Editorial Note: As we close in on the final Pac-12 Championship game, Kyle Kensing has a series of articles looking at some of the more memorable storylines from the conference’s most recent (since expanding to 12 teams) history. Check out his look back at the 12 defining moments of Pac 12 after dark.
Lest you ever doubt the cruelty of fate, the last Pac-12 Championship Game is the first in which both participants are playing for College Football Playoff consideration since the inaugural event in 2011.
A rematch between bitter rivals Oregon and Washington represents the vision for the conference title game upon its expansion to 12 teams and outset of a television contract that, at the time, was a record-setter.
The Huskies’ 24-21 Apple Cup escape from Washington State signaled how different the last year of the Pac-12 is from much of its recent history; this was exactly the kind of game previous national title hopefuls lost, perhaps contributing to the breaking up of the conference.
Upsets and unpredictability would seemingly make for a more exciting TV football – and subjectively, that’s true. Objectively, however, the league’s national-championship futility since USC won a 2004 season title the NCAA wants you to pretend doesn’t exist meant losing out on the revenue and attention commensurate with competing for the College Football Playoff.
The Pac-12’s trend of in-conference cannibalization costing contenders a shot at the national championship predates the Playoff. One could fairly cite this phenomenon beginning in September 2008 with Oregon State’s 27-24 win over a USC team that, even with the loss, probably still should have been in the BCS Championship Game.
And if not Oregon State-USC in 2008, perhaps Stanford’s monumental, 24-23 defeat of USC a season earlier in what was both the largest Las Vegas upset until Howard’s win at UNLV a decade later and served as the unofficial launch pad for Jim Harbaugh’s coaching rise.
And if not Stanford-USC 2007, UCLA’s 13-9 win on the final day of the 2006 regular season. And…okay, you should get the idea.
For the sake of brevity and uniformity, the following 12 games after the Pac-12’s expansion in 2011 best define both the chaos and the identity of the Conference of Champions in its final days.
12. Stanford 31, Oregon 24 – Oct. 2, 2021
A pair of blowout losses against Utah both late in the regular season and in the Pac-12 Championship Game revealed 2021 Oregon to be simply unworthy of the College Football Playoff. When the Ducks visited The Farm two months earlier, however, they were undefeated with a road win at Ohio State.
What’s more, this upset is noteworthy for writing one final chapter for the rivalry that defined the Pac-12 for more than a decade from the end of the Pete Carroll dynasty at USC onward.
11. Utah 27, Stanford 24 – Oct. 12, 2013
A midseason loss at Utah alone didn’t sink Stanford’s BCS Championship aspirations in the system’s final season. The upset did, however, foreshadow the latter-half of the 2010s into the 2020s.
I asked former Utes wide receiver Dres Anderson in the summer of 2014 about the impact of that win over a Cardinal team that went on to claim a second straight Pac-12 title. He referred it to indicative of what Utah football wanted from its Pac-12 tenure, which was in just its third year in 2013, and what the program expected.
And, indeed, Utah began a run winning at least nine games in seven of the next eight seasons beginning in 2014 and appearing in four straight non-COVID season Pac-12 Championship Games from 2018 through 2022.
10. Arizona 42, Oregon 16 – Nov. 23, 2013
A loss at Stanford two weeks prior damaged Oregon’s BCS Championship Game hopes, but hadn’t dashed them altogether. Any hope the Ducks had for beating out Auburn after a Stanford loss one week prior gave Oregon the inside track to the Pac-12 Championship Game blew up spectacularly in Tucson.
Arizona dashed Oregon’s BCS title aspirations six years prior on a Thursday night, but that was a game in which Heisman Trophy hopeful Dennis Dixon sustained a torn ACL and Oregon still nearly came back in the fourth quarter. This time, a start drunker than a UA undergrad celebrating their birthday at Dirtbag’s set the tone for a thorough beating.
