Just after his team’s comeback win against Oregon, on a weekend when the Pac-12’s image took another right hook to the dome, Auburn running back JaTarvious Whitlow transformed into JaTrollious Whitlow.
“Nobody wanted to lose to Oregon,” Whitlow said after his Tigers’ 27-21 win. “We feel like that’s a bad reputation on them. What are they, ACC? Pac-12? I didn’t even know what they were. A Pac-12 team coming in and beating an SEC team, we can’t take that.”
It’s unknown whether Whitlow would pass a polygraph asking if he truly didn’t know what conference then-11th-ranked Oregon hailed from. But his words and, more significantly — Auburn’s victory — added ink to an unsettling narrative out west.
The national perception of the Pac-12 seems to be that it’s a beta league in the alpha-stacked Power 5. And those holding that perception have plenty of data to back it up.
You can start with the Pac-12 going 4-12 in bowl games over the past two seasons, during which it was 0-3 in the New Year’s Six games. You can continue with the conference being left out of the College Football Playoff the past two seasons, and having just one win (Oregon over Florida State in December 2014) in the CFP’s five-year history.
You can point to the fact that the Pac-12 has not had more than one school with a top-10 recruiting class since 2012, a trend that doesn’t seem to be on the mend. But mainly — it’s just not getting those key nonconference wins.
Saturday marked the second time a Pac-12 team lost to Auburn on the national stage in its season opener, and if it’s anything like last year, that loss will look worse as the season goes on. Auburn beat Washington, 21-16, in Week 1 in 2018, only to finish 7-5 in the regular season and fifth in the SEC West. This year’s Tigers may be ranked 10th in the latest AP poll, but were also picked by media to finish fourth in the SEC West this season. If that prediction holds true, it could serve as another credibility blow to the Pac-12 when it’s time to select playoff teams.
Asked about his conference’s image Monday, Washington coach Chris Petersen said the Huskies “can only control what we can control,” and that “you have to let the season play out.” Huskies defensive lineman Benning Potoa’e and cornerback Elijah Molden gave similar responses, although both seemed taken aback by Whitlow’s remark.
But Huskies defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake decided to push back against the narrative. He recalled his days coaching on the east coast, when he couldn’t stay up to watch the Pac-12 games. It also wasn’t lost on him that four SEC teams (Tennessee, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Missouri) lost their season openers last weekend, which included defeats to teams such as Georgia State and Wyoming.
“What should be the story this week is there’s this other conference that lost a whole bunch of games,” Lake said. “If our conference would have lost a whole bunch of those games, there would be article after article about how bad football is out west, but you don’t see those articles because they want to make sure they keep that east-coast bias up.”
Yeah, but if there is an east-coast bias … that bias formed for a reason. The SEC has won nine of the past 13 national-championship games, and Clemson (ACC) has won two, Florida State (ACC) one and Texas (Big 12) the other. The only NCAA championship game the Pac-12 has won in the past 21 years was USC in 2004, and that title was stripped due to recruiting violations.
Moreover, none of those SEC losses this weekend involved ranked teams, meaning the powerhouses remain unscathed. That league’s opening weekend might have been rough, but it won’t even scratch its reputation.
The Pac-12 doesn’t get such clemency. Last regular season, it won only two games against ranked nonconference opponents (Arizona State over Michigan State & Washington over BYU), and both of those opponents finished 7-6. And in its opening weekend, the Pac-12 saw UCLA and Arizona fall to Cincinnati and Hawaii, neither of which is Power 5 school.
A disastrous start? That might be a bit strong. But it was at the very least worrisome.
Some will point out that, in the past two years, Pac-12 schools have had to travel much farther than Auburn to meet at the “neutral” site in the season opener. I’d point out that last year’s Pac-12 champion (Huskies) still got beat by the fifth-best team in the SEC West, and that then-11th-ranked Oregon just lost to the team picked to finish fourth in that same division.
The truth is, the Pac-12 just hasn’t won the games it has needed to. It has earned its reputation, and will have to earn its way out of it.