USC, Washington face heavy lifting
Duo could boost Pac-12 among elite
LOS ANGELES Only average Football Bowl Subdivision conferences use the word parity to describe their league makeup. It’s a euphemism: Parity means you have several good teams, maybe a bit of a depth, but no great teams, and no teams worthy of being included among the nation’s best.
And if we’ve learned anything during the young College Football Playoff era, depth carries some weight with the selection committee but does very little to bolster a league’s credibility. Instead, conferences across the country are defined far more by their elite upper crust rather than the number of teams they send into postseason play, even as the Southeastern Conference leans on the crutch of West Division parity to explain why the league’s pecking order goes Alabama, a wide swath of space and then everyone else.
That’s a setup once familiar to the Pac-12. About a decade ago — before it added Utah and Colorado to bolster its ranks — the league was referred to derisively as “Southern California plus nine,” a jab at the dearth of national contenders beyond the annual front-runner.
Things changed. USC once ruled the league with an iron fist. Then the Trojans took a step back. For much of the last five years, for example, the Pac-12 has hung its hat on competitiveness, solid depth and, yes, parity. A truly elite team hasn’t graced the league since the final days of the Pete Carroll era.
But college football is nothing if not cyclical. Consider the case of the Pac-12, which after spending a half-decade maligned for its inability to put forth a team capable of winning the national championship will head into the 2017 season with two, USC in the South Division and Washington the North — two teams very likely to occupy lofty spots in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll and a pair built to rebuild the league’s national reputation.
“The perfect combination, from my perspective, is to be seen as a league that has depth and competitiveness but does have elite teams that can rise and compete for and win national championships,” conference Commissioner Larry Scott said Wednesday at the Pac-12 media days. “And this could be a year that we see that.”
The rise of these two burgeoning powers does come with a cost: The Pac-12 must exchange depth and parity for another stab at top-heaviness. And yes, the jury is out on whether the Huskies — the reigning league champions and Playoff entrant — and the Trojans can fulfill their massive preseason expectations. But consider the alternative.
The SEC has cemented a spot for its champion in the fourteam field. Likewise with the Big Ten, which annually will place one team, if not its champion, in a national semifinal. The Atlantic Coast Conference houses two of the last four title winners. No Power Five league wants to share space with the Big 12 — not even the Big 12 does, to be honest.
The rise of Washington and USC has shifted the dynamic within the Pac-12. To have a team such as Arizona win the South Division, as the Wildcats did in 2014, was a nice story on a national scale but a damning statement about the league.
The Pac-12 needs USC to win that division and face off against another team in the Playoff hunt in early December to decide the league title, with the winner representing the conference in a semifinal. That’s how the Big Ten operates. That’s how the SEC operates, to a slightly lesser degree, and likewise with the ACC.
“The ideal is to have two teams that we come into that weekend in December and have an epic championship game,” Scott said, “with two teams that have a legitimate chance to play for the national championship.”
Stanford looms on Washington’s schedule. Texas, Notre Dame and Utah stand in the Trojans’ path toward perfection. Yet the consensus among Pac-12 administrators and athletics directors in attendance last week at the league media days is that the Huskies and Trojans are on a collision course.
“We want to have teams in the (Playoff),” Washington athletics director Jennifer Cohen said. “We want to have teams competing for the national championship. When you have that, there will be a central focus on those programs. And that’s OK.”
The league hasn’t held the national trophy since 2004 and has spent nearly as long as an afterthought in the conversation about which league rules the FBS. Reversing that perception might be as difficult as winning the championship itself. But with Washington and USC set to stand in the thick of the chase, the Pac-12 can rest secure in one key fact: For the first time in the Playoff era, the league can legitimately pit its best against the rest of the Power Five’s best — and do so with two national contenders, not just one.
Commissioner Larry Scott says having a team in the Playoff will give the Pac-12 respect, credibility and attention.