HOLLYWOOD, Calif. --Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott knows he’ll be making at least two short trips from his downtown San Francisco office to Levi’s Stadium this season. The first will be for the annual conference title game in early December and a second will come three weeks later to watch one of the league’s teams in the San Francisco Bowl.
Whether or not a third comes in the final game of the season as just a spectator or with a strong rooting interest remains to be seen.
Make no mistake, with the College Football Playoff National Championship Game making the trek to the Bay Area in 2019, a shiny gold cylinder will be awarded to a team on the West Coast this season. Scott is hoping it will also be held up by one from the West Coast as well.
We’re a long ways away from that happening both in terms of the calendar (five-plus months until the title game) and, more pressing as the conference reveled in the pomp and circumstance of media day on Wednesday, on the field. The Pac-12 is doing their best to recover from a 1-8 bowl record in 2017, coaching changes at five of the 12 schools and the fact that the league missed the postseason playoff entirely for the second time in four years.
“I’m very excited about the state of Pac-12 football and its trajectory for the future,” said Scott. “We're building on a strong base. Much was written and discussed about our bowl record last year. From our perspective, a handful of season-ending games are not a key indicator of a conference's overall strength and competitiveness.”
It’s no surprise to hear Scott take the long (or rosy) view of Pac-12 football -- that’s his job. Quite tellingly though, there’s no national title talk filling the hallways of the Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center like there was a week ago when the SEC held their preseason media event in Atlanta or when Clemson’s Dabo Swinney took the podium for the ACC Kickoff. Out West, the overarching discussion is simply far more muted and down to earth.
The sport’s ultimate prize isn’t the focus as much as incremental improvement is after taking plenty of bumps and bruises as the weather turned from cool to cold last fall.
“Football is cyclical,” new Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said, noting how many of the incoming coaches in the Pac-12 have won at a high level. “This is a good year to put us back to trending upwards like the conference has done for so many years. Obviously we didn't do a good job last year when it came to the bowl season or whatnot.
“This season has nothing but opportunity in front of it, and we've got to do it. There is no way to sugar coat it or try to dance around it, there is not. We've just got to get it done.”
A lot of that will come down to winning the marquee matchups that will serve not just as barometers for contending for the College Football Playoff, but the conference as a whole. Stanford and USC will both play their annual rivalry games with a Notre Dame squad that should be in the top 15 most of the year. The Trojans also head to Austin for a rematch with Texas while UCLA, though in full rebuilding mode with Chip Kelly, visits Oklahoma. Arizona State also plays host to Michigan State in an underrated test in Tempe.
Without question though, no contest looms larger to the overall narrative than Washington’s trip into the heart of SEC territory to play Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. A win establishes the Huskies as a front-runner for one of the four spots in the playoff. A loss will lead to more lamenting that their conference still has quite a bit to go before they can go toe-to-toe with those in the South or the elite teams elsewhere.
“I mean, I know everybody wants to put it all about this one thing, the Pac-12 is either good or not on one game,” UW coach Chris Petersen remarked. “That's totally unrealistic. I don't look at it like that.”
Like it or not though, that’s still how many will view that game -- and by extension football itself in the conference as a whole.
It wasn’t lost that Petersen’s comments at Football Media Day came against the backdrop of the Pac-12 once again devoting a lot of their fancy videos and repetitive talking points to the fact that they’ve won a lot of hardware in sports other than the one played on the gridiron. It’s been something those in the league office have harped on quite a bit in recent years with their "Conference of Champions" moniker that, while accurate when looking at the dozens of NCAA trophies that get held up by the league’s 12 schools every few months, obscures the fact that the Pac-12 is in the midst of a long drought holding up one of trophies that really resonate with their fan bases.
It’s been a full 15 years since the league can claim a national championship in the sport that matters to most fans -- you know, the one that’s the second-most popular in the country behind only the NFL. The SEC has branded itself as a football-first conference, noting that it just means more there. In the Pac-12, football isn’t even treated first among equals like in other leagues.
And that’s seemingly okay with everybody from the coaches to the commissioner even as they try to win every game on the slate.
“Football is a huge priority,” said Scott. “It’s a very important priority but in the Pac-12 Conference, we don’t lose sight of the conference of champions positioning and the value our schools place on the broader-based excellence. It’s something our schools invest in and take pride in that we have the best athletic departments in the country and the winningest across the board. We’re the biggest contributor to the Olympic movement.”
“These are the things that really define the conference, more so than how often we’re winning a national championship in football.”
A noble idea in the realm of college athletics but one that certainly doesn’t push the chips to the center of the table in the way many contemporaries are doing in what is now a growing multi-billion dollar industry.
The conference has course-corrected on some things to be more football-friendly in recent years but it’s hardly enough. Many complained last season that they had to play a weeknight road game following a Saturday conference game that was also away from home. Such scheduling quirks were nipped in May but the fact that nobody caught the issue in the first place -- much less make conference and playoff favorite USC suffer as a result -- spoke volumes.
Several coaches also griped about the placement of bye weeks, with Petersen remarking that is something he zeros in on as soon as the schedule is released. The Huskies suffered one of their two conference losses last season to an ASU team coming off a bye and they lost the division race on a short week at Stanford.
In many other aspects, the Pac-12 still doesn’t provide the guiding hand needed to help football along as much as it should.
The Heisman runner-up and perhaps the face of the league, Stanford running back Bryce Love, remained in Palo Alto for Media Day. Head coach David Shaw cited training and classroom commitments as the reason behind the absence but it was yet again another opportunity for positive publicity missed out. The few national reporters who made the journey to Los Angeles simply didn’t feign any interest in replacement JJ Arcega-Whiteside, even as the league scrambled to arrange a Skype interview for reporters with Love on a big screen.
Even shortening the event itself from two days to one cost the conference additional coverage on national TV and radio platforms. The Pac-12 Networks has been a disappointment in terms of both distribution and revenues but didn’t even cover media day podium sessions live.
Considering just one team from the league is ranked in the top of Athlon Sports’ Top 25 -- and there were only four teams total -- and it’s readily apparent that the best foot isn’t quite being put forward out West.
“We’ve discussed whether we want to favor the front-runners and see if we can give them a better schedule and preferential byes and things like that. Our coaches said no,” Scott added. “Our philosophy is to believe in an even playing field. There’s really no interest in going down the path to favoritism.”
Such is the case with football itself in the Pac-12.
Maybe one day a USC or Washington or Oregon will climb the mountain top and hoist that national title in football. All three have certainly had chances to in recent years.
But getting over the hump to be king of the mountain will mean doing so without quite having the full support of the conference they play in. While it is infuriating for fans, that seems just fine by those running around Hollywood who are in charge of such decisions.
-- Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of @pac12)