The Pac-12 hasn’t been able to cleanse the stain that has come from finishing with the worst single-season bowl record in college football history.
That 1-8 mark was the lasting impression from a season that came to a close without a West Coast team in the College Football Playoff or the top 10 of the final AP poll. It’s debatable the degree to which those failures should be used to evaluate the overall strength of a conference, but what’s not up for debate is that the Pac-12 enters 2018 in need of image rehabilitation.
The most pivotal game in that process will take place in Atlanta on Saturday, when the No. 6 Washington Huskies — a popular playoff pick and the Pac-12’s preseason favorite — plays the No. 9 Auburn Tigers (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC and WatchESPN). After months of jokes at the Pac-12’s expense, a win for the Huskies would not only significantly buoy their own trajectory, but play an important role in elevating the perception of the entire conference.
Washington coach Chris Petersen is aware of his program’s torch-carrying designation in the Pac-12, but he was hesitant to put too much importance on Saturday’s game against the Tigers.
“I don’t think one game determines anything. We’re talking about one game,” Petersen said. “If we won that game and lost all the rest, that’s not going to make us like we’re good, you know? It’s going to be the whole body of work.
“It’s going to be the league, how they do in the bowls. 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. That’s totally unrealistic. I don’t look at it like that.”
Petersen is right in that this one game won’t make or break the entire season on its own, but it’s easy to envision a scenario where it has playoff ramifications. And as the playoff era enters Year 5, whether a conference has a place in the four-team field has essentially become a scoreboard for measuring Power 5 conferences. This is the type of matchup that won’t just factor in for Washington or Auburn should they be in the playoff mix, its result could be considered should another Pac-12 team — say, the No. 13 Stanford Cardinal — be in contention for a final playoff spot with another SEC school.
“I think our guys are always excited to play. They know how good Auburn is. They’re not dumb. They’ve seen tape,” Petersen said. “But this whole thing about having extra, like are we going to coach harder now? That doesn’t make sense. You’re always preparing as hard as you can, you’re always super excited. The players are super excited to play that first game.”
For coaches in the league, the idea that the Pac-12 is falling behind is short-sighted. Stanford coach David Shaw made the case that how a conference is perceived nationally doesn’t necessarily have much of an impact on the success of individual programs “because it changes all the time.”
“I was talking to some guys at Pac-12 media day about it a few years ago,” Shaw said. “Everyone was down on the Big Ten. It was just Ohio State and everybody else. Now it’s known as one of the deeper conferences.
“It changes year after year. I think if you have a good history and a good persona individually as a team then you can still recruit whoever you want to recruit. The national conference rankings and national feelings about the conferences, they change every year.”
At Pac-12 media day, commissioner Larry Scott fully expected to be asked about the perceived regression of the teams in his conference, so he tried to frame things in the most positive manner.
“If there’s any indicator of the caliber of players produced by Pac-12 football, one need only look at the fact that the Pac-12 has produced the second-most No. 1 draft picks amongst all conferences and consistently produced a high number of first-round draft picks,” he said. “So we’re building on a strong base.”
That’s all true and a fair, if not convincing, way to look at things. But a better case for the Pac-12 would have been to take a look at how, top-to-bottom, the conference has fared against other Power 5 conferences. Since the playoff was introduced, the Pac-12 has qualified two teams — Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016 — and while that’s not an impressive number, it speaks more about the caliber of teams at the very top, not collectively.
In that time period, the Pac-12 has the highest winning percentage against nonconference Power 5 opponents. The records look like this: Pac-12 38-32 (.543), Big Ten 49-46 (.516), SEC 47-45 (.511), ACC 53-60 (.470) and Big 12 (.435).
This, of course, also isn’t a perfect way to measure conference strength, but it is a more complete way than to simply look at playoff teams or bowl records. Parity, though, doesn’t get teams to the playoff, which is what the majority of the college football consuming public cares most about.
That brings us back to Atlanta. The Huskies are technically playing in a neutral-site matchup — another thing Petersen isn’t really buying into considering his team is flying across the country, while Auburn will ride a bus.
“I would love to play in a neutral-site game,” he said. “I don’t think we’re playing in a neutral-site game. This is very much in their backyard. It’s basically going to be a home game on a different field for them.”
Either way, the collective eyes of the Pac-12 will be fixated on the game.