Alabama opened fall camp on Thursday, which may not seem all that relevant to most on the West Coast.
Yet, to anyone who cares about football, particularly those in Southern California, it is incredibly relevant.
Alabama has long been the standard bearer for success in college football, so much so that even basketball fans will hold signs proclaiming “WE WANT BAMA” in big, bold print. Division III schools WANT BAMA. FCS schools WANT BAMA.
On opening weekend of the 2016 season, USC will get a shot at college football’s Death Star.
There is no conference with a more important opening weekend than the Pac-12. It’s the conference with the most to prove and the smallest margin for error. While it’s loaded with good teams, it does not — according to the current narrative — feature any great ones, with the possible exception of Stanford.
The Pac-12 either did itself an immense favor or an immense injustice by scheduling the gauntlet it did on opening weekend. While the playoff committee has made it clear that it values “quality wins” and an arduous schedule, it has also made clear that it values, above all else, wins.
No team has made the playoff with more than one loss — that’s a small sample size, but entirely relevant after two-loss Stanford was locked outside the candy store last season. On opening weekend, it’s unlikely that many in the Conference of Champions will escape without a loss.
While some Pac-12 teams scheduled cupcakes — Utah (Southern Utah), Washington (Rutgers), Oregon (UC Davis), Washington State (Eastern Washington), and Arizona State (Northern Arizona) — the schedule features far more potential white-knucklers than games that will be over before the coin toss.
Cal, in the first game of the post-Jared Goff era, could very well fall to Hawaii. Oregon State will almost surely lose to Minnesota. Colorado and Colorado State flip flop virtually every year, and the Buffaloes were the victors in 2015. If Kansas State discovers a temporary kryptonite for Christian McCaffrey, who knows what will become of Stanford?
UCLA, after the graduation of eight players to the NFL, will have its hands full with a Texas A&M team that is rarely in short supply of points. BYU, Arizona’s opening-week opponent, is enigmatic, but the Cougars proved in 2015 that they can hang with the best, even if it did require a couple Mail Marys to do so.
The biggie, of course, is this one: USC versus Alabama. West Coast versus the South. Former dynasty versus current ruler.
USC is the best team in the Pac-12. Say what you will about Stanford – and you can justifiably say a tremendous amount – but the Cardinal do not have USC’s talent. If any team from the West Coast will beat Alabama and legitimize the Pac-12, it’s USC.
The Trojans are still 9-point underdogs… to a Bama bunch with a new starting quarterback and no Derrick Henry to tote the rock.
Indeed, it is possible that week one could be a funeral for the Pac-12. Oregon State is a 7.5-point underdog; A&M is favored over UCLA; Alabama is favored by 9.
Yet, week one also features an opportunity. It’s high-risk, high-reward, with little in between.
Say the the Bruins vanquish A&M; and Stanford takes care of business against Kansas State; USC stuns the Crimson Tide; Colorado wins two straight against Colorado State; and Oregon State experiences some divine intervention. Suddenly the Pac-12 would go from the “good not great” conference to the one most likely to win the championship.
Bama would still be the team everybody wants… but if the Pac-12 pulls it off in week one, it would be the conference nobody wants.