As early September nonconference collisions go, it doesn’t get much more compelling than this Saturday’s meeting between no. 3 Oregon and no. 7 Michigan State, a vital submission in the ongoing case of Irresistible Force v. Immovable Object. Nor does it get much more far-reaching: As early favorites1 to win their respective conferences, the Ducks and Spartans will battle in Eugene for the right to move to the front of the pack pursuing the four playoff spots up for grabs at season’s end. Whatever detours it takes between now and the end, the course of the 2014 season will irrevocably run through Autzen Stadium on Saturday night.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury cleared the way for MSU atop the Big Ten preseason projection perch.
And as compelling intra-conference collisions go at this point on the calendar, the USC-Stanford tilt that will kick off three hours earlier in Palo Alto doesn’t rank far behind. The Cardinal are former doormats turned defending conference champs and perennial national players. The Trojans are deposed kahunas of the West Coast who appear to have finally repositioned themselves as viable contenders to reclaim the crown. It’s the first Pac-12 game of the season, and if both teams fulfill their potential in their respective divisions, it could be reprised as the last, in the conference championship game. With or without a rematch, few scenarios end with either side making the final four without defeating the other.
Of the 74 games involving FBS teams this weekend, only two will pit ranked opponents head-to-head, and it’s no coincidence both will unfold in Pac-12 stadiums. It’s also time to get used to it. In many respects, 2014 is Year 0 of college football’s reimagined landscape for the 21st century, with the long-anticipated playoff replacing the long-despised BCS, and the upheaval of conference expansion, realignment, and extinction resulting in a new status quo that appears stable for the foreseeable future. In the tumultuous years that produced the new landscape, no league worked harder to improve its national stock than the Pac-12. And no league is better leveraged to emerge as a counterweight to college football’s current center of gravity, which still resides firmly in the South. Why not the Pac-12, and why not now?
For most of this century, that question would hardly have been worth asking. While the Pac-10, which became the Pac-12 in 2011, has seen its share of great teams, most of them were the same team for the bulk of this century: Between 2003 and 2008, USC ran roughshod, racking up a 45-6 record in conference games and claiming the automatic BCS bid reserved for the conference champion six years in a row.2 When USC’s reign of terror finally ended, in 2009, the “Pac-1” yielded to the “Pac-2”: From 2010 through 2013, Oregon and Stanford combined to go 60-5 against the rest of the league and hogged both available BCS bids3 in all four seasons. Only one other Pac-12 team in that span (USC, briefly resurgent in 2011 despite an NCAA-imposed bowl ban) managed to finish in the Associated Press’s top 15.
The Trojans also played in a BCS game in 2002 as an at-large selection, making them the only Pac-10 team to earn an at-large berth from 2001 to 2009.
BCS rules capped the number of teams from a given conference that could participate in big-money bowls at two.
Beyond the top tier, however, 2013 was a watershed campaign for the conference’s depth and parity. Five Pac-12 teams opened the season ranked in the AP Top 25, the most since the rise of the Trojan dynasty more than a decade earlier, and six ended the season ranked there, the most ever. In the BCS era, which began in 1998, the conference had never before placed more than four teams in the final poll, and hadn’t exceeded three since 2007. Overnight, fully half the league could claim national relevance.
Among the half that finished unranked, there were still glimmers of hope. Utah and Arizona sprung upsets over the ranking heavyweights, Stanford and Oregon, while longtime doormat Washington State snapped a decadelong bowl drought after knocking off USC for the first time since 2002. Nine teams beat at least one conference opponent that finished in the Top 25. Nine teams played in bowl games, another conference record, despite all Pac-12 squads playing a nine-game conference schedule that places an additional hurdle in the way of bowl eligibility.4 Jeff Sagarin, whose computer rankings have gauged conference strength for years, rated the Pac-12 as the best in the nation.5
The vagaries of strength of schedule are a larger topic for another day, but do the math: Nine conference games in a 12-team conference means Pac-12 teams miss only two conference opponents per year. Meanwhile, the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC all play eight-game conference schedules despite having expanded to 14 members apiece, meaning teams in those leagues all miss five conference opponents per year.
For the first time, Sagarin’s rankings split up conferences into divisions in 2013, rather than ranking the conferences as a whole. Although the SEC West ranked (narrowly) as the nation’s toughest division, the combined strength of the Pac-12 North and South came out on top.
