The kickoff times and TV networks have not been set, the depth charts are in flux, and crowd sizes have yet to be determined. But barring a reversal in the course of the pandemic, the countdown to J-Day has begun.
Six months from today, everything is on the line for the Pac-12.
Sept. 11, 2021, is judgment day.
It’s the most important Saturday of the most important season in years, with three games that will shape the present and define the future:
Colorado vs. Texas A&M
Washington at Michigan
Oregon at Ohio State
How they go, so goes … everything.
The Pac-12 has missed the playoff for five consecutive seasons, whiffed repeatedly in marquee matchups and faded from relevance nationally.
It lacks elite teams and star players.
It’s the object of derision more often than praise within the college football media ecosystem.
In the metrics that matter, it’s devolving into a purgatorial existence — less than the Power Five, more than the Group of Five — that threatens lasting consequences for all teams in all sports across the conference.
Because up ahead, on the fast-approaching horizon, are the media rights negotiations that will frame the future.
Although the new contract cycle does start until the summer of 2024, negotiations likely will begin much earlier — as early as the late fall of 2022.
The strategy underpinning those negotiations will be finalized months before the issuance of opening bids.
ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC, Turner, Amazon — none of the possible partners will wait for the final College Football Playoff rankings of the ’22 season to determine whether the Pac-12 is worth $5 billion over 10 years or $6 billion over 15.
The valuation process is done well in advance, which makes this fall the last chance for the conference to establish its worth and lure bidders to the table.
It’s the moment of collision, when the lackluster recent past meets the potential for a brighter future.
And within the 2021 season, Week Two stands alone.
It’s not the only day with a major matchup: UCLA hosts LSU on Labor Day weekend, while Stanford and USC take their swings against Notre Dame later in the season.
But the triple-whammy packaging on Sept. 11 will generate a lasting afterglow … or many months of gloom.
It’s the best chance, by far, for the conference to claim inside position in the playoff race. Or the day it gets banished to the back of the pack.
Nothing about the College Football Playoff is settled in the middle of September, except that which arguably counts the most: The width of the path for the eventual conference champion.
One opponent is an ascendant program in the SEC fresh off a No. 4 ranking in the end-of-season AP poll.
The others are the Big Ten’s biggest brands, welcoming the Pac-12 to their storied stadiums after 2020 trips to the West Coast were canceled.
In all three duels, the Pac-12 will be the underdog.
Raphael Esparza, a handicapper for Doc’s Sports and former manager of the Aria’s race and sports book, offered the following preliminary odds as a means of framing the challenge:
Washington +6 at Michigan
Oregon +7 at Ohio State
Colorado +14 vs. Texas A&M (in Denver)
(There is a fourth game of note that day, Cal at TCU. But its significance feels limited because the Horned Frogs haven’t been relevant nationally in several years.)
How should we define success for the Pac-12 on Sept. 11?
The conference is long past the point that merely being competitive is enough, that process is defined as a one-possession game in the fourth quarter.
It cannot offer to the jury another set of narrow defeats, like Washington’s 21-16 loss to Auburn in 2018 or Oregon’s 27-21 loss to the Tigers in 2019. It needs victories — at least one and maybe two.
If Oregon beats Ohio State, the day is a success regardless of the other results, such is the position OSU holds in the sport’s hierarchy.
We don’t give the Ducks much chance, not with a new quarterback facing Ohio State’s loaded defensive front and a revamped secondary matched against the Buckeyes’ ridiculous collection of receivers.
If the Ducks lose, then Washington must win.
As rosters currently stand, the Huskies are clearly the Pac-12’s best bet to avoid a sweep on Sept. 11. They return a veteran offensive line and experienced defense, while Michigan’s talent is decidedly less than playoff caliber.
Those games matter more than the third because Oregon and Washington are two of the Pac-12 premier programs and because Colorado will carry low expectations for success against an opponent that is not of blue-blood stature.
Yes, sure: Victory in Denver could tip the day in the Pac-12’s favor. But the results from Columbus and Ann Arbor will form the core of the case on Sept. 11.
Six months from today, 2,000 miles away, judgment will be rendered.