On Sunday, the Pac 12 Conference celebrated its first anniversary of existence. Last summer, Utah and Colorado held celebrations to commemorate the transition into the newly expanded conference, complete with a new two-division setup and even their own conference championship game. Nobody knew exactly how well this new conference would work out, but with a year of hindsight under our belts, we can say at the very least: so far so good.
The Oregon Ducks took the next step towards establishing their dominance in the Pac 12 and on the national stage as well. Despite an early season setback against LSU, Oregon rolled through conference play with wins over 18th ranked Arizona State and fourth ranked Stanford, losing just once in conference to USC. They took another big step for the program and the conference when they knocked off 10th ranked Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, finally kicking the “can’t win the big game” monkey off Chip Kelly and the Ducks.
Stanford also did the conference proud. With Andrew Luck spurning the NFL and becoming a sure top-5 pick to come back for his senior year in 2011 and put the Cardinal into the National Championship discussion. Stringing together nine straight wins to open the season before a late season loss against Oregon cost the Cardinal a shot at the Pac 12 Championship game (and possibly a National Title). Stanford would finish the season ranked fourth in the BCS standings, earning a spot in the Fiesta Bowl where they fell against Oklahoma State in overtime, 41-38.
One of the elite programs in the conference, USC, was still stuck in their NCAA-imposed postseason ban. Because of that, they weren’t able to take their rightful place in the Pac 12 Championship game as the representatives of the South. That spot fell to the UCLA Bruins, who were woefully overmatched against the Ducks. The lackluster matchup was the lone dark spot in an otherwise bright inaugural Pac 12 Championship.
Half of the teams in the conference finished below .500 last season, including the “champions” of the South division, UCLA, who finished 6-8 last season. The conference as a whole also went 2-5 during the bowl season, a woefully poor mark for a conference trying to make a name for itself on the national stage. Two coaches got the axe before season’s end (Rick Neuheisel and Mike Stoops) and two others (Paul Wulff and Dennis Erickson) got the boot once the season was over.
USC is coming off their postseason suspension and look ready to step right back into the elite levels of college football. If they can come back to the same level they were at before the NCAA came down on them, the Pac 12 could have three legitimate top-ten teams in the conference with Oregon and Stanford (assuming both maintain their current level of play). Having a trio of elite programs would do nothing but help the image of the Pac 12 as they continue to grow their brand.
Also helping would be the emergence of a fourth national power, which could happen if the darkhorse Utah Utes live up to their potential. The Utes nearly won the South division last season, if not for a loss in the final game of the regular season to Colorado (who could become the Utes new budding rival), and they return a top-ten defense from last season. Utah could become the next elite Pac 12 program.
The rush of coach firings last season has also opened up some exciting possibilities going forward. An influx of big-name coaches in Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora at UCLA, and Mike Leach at WSU has turned the national attention out west towards the Pac 12, which is good news for everyone as the Pac 12 network brings in more money to the conference. If these coaches can gain some traction on rebuilding some struggling programs, the entire conference will be made stronger for it.
So as the conference celebrates its first year, there were plenty of reasons to be happy with the new direction Larry Scott has taken the conference. And as many positives the Pac 12 enjoyed in 2011, there are even more on the horizon as the conference continues to grow. So happy birthday to you, Pac 12, but get back to work. The SEC can’t win every national title, after all.
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