A Conference Title Weekend What-If
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 22, 2011
Arizona State is the de facto favorite, based on the number of returning starters, the way the team ended last season and the thought that after three years of scuffling along the time is now for Dennis Erickson and the Sun Devils. Arizona was briefly counted out but is now back in, seeing that wide receiver Juron Criner is back in the fold following a brief scare. Utah’s the new guy, the unknown with a sterling resume of success at one of college football’s non-B.C.S. conference levels. Then there’s U.S.C.: you remember the Trojans, right?
Competitive balance is alive in well in the Pac-12 South, where four teams can make a distinct claim to the being the division’s best and two other teams can make at least a slight claim to being in the mix. No, not even the most positive-thinking U.C.L.A. fan among us can say that the Bruins are built for a B.C.S. run, but stranger things have happened. Colorado fared well enough without Dan Hawkins in 2010 to say that a mere coaching change is all the Buffaloes need to return to their winning ways.
Is there another B.C.S. conference division with greater competitiveness? Well, the SEC West has an argument: L.S.U. and Alabama are national title contenders, with Arkansas and Mississippi State not too far behind that pair. So let me rephrase: Is there another B.C.S. conference division more up for grabs without at least one team that will be in the national championship picture?
That drops the SEC West from the conversation, as well as the Big Ten Legends division, a group led by Nebraska. The Pac-12 South has four primary contenders: four teams that will hover around seven to nine wins, perhaps squeezing into the bottom fifth of the Top 25 but not, when push comes to shove, making a regular season run for a B.C.S. bowl.
Is this a good thing? There are two sides to the argument. One could say that increased competition is the byproduct of the conference’s division split, in that a 5-4 Pac-12 record doesn’t automatically spell a mid-league finish. Now, 5-4 might earn an Arizona State or Utah a spot against Oregon or Stanford in the Pac-12’s inaugural championship game.
One could also say that a deep division without a national contender could lead to a situation like the one the Big 12 experienced for much of the last decade: a Kansas State, Colorado, Nebraska or Missouri would win the North before being overrun by Texas or Oklahoma in Arrowhead Stadium. That scenario wasn’t good for the North or the South, as it belittled the former division while diminishing the resume of the latter. The conference as a whole suffered.
So it could be said that an Oregon or Stanford, should push come to shove, would suffer from a Pac-12 South that fails to put forth a nationally-ranked, well-regarded opponent. Consider this scenario: Oregon, Florida State and Alabama are undefeated heading into conference championship weekend. Florida State beats 11-1 Virginia Tech, Alabama beats 10-2 South Carolina and Oregon tops 8-4 Utah. If all teams are equal in the polls — each team is right around the same level in the B.C.S. standings — which pair do you think gets a late push into the B.C.S. National Championship Game?
It’s Alabama and Florida State, of course, and Oregon is left out in the cold. That’s a nightmare scenario for the Pac-12 in 2011. Does it always have to be this way? No, and it won’t be this way for long. U.S.C. will be back. Arizona State has a nice crop of young talent. Arizona has turned a corner. U.C.L.A. just needs a coach. And Utah, in my opinion, could make a Virginia Tech-like splash in their new digs.
For this season, however, the mid-level occupants of the Pac-12 South are going to tussle around in the seven, eight, nine-win range. And while that should provide for an interesting November as the top four teams fight for division supremacy, it doesn’t look like a great thing for the conference at large.
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