Pac-12 Country served as the epicenter for college football’s chaotic past weekend, with two of the four Top 10-ranked teams bounced coming from the West.
Not to downplay either of the other two upsets that rocked the national landscape, but LSU beating Auburn was certainly less surprising than Cal dominating Washington State on Friday night and Arizona State shutting down Washington into the wee hours Saturday. Syracuse’s defeat of defending national champion Clemson might be bigger in sheer magnitude; however, both Cal and Arizona State limped into their Top 10 showdowns.
The Golden Bears lost three straight, all by double-digits. The Sun Devils’ stingy defensive performance came on the heels of surrendering 303 yards to Bryce Love, and Stanford marking the 10th consecutive game in which an ASU opponent allowed 30-plus points.
Both the background context and the wholly dominant way in which both teams won come as shocks…sort of.
The Pac-12 has not had an undefeated champion since 2010, when the conference had 10 members. In that same time, the ACC produced three (Florida State in 2013 and 2014, Clemson in 2015); Ohio State did not lose a regular-season Big Ten game from 2012 through 2014.
The SEC had three in that time; four if you go back one more season to 2009, the last season in which the Big 12 Conference champion made it through the regular season unscathed. The Big 12 is the only Power Five conference with a streak longer than the Pac-12’s. Both have two such seasons going back to 2005.
It’s perhaps of no coincidence, then, that the Big 12 has been regularly maligned of late for its conference play. There’s seemingly a prevailing attitude that conflates conference strength with a singular, dominant program.
The Pac-12 clearly lacks such a squad in 2017, with every team sporting at least one loss by the end of Oct. 14. However, the apparent minimal separation between teams speaks to a “stronger” conference in the sense that the weekly competition presents greater challenge.
“There’s so much parity, and it is difficult. As soon as you’ve got parity, that’s what makes it difficult,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said. “I’ve been saying it since even before I got in this conference [as a head coach], I was here a long time ago [as Oregon wide receivers coach from 1995-through-2000] and any given weekend, there’s no question: If you don’t play well, you’re going to get beat.”
Washington did not play well at Arizona State, there’s little question. But the Sun Devils brought a great defensive game plan, executed by players who are Power Five-quality athletes in their own right. It’s easy to lose sight of that, but typically both teams in a given game, regardless of conference, both have prepared coaches and top-flight athletes.
“There’s so many good quarterbacks in our league, there’s so many good coaches in our league, that it always makes it tough, every Saturday, to get a W,” Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre said.
Colorado is an interesting case study into how narrow the gap between a potential championship run and last-place finish can be. The Buffs lost four Pac-12 games by a touchdown or less in 2015 and finished 1-8. The next season, Colorado won four by five points or fewer and finished 8-1 en route to the South division championship.
It speaks to Stanford head coach David Shaw’s point that, “there are no upsets in our conference.”
Though Saturday’s earth-shaking don’t-call-them-upsets weren’t so close — Cal won in a blowout and Arizona State, though decided by only a touchdown, clearly dictated the pace — those games addressed another element to consider.
“It’s especially hard to play on the road in our league,” MacIntyre said.
Washington and Washington State both fell on the road, just as USC had when it visited Washington State, as Stanford had at USC. Road wins in general have been fleeting in Pac-12 play thus far: Excluding Oregon State, the list features Arizona at Colorado, Utah at Arizona, USC at Cal, Stanford at Utah and Washington State at Oregon.
The conference footprint’s spaciousness makes for lengthy road trips. Clemson’s trip to Syracuse, for example, spanned about 880 miles, about the same distance as Pullman to Berkeley. Washington’s trek to Tempe spanned roughly 1,400.
The conference’s oft-debated nine-game schedule also increases the likelihood for upset, which has become a point of contention in regard to the College Football Playoff.
“I don’t care who dislikes what I’m about to say, and how upset they get at me, it doesn’t matter: In our conference, we play five, six, seven conference games in a row,” Shaw said. “Whereas in a lot of other conferences, they’ll play a couple conference games and play a non-conference or I-AA opponent.”
The sandwiching of paycheck games into the conference slate is an annual controversy closely associated with the ACC and SEC — the two remaining eight-game Power Five conferences. Coincidentally, or maybe not, neither conference has ever missed the College Football Playoff. Between the Big 12 and Pac-12, the conferences that have played a nine-game schedule since the late BCS years, one has missed every Playoff since its inception.
It may not be the most favorable way to make the Playoff, but it does make for some playoff-atmosphere games through the fall.
“It’s a fun conference for people to pay attention to, because you can’t take anything for granted,” Petersen said.
On Tuesday, I asked David Shaw about a possible Heisman campaign for nation-leading rusher Bryce Love.
“There are things we’ll do. I’ll be involved. I’m not running any campaigns, necessarily, but I’ll be consulted and involved to make sure whatever we do, we do in a fashion that’s befitting Stanford, in a fashion that’s befitting who Bryce is as a person,” he said.
Sure enough, that same day, the Stanford athletic department introduced it’s official media blitz to advance Love’s Heisman profile: BryceLove20.com.
Along with a social hashtag, #HeismanLove, the newly launched website aims to chronicle both Love’s on-field exploits, why also presenting the student behind the athlete to entice voters.
“Thankfully, we’ve had such high-character individuals that we’ve been able to promote, because the first thing they’ll talk about is their teammates,” Shaw said. “From Toby Gerhart, to Andrew Luck to Christian to Christian McCaffrey to Bryce Love, they’re great team-oriented guys. At the same time, when they’re doing something special, we want to make sure to let people know about it.”
A website and social media campaign are all well and good, but Stanford really needs to consider getting this guy on the job:
If Bryce Love *really* wants to help his candidacy, however, I have just two words: NARUTO RUN.
Too often, outstanding performances in losses go unheralded. Utah quarterback Troy Williams, a product of Los Angeles-area Narbonne High School, was excellent in his homecoming last Saturday, despite the Utes losing at USC, 28-27.
Williams completed a rare trifecta with a passing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a rushing touchdown.
“I feel like I had a good game,” Williams said. “Well…not good enough. But I felt I did a lot better than last week.”
He downplayed his performance based on the loss, but really, Williams’ play kept Utah in striking distance. Had he scored the gutsy two-point conversion attempt Kyle Whittingham called, Williams would have had a strong case for Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week.