Please don’t close the tab after I say this: the Pac-12 is pretty close to what a lot of fans want college football to look like.
Thank you for staying! I appreciate it, emotionally and from an analytics perspective. Let me explain my seemingly bonkers assertion.
One of the challenges (you have to call them challenges if you want to be regarded as a thought leader) facing college football is overwhelming sameness. The same teams win the SEC, ACC, Big 12, and Big Ten titles. The Playoff gives them the same deference over intriguing and worthwhile outsider candidates. The same subset of anointed Power Five schools wins the national championship.
But the Pac-12 doesn’t keep things the same at all! Since the conference added Colorado and Utah for the 2011 season, nine different teams have made the Pac-12 Championship Game. The SEC’s only had six unique teams in the conference title matchup since 2011, and the Big Ten’s barely ahead of them with seven – a much smaller percentage of representation considering both leagues have been larger than the Pac-12 for most of that time. (The ACC’s had nine reps, though that’s mostly a function of the college football group least oriented towards sameness, the ACC Coastal Division.)
Even the Pac-12 North, the more reliable of the two divisions in the conference, embraces variety. Stanford, Oregon, and Washington are the only teams who’ve won the North, but the Cardinal are the sole team to repeat (in 2012 and 2013) and the three schools have shared the wealth pretty evenly. Predicting which two teams will play for the conference crown isn’t as simple as choosing one superpower and one of a handful of regular challengers the way it is in the other P5 leagues.
An internally competitive conference should be cause for celebration. Fans say they want the regular season to matter, and in the Pac-12, where no team has gone undefeated in conference play since the league expanded, it absolutely does. But a degree of parity in the Pac-12 comes with a steep cost: absolutely no wiggle room for playoff aspirants.
Since 2011 (and not including 2020 for obvious reasons), 11 Pac-12 schools have finished their conference slate with one loss. In the SEC, by comparison, four teams have finished undefeated in conference play and 16 have escaped only taking one L. That doesn’t mean the SEC’s a weaker league. It’s just more stratified, with the teams at the top facing fewer realistic stumbling blocks.
So a Pac-12 team, knowing it has little chance of going undefeated in conference play, gets to choose from two non-conference paths. (We’ll pretend these games aren’t scheduled years in advance.)
Choice A: Avoid peril. That’s 2016 Washington, who opened the year with wins over a Rutgers team that finished 2-10, Idaho, and FCS Portland State before backing into the last playoff spot. Their reward in 2017? A lot of trash talk from ESPN.
Choice B: Try to up the difficulty. 2015 Stanford added a road game against Northwestern (who wound up going 10-3) to their regular clash with Notre Dame, and the loss to the Wildcats in Week 1 helped boot them from playoff contention. (You can use 2019 Oregon losing to Auburn if you like here instead.)
Would you believe that the Pac-12 has a better record against other P5 schools in the regular season from 2011-2019 than the SEC? It’s just barely true (0.555 to 0.550) but they do! Yet losing the Choice B games seems to hurt the reputation of the whole conference while winning them only ever seems to help that one victorious team.
The Pac-12 doesn’t have an Alabama or a Clemson or an Ohio State or an Oklahoma right now, and it might not for a while. But it also doesn’t have teams who stay bad forever. Colorado went from 2-10 in 2014 to winning ten games and the South in 2016, and Oregon State clawed (do beavers have claws?) its way to four Pac-12 wins two seasons after going zero-for-nine in the conference. Maybe that’s not a recipe for consistent Playoff representation, but isn’t that kind of unpredictability refreshing?
They should probably fix the trash officiating, though.