TEMPE, Ariz. — Cynics will note that just four weeks into the college football season, three of the Pac-12 conference’s traditional powers, USC, UCLA and Oregon, sport seven losses among them, and none are above the .500 mark.
Optimists will note that two of the conference’s newcomers, Utah and Colorado, have posted major wins, and four teams within the conference are undefeated: Stanford, Washington, Utah and Arizona State.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott sees both sides of the coin.
“I think it’s true that your strongest traditional brands doing well garners more attention, more ratings,” Scott said Saturday before Arizona State’s 51-41 victory over Cal at Sun Devil Stadium. “People that aren’t following the conference that closely assume that if the good brands are doing well the conference is strong; if they’re not its not, but I do sense over the last few years that people have recognized the depth of the conference.”
Last season, the Pac-12 put a record 10 teams in bowl games, with only Colorado and Oregon State missing out. That speaks to the conference’s depth, but so do recent results.
Undefeated Stanford is once again the standard bearer for the conference, with wins over Kansas State, USC and UCLA, but Washington is also 4-0, ASU has a signature win over Texas Tech, Utah held off a desperate USC team last weekend, and Colorado posted its biggest league win since joining the conference when it beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium, one week after going toe to toe with No. 4 Michigan at The Big House until quarterback Sefo Liufau suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter.
In its first five seasons in the Pac-12, Colorado (3-1, 1-0) posted a combined 14 wins and just five conference wins. It has never beaten more than two conference opponents in the same season.
“That’s a paradigm shift for that program where they had struggled,” Scott said. “I think that’s just an indication we’ll be amongst the deepest conferences in the country and hopefully we’ll have some elite teams break through.
“I like the overall trajectory of the conference in football. It hasn’t always been the case the last few years.”
When the Pac-10 expanded to 12 teams in 2011, some analysts questioned the impact of adding Utah and Colorado, but Scott said immediacy didn’t drive the decision.
“When Utah and Colorado joined the conference it was really with a long-term fit in mind. You don’t expand the conference expecting short-term that they’re going to do this, that — at least not in our case. It was very much a long-term strategic decision based on their athletic programs’ success, but also academic fit and geographic markets.
“We also knew those were two programs with a strong pedigree and heritage in football and strong in basketball as well as Olympic sports. They’ve been great contributors to the conference in a lot of respects — Utah earlier than Colorado in terms of football, but Colorado had some good success in basketball early on. I know for the folks in Colorado, they’ve been very eager to have some signature (football) wins in the conference and this will be an important moment for them.”
While the Pac-12’s parity should create a wild, week-to-week ride, particularly in the South Division — where all six teams appear to be in the hunt — Scott understands the conference must take the final step if it is to earn national props.
“I’m keen to see us win a national championship. We haven’t done that in a while and I really think that’s the next step in terms of getting the national respect I think the conference deserves,” Scott said. “Most people have realized we’re as deep as any conference out there right now. We’ve had teams right at the top echelon but I think until we start winning some more national championships, the rest of the country won’t necessarily see it that way.”
The Pac-12 hasn’t had a national champion since 2004 when USC went unbeaten, and was later stripped of that title for NCAA violations. USC was also ranked No. 1 in the final 2003 AP poll.
The Pac-12 currently has three ranked teams: No. 7 Stanford, No. 10 Washington and No. 18 Utah. Those three teams appear to hold conference’s best chances at gaining entrance to the four-team College Football Playoff this season.
All eyes will be on the Stanford-Washington game this Friday. Larry Scott hopes those eyes remain on the Pac-12 in the long run. His conference has a large-scale vision in place, one which requires a great deal of patience, but that grand blueprint depends on significant achievements in the present moment.