Pac-12 Football Overcomes Bias, But More Importantly, Past Failures

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The 2014 season is one on which partisans of Pac-12 football can look back fondly. This was the year that decades of perception about the conference finally unraveled.

But it’s not just media types that changed. It’s Pac-12 football as a whole.

The league embarks on this postseason with the Heisman Trophy and several high-profile bowl matchups.

Six Pac-12 football teams are ranked in the final College Football Playoff standings, including four in the Top 20. That overall rising tide buoyed Oregon to the No. 2 spot in the inaugural tournament and kept Arizona ranked in the Top 10; an honor that landed the Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl.

With positive sentiment of Pac-12 football teams, so too has come recognition for its individual athletes.

Arizona sophomore Scooby Wright was named Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the nation’s best defensive player; UCLA senior Eric Kendricks took home the Butkus Award for the country’s premier linebacker.

And Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, perhaps the single best representative of Pac-12 football being slighted on the national stage the previous two years, ended a remarkable drought for the conference on Saturday.

Snubbed even for an invite in 2012 and 2013 — two seasons in which the Pac-12 was completely shut out of NYC — Mariota won this year’s Heisman in a landslide.

Before Mariota became the 79th Heisman Trophy winner, the conference now known as the Pac-12 and its extended history boasted 10 recipients of college football’s highest individual honor.

That’s including the asterisked win of USC running back Reggie Bush in 2005, but not including Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam’s 1994 win as a member of the former Big 8 Conference.

Take away the longtime face of Pac-12 football USC, however, and Mariota is just the conference’s fourth Heisman winner — and first since Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in 1970.

In the 44 years between Plunkett’s Heisman and Mariota’s, USC collected five of its seven awards. The rest of the Pac-12 collected plenty of free trips to New York City, but no hardware to bring back to the West.

Stanford’s John Elway was runner-up to Herschel Walker in 1982; fellow Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck lost a photo-finish to Robert Griffin III almost three decades later.

Washington’s Steve Emtman won a national championship in 1991, but no Heisman Trophy. Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington was egregiously denied either in 2001.

And Harrington’s Heisman slight in favor of Nebraska’s Eric Crouch pales in comparison to Toby Gerhart finishing behind Mark Ingram despite producing vastly superior numbers in several key categories.

Basically if you called the Pac-12 home and your address was anything Heritage Hall, national recognition wasn’t for you.

A decade ago, the then-Pac-10 received plenty of recognition — it just all happened to be lavished on a single program.

The conference was essentially USC and The Other Guys during the Trojans’ reign of dominance in the 2000s.

While that was certainly the case in terms of on-field results — USC won seven straight conference championships from 2002 through 2008 — it’s not as if the rest of the nation was having any more success against the Trojans.

In fact, after a 27-20 loss at Kansas State in September 2002, the Pete Carroll-coached Trojans’ only other defeat outside of conference play came to Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

That includes the 2009 team, which limped to a middle-of-the-Pac finish in Carroll’s final year before heading back to the NFL.

Not that beating USC or competing with the mighty Trojans did much to bolster the profile of the conference, however. In 2004, Cal was denied its first Rose Bowl appearance in nearly five decades because Jeff Tedford refused to hit the campaign trail in an effort to combat Texas head coach Mack Brown’s rhetoric.

The Golden Bears also carried the Pac-12 stigma.

And Pac-12 stigma more easily transferred to USC than USC’s aura transferred to the rest of the conference. Take 2008 when an Oregon State team that finished ranked in the Top 25 beat the Trojans on a Thursday night in Corvallis.

The BCS Championship Game that season featured Oklahoma — which lost on a neutral field to Texas — and Florida, which lost at home to Ole Miss.

Despite showcasing one of the greatest defenses in college football history and suffering its conference loss at home, USC was never seriously in the discussion to play for the national title.

Luke-warm attitudes toward Pac-12 football emanated from the Midwest, East and Southeast for years, and that sentiment did hold the conference back; unfairly, at times.

But the reputation also was not completely unwarranted.

Instead of going to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl in the 2004 season, Cal headed another 100 miles south to San Diego and the Holiday Bowl. There, the Bears hibernated their way to an ugly loss against an inferior Texas Tech team.

Five years later, the perception of USC and The Other Guys became reality at the end of the Carroll era, with then-Pac-10 teams going a dismal 2-4 in bowl games.

The wins were UCLA over Temple — hardly a mantle-piece victory — and Boston College going down to — you guessed it — USC.

Oregon supplanted USC atop the conference and proceeded to faceplant in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, 26-17.

It was the conference’s first Rose Bowl loss to a Big Ten opponent since a three-loss Stanford fell to Wisconsin to conclude the 1999 season.

Oh, and at the beginning of that 1999 season? The Pac’s highest-ranked team in the preseason, Arizona, went to Big Ten Penn State and suffered a 41-7 loss that quite literally set the program back a decade.

Those sour memories lingered, but been deconstructed through the hiring of new coaching staffs and building of new facilities.

A bowl-season showing that reflects the College Football Playoff committee’s faith in the Pac-12 is crucial. Likewise, Mariota needs to put together a memorable performance in the Ducks’ Playoff showdown with Florida State and 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston.

Pac-12 football can either acquit itself or watch several years’ worth of work come undone in a few short weeks.