By adding Colorado and Utah before the 2011 season, the Pac-12 achieved what BCS conferences dream of: another gigantic cash cow full of pomp and circumstance and the ability to crown a true conference champion.
But the first installment of the league’s championship game has all the makings of a blowout rather than a competitive title game.
No. 8 Oregon will host UCLA at Autzen Stadium on Friday night, looking to wrap up an 11-2 regular season and a third consecutive conference championship. A win would land them in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.
Meanwhile the 6-6 Bruins will be waiving goodbye to recently fired head coach Rick Neuheisel one week after a humiliating 50-0 loss at USC.
UCLA goes into the game as a 32-point underdog and the first team with six losses to play for a conference championship.
Hardly the matchup conference officials had in mind back in September.
But a dud of a title game hasn’t kept the Pac-12 out of the spotlight this week as a wave of coaching changes threaten to radically alter the landscape of college football on the West Coast.
Neuheisel was ousted on Monday, two days after his team’s listless defeat to the Trojans, sending a shockwave through the Bruins locker room.
Then on Wednesday, Washington State agreed in principle to a five-year contract with former Texas Tech head coach and “Air Raid” offense co-pioneer Mike Leach after a dismal 4-8 campaign.
But while the Bruins bid adieu to their lame-duck coach, the other Ducks will try to keep their high-octane offense chugging along. Oregon is averaging more than 510 yards of total offense per game (sixth in the nation) and ranks fifth in rushing offense at 291 yards.
Much of that total belongs to junior running back LaMichael James who has piled up 1,427 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing two games in the middle of the season.
But Neuheisel has always been resilient — even when he was violating NCAA recruiting rules at Washington or gambling in off-campus basketball pools. His team is a long shot tonight, but he doesn’t plan to go out without a fight.
“We are going into the game believing there is hope,” he said. “No one across the country will think there was only one team.”
Early Lead: Rick Neuheisel is out at UCLA