As 2014 unfolds, virtually every program in the conference is basking in the optimism that accompanies new facilities or a relatively new head coach or both, confident in its status as an up-and-comer. Five teams are ranked in the current AP poll, with USC joining preseason contenders Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA in the top 15 following an opening-day rout of Fresno State. A sixth team, Washington, dropped out of the poll because of an uninspiring victory at Hawaii after opening the year at no. 25, but the Huskies’ immediate fortunes are looking up with the reinstatement of quarterback Cyler Miles from a one-game suspension. The Huskies’ long-term prospects are even brighter: With the arrival of coach Chris Petersen from Boise State, Washington has the look of a sleeping giant, whose reawakening after a solid decade of futility stands to raise the stakes for the entire conference.
Unlike the SEC, which has thrived under the pressure of an arms-race culture, at no point in the past two decades has every upper-crust program on the West Coast been in a position to maximize its potential at the same time. Now, that time may have come, and at precisely the right moment for the league to exploit it to full effect.
Where else to begin an American success story than on the balance sheet? In 2009, the same year Larry Scott was introduced as the conference’s new commissioner, the then Pac-10 reported $96.8 million in total revenue to the IRS, the smallest figure of any of the then six major conferences. By contrast, the SEC reported $148 million in revenue for fiscal year 2008-09, and the Big Ten, flush from the surprising success of its niche cable network, lapped the field by bringing in $222 million.
Scott’s predecessor, Tom Hansen, had gotten his start in the conference office in 1960, when the league had five teams, and was regarded within the sport, in the words of ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, as “a gentleman and a gentle man,” a polite way of saying the increasingly shark-infested waters patrolled by counterparts Jim Delany in the Big Ten and Mike Slive in the SEC had become too deep for the aging Hansen after more than a quarter-century in the commish’s chair. When Hansen stepped down, Pac-10 football games were still broadcast on a mostly regional basis by ABC, ensuring they would rarely be seen by the eastern half of the country, or relegated to the obscurity of Fox Sports Net, ensuring they would rarely be seen by anyone. The conference was also three decades removed from its last expansion,6 the longest any Division I league had gone without a change in membership.
The addition of Arizona and Arizona State brought the membership to 10 teams in 1978.
Clearly, in the 21st century, stability no longer paid. In strode Scott, a former Ivy League tennis player who claimed he hadn’t attended a college football game since taking in Harvard-Yale in the mid-’90s. He was not a gentle man. After a few months surveying the landscape, Scott’s first move as commissioner was an attempt to lure Texas, Oklahoma, and four other schools from the Big 12, a brazen bid that came within a hairbreadth of turning the conservative, underexposed Pac-10 into a 16-team behemoth spanning half the continent.7 Failing that, he settled for adding Colorado and Utah as consolation prizes, began laying the groundwork for the creation of a Pac-12 Network on the Big Ten model, and used his bargaining chips to negotiate a blockbuster television deal with ESPN and Fox — the Murdoch mother ship, not just its regionally oriented cable satellites. Barely a year after being snubbed at the eleventh hour by his most coveted expansion targets in the Big 12, Scott found himself in the position of rejecting them.
It was around this time that Scott began floating the idea of expanding the conference’s footprint to other continents, as well.
Now, just five years after bringing up the rear financially, the Pac-12 has surpassed the SEC and Big Ten as the richest conference in the land. Earlier this year, the conference reported just shy of $334 million in total revenue for the 2012-13 fiscal year, a 345 percent increase over 2008-09. In television revenue alone, the Pac-12 reported $252.7 million in 2012-13, nearly a threefold increase over the $85.6 million it reported the previous year. The current payout averages $20.8 million per school under the new TV deal, compared with $6 million per school under the old deal, and it will only keep rising.
The most immediate effect of all that cash has been a conferencewide construction boom that’s on pace to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In April, Colorado broke ground on a new indoor practice field and other facilities, describing $142 million in upgrades as a need, not a want. Cal put the finishing touches on a new athletic facility and a long-overdue overhaul of Memorial Stadium, which had been literally ripped apart by the Hayward Fault. Washington razed the south half of Husky Stadium following the 2011 season to rebuild it in time for 2013. Utah spent $32 million on a new football center, which opened last August. USC spent $35 million to expand its main athletic building from 48,000 square feet to 80,000. Washington State unveiled an $80 million upgrade to Martin Stadium in 2012 and opened the doors to a new football operations building over the summer. Stanford expanded its football complex and splurged on facilities for “non-revenue” sports. Arizona expanded seating in its north end zone. Arizona State has announced plans to “completely renovate” Sun Devil Stadium. As of April, UCLA said it had raised $40 million toward a new football performance center, with a new basketball facility to follow. Oregon — backed, of course, by its most enthusiastic patron, Nike cofounder Phil Knight — built a 145,000-square-foot football performance center to rival the Taj Mahal, and it is reportedly considering an expansion of Autzen Stadium, barely a decade after its last expansion, in 2002. Oregon State, wary of being upstaged by “Nike University,” is in the early phases of an expansion project of its own.
