For the first time since Vince Young squared off against Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in the Rose Bowl in 2006, the college football national championship game did not feature an SEC team. Instead, for only the second time since that famed championship game, a Pac-12 team made the title game, facing off against a Big Ten team. We asked football writers Winston Shi, Michael Peterson and Do-Hyoung Park: How did Oregon’s run to the national title game and the Pac-12’s definitive 13-4 record against Power Five non-conference opponents — the only conference to finish with a winning record in this regard — change the perception of the Pac-12 in comparison to other major conferences?
Winston: Despite Oregon’s big loss, the Pac-12 is still strong. We like to make fun of East Coast bias a lot, but there’s a growing consensus that the Pac-12 is actually good at this football thing. Most of the national sportswriters — people like Ivan Maisel, Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman — have been acknowledging the Pac-12’s strength for at least a few years now. Perception is an asymmetric thing: When USC was dominant, people assumed that USC was great and didn’t pass on that respect to the Pac-12. But when Oregon, UCLA and Stanford began fielding great teams, people started taking the West Coast seriously. The media respects the Pac-12. The pollsters respect the Pac-12, too: When they had to rank a Pac-12 team and another Power Five team with equal records, they more often than not put the Pac-12 team first. That’s respect.
What happens without respect? Well, most people (including the CFP Selection Committee) don’t consider the ACC to be that good, even though Florida State won the national title last year. Clemson is supposed to be good, sure, and Miami still gets some interest, but the ACC is the sort of place where Georgia Tech making the conference championship game (and nearly winning) is taken as a sign of weakness. When the NFL completes a full chain of wins and losses, people call it a “circle of parity”; when the ACC has the same chain, people call it a “circle of suck.” That’s why conference reputation matters.
But does the conference truly get its due? Let’s remember the elephant in the room: the national championship. It’s fair to at least consider how great the top teams are, even if depth is serially underrated. And the Pac-12 falls short on that front. I mentioned that the rise of non-USC teams significantly boosted the Pac-12’s respect. Well, let’s also remember that a non-USC team hasn’t won the national championship since 1991 (Washington). Should the conference really expect better? We should remember that even in a banner year for the Pac-12, the story for the vast majority of the season was how great the SEC West was. And to a certain extent, that’s fair. Its teams have a solid body of work to fall back on. Until the Pac-12 starts getting rings, people aren’t going to take it as seriously as they should. That’s just how things are.
Michael: Though Oregon’s crushing loss at the hands of a clearly superior Ohio State team did put a damper on the Pac-12’s season, I think the overall performance of the conference this season — and the SEC’s disappointing bowl season — made the Pac-12 into the SEC’s biggest challenger for the title of best conference.
For several years now, the college football world has seen Oregon and Stanford compete with the best. After Oregon completely vanquished defending champion Florida State by 39 points, there’s no question that the best of the Pac-12 can compete with the best in the nation.
However, what really made the difference for the Pac-12 this year was the performance of the remaining 10 teams: UCLA finished the season at No. 10, Utah won at Michigan, UCLA and Stanford en route to a top-25 finish, Arizona won the Pac-12 South, Arizona State put a beatdown on then-No. 10 Notre Dame and finished the season ranked No. 12 and even Cal was impressive for a part of the season. This trend continued into bowl season, as only Oregon, Washington and Arizona lost among the Pac-12’s eight bowl teams (a 6-3 final conference record during bowl season).
I do agree with Winston in that the Pac-12 needs to crown a champion before it could ever gain the respect it deserves or ever lay true claim to the title of best conference, but I also believe that this year went a long way towards validating the overall strength of the Pac-12 — see ESPN’s way-too-early top 25 for next season, for example, in which the Pac-12 places five teams in the top 15, more than any other conference, including the SEC. It’s only a matter of time until the Pac-12 finally ends the championship drought and crowns a winner on college football’s biggest stage.
Do: I don’t think the Pac-12’s reputation changed all too much through Oregon’s run, and I don’t think that’s a problem. The conference is in a rather comfortable place right now: Most fans and sportswriters alike place the Pac-12 at or near the top of the pack, and while the Big Ten certainly made a statement this postseason, the lack of a conference championship game in the Big 12 (“One True Champion,” right?) and the ACC’s laughable reputation outside of Florida State and Georgia Tech mean that unless the Pac-12 really collapses next season (unlikely, given how well a sanction-free USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford reload), there’s no reason for that to change.
As I described in my column today as well, it also helps that the SEC seems to have fallen back to the ranks of the mortals after its otherworldly reign at the top (or rather, the other conferences have caught up to it). That just makes the Pac-12’s sustained strength look all the better, and even though teams like Washington and Oregon State have dropped out of the national ranks, teams like Utah and Arizona have stepped up to fill their shoes. As has been mentioned above, the baseline reputation for Pac-12 teams has been enjoying an upswing due to non-conference success, and that means that what would even have been an “average” win just a few years ago is considered a “good” win in the national picture today.
Things like this have a lot of inertia, and one Oregon national championship run is ultimately just a slight ripple in the wave of this Pac-12 upswing. The Pac-12 is certainly getting more respect, and it’s not necessarily just Oregon’s doing — win or lose. It’s pointless right now to try and argue which conference is best in the nation, because there’s just too much parity everywhere.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.