The Oregon Ducks have won the last three Pac 12 championships, but the accomplishment comes with an asterisk. The last two years, the USC Trojans haven’t been eligible to win the Pac 12 title or go to a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions. With USC officially back in the mix, Oregon has an opportunity to emphatically stake their claim as the new kings of the Pac 12.
From 2002 to 2008, USC ran the west coast, winning or sharing an unprecedented seven straight conference titles. During that time, they also won a pair of National Championships and had a trio of Heisman Trophy winners (though they’ve had to give one of each back). In short, the Trojans reigned supreme.
In 2009, the program fell off a bit. For the first time since Pete Carroll‘s first season in 2001, the Trojans lost a game by more than seven points in a pair of blowout losses to Oregon and the Stanford Cardinal. They would also drop a pair of conference games to the Washington Huskies and the Arizona Wilcats, finishing the season 9-4 and opening the door for Chip Kelly and the Ducks to capture their first conference title.
Then things got rough for the Trojans. Carroll jumped ship to the NFL right as NCAA sanctions came down hard on the program. A two-year postseason ban made them ineligible to claim a conference title and scholarship reductions would inhibit their ability to win one anyways. Lane Kiffin came in and took over a difficult situation, doing his best to maintain the high level of football that has come to be expected from USC while being kept out of the national spotlight.
During their absence, Oregon has grown into a national power in their own right. Three straight conference titles, two Rose Bowl appearances (with one win), and a BCS National Title game appearance in 2010 has shifted the balance of power in the Pac 12 north to Eugene. But that success has still been stifled by the shadow of USC.
Last season, the Trojans knocked off the Ducks in Eugene, spoiling their shot at a perfect run through the conference and ending their outside shot at playing for another national title with their second loss of the season. Oregon would go on to win the Pac 12 North and head to the inaugural Pac 12 Championship game to face the default Pac 12 South champion UCLA Bruins.
Meanwhile, USC, 7-2 in conference play, had to sit at home and watch as a team they upset ran over a team they embarrassed to decide who got to go to the Rose Bowl. It left many to wonder if Oregon would have gotten to Pasadena to beat the Wisconsin Badgers if they would have had to go through USC again. The whole thing was an unsatisfying conclusion to the Pac 12 race that left Oregon’s third conference title feeling a little hollow.
Now, the Ducks get a real chance to validate themselves as the power of the Pac 12. USC is all-in for real this year, finally out from under the postseason ban. That guarantees that they’ll be playing for something this year other than as a spoiler as they try and reclaim their spot atop the conference.
That makes this game even more important for Oregon. Of course there is the perfect season, the national title race, and the fourth straight conference title to think about, but this game could go a very long way in validating Oregon’s run as conference champion the last three years.
So on Saturday, there is so much at stake for the Oregon Ducks. Not only their chance for titles this season, but their legacy as the reigning power of the Pac 12 since 2009. Should make for must-see TV.