Oregon leads the way in the year of the Pac-12 – USA TODAY
At Oregon State, which has the one of the Pac-12 Conference’s smallest football venues in terms of overall seating capacity, plans have been made to invest more than $40 million to overhaul locker rooms, equipment, training areas and meeting rooms along the north end zone of Reser Stadium.
Once the Beavers break ground, every single program in the conference will have either begun or completed significant construction in the last five years on the sort of sparkling facilities needed to keep pace in college football’s arms race. In many cases — such as at Washington State, which completed a $61 million project before this season — the new accommodations rival any in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
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Behind the scenes, the Pac-12 has put its money where its mouth is: Teams in the conference have used an influx of cash from lucrative television deals to hire new coaches and build new facilities, which in turn has lifted recruiting, which in turn has bolstered the team’s standing across college football.
“I’ve seen this developing over the last few years,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who began his tenure in 2009, told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re coming into a great period for Pac-12 football.
“I think there’s been a perception lag nationally at the increased depth and caliber of this conference. It was probably going to take a year like this with such clear results, strong performance, to help close that gap.”
An overlooked, under-the-radar rebuilding project that began roughly a half-decade ago, when the Pac-12 barely registered in the championship conversation, has yielded the strongest conference in college football — a league with a list of achievements that trump than even the Southeastern Conference, college football’s recent standard-bearer for success.
“I think they’ve not only removed the SEC from its perch, I think they’ve kicked them to the curb,” ESPN college football analyst Danny Kanell said. “The SEC has taken a back seat to the Pac-12.”
The gap has been closed with a run of regular-season, awards-season and postseason achievements unmatched in the FBS.
Start with Oregon, which defeated Florida State in the Rose Bowl to advance to the first-ever national championship game of the College Football Playoff era. On Jan. 12, the Ducks will attempt to become the first Pac-12 team to win the national championship since Southern California in 2004; Oregon would also become the league’s first team other than USC to claim a national title since Washington in 1991.
“We’re sitting here at the beginning of the season and a lot of the country’s got its nose up about the Pac-12, they’ve got their nose up about Oregon, and here we are,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said.
Beyond just Oregon, however, the league touts 13 wins in total against the remaining four power conferences and Notre Dame, the most in the country. With just the championship game left to be played, the Pac-12’s bowl record stands at a major conference-best 6-2; five of those six victories have come against teams from other power leagues — from the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12.
“What I can tell you is that from my observations, and trying to be objective, I wouldn’t put any conference in front of us with any comfort,” Arizona State athletics director Ray Anderson said.
“I think the Pac-12 represented itself extremely well this year, and I think the bowl performances thus far certainly indicates that the conference doesn’t need to consider itself second fiddle to anyone.”
This level of postseason success continues a trend: The Pac-12 is now a combined 16-9 in bowl play during the past three seasons.
Overall, this year’s Pac-12 housed a league-record six teams with nine wins; this number, which also led the FBS, is made more impressive by the fact the Pac-12 plays nine league games, which leaves fewer opportunities to bolster win totals during nonconference play.
“The Pac-12 is the deepest conference,” Leach said. “The toughest path is through the Pac-12. If you take something like the bottom eight teams from the Pac-12 and you have a tournament with the (bottom eight from) other conferences, the Pac-12 would dominate. They wouldn’t just win it, they’d dominate it.”
But simple on-field production alone hasn’t lifted the conference’s reputation. The Pac-12 has been aided by two substantial factors: one, TV deals that made games more readily accessible for a national audience, and two, the advent of the College Football Playoff.
The increased national exposure is seen in the league’s award haul — 13 national awards went to Pac-12 players, pacing the FBS. It’s also seen in the major polls: The Pac-12 had six teams ranked in the Associated Press poll on four separate occasions during the regular season.
Before this season, the league had placed six teams inside the Top 25 just six times since 1990 — a span of 400 polls during a 24-year span.
The Playoff, meanwhile, ensured that the conference would not be left on the outside of the championship race. During the Bowl Championship Series era, Oregon would have still met Ohio State — but in the Rose Bowl, as winners of the Pac-12 and Big Ten, and not for the national title. Instead, the championship game would have pitted Alabama and Florida State; the Crimson Tide and Seminoles didn’t advance past the national semifinals.
The only thing missing is a national championship.
“Until we combine a season like this with winning the national championship, we won’t fully get to the level we want to get to and won’t fully get the national recognition I think the conference deserves,” Scott said. “This may be the year.”