The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even with USC and UCLA, Pac-12 football has been pretty bleak

Lincoln Riley and Southern California are playing their final season in the Pac-12 before heading to the Big Ten. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Another year, another existential crisis for a league that remains a power conference (at least for now).

This is the chore facing the Pac-12 in the wake of June’s announcement that Los Angeles-area anchors Southern California and UCLA would bolt for the Big Ten in August 2024. What has ensued is two months of chatter of what is next and who is next to leave.

Which, come to think about it, is probably the most the Pac-12 has been discussed since the advent of college football’s playoff era.

There are opportunities on the first full weekend of the 2022 season for the West Coast to make a splash. Utah visits Florida. Oregon heads to Atlanta to face defending national champion Georgia. There’s even a de facto Pac-12/Mountain West Challenge, with Oregon State welcoming Boise State to Corvallis and Arizona visiting San Diego State.

Regardless, there’s a lot of work in front of the Pac-12 if it is to stabilize its football reputation — or avoid getting dismembered altogether by the avarice of conference realignment.

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It’s not as if the league has helped itself much of late.

Oregon (2014) and Washington (2016) did make semifinal appearances in the first three playoff seasons, but no Pac-12 team has made it through a full, non-pandemic season with only one loss since then. Nearly as rare as a Pac-12 playoff team is one with some plausible hope of earning a semifinal nod heading into November.

In fairness to the league itself, USC and UCLA have been part of the problem. Since its string of seven consecutive top-five finishes in the Associated Press rankings ended in 2008, USC has wound up in the top 25 seven times and the top 10 twice (2011 and 2016). Not bad but not at the level expected of the Trojans.

It’s still much better than the Bruins, who have three top-25 finishes since 2000 and none since their lone top-10 in that span in 2014.

Nonetheless, USC’s history suggests it can be a potent part of the league’s engine, and even its recent performance is better than most of the schools it is on the cusp of leaving behind.

Oregon is a credible power. Utah has more than done its share, with five top-25 finishes and last year’s Pac-12 title in 11 seasons in the league. Stanford squeezed nearly all of its 21st-century production to date into a window from 2010 to 2017 that has been hard to recapture. Washington largely took a decade off from the national scene, enjoyed some success under Chris Petersen and is still finding its way with him in retirement.

And the less said about the national relevance of the rest of the Pac-12, the better (besides Washington State’s unusual all-or-nothing habit, which at least keeps everyone guessing).

So what to do about it? There’s always the Big 12 blueprint.

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At this time last summer, the announced move of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 to the SEC was still fresh in mind, and its reverberations were only starting to become clear.

The Big 12, at that point down to eight schools, went out and added BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston. Three of them have at least one top-10 finish since 2015, and the Cougars (No. 11 in 2020) nearly do as well.

For the purposes of salvaging value for its football brand, it was about as good as the Big 12 could have hoped for under the circumstances.

The numbers don’t provide a perfect comparison for the league’s pending newcomers, and even the last round of Big 12 expansion is evidence of how unpredictable things can be. TCU has three top-10 finishes since it joined the Big 12, while West Virginia has a pair of top-20 finishes in a decade to show for its time in the conference.

The Big 12 had the “benefit” of being raided first, so it could respond earlier than the Pac-12. It also was centered in the middle of the continent, though distance between league rivals doesn’t seem to carry much value in decision-making in college sports these days.

With only so many options on the Left Coast that have sustained football success in recent years (Boise State and San Diego State are two possibilities), the Pac-12’s expansion avenues are limited.

That means it will need the likes of Oregon, Stanford and Washington to carry the league banner even more in the years to come. That’s assuming they bother to stick around for the long haul — no sure thing in an era when instability feels like the lone college sports constant.