Gold: Pac-12 squanders its shot to be the center of the Playoff universe
We had it didn’t we? A chance. A shot. All eyes on us, for one weekend at least.
That’s all we wanted. Attention, eyeballs, kudos. Anything.
Is that so much to ask?
You wonder why USC and UCLA are leaving the Pac-12, and it’s because the margin for error so razor-thin, so unbelievably sharp, that any slip-up destroys any and all optimism in not just the team but the conference itself.
So on Saturday, when then-No. 6 Oregon Ducks and then-12 UCLA lost in successive games on Fox, it felt like the entire conference had lost. And in many ways, it had.
Now the College Football Playoff is but the faintest of fantasies, with 1-loss USC needing plenty of outside help as well as 3 straight wins over UCLA, Notre Dame and whoever its Pac-12 conference championship game opponent would be.
Now we’re talking about potential Alamo Bowl projections, instead of dreaming about booking hotels in Scottsdale for the Fiesta Bowl.
And worse, now this Saturday’s incredible slate of games is rendered just about meaningless.
For those who’ve paid attention to the Pac-12 for any matter of time, they had Week 12 circled on the calendar from the beginning.
Utah at Oregon. USC at UCLA. The class of the conference, all meeting on one chilly day in November. The league’s four best teams — on paper, at least — fighting for Pac-12 pole position with 1 week to go before the title game entrants are decided.
In some ways, we have much to celebrate: The Utes coming in at No. 10 against the 12th-ranked Ducks, the No. 16 Bruins hosting the No. 7 Trojans. The Pac-12 hasn’t had 4 teams this good in years — much less 6 teams, if you include Washington and Oregon State.
At various times, each of the top 4 teams has appeared in the top 10, on the cusp of breaking through the muck toward a Playoff berth. They each boast highly rated quarterbacks who had been in the Heisman discussion at points during the season. They each have high-powered offenses with sometimes-dominant running games.
But for all that excitement, all that offensive firepower and points and fun, we’re lacking two things. The same two things we’ve been lacking the past 5 years.
Stakes and suspense.
No, that’s not true.
We’re missing a third thing, too.
And isn’t that more valuable than anything else? The SEC and Big Ten haven’t dominated the airwaves the past dozen years by accident. Every single year, they’ve been in it until the very end. Even the teams that weren’t really in it were in it.
Forget the actual Playoff: The Pac-12 hasn’t had a team ranked in the top-4 of the CFP rankings entering Week 12 since Washington in 2016.
It’s been a half-dozen years since the league was appointment television during Thanksgiving weekend. Since then, the best we could’ve hoped for was a fun upset, maybe another goofy example of #Pac12AfterDark.
We thought we had it this year, didn’t we? Oregon looked so good for so long. I wrote in my previews of this week’s games that the Ducks were skating on thin ice with the league’s toughest final quarter — Washington, Utah and Oregon State. I didn’t want to be right, and I didn’t think I would be, but Michael Penix Jr. had another plan for his Huskies on Saturday in an instant classic Huskies win.
And Arizona had another thing coming for UCLA, which watched its outside shot at a Playoff berth disappear with a stunning loss to the Wildcats.
Now we’re left with a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Where do we go from here?
When the Pac-12 does an autopsy of this season and the shocking news that preceded it — the announcement that UCLA and USC would be leaving the conference for the Big Ten in just 2 years — it will realize these two things are inextricably linked.
Stubbing its toe year after year after year, the conference has become the butt of jokes on the national stage. This isn’t the ACC, which has ridden the coattails of Clemson and Florida State to national success for more than a half-decade. This isn’t the Big 12, which has at least had Oklahoma to lead the way. And this certainly isn’t the Ohio State-, Michigan and Michigan State-led Big Ten, nor the talent-laden SEC, which have had no problems filling the Playoff field with deserving candidates over the years.
At this point, the Pac-12 is a hair above the American Athletic Conference, if that.
Heading into Week 12, all eyes are on the SEC’s Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and Alabama, the Big Ten’s Ohio State and Michigan and the Big 12’s TCU.
And they’re off the Pac-12, just like they always are when it matters.