The Pac-12 went 1-8 in bowl games — the worst postseason record ever produced by a conference. The. Worst. Ever. So is it crisis time for the conference of champions?
I had planned to spend the weekend piecing together a year-in-review piece, but we’re changing course to account for what sure feels like the early stage of a crisis situation for the conference’s football product.
I don’t use that description lightly — not in the slightest.
But after a bad regular season on the field, a worse regular season off the field (Kirk Herbstreit! cupcakes! truck racing!) and an unprecedented postseason meltdown — plus several natural headwinds — it’s fair to say the football finger should be inching toward the panic button.
Let’s start with an acknowledgment that bowl results are something of a moving target. Placing full weight and judgment on a single result, or series of results, is often a misguided approach.
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Circumstances cannot be discounted, and in the Pac-12’s case in 2017, those circumstances included two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks and three teams enduring coaching changes that disrupted preparation.
But I’d argue that in this case, this year, the sweep of the results should be deeply concerning to the conference:
The Pac-12 went 1-8, the worst postseason record ever produced by a conference.
The. Worst. Ever.
And it wasn’t just the winning percentage of 11.1 that leaves a rotten smell and horrific sight.
It was the way the conference lost — so many lopsided defeats, such bad defense — and the teams it lost to.
In particular, there were three head-to-head duels matching top teams from the Pac-12 against top teams from the Big Ten:
Ohio State 24, USC 7
Penn State 35, Washington 28
Michigan State 42, Washington State 17
Then add Arizona’s loss to Purdue, and the Pac-12 was 0-4 against its chief rival within the Power Five.
The bowl results substantiate, if not bolster the narrative that the Pac-12 was a second-rate conference during the regular season — that it didn’t deserve to sniff the playoffs.
There were issues off the field, too, with the Washington-ESPN hubbub and the scheduling woes (Saturday road games followed by Friday road games) and the out-of-nowhere shot at the Pac-12 Networks by ESPN’s Chris Fowler and the incomprehensible snubbing of Stanford-Washington by FS1 because of a truck race gone long.
Ask yourself: Is any other conference encountering issues like those mentioned above?
Big Ten games aren’t getting bumped by a truck race. ACC coaches aren’t getting ripped by Kirk Herbstreit. Fowler isn’t taking shots at the SEC Network.
That bleak situation got worse in the postseason, courtesy of the worst across-the-board showing by a single conference in the sport’s history.
And let’s not forget: The Pac-12 has missed the playoff two of the past three years and hasn’t won a playoff game since Oregon in 2014.
(Oh, and this: Of the dozens of bowl games played thus far, only one has been defined by bad officiating: the Music City. And guess which conference provided the officiating. The Pac-12 crew embarrassed itself and the conference.)
Panic time? Crisis situation?
At the very least, Pac-12 football — the entirety of the brand, not just an individual team or two — is trending in the wrong direction.
This much we know:
The conference cannot buy its way out of the downward spiral, because peer schools in the Big Ten and SEC are collecting tens of millions of dollars more per year in media rights revenue, enabling them to spend more for head coaches, assistant coaches, support staffs, recruiting, facilities, etc.
The conference shouldn’t make another public utterance of a successful business venture in China until it puts a team in the playoff.
Yes, commissioner Larry Scott is perfectly capable of multitasking, of deepening the conference’s relationship with Alibaba and Pacific Rim entities while working on football matters.
But the situation is entirely about perception at this point, and the perception outside the walls of Pac-12 power is that the overseas endeavors are just as important as football to those inside the walls of Pac-12 power.
Nor is this the time for conference to convene a blue-ribbon panel to study the challenges facing Pac-12 football and then report its findings to Scott and his senior staff for contemplation.
What the conference needs … and yes, I’m doubling down here … is to act decisively and swiftly and establish a competition committee:
It needs a governing body for the sport that has full authority to act in the best interest of the Pac-12 football brand (within the parameters of established NCAA rules, of course).
It’s so clear that the football product needs help.
Again: The missteps encountered by the Pac-12 don’t happen to any other conference.
(Also unique to the Pac-12: chancellors and presidents publicly questioning revenue models and conference spending.)
The competition committee isn’t about the bowl meltdown or missing the playoff for the second time in three years.
It’s about the bowl meltdown and missing the playoff for the second time in three years and …
*** The conference’s wholly-owned TV network either not grasping the significance of the early signing window or grasping but not caring enough about it to produce a show(s) that could be used as a marketing tool for the football brand …
*** A regular-season schedule that created student-welfare issues and placed teams at competitive disadvantages (Saturday road/Friday road) in ways that don’t exist in other leagues ..
*** High-profile employees for one of your business partners (Herbstreit, Fowler) showing a decided lack of respect in their public bashing of your coaches and product …
*** Your other business partner (Fox) favoring truck races over Washington-Stanford …
*** The fact that the conference is already facing natural challenges with the time zones and a significant lack of exposure.
(The Pac-12 Networks, for all intents and purposes, are a regional, not national, media company.)
Perhaps the single most important issue facing Pac-12 football, however, is one of identity:
What should it strive to be?
Scott’s vision for a healthy football product — “long-term,” he said recently, “you want depth and competitive teams” — fits well with the conference’s long-held ethos of parity and collective good. But it’s at odds with the reality of the top-heavy postseason structure that now dominates the sport.
If you’re not in the playoff, you’re a second-class citizen generating less revenue than your competitors. And the model for reaching the playoff is to field one or two elite teams, with a swath of mediocrity underneath.
The conference must decide, with the competition committee leading the charge, if striving for parity is truly the proper tact, or if a playoff berth should be the annual end game.
(Having both is neither reasonable nor sustainable.)
And if reaching the playoff and winning a championship is the goal — it sure seems to be for everyone else — then the committee should determine the path forward.
(A best-practices study of the ACC, Big Ten and SEC would be a potential starting point.)
The concern (panic?) the conference and campuses should be feeling about the quality of the football brand isn’t rooted in a single issue or result.
It’s not about 1-8. It’s about 1-8 and everything else:
The entire canvas, on the field and off, regular season and postseason, management and operations, identity and end game.
Pac-12 football needs help in order to not just survive but thrive (long term) in an increasingly treacherous, challenging college football landscape.
The first step to solving the problem is recognizing it exists.