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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: The Pac-12 is having a moment, but even great football couldn’t have saved it

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert smiles with his players during a timeout in Saturday's 64-21 win over Northern Colorado in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Steven Godfrey Washington Post

This coming weekend will be the first “last great weekend” of Pac-12 football this season. The imperative here is to savor it, not rationalize it.

Eight of the conference’s schools, six bound for different conferences next season, are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, and six will face one another Saturday: No. 10 Oregon will host No. 19 Colorado, No. 22 UCLA will go to No. 11 Utah, and No. 14 Oregon State will visit No. 21 Washington State. No. 5 USC and No. 8 Washington, both legitimate playoff contenders, will open conference play against Arizona State and California, respectively.

Even with games such as No. 6 Ohio State at No. 9 Notre Dame on the schedule, this is the Pac-12’s weekend, a fact so unarguable it’s bizarre, given the terminal diagnosis hanging over the conference.

That paradox is just too enticing for some in the media. There will be attempts to explain this bump, to pretend this last gasp of relevance for a conference that has spent the playoff era not just cursed with ineptitude but damned by boredom signifies anything other than randomness. Already Pac-12 fans are convinced that if their teams had been this successful more recently than this summer, maybe there would be a Pac-12 to come back to in 2024.

Don’t try. Saturday is the first of a few dead cat bounces for organized West Coast college football, eaten alive on a whim by forces beholden to television, and while friendly to narrative, this big, entertaining moment is entirely circumstantial. Let’s just have fun before the DNR is signed.

It all just happened; the assembly of each of these programs is almost wholly unique when compared with one another, except for a through-line of transfer quarterbacks. Of the eight ranked Pac-12 programs entering the weekend, seven feature starting quarterbacks who transferred from somewhere else (this includes Utah’s Cam Rising, who is injured), and the holdout is UCLA, which played five signal callers (some transfers!) in this past weekend’s blowout of North Carolina Central.

If the Heisman Trophy was voted on by knowledgeable people free of provincial bias instead of sportswriters, New York would be chockablock with these Pac-12 Quarterbacks From Somewhere Else come December, including reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams at USC (nee Oklahoma), followed closely by Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. (nee Indiana).

What’s exceptional is that if you pull a handful from the rest of this list – Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders (Jackson State), Oregon State’s D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson), Oregon’s Bo Nix (Auburn), Washington State’s Cam Ward (Incarnate Word), or Utah’s Rising (Texas) – they’d be the best quarterbacks in nearly any conference this season, outside of Texas’s Quinn Ewers or North Carolina’s Drake Maye.

But the paths to relevancy here are wildly divergent, and no, had this all happened last year, it’s unlikely the conference would have avoided its fate. Specifically, Deion Sanders was a major force in pushing Colorado to move back to the Big 12, where he could better orbit Texas, where he was an NFL superstar, once ran an ill-fated high school, and almost gained employment at TCU in 2022.

Additionally, USC’s poaching of coach Lincoln Riley and Williams from Oklahoma at the end of 2021 is widely considered part of the school’s already-in-motion plan to join the Big Ten. There are many reasonable culprits for the death of the Pac-12, but after you exhaust the list of naive executives and commissioners, USC’s malaise throughout the 2010s is a smoking gun. That fact creates a painful truth: The Trojans, long considered a mandatory draw for the conference’s relevance, only returned to national prominence to be sold off to someone else.

The rest of the list is a mixture of constants, mild surprises and small miracles. Washington seized upon the right offensive coach and the right quarterback in the open market. Utah, more or less, has been here the whole time under coach Kyle Whittingham, head-butting glossier programs (USC) and racking up respect from the sport’s old-school crowd.

Oregon is another mainstay, albeit with a higher profile. Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s “spaceship in the woods,” as a former Ducks assistant proudly described it to me, succeeded throughout the waning years of the conference modeling itself after the SEC despite its own geography and the conference’s fading relevance.

Down south, former Ducks coach Chip Kelly opted to return to college football at UCLA instead of a SEC program such as Florida, in small part because of the comparative obscurity afforded the Bruins. Only in college football can you escape perpetual media scrutiny of your job by choosing Los Angeles over the South.

That leaves the castaways, Oregon State and Washington State, the only programs homeless as of press time, solely for the sin of their rural locations (a fact that bolsters pride in other conferences).The Beavers were invisible until their former quarterback Jonathan Smith returned home to rebuild – slowly, and in the inscrutable shadow of a state rival nationally beloved as Nike’s personal test kitchen. Still, Smith managed to create a program that is as creative as Chris Petersen-era Boise State and somehow even more workmanlike.

Over in Pullman, Washington State, a program at all times financially busted, geographically cursed and ceaselessly enthusiastic, stands as college football’s greatest beacon of optimism. Take for example its current relevance, a miracle considering former head coach Nick Rolovich opted to arrest his own program’s progress and force a firing not for NCAA violations or losing records but the school’s vaccination policy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rolovich’s behavior – unthinkable by college coaching standards regardless of political affiliation – should have buried a perpetually talent-strapped, hard-to-recruit school. Instead, interim-turned-replacement Jake Dickert rallied the program by landing Ward and revamping the offense, just in time to watch every lifeboat drift away in realignment.

A just outcome is one in which Wazzu and Oregon State run roughshod over the entire conference and co-manage its last championship. But this isn’t narrative fiction; it’s just a thing that’s happened. There is no one explanation as to why a dying football conference has found relevance far too late, other than that it could only burn to shine.