Pac-12 moving on without Trojans

Over the better part of the last decade, the national perception among college football fans and media has been that the SEC is the dominant conference. Year in and year out, SEC teams are held on a higher pedestal than teams from other conferences, a sentiment that is reflected in the national rankings.

This season though, things appear to be changing. The Pac-12 is making its case for being the best conference top-to-bottom in the country, and the case is a strong one. Oregon and Stanford are both unbeaten and pose a legitimate threat at ending the SEC’s current seven-year run of national championships, while UCLA is 4-0 and currently sitting just outside the top 10 at No. 11 and 13 in media and coaches’ polls, respectively.

The Pac-12’s strong performance in nonconference games this season (29-5 combined record) has bolstered its national perception, and the general consensus is that the Pac-12 is stronger as a whole than it has been in years.

Considering the current state of USC, this is rather surprising.

During the heyday of the Pete Carroll era, the then-Pac-10 was often referred to as “USC and the Nine Dwarves,” in reference to the Trojans’ seven-year run as conference champions from 2002 to 2008. When the SEC began its current streak of consecutive national championships in 2006, many Pac-10/12 followers believed that if the conference were to usurp the SEC, then other Pac-10/12 teams would have to join the Trojans among the nation’s elite.

So it is a bit ironic that as the current Pac-12 is finally challenging the SEC for conference domination, USC is nowhere near being part of the discussion. Once shunned by the national media, the rest of the conference is stepping into the spotlight in a big way.

Consider that, from 2004 to 2009, ESPN’s popular College Gameday show, which travels to the “game of the week” each Saturday during the season, featured a Pac-10 school only 13 times. Of those 13 games, 11 of them involved USC. From 2010 to present, Gameday has showcased nine games featuring Pac-10/12 schools, and the Trojans have only participated in three of them, including last season’s game against Notre Dame, one in which the Irish, who were undefeated and ranked No. 1, were admittedly the main draw.

NCAA sanctions levied upon the Trojans in 2010, of course, are largely to blame for USC’s struggles and lack of national attention in recent years. But consider me among those surprised that the Pac-12 has had as much success as it has this season without the luxury of leaning on USC as a national power.

Every major conference has traditional titans that it promotes as flagship programs. The SEC has Alabama, the Big Ten has Ohio State and Michigan and the Big 12 has Texas and Oklahoma. The Pac-12’s only real traditional powerhouse is USC, and one would assume that in the conference’s most successful season in recent memory, USC would be leading the charge. That the Pac-12 has thrived without much help from the Trojans speaks to the ability of other teams in the conference to build successful, sustainable programs, as well as commissioner Larry Scott’s effective national rebranding strategy.

The Pac-12 Network, now in its second year of existence, ensures that every Pac-12 football and men’s basketball game is televised nationally (unless you are a DirecTV subscriber). This has allowed conference teams to reach a wider range of fans and, as a result, a wider range of national sportswriters and rankings voters.

The old school of thought that games on the West Coast are played too late in the evening for East Coast voters to watch is slowly eroding. After then-No. 15 Washington lost to No. 5 Stanford on Saturday in a tightly-contested game that didn’t kickoff until 10:30 E.T., voters showed the Huskies respect by only dropping them one spot in both the AP Poll and coaches poll, indicating that they actually watched the game rather than simply checking the final result Sunday morning.

Of course, the season is still young. Being able to claim the national championship does not necessarily make the SEC the de facto best conference in the nation, but to many college football followers, a non-SEC school needs to hoist the crystal football in order to change the national perception. This will be a tough task for any Pac-12 team, considering the conference’s depth and nine-game conference schedule (most BCS conferences play only eight conference games).

But the opportunity is there for the Pac-12 to unseat the SEC from its throne this season, which is a good thing. The fact that it is occurring with no help from the Trojans is the only downside.


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