The Pac-12 is everything fans should want in a conference. The league has a compact 12 teams. With a nine-game conference schedule, teams face each other most years. Teams play relatively competent non-conference schedules. Schools make ambitious coaching hires. There are true style contrasts with teams playing the Air Raid, the Read Option, Pro-Style, and all variations in between.
There are no moribund Pac-12 programs. Nine of the 12 teams have had at least one Top 20 SRS finisher since 2012. Two more, Washington State and Arizona, have had teams finish in the Top 25. The one team that hasn’t, Cal, had a quarterback chosen No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. The Pac-12 coach in the most precarious position right now is Rich Rodriguez, who got Arizona to a BCS game three years ago and had three Top 10 finishes at West Virginia.
The Pac-12 has ranked just behind the SEC as the nation’s second-best conference consistently this decade. But the ACC, despite the Pac-12 being the clear better conference, has been getting all the hype. Some writers are arguing the Pac-12 should follow “the ACC model.” The league has a clear perception problem.
Perception begins at the top. Alabama is great, so the SEC is great. Florida State and Clemson won titles, so the ACC is great. Ohio State and Michigan are good, so is the Big Ten. You get the drift. Two things have stung the Pac-12. Oregon never won a title. They finished ranked 11th or higher seven seasons in a row, an incredible run, but lost twice in the title game. The other was USC getting sandbagged by NCAA sanctions and poor head coaching hires. It’s not fair, but college football seldom is.
The Pac-12 also faces a grave TV conundrum. The great unclaimed territory in college football is the noon ET kickoff. The Pac-12 can’t start games at 9:00 am. The choice is either to A) show prime games in the late afternoon or night game windows against the SEC and the Big Ten or B) show them in other more exclusive windows. Option A gets you overshadowed. Take option B, and you end up with games kicking off Thursday night, Friday night, and at 10:30 pm ET on Saturday when even invested national college football fans aren’t watching. There’s no right answer.
One could argue there’s some institutional bias. ESPN has the biggest mouthpiece in sports. Its influence is especially pervasive in college football. Let’s pose a hypothetical question. If ESPN were solely interested in promoting its college football properties, what would be the ideal narrative to push? It would be the SEC (tied heavily to ESPN through the 2030s) and the ACC (tied exclusively to ESPN through the 2030s) in the discussion for best conference, with the primary metric being the performance in ESPN’s college football playoff.
ESPN does have a relationship with the Pac-12, with half of its first-tier rights. But the Pac-12 did not partner with ESPN on its network. There isn’t the same hard-sell incentive.
The Pac-12 has few advocates elsewhere. Why does the Big Ten get so much attention? Those schools have large, invested alumni bases. They draw students from all over the country. They export students all over the country. Many media members are from those states, live in those states, or went to those schools. None of those factors work in the Pac-12’s favor. It makes a big difference when your great program is Ohio State instead of Stanford.
The Pac-12 has followed “the SEC model.” Hire quality coaches. Recruit athletic players. Put forward a compelling and competitive product every week from the top of the league to the bottom. The sad part is the conference probably would be better off following “the ACC model” and ensuring nearly half the programs are non-entities.
Seriously, what is the Pac-12 thinking forcing USC to play a real football game when it goes on the road to Colorado? Lay down, also-rans. Conference pride is at stake!