USC, Wash­ing­ton face heavy lift­ing

Duo could boost Pac-12 among elite

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NFL - Paul Myer­berg

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.

KIRBY LEE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Com­mis­sioner Larry Scott says hav­ing a team in the Play­off will give the Pac-12 re­spect, cred­i­bil­ity and at­ten­tion.

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