Scooby Wright’s game-opening interception of a banged-up Marcus Mariota and Ka’Deem Carey’s 206 yards with four touchdowns helped establish both as folk heroes in the Old Pueblo.
9. Oregon 37, Utah 15 – Dec. 6, 2019
It’s not unrealistic to credit Utah, at least in part, with the formation of a College Football Playoff. The Utes’ perfect 2008 sparked threats of antitrust lawsuits against the BCS in 2009. A decade later, Kyle Whittingham’s team was on the doorstep of participating in the system his program may have indirectly help start.
Utah came into the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game – its second in as many years – absolutely steam-rolling all competition.
The Utes lost a 30-23 decision at USC early in the season on a Friday night, continuing the conference’s tradition of upsets on weeknights, but the outcome could be fairly described as fluky given the bevy of highlight-reel catches Trojans receivers made on very YOLO passes from freshman Kedon Slovis.
There was nothing fluky about the Pac-12 Championship Game, however. Oregon dominated from the opening salvo, but Utah clawed back to make it a one-score game going into the fourth quarter.
Then, “Shout” played over the Levi’s Stadium PA system.
One of the many mistakes that Pac-12 brass made, which added up over the course of the decade, was moving the title game to the San Francisco 49ers home in Santa Clara. The gloomy, cavernous feeling most of the Pac-12 Championship Games held there contributed to the downer reputation the league gained in the latter-half of the 2010s. But for a few minutes in 2019, Oregon’s traditional cheer set to Otis Day & The Knights’ party anthem from Animal House had Levi’s rocking.
And, almost immediately after, CJ Verdell broke off a 70-yard touchdown run that slammed the door on Utah’s best shot at a Playoff berth.
8. Arizona State 31, Oregon 28 – Nov. 23, 2019
The closest to a national quarterfinal-style Pac-12 Championship Game the Pac-12 came prior to 2023 was in 2019, when both Oregon and Utah advanced to late November with just one loss.
Ducks’ migration south for more hospitable climates doesn’t apply to gridiron visit to Arizona. For the third time in 12 years, a November visit to the Grand Canyon State scrapped Oregon’s national championship chances, this time with a 31-28 defeat in Tempe.
LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels may or may not beat out current Oregon quarterback Bo Nix for the 2023 Heisman. But, as Arizona State signal-caller in 2019, he denied Justin Herbert’s team a chance at the Playoff with 418 yards and three touchdowns.
7. USC 20, Stanford 17 – Nov. 16, 2013
David Shaw headed up several outstanding teams in his 11 years as Stanford head coach. The 2013 Cardinal probably weren’t his best from top-to-bottom, but coordinator Derek Mason oversaw what was arguably the most talented defense of Stanford’s decade of excellence.
A side that featured Trent Murphy, A.J. Tarpley and Shayne Skov at linebacker, and Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards in the secondary, would have made for an intriguing matchup with Florida State’s prolific offense. What’s more, 2013 Heisman winner and Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston was a high-priority Stanford recruit before landing at FSU.
But a possible Stanford berth in the BCS Championship ended in Los Angeles. This was a doubly consequential outcome, marking the high point in Ed Orgeron’s midseason turnaround of a USC team that was cratering in Lane Kiffin’s lame-duck month at the helm.
Orgeron had vocal support to win the head-coaching vacancy permanently, and the calls reached a crescendo with the Trojans’ dramatic win over Stanford – USC’s first defeat of the Trees since the last title-contending season of Pete Carroll’s tenure.
Would Orgeron have worked out long-term at USC is one of the great college football what-ifs. Whether or not is immaterial to his winning a national championship six years later at LSU furthering the decade-plus of heartache that plagued the Pac-12’s flagship football program.
6. Utah 47, USC 24 – Dec. 2, 2022
USC’s hire of Lincoln Riley announced in late 2021 felt like a true landscape-altering move. Riley left not only a winning program, but a true blue blood in Oklahoma, with designs on restoring the Trojans to glory.
