Mario Cristobal is Reshaping the Pac-12

David Marsh Editorials

Mario Cristobal is gaining control over the Pac-12. It hasn’t always been pretty, but right now Oregon is the only Pac-12 team ranked and there are currently only three Pac-12 teams with enough wins to qualify for a bowl game. More Pac-12 teams will qualify for bowl games this year, but entering Week 11 with only one team bowl eligible is mind-boggling. The Pac-12 is a complete mess this year, as it has been, really, for the past five years.

Cristobal is in control of the conference. He still hasn’t produced a fully dominant team on the field, but what is clear is that this team is progressing in that direction. Oregon’s win over Washington wasn’t a dominant win according to the scoreboard, but anyone who watched it knew just how one-side the game was — especially after the first quarter. This team is growing and will only get stronger.

With all this said, Cristobal is reshaping the conference both on the field and on the recruiting trail. Oregon is going into every single Pac-12 school’s backyard, pulling their top talent out, and bringing it to Eugene. This is a direct threat to the lifeblood of every Pac-12 program.

Kayvon Thibodeaux, Noah Sewell and Mase Funa would have all gone to USC 20 years ago.

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Coaching Chaos

Oregon’s recent victory over Washington resulted in the firing of Offensive Coordinator John Donovan and placing Head Coach Jimmy Lake firmly on the hot seat. Washington has championship ambitions of their own, even if they are far-fetched, but Lake has failed to beat Oregon on the field and on the recruiting trail. Historically Oregon has struggled to recruit in the state of Washington, but now Cristobal and company are making in-roads and starting to pull top talent out of the state such as Dave Iuli. Oregon has also managed to flip former verbal commits Sir Mells and Ben Roberts. There is a clear reason why Lake does not like Cristobal.

Oregon’s major rival to the South, USC, has also felt the Cristobal’s squeeze. Clay Helton was fired after their awful loss to Stanford in their second game this year but in reality that was just the final straw, Helton was all but fired after he failed to defeat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game in 2020.

In Helton’s desperation to keep USC relevant, he destroyed the USC roster as he turned to the Air Raid offense to try and quickly fix USC’s problems. He abandoned the run and abandoned recruiting the trenches, in part because Cristobal was beating him on the recruiting trail. USC’s roster is now left with an inadequacies offensive line and deficiencies at every position, except perhaps defensive back and quarterback.

Clay Helton really lost his job after losing to Oregon in 2020. He and everyone else just didn’t know it yet.

The head coaching job at USC comes with high expectations, and the main expectation is winning the Pac-12 — though this has only been done once in the Pac-12 era. In order to reach that goal there is one team that will consistently get in USC’s way — Oregon — and Helton was simply not up to the task of beating Oregon either on the field or the recruiting trail where Oregon has had the Pac-12’s best class for the past four years running.

USC is in a major rebuild, and it will be all the more difficult for whoever takes over as head coach because he will have to go against Cristobal’s recruiting juggernaut.

Coaching Changes To Come?

Perhaps the most ironic victim of Cristobal’s rise in the Pac-12 is Chip Kelly and the UCLA Bruins. Kelly helped push Oregon onto the national stage in a way they never had seen before. Kelly brought Oregon to the cusp of a National Title only to fall short and coached Oregon to win its first Rose Bowl in over a hundred years.

Even Chip Kelly finds himself haunted by Oregon as he helped to build the Pac-12’s best team.

And yet, he is now on the wrong side of Oregon football. Cristobal and Kelly have met on the field three times, and every single time, Cristobal’s Ducks has defeated Kelly’s Bruins. Kelly has also failed to get the Bruins to a bowl game during his time in LA, and fans are growing impatient. UCLA has a very easy path to making a bowl game this year, but Kelly’s own shadow hangs over him at UCLA and his failure to beat Oregon is proving to be his undoing.

No one at UCLA has been fired yet, but rumors are swirling that Kelly may be on the way out at the end of the season when his buyout expires. Kelly’s return to the Pac-12 coincided with Cristobal’s ascension. Kelly has never been keen on recruiting and a job in LA would have suited him well, as he could get the talent he needed with comparably less work as the Pac-12’s richest recruiting was in his backyard.

However, Cristobal has been plundering Southern California and taking much of that talent North. It was the same problem for Helton. Geographic boundaries don’t hold the same sway as they used to, and Cristobal has no problem breaking into others’ territories and taking the recruits he wants.

In a Cristobal-less Pac-12 Kelly would be far more successful, Helton would probably still have his job, and Lake would still be bad but certainly not as embarrassing for Husky fans. There is only one question that matters when any Pac-12 team looks to hire a new head coach and that is: “Can he beat Cristobal?”

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By Jerry Thompson

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