Amid realignment rumors, teams fail to deliver on Pac-12's image
Oregon, others did not live up to Pac-12's new reputation as destination league
Get ready for the "Does Boise deserve to play for the title?" talk to resume
Plus: Brian Kelly's meltdown, Auburn's near flop, BCS projections and more
An hour before kickoff of Saturday night's LSU-Oregon game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott stood against a wall in the back of the Cowboys Stadium press box holding court with a group of reporters. The topic, of course, was conference realignment, and how Scott's league suddenly finds itself back in the center of the storm -- this time quite unexpectedly, he'll tell you.
"We haven't felt one iota of need," Scott said, since finalizing the league's move to 12 teams last summer. "Schools have reached out to us. We are not doing anything proactively."
That wasn't the case in the summer of 2010, when Scott's conference needed quite a bit: two more teams (at least) to stage a championship game, better TV deals, more exposure, better officiating. It went on the hunt and came back with Colorado and Utah. But the Pac-12 is the power player as this summer draws to a close, having in recent months announced the sport's richest television contract and the formation of the Pac-12 Network and six regional offshoots. Now Oklahoma, according to numerous reports and some rather candid comments from its president, could soon leave the sinking Big 12 and has turned "its sole focus" (according to The Daily Oklahoman) to the league it passed on joining last summer.
If only the Pac-12's football teams would start playing at a level befitting the conference's newfound status.
The rebranded league made some of the worst first impressions on opening Saturday. Two-time reigning champion Oregon once again fell flat against an elite nonconference opponent, this time LSU. At this point Oregon's failures can no longer be chalked up to inexperienced linemen, rust or sloppy field conditions. Defenses like LSU's on Saturday and Auburn's last January simply have better players than the ones Chip Kelly's Ducks have shredded for two straight seasons. And that doesn't speak well for Pac-12 defenses.
Saturday's struggles didn't just come against high-profile foes. Oregon State -- which came within a game of the Rose Bowl in 2008 and '09 -- fell in overtime to Sacramento State, a middling FCS program. Washington allowed 504 yards of offense in a 30-27 survival against Eastern Washington, an annual FCS contender at least. UCLA, which usually fields one of the league's better defenses, was no match for prolific Houston quarterback Case Keenum, falling 38-34. Newcomer Colorado fell 34-17 at Hawaii.
And USC, once the league's national pillar, looked every bit as mediocre as it has the past two seasons, nearly blowing a 19-0 halftime lead to rebuilding Minnesota and winning 19-17 despite a magnificent performance from receiver Robert Woods (17 catches, 177 yards, three touchdowns). A freshman quarterback, Max Shortell, came off the bench and nearly pulled off the comeback for Jerry Kill's Gophers. USC considered this progress after blowing numerous fourth-quarter leads last season, which really says it all.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, as the league's other lynchpin, No. 6 Stanford, drubbed San Jose State, 57-3. Cal, looking to rebound following Jeff Tedford's first losing season, handled Fresno Sate, 36-21. But even some of the highs were accompanied by lows: Washington State beat Idaho State 64-21, but lost star quarterback Jeff Tuel to a broken clavicle. He'll be out six-to-eight weeks. Coach Paul Wulff simply cannot catch a break.
It's always dangerous to read too much into one game -- a reminder that will be a recurring theme in this column. Despite Oregon's poor showing against LSU, there's no reason to think the Ducks will fail to kick things back into gear over the next few weeks as their new offensive line starters get comfortable and star Cliff Harris most likely returns from suspension. But that in itself is a problem. If a league's pacesetter only plays its best football against other league teams, why should fans in other parts of the country keep paying attention? Fox and ESPN have committed $3 billion on the assumption that they will.
Of course, there's one easy remedy: Go out and add one of the nation's most successful programs (Oklahoma) and maybe even a second (Texas). Conference realignment rumors keep changing by the hour, but it's apparent at this point that the Big 12 is on its deathbed. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel called out commissioner Dan Beebe, who seems to hold decreasingly little sway over his own members. Texas may be waffling on its stated commitment to hold together the Big 12, though Scott made it clear Saturday (without mentioning Texas by name) that the school would have to cede its precious Longhorn Network to join the conference. Perhaps Texas could still cobble things together, but really, what's the point? The Big 12 is now the Sort-of-Big 9, and nobody but SMU seems eager to climb aboard the sinking ship.
"People will ultimately want to gravitate toward conferences with stability," said Scott. "We consider our conference one of those."
In other words: We're here when you're ready, Oklahoma and Texas. And please, bring your acclaimed defenses with you.
Well, we might as well prepare ourselves now for another season of "Does Boise State deserve to play for the national title?" talk.
Either Georgia has gotten even worse (a distinct possibility) or Chris Petersen's team hasn't missed a beat despite significant personnel losses from last year's 12-1 squad (more likely).
No. 5 Boise's two biggest concerns going into Saturday's 35-21 Chick-fil-A Kickoff victory were its depleted receiving corps and rebuilt secondary. In response, Kellen Moore (28-of-34, 261 yards, three TDs, one INT) spent the night hitting one wide-open receiver after another. (Titus and Austin who?) And the Broncos' defense teed off on Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray, sacking him six times, though allowing two second-half touchdowns after going up 28-7.
"They've got a bunch of well-coached, great athletes who just played a great game," said Murray.
Now that Boise has finally slain the SEC dragon (it was 0-4 against the conference going in), maybe the Broncos have earned some respect in that part of the country. But that won't change the talking points that figure to come out if Boise keeps winning. Like, Georgia isn't that good. Or, Boise only has to play one tough game all season. (That's not entirely true, though TCU's opening-night loss to Baylor certainly didn't help the cause.)
The best thing that can happen to Boise is for Georgia to right the ship, beat South Carolina next week and go on a run a la Virginia Tech last season. While the Hokies' eventual 11-game win streak didn't much help the Broncos in the polls, this was the SEC, not the ACC. And this one was a rout.
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