It’s Sunday 15 October, and we’re already discussing the possibility that this year’s Playoff will take place in the absence of any PAC-12 representation. This realisation follows what was a humiliating weekend for the two premier programs in the state of Washington. Beginning on Friday night, #8 Washington State was demolished on the road at California, as the Cougars chalked up just a single field goal on a night which saw Luke Falk throw 5 INTs. Then, late on Saturday, the #5 Washington Huskies were almost shut-out on the road at (2-3) Arizona State, as Jake Browning’s passing attack went into hiding. Thus, in the space of just a little over 24 hours, the Apple Cup was transformed from potential-quarterfinal, to just another late-season rivalry game.
Viewing Washington’s loss to Arizona State as a death-knell for the league’s National Championship hopes could well be an overreaction. There’s still a lot of football to played, and undefeated teams are increasingly few and far between. But such a (over)reaction is simply the product of a narrative that has been building for some time. For fans on the West Coast, media treatment of the conference can be grating. At best, PAC-12 football (with the longstanding exception of USC) can often be covered as if it were merely a secondary afterthought. National media outlets tend not to pore-over the conference in the same way as they can be found dissecting, and even fawning-over, the BIG Ten and SEC. A result, perhaps, of east coast insularity, combined with a lack of traditional “Blue Blood” programs in the Pacific-12.
A Double Standard?
But worse still, the conference can often come in for criticism in a manner that denies the PAC-12 any benefit of the doubt. There is a sense among fans that when a top team from, say, the Midwest or the South loses to inferior opposition, the failing will be quickly explained-away by analysts and reporters scrambling for an “explanation”. Indeed, there could well be some truth to this. Following Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State (still the biggest upset of the season), outlets like ESPN were quick to remind viewers and readers alike that the Sooners emerged from Columbus victorious in Week Two. Similarly, following Clemson’s shock loss to Syracuse on Friday, no one has seriously questioned the Tigers’ playoff credentials. A “minor blip” for the defending national champions, we’re told, and nothing more than that.
To say this is a bad week for the Pac12 would be an understatement. Wow!
— Matt Leinart (@MattLeinartQB) October 15, 2017
Conversely, in response to what was a damaging weekend for west coast football, the media reaction has been predictable — and the counter-reaction from fans even more so. College football analysts have done little to excuse the PAC-12’s shortcomings, and the West Coast’s “down week” has instead been interpreted as a potential avenue for teams like Oklahoma and Ohio State to re-enter the playoff conversation. In the eyes of PAC-12 fans, the media response is laughably skewed in favour of the Blue Bloods from the middle of the country.
But whether or not there is an inherent bias in the sports media in favour of the Big Ten and Big 12, observers and supporters of the PAC-12 need to ask themselves whether the league has been guilty of hampering its own ambitions. Washington is a case in point. The Huskies schedule is alarmingly soft when compared with those of other playoff contenders. Alabama, let’s not forget, chose to open with Florida State; Clemson hosted Auburn in Week Two; Ohio State and Oklahoma both took a huge risk in scheduling an early encounter; and Georgia went on the road to Notre Dame. All of these games were, of course, optional, and showed an admirable level of ambition and confidence.
Caution supersedes ambition
In stark contrast, USC (which has scheduled Texas and Notre Dame) is the only PAC-12 program to go out on a limb this year. Washington’s “big” out-of-conference match-up with Rutgers in Week One was risible when compared to what last year’s other playoff teams were doing in the early weeks. The consequence of Washington’s pedestrian schedule is that the team has to go undefeated in order to make a serious case for playoff consideration. And following the loss to the Sun Devils, the “trust” is now gone, and there is little on Washington’s schedule capable of reversing that sentiment.
The Huskies’ “perception problem” has been compounded by the fact that soft schedules abound in the the PAC-12. In out-of-conference play, Oregon has faced Nebraska; Arizona has played Houston; Arizona State lost to Texas Tech; Utah scheduled BYU; UCLA hosted Texas A&M; and Colorado…well, Colorado hasn’t played anybody. With the exception of the game between the Bruins and Aggies in Week One, the PAC-12 has been bereft of marquee out-of-conference match-ups, and this has hurt the league’s stock considerably. The league will remain incapable of building a national pedigree if it continues to operate in such an insular fashion.
If, then, the media privileges the other Power Five conferences at the expense of the PAC-12, we have to wonder whether we can blame them? With the glaring exception of USC, the league has collectively chosen to isolate itself from the national conversation. Teams like Clemson and Oklahoma, which take risks in scheduling the toughest competition, ought to rewarded even if they slip up from time-to-time. Washington and Washington State, on the other hand, simply haven’t earned our trust. If they are to really gain a foothold in the minds of observers, they need to get out there and play the very best. The conference’s top teams can’t, however, reverse the PAC-12’s perception crisis alone. Programs from throughout the conference need to start taking risks in order build the league’s credibility on the national stage. This is the only way the PAC-12 can start to develop a reputation comparable to those which have been carefully constructed by the Big Ten and SEC.