SEATTLE – Welcome to the Pac-12 football coaches webinar, where Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin spoke from his bedroom because of a positive COVID-19 test, Cal’s Justin Wilcox and David Shaw related how they still don’t have final approval from their respective counties for a full team practice Friday, and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham began with the sentiment he said was “foremost on my mind”: a tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen.
This is a college football season like no other, as you may have heard a time or three. But in one way, it’s exactly like the others when it comes to the Pac-12’s reputation. More than ever, it is fighting the perception that it lags behind the other Power Five conferences when it comes to commitment, resources and, especially, performance.
Those thoughts accelerated when the Pac-12 was the last of the Power Five to commit to a 2020 season – though to be fair, that could also be viewed as a sign that, foremost among the football leagues, it had the deepest commitment to the health and welfare of its players.
Now that chancellors and presidents in the Pac-12 are convinced that the rapid testing program in place will mitigate against COVID-19 risks, the conference needs to get to work on reestablishing its waning reputation.
It’s not necessarily something that’s at the forefront of their current thinking, of course. The 12 coaches who spoke Wednesday had far more immediately pressing matters, such as getting their teams ready for the logistical hoops that mark Friday’s opening of training camps and thereafter.
As Wilcox said, “There’s these land mines we need to navigate. We need to focus on today, and then tomorrow getting clearance, and then practicing on Friday. That’s it. For us to be worried about December, January, we’re kind of wasting time and energy at that point.”
Yet much is at stake for the Pac-12, which is fighting declining ratings, a vast discrepancy in television revenue, the poaching of West Coast recruits by the other conferences, and a poor record in bowl games and nonconference showdowns in recent years.
Now the burning question is whether there is any way for the Pac-12, in this truncated season and without the showcase of possible out-of-conference wins, can worm its way into the four-team College Football Playoff.
That’s the best way to show the conference is relevant again. But since the CFP was implemented in 2014, only two Pac-12 schools have made it: Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016. Neither won a title, though the Ducks reached the championship game.
When asked about the waning perception of the Pac-12, Whittingham said, “I would say that’s probably accurate. It doesn’t concern me. We have to play our way back into the situation. We’ve just had a few down years. I don’t even know if you’d call them down years, but years where we didn’t have an elite team that was able to run the table and get the national platform they need to get to be selected to the playoffs.
“The Pac-12 is an outstanding conference. It’s very balanced, top to bottom one of the best in the country, and sometimes that plays to your disadvantage. What we’re going to have to have to get invited is somebody have a breakout year and run the table. You would pretty much need to go 7-0 – 6-1 at the worst – but that’s what’s going to have to happen.”
Of course, those seven Pac-12 games – if they are able to be completed, no guarantee here or anywhere in the country – will be compared with conferences that are scheduled to play more games, and thus have a chance to put together a stronger resume. It’s going to be a tough sell.
Every conference coach who was asked Wednesday said a 7-0 or 6-1 Pac-12 champion deserves strong consideration for the playoffs, as they would be expected to say. Washington’s Jimmy Lake was one of them, and he pointed out that the level of play around the country should be a factor, as well.
“I think the Pac-12 champion should definitely end up in the playoff if somebody goes 7-0 or 6-1 and plays really good football,” he said. “I think you also have to pay attention to how we’re playing and watch those games close. I see a bunch of teams that are ranked right now and gave up 60, 62 points on teams. I don’t know how if you’re a voter, you still rank them in the Top 25 with their defense giving up points like a basketball game. So you’ve got to be able to watch the games.”
That’s always been a problem for the Pac-12, whose “Pac-12 After Dark” can drift into the wee hours back east, and which is now trying to combat that absence of nationwide eyes with unwieldy 9 a.m. starts.
Lake has previously called the Pac-12 reputation issue largely a case of East Coast bias. He stood by those remarks Wednesday.
“It is definitely an East Coast bias,” Lake said. “We are one conference out West. It’s a vast land out here that we’re all representing. It’s unfortunate, but the way the national media likes to characterize it is there’s this one conference way out there, and they’re not on par with the other conferences, which is completely untrue.
“The way we could change it is we have to go win some football games as a Pac-12 Conference against those nonconference opponents. We also have to get them to come out here, out to our neck of the woods, which has been hard to do in recent years.”
He’s absolutely right, but it’s not going to help the league this year, since all the games are conference only. It’s a shame, because in the original schedule, Washington was going to host Michigan, and Oregon was going to host Ohio State – two games with which those schools could have made huge inroads with victories.
Lake also touted a new six-team playoff format he worked up in which all of the Power Five champions would qualify, with the extra spot going either to an independent, a worthy Group of Five school or a major conference runner-up with particularly strong credentials.
Under the Lake system, the two highest-ranked teams would earn a bye. No. 6 would play No. 3, and No. 5 would face No. 4. The winners would meet the two byes in a Final Four to set up the title game. In a mock-up Lake did of the 2018 season, the Pac-12 champion Huskies played Notre Dame in the first round.
“I think you guys and the college football fans would drool over this schedule,” Lake said. “You take all the subjectivity out of it, all the politics, the East Coast, all of that. Let the champions move on. Let the teams play, and we’ll see who the best team is at the end of year.”
Right now, however, it will be an uphill slog to get a Pac-12 school into that conversation.
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