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The Pac-12 decade: From playoff bids to an officiating scandal, here’s the best and worst of the 12-school era

Aug. 11, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 12, 2021 at 9:32 a.m.

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

A decade ago, Colorado and Utah came aboard, divisions were formed, and an era was born.

It has not always been the smoothest of rides for Pac-12 football – certainly, the existing members and newcomers alike would have expected more from expansion.

They would have expected more wins, more money, more prestige and more momentum.

In a three-part exploration of the expanded conference – 10 years of 12 teams – the Hotline will review the best and worst moves on the field and off, the top players and the best teams.

This installment features key storylines and memorable performances.

Top story: The rise and fall. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Pac-12 was considered the equal, or near equal, of any Power Five league in the country. The conference produced top-10 teams, Heisman Trophy finalists and first-round picks at a more-than-respectable rate through the middle of the 2010s. But recent seasons have not been kind, with a lack of superstars, woeful showings in bowl games and a playoff drought conspiring to undercut the Pac-12’s reputation. The reasons for the decline vary. While the schools are largely responsible for their performance, missteps at the conference office have made success on the field more difficult to achieve.

Best season: 2014. The conference would have been thrilled to produce a national championship runner-up or six ranked teams at the end of the year. In the glorious fall of ’14, it got both: Oregon reached the CFP title game, quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman, and five teams in the South Division (all but Colorado) joined the Ducks in the final AP Top 25 poll. In fact, the Pac-12 South was considered the toughest division in the sport.

Worst season: 2017. The downturn unfolded rapidly. Just three seasons after the Pac-12 flexed on center stage, it spent a year in the background. A disastrous scheduling policy (Friday road games after Saturday road games) led to a series of losses by potential playoff contenders; by early November, the Pac-12 was an afterthought. It returned to the spotlight at the conclusion of the bowl season, albeit in ignominious fashion. The 1-8 bowl record was the worst in the history of the sport.

Best move: The football championship game. It began on campus, moved to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and is now, after a one-year delay caused by the pandemic, in Las Vegas. Each evolution came at the right time.

Biggest whiff: DirecTV. The anticipated distribution agreement never materialized before the August 2012 launch of the Pac-12 Networks. All these years later, the conference still hasn’t recovered, financially or otherwise.

Best PR move: #Pac12AfterDark. The creation of the hashtag was the conference’s top marketing move of the decade, putting words to the Pac-12’s football ethos and, crucially, helping paint the night games in a better light.

Worst moment: The instant-replay scandal. Former general counsel Woodie Dixon’s involvement in an instant-replay decision during the USC-Washington State game in 2018 created a dumpster fire that, in our view, marked the beginning of the end for commissioner Larry Scott.

Best regular-season game: Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (Nov. 17, 2012). The Cardinal ended Oregon’s home winning streak and kept the Ducks from playing for the national title with a riveting overtime victory. Strong consideration was given to Oregon’s one-point win over Oregon State in 2013 and Stanford’s triple-overtime escape against USC in 2011. But we’re in a defensive-minded mood.

Best bowl game: USC 52, Penn State 49 (Jan. 2, 2017). An easy call for one of the greatest Rose Bowls of them all. Sam Darnold and Saquon Barkley produced a series of big plays amid huge momentum swings (53 points scored in the second half) as the Trojans survived on a field goal as time expired.

Best finish: Arizona 49, Cal 45 (Sept. 20, 2014). Otherwise known as the “Hill Mary” game. Arizona trailed by 18 points at the start of the fourth quarter but scored five touchdowns in the final 15 minutes and escaped on Anu Solomon’s 47-yard miracle pass to Austin Hill. #Pac12AfterDark, indeed.

Worst backtrack: Big Ten schedule alliance. With the Pac-12 considering a partnership with the Big Ten that would help secure the former’s future, let’s not forget that it agreed to an alliance a decade ago – only to balk at the last minute. According to a news release from the Big Ten office at the time: “The leagues had agreed to the partnership in December (2011) … (But) Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said the league recently learned from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott that coordinating a non-conference football schedule for 24 teams across two leagues by 2017 proved to be too difficult.”

Best coaching hire: Washington State’s Mike Leach. A masterstroke move by former athletic director Bill Moos led to an unprecedented run of success in Pullman – four consecutive seasons of at least eight wins – as Leach matched the personnel needed for the Air Raid with WSU’s natural recruiting pool. Chris Petersen dominated Leach head-to-head and won two conference titles, but the decision to hire Petersen was less creative and lower risk. (He was atop many wish lists when the Huskies lured him away from Boise State.) Note: Stanford’s David Shaw was hired before the 12-school era began.

Worst coaching hire: Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin. The three-year flameout, defined by a lack of energy and capped by the 70-7 loss to ASU, makes this a fairly easy call. We thought Sumlin could take advantage of his high profile to build Arizona’s brand and attract talent. Instead, his walled-off approach and ineffective recruiting set the program back years. Note: Colorado hired two-and-done Jon Embree before it officially joined the conference.

Best hiring theme: Diversity. In a sport with a woeful track record, the Pac-12 continually distinguishes itself for diversity hires. Last season, it had five Black coaches. This fall, it will have four, which is still more than the Big 12, SEC and ACC combined.

Worst talent acquisition theme: Recruiting woes. For decades, the conference would invariably lose a smattering of homegrown prospects each year to powerhouse teams in other regions. But the exodus has accelerated in recent cycles – to the point of crisis. The likes of Clemson, Alabama and Georgia are luring five-star talents away by dangling the opportunity to play for a national title, a trend the Pac-12 must reverse sooner than later.

Best performance (game): Arizona’s Khalil Tate vs. Colorado (Oct. 7, 2017). Tate came off the bench to rush for 327 yards, throw for 154 yards and produce five touchdowns – three of them on runs of 40+ yards – in a surreal, record-obliterating performance that left then-CU coach Mike MacIntyre asking, “Could someone please tackle No. 14?”

Best performance (season): Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. As a sophomore in 2015, McCaffrey amassed 3,864 all-purpose yards to break a record set by one of the sport’s legendary players (Barry Sanders). But more than half of McCaffrey’s yards came in games that started at 10 p.m. or later on the East Coast, and he finished second in the Heisman voting.

Best performance (career): Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Let’s see … The three-star recruit won 36 games over three years … he led Oregon to the 2014 national championship game … he was a three-time, first-team all-conference selection … and he’s the conference’s only Heisman winner in 50 years who didn’t play for USC … Any questions?

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