Utah, Cal, And The Problem With Pac-12 Parity
The Pac-12 dubs itself the "Conference of Champions." In recent years, however, its football teams and games have defied expectations so often that the Pac-12 could more accurately be called the "Conference of Chaos." Can anything else explain the fact that, after just 5 weeks, Utah and Cal are its only remaining undefeated teams?
Last season alone, both Arizona schools won on game-ending Hail Mary's, Oregon's season was saved by a play that defies logic, and Washington State QB Connor Halladay set an FBS passing record with 734 passing yards vs. Cal, but the Cougars lost 60-59 on a missed 19 yard field goal.
While there were plenty of fun games, last year was deemed a success by most national pundits because Oregon represented the conference in the inaugural College Football Playoff (CFP) and reached the championship game. Media members widely hailed the Pac-12 as the second-best football conference, and most casual fans assumed that its champion would generally make the CFP.
Things have somehow gotten even more chaotic for Pac-12 teams this season, which does not bode well for the conference's playoff hopes. In Week 1, Stanford lost at Northwestern and Arizona State lost at Texas A&M. The Wildcats and Aggies have both gone undefeated since to make those losses more respectable, but the conference's national reputation took a hit. The following week, another contender was weakened when Oregon fell at Michigan State. Though each loss came on the road against a current Top-15 ranked opponent, the results made people question the notion that the Pac-12 would easily get a CFP spot.
As conference play started, writer Brian Hamilton wondered if the Pac-12 might be "Too Good for its Own Good?". Through three weeks, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. In three consecutive weeks, a road team has knocked off an undefeated home team in conference play (Stanford 41-31 USC, UCLA 56-30 U of A, ASU 38-23 UCLA). That trend does not bode well for Utah, who host Cal this Saturday.
Several coaches have already expressed concerns about conference depth. UCLA's Jim Mora said the Pac-12 “is so competitive and there are so many great teams in this conference that you worry about us eating ourselves.” Utah's Kyle Whittingham added: “I guess you can beat each other up and cannibalize each other, in a way.”
Yet Stanford coach David Shaw may have best explained the Pac 12's unique dilemma: "The top of every conference is good. Our conference is one where the people at the ‘bottom’ of the conference can still beat anybody in the conference. It’s a scary proposition week to week.”
The evidence supports his words, as the Pac-12 is the only FBS conference where no teams have a losing record. Washington State and Colorado are the worst Pac-12 teams, but the Cougars and Buffaloes led for large stretches of their games against Cal and Oregon. This balance makes the Pac-12 conference stronger than the Big Ten. Big 12 and ACC, where top teams play several cupcake conference games each season. But it also gives rival conferences an edge in advancing teams to the CFP.
If this concern sounds familiar, it should. The SEC has a deserved reputation for being the toughest conference in America. A record 10 SEC teams were ranked in the Week 2 AP Ratings, including the entire SEC West division. As Arkansas coach Brett Bielma put it one month ago: "Ohio State has one remaining game with a ranked opponent. We have eight remaining against teams who are ranked ... If anyone tries to argue that, it's nonsense." Yet there are no SEC teams ranked in the top 6 of this week's AP Poll.
So why does the Pac-12 have a greater parity problem than the SEC? Between 2006 and 2014, the SEC champion has played in eight national championship games, and won six times*. By contrast, the Pac-12 has only sent Oregon to the title game in 2010 and 2014, and the Ducks lost both times.
*Those numbers don't include the 2011 Alabama team that won after beating SEC champ LSU in the title game, or the 2014 Tide squad that entered the CFP as the #1 overall seed.
The SEC has a sterling reputation in the BCS era, so an SEC champion with 2 losses or less will make the four-team playoff. By contrast, the Pac-12 has to compete against the other Power 5 conferences, plus Notre Dame or an undefeated Other 5 team for the final three spots. The MSU-Ohio State winner, TCU-Baylor winner, and Clemson all have strong odds to finish with under two losses. If that happens, the Pac-12 will probably need a team to finish 12-1.
After demolishing Oregon 62-20 two weeks ago in Eugene, Utah is the Pac-12's only Top-15 team. They are the team with the best chance at finishing with under two losses, and they have the Pac-12's best non-conference win after defeating Michigan.
Yet Utah struggles to generate passing offense and an ill-timed knock to injury-prone QB Travis Wilson could derail the Utes season. Star RB Devontae Booker can only do so much, and the offense becomes difficult to watch against sturdy D-lines. The Utes still have tricky road games at USC, Arizona, and Washington, not to mention trap games against UCLA and Arizona State. Even if the Utes survive that stretch at 11-1, a difficult conference title game against Stanford awaits.
Cal is also undefeated, but they have already survived close calls against Texas, and both Washington schools. The Bears still have to travel to Utah, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford, so their unbeaten run should end promptly.
Stanford, USC, and UCLA could each hypothetically finish with one loss, but there is already ZERO margin for error.
And therein lies the problem. As an avid follower of Pac-12 football, the margin between victory and defeat gets smaller and smaller on a weekly basis. It is difficult for any team to go 9-1 in 10 games against Pac-12 opposition; much less a flawed team. The question is whether last year's Oregon team was a special squad that propelled the Pac-12 into the playoff, or whether the Pac-12 can be expected to consistently supply a one loss team.
One can point to Utah and Cal's 5-0 starts as proof of the conference's overall strength, and they would be right. ESPN's College Gameday has recently acknowledged the Pac-12's depth; first by traveling to Tucson for UCLA-U of A, and now to Salt Lake City for Cal-Utah. The Pac-12 might be the most entertaining conference top-to-bottom in America. Unfortunately for its members, one cannot expect to escape the bloodbath unscathed.
If this year is any indicator, it will be tougher for the Pac-12 champion to reach the CFP than a conference champion from any other conference. Marcus Mariota's 2014 Oregon Ducks were a special team that went 9-1 against daunting conference opposition. However, I do not see any Pac-12 team emerging with just one loss this season. Nor do I expect the Pac-12's parity issue to disappear anytime soon.