Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
“Mike Leach, David Shaw and Chip Kelly walk into a bar...”
Ok. I’ll stop there. You can imagine the punchline that is to follow. To most of the college football watching world, it likely falls into one of the following themes:
a) ... and they didn’t make the Playoff
b) ... and they lost in the Pink Carnation Bowl
c) ... and they still couldn’t get into the SEC
d) ... who?
It’s no secret that the PAC 12 conference has fallen on hard times. Whether we are talking about declining value in media contracts or performance on the field, the Conference of Champions looks more like the Conference of Chumps in the eyes of the nation. Consider the evidence:
- a PAC team hasn’t won a national championship in 14 seasons - the longest stretch of a Power 5 conference
- the PAC is tied with the BIG 12 with the fewest total playoff appearances of any Power 5 conference (2)
- the PAC’s 2017 season bowl record (1-8) was the worst by any Power 5 conference in history
- the PAC is currently fourth out of the five Power 5 in per school media contract payouts, but is expected to fall to the fifth once the ACC launches its TV network
Given all of this backdrop, is it surprising that the world is looking for a PAC 12 savior?
For better or for worse, Chris Petersen and the Huskies seem to be the bearer of the standard when it comes to rescuing the PAC 12 from the precipice of perpetual mediocrity. Their opportunity to save the conference begins one week from today.
When the Huskies travel to SEC country to take on the Auburn Tigers, the college football world will be tuning in. Not only is it the only match-up of top ten teams in what is the official opening weekend of the season, but it is the one game on the docket with significant College Football Playoff implications. According to ESPN’s Seth Walder, the Huskies would have a 51% chance at finishing in the top four of their “strength of record” metric should they win in Atlanta. In a world where CFP hopefuls are competing for just two spots in any given season (after Alabama and Clemson take their god-given playoff berths every year), “51%” is a favorable position to be sure.
That a PAC 12 team has to go through an SEC team in order to earn that favorable position is not a trivial detail in this equation.
As such, hyperbolic media members have labeled this not only a must-win for UW but a must-win for the conference. This, of course, is a canard. Whether or not UW beats Auburn, there will be no tangible consequence flowing back to the conference as a whole. The odds of a PAC 12 team not named Washington making the College Football Playoff will not materially appreciate. A windfall of cash will not magically be infused into Larry Scott’s coffers. A tsunami of east coast talent isn’t going to all of a sudden find itself taking previously unplanned official visits to any number of west coast schools.
In short, this game is not about the conference. It is about Washington.
Underpinning the storyline that this game is important to the PAC 12 as whole is the vaguely articulated but palpably tense ongoing narrative that somehow the PAC is a more “purely” competitive conference than the SEC and that the SEC willfully stacks its schedule to give its three or four best teams every possible advantage. Consider the arguments:
- the SEC rarely schedules out of conference games outside of it’s geographical footprint
- the SEC (along with the ACC) continue to insist on watering down the competitiveness of their schedules by maintaining 8 game conference slates (these two conferences have, not surprisingly, garnered nine of sixteen CFP slots leaving the three conferences that have 9-game schedules with just seven such slots)
- the SEC often schedules “cupcake” out of conference games timed towards the end of the season
Should UW beat Auburn, the logic goes, it would highlight the benevolence of the PAC 12’s purity and shine a light on the ongoing “fraud” that is the SEC.
While I think most of us want this to be true, there is very little evidence to lead us to know it is true. The PAC 12, of course, has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to how it schedules football. Two of the three schools (USC and UCLA) who have never scheduled an FCS team reside in the PAC. Schools like USC and Stanford maintain out of conference rivalries with Notre Dame often leading them to schedule two games per season with (sometimes ranked) Power 5 opponents. Non-rival, Power 5 opponents for PAC 12 teams this season include North Carolina, Ohio State, Michigan State, Texas, Notre Dame (twice) and Auburn.
But the truth remains that you can find very few instances where the SEC (or, for that matter, the ACC) has benefited in terms of CFP positioning due to having that extra cupcake game. You might be able to argue that Alabama squeaked in last season as a result. But it is more likely that a win over say, Kentucky, would have done more, not less, than their win over Mercer in Week 11 to boost ‘Bama’s playoff resume. It is an argument that cuts both ways.
I will accept that a win by UW over Auburn could could encourage a perception that the PAC 12 is closer to the SEC in overall competitiveness than what might have previously been believed. But, again, this argument fails to carry water if the Huskies go on to a double digit win total with a strong showing in conference play for the season. All we will have learned in that scenario is that the Huskies “are good” while the jury remains out on the rest of the conference.
Nevertheless, the notion that UW is carrying the conference’s fate in its travel bag as it departs to Atlanta persists. Jake Browning addressed this very question at the PAC 12’s media day:
“[If] we lose, I’m not really thinking, ‘At least we had a Pac-12 logo on our shirt. I don’t think there is any saving face in losing by saying, ‘Oh, at least we represented the conference.’”
The Huskies are representing the University of Washington in college football’s opening weekend. For a team that dropped two of its last four a season ago and has suffered two straight post-season bludgeonings at the hands of Alabama and Penn State, respectively, carrying the mantle for their own university is more than enough. Larry Scott can look elsewhere if he is hoping that one team can save his conference or, for that matter, his job.
And, as far as our opening joke goes, I think we all know the answer to that. The threesome of Mike Leach, David Shaw and Chip Kelly would never be caught dead together, even if the fate of the entire PAC 12 rested on their shoulders.