Ubiquitous as they’ve become over the past five years, however, new construction cranes have not been nearly as visible as new coaches. Across the conference, the only teams that haven’t changed head coaches since the end of the 2010 season are Oregon State (Mike Riley is entering his 14th overall season in Corvallis) and Utah (Kyle Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer after the 2004 season), which didn’t even join the league until 2011. Everywhere else, there’s a sense of energy, or “momentum,” or whatever word one prefers to describe the collective feeling that the arrow is pointing up.
At UCLA, Jim Mora has engineered a surprise South Division title in his first year, a top-20 finish in his second, and wins over the crosstown rival, USC, in both seasons; in Year 3, the Bruins are on the short list of playoff contenders. At Arizona State, Todd Graham has as many wins in his first two seasons (18) as any new coach in ASU history. Arizona and Washington State placed their bets on a pair of established offensive innovators, Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, and have so far experienced solid, sustainable returns at programs that have historically been afterthoughts. Cal followed suit, enlisting Leach protégé Sonny Dykes to run the “Air Raid” in its newly refurbished stadium; after enduring a 1-11 debacle in Dykes’s first season, the 2014 Bears are older, healthier, and off to a good start making the growing pains pay off. At the top of the standings, Oregon and Stanford hired from within to sustain their unprecedented success under NFL-bound architects Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, while USC has attempted to rekindle the flame by luring former Pete Carroll assistants from the halcyon days — first Lane Kiffin and now Steve Sarkisian, whose first game as head coach on Saturday was one of the Trojans’ best performances since Sarkisian left Carroll’s staff following the 2008 season to take the top job at Washington. At the bottom, Colorado is groping for some semblance of stability under second-year boss Mike MacIntyre.
None of the above hires, however, are quite as emblematic of the conference’s trajectory or prospective ceiling as that of Chris Petersen, who for years was the most coveted candidate west of the Mississippi, and who was finally lured from his niche at Boise State by a five-year, $18 million deal that makes him the Pac-12’s highest-paid coach. Petersen spent years demurring suitors’ entreaties, but the timing of his move to Washington felt right on both sides. After seven wildly successful campaigns in Boise, which included five top-10 finishes, two BCS wins, and an unlikely no. 1 ranking in Football Outsiders’ F/+ standings in 2010, Petersen’s eighth and final Broncos team was the worst of his tenure, ranking 45th in F/+ while losing five games.8 Meanwhile, conference realignment has settled into a tentative stasis, and the window for upward mobility at have-not programs like Boise State has effectively slammed shut.
Four under Petersen, who left before the bowl game.
Washington, on the other hand, is still less than a quarter-century removed from winning a national championship in 1991, and only 14 years removed from its last Rose Bowl. Sarkisian, who inherited a smoking crater in the wake of an 0-12 catastrophe in 2008, broke a string of 7-6 finishes last year with a leap to 9-4;9 the Huskies were rewarded by cracking the final AP poll (at no. 25) for the first time since 2001. The next rung on the ladder is returning Washington to its traditional perch in the Northwest, a major hurdle given that Sarkisian finished 1-9 in his tenure against Oregon and Stanford. But the Huskies spent 25 years at the end of the last century as the Pac-10’s most consistent winners, by far, and their presence in the upper crust is critical to unlocking the dog-eat-dog potential of the Pac-12.
Eight under Sark, who left before the bowl game.
The same holds for Sarkisian in his new gig, with USC remaining an inexhaustible gold mine of top-shelf talent, making it one of the top three or four jobs in college football regardless of the last guy’s record there. And for Oregon’s Mark Helfrich and Stanford’s David Shaw, who are attempting to convert upstart programs into enduring powers. And for Mora, who’s leading a chronic underachiever that’s still as likely to regress into mediocrity as ascend into the exclusive rotation of perennial contenders; Mora could still be the next Carroll, or the next Jeff Tedford.
Yet the most intractable barrier to national nirvana is not tradition, or talent, or money, or perception, or “respect,” all of which the Pac-12 has in abundance. It’s that, with vigorous nonconference scheduling habits, a nine-game conference slate, and a conference championship game to boot, the ostensible candidates for a breakthrough have no choice but to run the gantlet against one another, at their own expense. As this weekend reminds us, no matter how much money is coming in, the one resource that never expands is the number of available wins.