What’s Wrong With the Pac-12?

This weekend features two big games on the West Coast: Washington at Oregon and Colorado at USC. I hate to say it, but if both road teams lose, the Pac-12 may be unofficially eliminated from the Playoff race only halfway through the season. The only remaining one-loss teams would be the Ducks, the Buffs and 5-1 Washington State, all of whom played such weak nonconference schedules that they’re unlikely to win any arguments against other leagues’ champions.

And this would come on the heels of a historic 1-8 bowl record last season. So how did we get here?

In your opinion, what are several reasons why the Pac-12 has fallen so far behind the other Power 5 conferences?

Michael H.

Stewart Mandel (TheAthletic)  —  I know many Pac-12 fans place the blame primarily on commissioner Larry Scott and his often-maligned TV network, but gaps in TV revenue don’t explain Stanford’s inability to run the football or UCLA’s inability to win a football game.

In any conference, the strength of the league starts with the head coaching lineup. When the Pac-12’s TV deal initially kicked in back in 2012 (at that point a trendsetter at 12 years, $3 billion), a bunch of schools went out and hired high-profile coaches like Washington State’s Mike Leach, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State’s Todd Graham and UCLA’s Jim Mora. Chip Kelly was still at Oregon, Stanford’s David Shaw was a rising star and USC’s Lane Kiffin hadn’t yet dive-bombed. Things were looking up.

But today, only Leach, Shaw and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham remain at the same schools as they did then. Kelly left for the NFL, and Oregon imploded a few years later. The others had promising starts, then swift downfalls. In the interim, only two schools indisputably upgraded at the top: Washington with Chris Petersen and Colorado with Mike MacIntyre. Not coincidentally, those schools met in the conference championship game two years ago and are currently in first place in their divisions.

That being said, six league schools have made seven coaching changes over the past two offseasons (with Oregon making two), and UCLA landed the esteemed Kelly. So we’re seeing the effects of a conference going through a major transition period. The SEC experienced much the same thing in recent years and saw a dip because of it; the difference is it still had Nick Saban winning national titles.

That’s not to say there aren’t other underlying issues at play. The late start times on ESPN and FS1 and limited distribution for the Pac-12 Network certainly don’t help with recruiting. The growing revenue gap between the Pac-12 ($30.9 million per school) and the Big Ten and SEC ($40-$50 million) may be felt a bit in the ability to hire and retain quality assistant coaches. It’s possible the Pac-12 has just two assistants, Oregon’s Jim Leavitt and UW’s Jimmy Lake, making north of $1 million. (USC’s and Stanford’s numbers are private, so I can’t say that definitively.) Michigan alone had three last season.

But USC won a lot of games under Pete Carroll when the Trojans weren’t likely paying SEC money. Ditto Oregon under Kelly and Stanford under Shaw. I don’t think there’s a huge correlation between the Pac-12’s TV deals and its on-field struggles. A great set of head coaches is far more important.