Pivotal season upcoming for Pac-12

At first glance, it appears as though Pac-12 football lags far behind fellow Power Five conferences. Over the past ten years, the league has struggled to produce as many draft picks as the SEC, ACC and Big Ten. In terms of television deals, the struggling Pac-12 Network is projected to make less revenue than the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 Networks in 2017 according to a report by The Mercury News. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 has not won a national championship since USC in 2004 — the longest drought among major conferences (and even that title was vacated due to NCAA violations).

But despite the conference’s period of downturn, 2017 is setting up to be a pivotal turnaround year (let’s conveniently ignore Oregon State’s embarrassing loss to Colorado State last week). The Pac-12 enters this football season with a bevy of talented quarterbacks, a collection of the nation’s brightest coaches and a solid group of teams that gives the league more depth than it has ever seen in this decade. Come bowl season, the conference will finally end up joining the discussion about the nation’s best.

It is no secret that college football success starts with superb coaching. Star players may come and go in three- to four-year increments, but with a solid system in place, programs can win consistently, even during rebuilding seasons. Just look at the sudden difference head coach Jim Harbaugh made at Michigan.

This year, the Pac-12 features an excellent lineup of head coaches. Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Mike Leach (Washington State) and Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) all bring immense experience and a level of stability to historically mediocre programs. USC head coach Clay Helton and Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre both enjoyed breakout years in 2016 and will look to carry over their momentum into this season. In the North Division, Stanford’s David Shaw has had five 10-win seasons in six years, while Chris Peterson took just three years to transform Washington into a College Football Playoff team. Joining them is Willie Taggert, who replaces Mark Helfrich at Oregon. The Harbaugh disciple promised to dumb down the team’s over-the-top uniform combinations and  — more importantly — rehabilitate the program just like he did at Western Kentucky and South Florida. Aside from a downward-trending Jim Mora at UCLA and Cal’s questionable hire of Justin Wilcox, the Pac-12 possesses perhaps the best coaching in all of college football.

If good coaching is the most important ingredient for college football success, possessing a solid signal caller behind center is a close second. Luckily for the Pac-12, its teams’ rosters feature a number of elite quarterbacks. In Walter Football’s 2018 NFL Draft rankings, four of its top 15 quarterback prospects compete out West, the most of any conference.

Those four — UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Washington State’s Luke Falk, Washington’s Jake Browning and, of course, the Trojans’ redshirt sophomore signal caller Sam Darnold — all have a chance to contend for the Heisman Trophy and start on Sundays in the near future. Outside of that quartet, Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins is poised for a 2,000-yard passing, 1,000-yard rushing season, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert is likely to improve upon a quietly excellent freshman year. When it comes to quarterback play, one thing is clear: No conference comes close to the Pac-12.

Since the Pac-12 held its first championship game in 2011, the conference has been dominated by elite teams from three schools in the North Division (the North is 6-0 in the championship game). It is no longer so top-heavy. No. 8 Washington, the defending conference champ, and No. 14 Stanford remain national contenders, but No. 4 USC appears more than capable of ending the North’s streak.

At the same time, No. 24 Washington State, Utah, UCLA and Colorado all bring talented rosters to the conversation. At the Pac-12 Media Days in July, commissioner Larry Scott said that this year’s eventual conference champion “is going to be tested like no other.”

He could not be more correct. The Pac-12 will be a bloodbath this year, and whoever ends up winning the title in Levi’s Stadium will have an impressive resume worthy of College Football Playoff consideration. Last bowl season was supposed to be the Pac-12’s coming out party, showcasing how deep the league had become. It didn’t exactly unfold that way (the conference finished 3-3 in bowls), but now, a year later, with more experienced rosters and players, it’s finally time for the conference to break out.

It will not take long to see if the Pac-12 is indeed for real this season. In Week 1, UCLA hosts the SEC’s Texas A&M. In Week 2, Oregon plays Nebraska from the Big Ten. And in Week 3, the Trojans host Big 12 powerhouse Texas. It’s a make-or-break year for a conference that has fallen short for over a decade. The difference now is that it can no longer afford to break.

Trevor Denton is a sophomore majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. He is also the deputy sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, T-Time, runs every other Thursday.