Inheriting a situation that looked arguably as bad as that which Pete Carroll took over from Paul Hackett in 2001, Riley looked poised to accomplish in Year 1 what Carroll needed until Year 2 with a Heisman-winning quarterback and a conference championship. And unlike Carroll’s split title with Washington State in 2002, Riley’s would be an outright victory over the one team to beat his Trojans, solidifying USC for its first-ever Playoff.
USC had glaring flaws in Riley’s first season, namely a porous defense. However, a remarkable edge in turnover margin masked enough deficiencies to position the Trojans for a Playoff berth to complement Caleb Williams’ by-that-point inevitable Heisman coronation.
A rematch with Utah, which handed USC its sole regular-season loss in a classic at Rice-Eccels Stadium, was a mask-off moment. The Utes’ complete dominance of the Pac-12 Championship Game did more than keep the Trojans out of the Playoff, but set the tone for struggles to come.
A Sugar Bowl loss to Tulane and this season’s 7-5 finish start from a direct line drawn in Las Vegas. More so than 2022 ending comparably to Carroll’s 2002 and setting the stage for a similar ascent to the national championship, the Pac-12 Championship Game started a speed-run to what feels more like Lane Kiffin’s Year 3 at USC.
5. USC 38, Oregon 35 – Nov. 19, 2011
Coming off its BCS Championship near-miss vs. Auburn – listen closely on a quiet, autumn night, and some say you can hear the anguished shouts of a beleaguered Ducks fan, Dyer was down! – Oregon climbed back into the title hunt after a Week 1 loss to LSU.
The Ducks seemingly regrouped after the opening-weekend setback, going back to thumping all conference competition as it had through 2010.
That changed on one of the most memorable college Saturdays of the last 20 years.
Nov. 19, 2011, started with Lee Corso shouting, “Aw, f*** it!” before making his headgear pick at the University of Houston. Corso set a fitting tone for a day in which Robert Griffin III put on a show at Oklahoma, Virginia stunned Florida State, and visions of the championship-caliber USC returned with its performance at Oregon.
The Trojans dominated for three quarters, something that didn’t often happen for visitors to Autzen Stadium during Chip Kelly’s tenure. USC built a cushion and held on in the fourth quarter with a missed field goal.
On that night, a USC team barred from the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game due to sanctions from the Reggie Bush “scandal” – applying the label loosely – became the immediate favorite for 2012.
USC went into the next year with a quarterback in Matt Barkley expected to be the face of college football, a roster featuring a high-profile transfer addition in Silas Redd, and national media talking championship.
It ended in seven wins, the head coach involved in a feud with a member of the local media, and a late-season collapse that included an emphatic loss to rival UCLA. Sound familiar?
4. Oregon 38, Stanford 36 – Nov. 14, 2015
As noted above, the 2013 Stanford team wasn’t David Shaw’s best top-to-bottom in his time on The Farm. That distinction belonged to the 2015 squad. Veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan had grown into his spot nicely – so much, that at a ceremony held before that season’s Pac-12 Championship Game, honoring the best players in the Pac-12’s 100-year history – Stanford great John Elway praised Hogan as an all-time Cardinal signal-caller.
Hogan’s effectiveness complemented Christian McCaffrey in one of the most transcendent individual seasons in recent memory. Both operated behind Joshua Garnett, arguably the best in Stanford’s run of outstanding offensive linemen in the 2010s.
Combining explosive and multifaceted offense with the typical stout Stanford defense seemingly gave the Cardinal the right formula to finally contending for the national championship. But after a bizarre Week 1 loss at Northwestern – a Top 25 team in 2015, but by no means a Playoff contender – Stanford needed to run the table in league play.
No team had accomplished that feat since expansion to 12 – a streak that continued until Washington in 2023. Stanford’s slip-up came when Oregon provided the receipt for 2012 and 2013 upsets.
