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01 January 2016: Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw during the Rose Bowl Game between the Stanford Cardinal and the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo by Katie Meyers/Icon Sportswire)

The road will again define Pac-12 title race in 2016

(Photo by Katie Meyers/Icon Sportswire)

Once is an aberration. Twice is not exactly indicative of a trend. But a third straight season of the home-field advantage turning on its head in Pac-12 football might be enough that it’s no longer met with shock.

Each of the last two seasons, the conference champion lost once. In both instances, that sole defeat came at home: Oregon in 2014 to Arizona, Stanford last year against Oregon.

The champions set the overall tone for the entire league. Stanford’s Pac-12 Championship Game opponent last December, USC, dropped its first two conference games in the Coliseum. UCLA opened the Pac slate routing Arizona in Tucson, then lost at home to Arizona State the next week.

And Arizona State? It fell in a blowout loss to USC the week prior, sandwiched between the Trojans’ home defeats against Stanford and Washington.

Overall in 2015, Pac-12 road teams finished 24-28. That’s not quite on par with 2014’s ridiculous 33-21 record for road teams, but it’s still significant enough to downplay any perceived advantage gleaned from playing at home.

No team represented the road-warrior mentality of the Pac-12 quite as well as Washington State last year, which won each of its marquee conference games (Oregon, Arizona and UCLA) away from Martin Stadium.

“We relish the opportunity going on the road,” Washington State safety Parker Henry said at Pac-12 media days earlier this month. “It’s always fun going into someone else’s stadium and quieting the crowd.”

Plenty of home crowds have been left quiet in the Pac-12 each of the last two seasons, and don’t be surprised if 2016 offers more of the same, given the unpredictable make-up of the conference.

It differentiates the Pac’s race from its Power Five brethren. Every other league has a clear favorite or two: Clemson and Florida State in the ACC; Oklahoma in the Big 12; Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten; Alabama and LSU in the SEC, and maybe Tennessee if you’re into yoga.

The Pac-12 has no clear favorite, and one could make a compelling, realistic case for any of about seven or eight teams to hoist the hardware at Levi’s Stadium come December.

Should recent precedent hold true, the team that can dominate on the road will be left standing.

As far as a singular favorite, defending champion Stanford was the preseason media pick to win — a first in David Shaw’s tenure as head coach.

Considering Shaw’s the winner of three league titles, the media pick may well be the Cardinal’s kiss of death.

“You guys have no idea what you’re doing,” Shaw joked in a deadpan tone, but he highlighted what makes the conference so unpredictable. “Josh Rosen coming back [at UCLA] is one of the best quarterbacks in that nation…What USC is bringing back; what Washington is bringing back, the way they
played at the end of the year; what Oregon is bringing back — Oregon is just like us.”

Oregon is just like Stanford in plenty of ways. The two programs have accounted for each of the last seven conference titles. Both return All-America running backs. Each replaces a starting quarterback, but returns a bevy of talent in other positions.

And last year, both went undefeated in road, conference games. Suddenly, having to travel to both Autzen and Husky Stadiums may not look so bad for the Cardinal.

Then again, Washington State comes down to The Farm for a rematch of the Halloween night, instant classic Stanford carried on the Palouse a year ago.

Another year of road dominance shaping the Pac-12 hunt can cease all discussion of how remarkable it is. For a third straight season, it’s just reality.

The road will again define Pac-12 title race in 2016

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