When is a loss more than a loss?
Ranked No. 8, the Cardinal had jumped into the national spotlight by taking down another Pac 12 top ten team in Week 3 when they upset the then-No. 2 USC Trojans. When they took down the “gold standard” of the conference, Stanford put the country on notice that there may be more out west than just the Men of Troy.
But then when they sputtered and tripped up on their trip to the Pacific Northwest, they sent the country a very different message: none of the Pac 12 teams are that good. And that is a message that the rest of the country will not soon forget in the argument over which conference is the best in college football.
A loss on the road can be excused in most cases. But a loss for a top 10 team against an opponent who was three weeks removed from being dismantled by another top 10 team in the LSU Tigers? Harder to justify. Common opponents can’t always be a true test of the skill of a team, but falling against a team that lost by 38 points against the SEC, whose greatest weaknesses should have played right into your greatest strengths? That’s going to hurt the reputation of the team and the conference as a whole.
So now when the question gets asked, “Who’s better?” between the SEC and Pac 12, the Pac 12 has little to no ground to stand on. LSU manhandled Washington who turned around and controlled the game against Stanford. If the Huskies can’t stay close with the best of the SEC, but upsets one of the supposedly best teams of the Pac 12, then the two leagues can’t possibly be equal.
How will this hurt the Pac 12? As the season goes along, there will be fewer and fewer teams that are in the running for college football’s top prize, a BCS National Championship. As the selection comes down to the wire, every tiny detail comes into play and could mean the difference between a national title appearance and just another bowl game. The strength of a conference is a very big detail that comes into play every single year.
The Pac 12 is already fighting a reputation of playing “soft” football. It’s all finesse passing, no real defense, and they can’t compete with the other major conferences, according to most casual observers. For years, they’ve been relegated as the fourth or fifth best BCS conference because of this reputation. This season, the conference had finally risen up the power rankings and was being considered by many as the second best BCS conference and the conference with the best chance of unseating the SEC as champions at the end of the season.
But after USC fell and Stanford stumbled, the Pac 12 is left with just the Oregon Ducks as their national representative. They still have tough tests against the Cardinal and on the road against the Trojans, and if they stumble there, the Pac 12 will get written off all over again. Without the benefit of a positive reputation as a strong conference, any loss pretty much dooms a Pac 12 program in the national title chase.
The Pac 12 is deeper than it has been in years. Every week, any team could rise up and take a game, which means the parity of the conference has never been greater. Parity is great…for exciting games in September and October. But it might kill any chances for the Pac 12 hoisting the crystal football in January.