The Pac-12 is in rough shape and there is no denying that. Yes, commissioner Larry Scott is a major problem for the Pac-12 but, in all honesty, the conference is probably stuck with Scott for at least a few more years. Hoping for a fix from the top of the conference is ultimately wasted energy.
Instead, it is left up to the programs in the Pac-12 to save the Pac. That being the case, which program will step up and return the conference to its former glory?
Before we start trotting out candidates, let’s establish what we mean by “saving” the Pac-12? Simply put, saving the Pac-12 restoring the conference to relevance on the national stage. The only way to do that is for a team to reach the College Football Playoff and do it consistently— nothing else matters.
Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s take a look at the contenders …
Washington has held the torch for the Pac-12 from 2015 to 2018 under Chris Petersen but has barely kept the flame burning. No major bowl wins to their name and now Petersen is gone and Jimmy Lake is taking over.
Washington is unlikely to take a step forward next year as the Husky offense has been an issue and Lake’s hiring of John Donovan as offensive coordinator is underwhelming at best. Donovan, for those not tracking this closely, was fired from Penn State and replaced with Oregon’s new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. This interesting twist has made it all the more amusing to watch Husky diehards defend the hire.
Stanford will have good football teams but given its academic requirements, it will always have difficulty posting top-10 recruiting classes—even if David Shaw does manage it on occasion it will not be a regular occurrence. Stanford will win some conference championships and win some major bowl games but the Tree getting to the College Football Playoff is a long shot.
Then there are Oregon State, Washington State and Cal. Cal and Oregon State are up-and-coming programs that will cause headaches throughout the conference. Washington State is an unknown with the Pirate’s departure for Mississippi State but cannot escape its unique geographic recruiting challenges. All three teams will continue to cause chaos within the Pac-12 but none is likely to emerge as a contender during the remainder of the Larry Scott era.
A strong USC would be good for the Pac-12 but USC hasn’t been a consistently strong program since the Pete Carroll years. If you listen to sports commentators, USC is on the verge of a return to prominence. However, these same commentators have been saying the same thing for ten years now and all they have to show for USC’s return to greatness is one conference championship and a Rose Bowl win (this single championship, by the way, being the Pac-12 South’s only conference championship since the conference went to twelve teams!).
Arizona State looks like a potential South contender. They are recruiting surprisingly well and Herm Edwards seems to have them pointed in the right direction. They may win the South but it is unlikely they will take the conference championship.
Utah is good and will continue to be good. That said, I think we have seen Utah be about as good as Utah gets. Utah doesn’t have the flash and draw that some other programs have, meaning they must make do by finding diamonds in the recruiting rough. That approach along with good coaching has yielded two divisional championships since joining the PAC but they looked out of their league against Oregon in last year’s Pac-12 Championship game.
A quick roundup of the other Pac-12 South teams doesn’t give a lot of hope:
Arizona has taken a nosedive under Kevin Sumlin and though they may improve in 2020 it will still be a long road to relevance.
Colorado has had essentially one good season since they joined the Pac-12 and now they have their second head coach in as many years.
At UCLA, Chip Kelly’s tenure has not only failed to replicate what he did for Oregon but raised real questions about whether his time has passed.
Final tally: None of these teams is in any shape to compete for the Pac-12’s crown let alone register a blip on the national stage.
So there is only one candidate to lead the Pac-12 back to football relevance and that is Oregon. Oregon isn’t just trending but sprinting in the right direction. Mario Cristobal has made some amazing hires and has built a staff to win not just conference championships but national championships. Andy Avalos was a stellar hire that has us all saying “Leavitt who?” This is incredible when you think about how excited Duck fans were about Leavitt’s defense. The Avalos hire has shored up Oregon’s post-Brady Hoke defense in ways Oregon faithful could never have dreamed.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, the big dreams fostered by the Chip Kelly-era have been largely crushed. To remedy this, Cristobal has brought in Joe Moorhead as the new offensive coordinator and Bryan McClendon as the new wide receivers coach, both widely viewed as significant upgrades over their predecessors.
Finally, in terms of recruiting, Oregon has for two years running had the highest-ranked recruiting class in the Pac-12 and will probably finish with one of the top classes if not the top class again this year. USC is leading right now but the question is will that lead last, especially if Clay Helton loses his job?
For the most part, Pac-12 teams have become content to fight among themselves. Every coach in the Pac-12 will say that their goal is to make the playoff, but the reality is that Oregon is the only team that is in a position to make that happen. For Oregon, it is not a matter of if but when. Once Oregon reaches the playoff the Pac-12 will all benefit from the added publicity, status and revenue that comes with producing a consistent playoff contender and eventual national champion.
Oregon is the Pac-12’s savior no matter what opposing fans may say. Mario Cristobal and Oregon will drag the cannibalistic and dysfunctional conference kicking and screaming back to prominence whether the rest of the conference likes it or not.
Top Photo By: Eugene Johnson
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