STANFORD, Calif. — At the height of its powers, roughly a decade ago, the Stanford-Oregon football game was a major sporting event. It didn’t just resonate on the West Coast; it was one of the most meaningful games on the college football calendar.
Stanford had inexplicably morphed into a bully under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, while Chip Kelly revolutionized offensive football at Oregon, fielding some of the most explosive teams the sport had ever seen. From 2010 to 2014, each version carried national title implications. Usually played in November, there were multiple Heisman Trophy candidates and several future NFL stars, and the game-day atmospheres reflected those stakes.
The Cardinal and Ducks commanded national respect. They showed what the conference can be, and as USC dealt with crippling sanctions, it wasn’t unreasonable to envision an even brighter future once the Trojans came out on the other side.
That future, of course, has not materialized, with Stanford’s 31-24 overtime win against then-No. 3 Oregon on Saturday serving as the latest sobering reminder of the Pac-12’s bleak state of affairs. Once a national advertisement for the conference, the game had the opposite effect: It exposed the Ducks as overrated and showcased a stadium environment more fitting for a meaningless FCS game.
With one loss, Oregon isn’t completely out of the College Football Playoff picture, but nothing about the way it has played the past two weeks indicates a capability of running the table. The Ducks’ win at Ohio State on Sept. 11 led to inflated expectations, and while the loss to Stanford is the source of immediate disappointment, it should still be noted the program remains on an impressive upward trajectory.
But look around the conference, and there isn’t much else to be optimistic about.
Arizona State, which lost to BYU, might be good. The Sun Devils demoralized UCLA 42-23 on Saturday and have established themselves as the favorite in the Pac-12 South. However, with the cloud of an NCAA investigation into possible recruiting and COVID-19 protocol violations hovering over the program, there is a sense it could all come crashing down.
Oregon State is a nice story. The Beavers’ steady progress under coach Jonathan Smith is finally being rewarded with wins, but their modest early-season success isn’t enough to resonate nationally, and they had a season-opening loss to Purdue, an average Big Ten team.
That leaves nine other teams, all of which have experienced varying degrees of disappointment and are trending in the wrong direction.
The state of Washington is in disarray. Five years removed from becoming the last Pac-12 team to reach the playoff, Washington started the year with a loss to FCS foe Montana and just lost to Oregon State for the first time since 2011. Rival Washington State’s season has been defined by on-field decline, and coach Nick Rolovich’s refusal, so far, to become vaccinated for COVID-19 has been a big distraction off field.
In the wake of a 21-6 loss to Wazzu, Cal is winning the race to the bottom of the Pac-12 North. According to ESPN’s Power Football Index, the Bears are underdogs in each of their remaining divisional games and — like their rival across the Bay — are struggling to resonate in a crowded pro-sports-heavy market.
Plenty of good seats available and if you’re lucky, you may get your own section. pic.twitter.com/yITXwAMD66
— Theo Lawson (@TheoLawson_SR) October 2, 2021
UCLA had its moment in the sun with what felt like a milestone win against LSU on Sept. 4, but the Bruins quickly gave back their winnings with losses to Fresno State and Arizona State — giving up 40-plus points in both contests.
Oddly enough, USC feels like one of the programs in the best shape, but that has everything to do with coach Clay Helton’s dismissal and the idea a new coach will be able to restore USC as a national power.
Utah’s lack of discipline and toughness, along with poor special teams play, has been bizarre to watch. It runs counter to everything expected from a Kyle Whittingham-coached team and has left the Utes (2-2) without an identity.
Perhaps no team has regressed further from its 2020 form than Colorado (1-4), which has yet to beat an FBS team. The Buffaloes were a surprising 4-2 during the condensed pandemic season, but have followed that up by fielding one of the worst offenses in college football. With 1,198 yards of total offense through five games, they rank second to last in FBS, above only UL Monroe.
Arizona (0-4), losers of 16 straight dating back to 2019, is hardly worth a mention.
The cumulative decline leaves the Pac-12 in a tough spot. With two months of regular-season football still to play, conference-wide apathy only figures to increase.
So, now what?
For process-oriented coaches and players, it’s not necessarily an issue worth paying much attention to. Individually and collectively, plenty of incentive remains.
In the conference office, though, it should be front and center for new commissioner George Kliavkoff. Lack of national relevance in football has plagued the conference for years, and former commissioner Larry Scott’s inability to solve that problem — along with his culpability in allowing it to grow — is the primary reason he’s no longer in the job.
But the reality is, there is only so much that can be done at the conference level, especially in the short term. The most obvious solution is to push for expedited expansion to the College Football Playoff with a structure that features automatic bids for all Power 5 conferences, ensuring the Pac-12 — or any conference in a down year — remains nationally relevant into December.
College football isn’t ingrained into the culture on the West Coast like it is in other regions of the country. Yes, there are thousands of die-hard fans who will stay dialed in regardless, but it is illogical to expect the broader pool of potential viewers to invest their Saturdays in games that seem insignificant.
Even the magic of Pac-12 After Dark has its limitations.