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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

P.S.R. Op-Ed

A Conference Title Weekend What-If

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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  1. Dwayne says:

    Not this year. Either Oregon or LSU is going to have a loss by the end of opening weekend. We won’t have to wait until conference championship weekend.

    Paul: Ah, so they would. Changing L.S.U. to Alabama to keep the metaphor alive.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Paul, just so you know, USC cannot win the PAC 12 south this year as they are ineligible for the postseason.

  3. Dwayne says:


    One more change in the penultimate paragraph for LSU.

  4. Troy says:

    So much depends on the human polls. If the scenario above plays out but, due to their dominance and/or the whims of the people, Oregon goes into conference championship week ranked #1 rather than #2 or #3, they’d have a lot to complain about if they were frozen out of the BCS Championship, dropping from #1 to #3 without losing a game.

  5. Gotham Gator says:

    I’m not sure the winner of the SEC East is going to have a better record than the winner of the Pac-12 South.

  6. bowman says:

    being a follower of the big 10/11/12, i couldn’t help but notice your throw-away comment about nebraska being the possible national title contender from the “legends” division. i agree with your analysis on two levels: one, with minnesota (#92) and michigan state (presumably #41 tomorrow) already accounted for, and with northwestern, michigan, iowa and the aforementioned bugeaters to come, it will be highly competitive. two, of the teams in the division, only nebraska deserves mention as a possible (and i stress “possible”) national title contender. well done!

  7. DaUUU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    Paul I actually agree with you. However I believe the North Division might suffer later on. Even though the North Division has the title favorites as of now, as you wrote the South Division will make a comeback. I do feel their comeback will outshine the North Division for years to come.

  8. WashingtonDCduck says:

    Paul, again another great read.

    2011 will certainly see the North carry the flag nationally for the conference with Stanford and Oregon hovering in or around the Top 10 all year. Long term, I don’t think that will be the case. USC will be back (duh), and even UCLA when they get their house in order (of course, how long have we been saying that?) I believe will help the Pac 12 South house the heavyweights in the conference. Oregon is not going anywhere in the near future, they’ll continue to be a player nationally, Washington is making its resurgence but looking into the crystal ball the Pac 12 South will be the heavy hitter division I believe in the next few years.

    With that said, 2011 should see the South division beat one another up. Starting with September battle between Utah and USC, I think you are spot on that the division champ will come out with 8-9 wins and muddled somewhere in the Top 25 – probably not Top 15 though. The SEC will get the benefit of the doubt nationally, there is no doubt about that. Even if an undefeated Alabama or a one loss LSU play a battered 7-5 South Carolina team or a 8-4 Georgia team (heck, don’t be shocked if Tennessee comes out of there alive, or Florida – SEC east is wide open) the SEC will have a representative in the BCS title game in New Orleans, unless they are truly a few notches below other representatives from BCS leagues or BCS busters. The ACC or Big Ten could also help themselves by having strong matchups in their respective title games, and ACC is set up well with VA Tech and FSU both looking very strong heading into the preseason. Big Ten? I’m still unsettled on that league, especially with developments of Wisconsin over the offseason and their new QB and what the heck happens in Columbus?

    If an undefeated Stanford or Oregon team comes into the final weekend before Pac-12 title game ranked #1 in the BCS rankings, and win – close or by blowout, I think they’ll play for all the marbles. Oregon’s recent success and last second loss to Auburn in ’11 title game has earned them the salt in my opinion to be given another shot; Stanford performance last year vs. VA Tech in Orange Bowl and just the pure desire for people to watch Andrew Luck on TV, Stanford would get the nod to play in the BCS title game. If the Cardinal come in hanging by a thread at #2 or outside looking in , I’m not so sure and I think they’d be placed in the BCS picture somewhere.

    Pac-12 south division should be a lot of fun. How does Utah’s depth hold up? Their #2 and #3 guys on depth chart, are they BCS players, ready to step when attrition hits the program with injuries and guys just get bruised up from playing a more violent schedule come October and November? Can Arizona State get over the hump, has Erickson finally injected some discipline in the program and found leaders among players to get them into contention? How about USC, and their desire to win even though there is not gold at the end of the rainbow? Can Arizona rely on Nick Foles arm and his playmakers to outscore teams? Might be a moot point if U of A doesn’t rebuild that offensive line, and they’ve got some very serious questions on the offensive side of the ball in finding a running game and protecting Foles.

    Should be fun…. Pac-12 media day tomorrow!

  9. Zach says:

    “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?”

    The Big East doesn’t have divisions, but I would say that it has a similar level of parity. It too has little shot at a national championship.

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