The first month of the season could set up the Pac-12 for a fall of top-10 rankings and national media buzz. Or it could lead the conference down another disappointing path, weakened and wobbly and painfully far from the playoff chase.

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The midpoint of spring practice in the Pac-12 is as difficult to corral as Khalil Tate, but the first Wednesday in April strikes me as an appropriate spot.

Colorado is done, Oregon State starts today, and the remaining 10 are at various points in the progression.

So we’ll consider this week the start of the second half … the second half of what is arguably the most important spring in the conference’s 12-team era.

Progress made in March and April sets the parameters for what can be accomplished in August, which, in turn, becomes the foundation for success in September.

About that September …

It’s bursting with marquee nonconference affairs that could set the Pac-12 on course for a first-rate fall — one filled with top-10 rankings, national media buzz, playoff contenders and New Year’s Six invitations.


The results of those very same intersectional duels will send the conference down another disappointing path, weakened and wobbly and painfully far from the glamor of the playoff chase.

The Pac-12’s make-or-break September lineup:

  • Oregon State at Ohio State
  • Washington vs. Auburn (in Atlanta)
  • Arizona at Houston
  • North Carolina at Cal
  • Michigan State at Arizona State
  • UCLA at Oklahoma
  • Utah at Northern Illinois
  • Colorado at Nebraska
  • USC at Texas
  • Stanford at Notre Dame

Those 10 intersectional games — because of the opposing team and the opposing conference — will frame the perception of the conference for the remainder of the season.

Most are squeezed into the first two weeks.

Six opponents, at least, are projected for the AP preseason top-25 poll.

Nine of the 10 games are on the road/neutral site.

And it’s all made that much more daunting by the unsettled nature of the Pac-12 offseason.

Five new head coaches and their staffs are churning through the spring, hoping to turn every repetition into a teaching point and every sequence into an opportunity to learn more about their personnel.

Add the quarterback uncertainty at seven schools (because of injury, inexperience or poor 2017 performance), and the spring to-do list becomes mountainous for a conference that must be revving, collectively, when Week One arrives.

We’ve seen the impact high-profile, non-conference results play in the postseason selection process.

Oklahoma’s win at Ohio State and Georgia’s victory at Notre Dame — both in Week Two — became key lines on playoff resumes last year.

Playoff access is possible without a major intersectional win (i.e., Washington in 2016), but that’s a more treacherous path.

(There’a a reflective component to intersectional success, as well: An Arizona State victory over Michigan State would, in turn, elevate any win over the Sun Devils by Pac-12 playoff contenders.)

Against the Pac-12’s double-whammy of offseason tumult and early-season duels comes the ominous backdrop: The conference’s forgettable performance during the regular season and its epic fail in the postseason.

The Pac-12 never recorded an elite non-conference win … never generated a serious playoff contender … watched its top teams get undercut by the league’s very own schedule … produced the worst bowl record in history (1-8) …

And here it stands, on the first Monday of April — just four months from training camp — with its reputation on the line and not a rep to waste.

Another second-rate year, and the walls start to close.

The cycle potentially becomes self-fulfilling as prime west coast recruits seek haven elsewhere at accelerated rates,  undermining the Pac-12’s ability to compete with its Power Five peers and creating a gap in talent and reputation that’s difficult to close.

One bad year: Hey, it happens.

Two bad years: A trend not easily reversed.

The conference must dig in next season like never before. That process had best be underway. This is no ordinary spring.