T-2. Washington State 30, USC 27 – Sept. 29, 2017 & Stanford 30, Washington 22 – Nov. 10, 2017
There were better Pac-12 teams denied title opportunities in the 12-team era than the 2017 USC and Washington squads. However, one could argue the combined results of upsets to these two struck the two most severe blows to the conference’s standing in the national media landscape.
After reaching the 2016 Playoff – the last Pac-12 team to do so – and giving Alabama a competitive game for a half, Washington embarked on 2017 with lofty expectations. Indicative of the perception war the conference was already beginning to battle, however, an ESPN telecast early that season mocked the Huskies’ pursuit of consecutive Playoff appearances with sideline reporter Quint Kessenich lining up cupcakes to represent the Huskies’ schedule.
Losing to a good but not great Arizona State shortly thereafter didn’t help Washington’s case, but finishing 11-1 with a late-season win over Stanford almost surely would have positioned the Huskies for a shot at the Playoff heading into the Pac-12 Championship.
The 2017 season ended, after all, with an Alabama team that played a weak schedule by SEC standards that season advancing despite not winning its division (Sagarin strength of schedule in the 60s before matchups with Clemson and Georgia in the Playoff).
Washington’s matchup with Stanford falling on a Friday was bad omen enough for the Huskies. Then, the first quarter of a game with championship implications falling to the television purgatory of FS2 while FS1 aired the end of a truck race provided more fodder for a conference taking a bevy of PR lumps.
The loss gave the inside track for the Pac-12 Championship Game to a Stanford team that, while solid with Heisman finalist Bryce Love, was not as strong as previous Shaw-coached teams.
It also denied the league an 11-1 team in the Championship Game for the second time in three years. The conference would have had two such teams playing in a de facto quarterfinal had Friday night not previously gobbled up USC.
The Trojans finished 2016 strong after Sam Darnold replaced Max Browne at quarterback, winning 10 games and the Rose Bowl. With Darnold back, Playoff or bust was established as a pretty clear line.
So, when the schedules for 2017 were released and USC played 12 consecutive weeks without a bye, it sparked plenty of ire among Trojans faithful.
Certainly a blowout loss at Notre Dame later didn’t help, but USC dropping a Friday night game traveling to the conference’s most far-flung outpost, Washington State, on just six days rest was a sore subject. During his state of the league address before the Trojans’ 2017 Pac-12 Championship Game win over Stanford, then-commissioner Larry Scott fielded questions about the scheduling quirk.
His answers, even if technically correct, felt disconnected. It was the kind of awkward moment indicative of Scott’s tenure overall, and with the benefit of hindsight, feels like a canary-in-the-coal-mine for the conference’s relationship with USC.
1. Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (OT) – Nov. 17, 2012
Other upsets prevented various Pac-12 teams from playing for national championships. But while imagining Stanford with Christian McCaffrey against Alabama and Derrick Henry makes one wistfully imagine what if, no moment stands out as preventing a Pac-12 contender from actually winning the national championship.
Except this one.
Chip Kelly coached an Oregon team with Darron Thomas thrust into the starting lineup just before Week 1, after Jeremiah Masoli’s dismissal from the program, and crafted a revolutionary offense that carried the Ducks to the BCS Championship Game.
In 2012, his system reached its peak with a blue-chip quarterback in Marcus Mariota. The Ducks offense was at full-strength in terms of offensive talent, and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was overseeing perhaps his best group.
Not only was this Oregon team the best of Kelly’s tenure, it was in position to face Notre Dame for the national championship. The 2012 Fighting Irish earned their spot in the title game with a perfect regular season that included an overtime win over Stanford.
Maybe that transitive property alone is enough to suggest Oregon wouldn’t have beaten Notre Dame in Miami. Still, there’s no other potential postseason matchup from the Pac-12 era that feels like more of a missed opportunity for a national championship – and all empirical evidence suggests the value of a college football league is tied to its national titles.