers?) Get on board, don’t lay an egg. Come on out west, big boys, we do know where you are. Sample a taste of how tough it is to play football in the Pac-12 conference. College football will be better, now just do it!
Powell Butte, Oregon
Top Photo by Kevin Cline