Pac-12 Roundtable: Power Dynamics, Petersen, And Playoffs

Pac-12 Media Days conclude today. Day one contained a few too many glitches and poor decisions, but if the league can throw its best fastball when the regular season begins, a lot of people will forget about television distribution for a little bit.

It’s the latest editors’ roundtable at The Student Section, as we focus on the best in the West.


1. Is the Pac-12 Conference the toughest in the land?

Bart Doan:
Follow on Twitter @TheCoachBart

If this is 2013, yes? (Chugs Johnny Walker Green so the objects thrown at head don’t hurt as badly).

This crap is tough to quantify and better left for message board warriors or a porch conversation at 3 a.m. when everyone’s docile and ready for bed. For one, 2014 football hasn’t started and believe it or not, some of us like to do the whole Conference Strength Rooster Measuring Contest based on the actual stuff on the field rather than conjecture or vomiting up the opinions of someone else.

The Pac-12 has long been deep, highlighted probably most obviously by its 2013 campaign that saw Arizona State beat B1G power Wisconsin, UCLA eviscerate Nebraska, and even mid-tier Washington State taking SEC champion Auburn to the brink last season.

But last year was last year, and this year is this year. Things will change. Only in college football it seems is the past used as some sort of inflexible proof of what’s going on currently, like, say, if a certain conference won a bunch of BCS championships consecutively. No names, obviously.

Surely, with continued guaranteed strong quarterback play across the conference as it always seems, the Left Coast will be well represented. Best conference? That was so last year, however.

Terry Johnson:
Follow on Twitter @SectionTPJ

The Pac-12 was the toughest conference in the land in 2013. While the human polls might have felt that the SEC was stronger last year, the Pac-12 had the most number of teams in the top 25 of the Sagarin rankings. Since polls are subject to the biases of people voting in them (see: BCS debacle 2011), I’m more inclined to use a data-driven process to make my final decision.

Since the season hasn’t started yet, I can’t use this information to determine which conference is the best in 2014.

With that disclaimer, I will say that I expect the Pac-12 to be in the thick of the race this year, and occupy the top spot at the end of the season. Unlike the SEC, the Pac 12 is loaded with talented quarterbacks, with 10 of 12 schools returning their starting signal callers from a year ago. That type of experience at the most important position on the field would give the league a leg up on everyone else.

Of course, the sad part is that we’ll never definitively know which conference is the best every year, because college football’s heavyweights don’t meet often enough in the regular season. Let’s hope that the College Football Playoff’s emphasis on strength of schedule will fix that.

Matt Zemek:
Follow on Twitter @SectionMZ

Last year, the gap between the Pac-12 and the SEC definitely shrank. The gap seemed especially narrow in the middle of the season, when Washington had a chance to be really good and Oregon State had not yet encountered the teeth of its schedule. However, the way in which the season concluded did not bring the Pac-12 all it hoped for. It was a “what might have been” season, with Oregon sulking through the remainder of November after losing to Stanford, and Washington falling off the pace.

Stanford was the best team in the league last year, but it didn’t have a brilliant season; the Cardinal were terrible against Utah and killed by David Shaw’s poor red-zone decision-making against USC. They did max out against Oregon, but the Ducks had to sleepwalk through a disinterested “we-don’t-care-about-the-Rose-Bowl” debacle against Arizona in order to give the Trees the chance to repeat as Pac-12 champions. Stanford was Arizona State’s worst possible matchup last season, and so the Cardinal became a damaged yet deserving league champion. The optimism of mid-October gave way to a somber reality at the end of the season. The SEC had a down year, but the Pac-12 didn’t offer enough quality in the top tier of the conference to fully and decisively overtake the SEC. Stanford’s insufficient performance against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl did not help matters.

This season, it doesn’t seem that the Pac-12 is ready to take the next step. Stanford loses so much of its defensive core. USC is a question mark. Arizona is a mystery. Oregon State is not as consistently good as it was five years ago. Utah can’t win on the road. The next question in this roundtable, though, is what gives the Pac-12 a source of hope in the long run…

2. Will Chris Petersen return Washington to the level it attained under the legendary Don James?

Bart Doan:

The skeptic will say that all the optimism over Chris Petersen coming to Seattle should be tempered by the fact that the Boise State coaching tree has bore moldy fruit to this point when making the leap to the next level.

The skeptic, however, still refuses to date blond girls because one dumped him at a sock hop in 1978. Ignore the skeptic.

I look at this more as a long-term progression rather than a one-year jump. Chris Petersen is one of the more innovative coaches in the sport, a guy who doesn’t handcuff his teams to certain offensive identities, and rather uses the pieces around him to maximize what they do regardless of whether or not that’s something that worked last year or the year prior.

The schedule this year is manageable for a first-year coach. A lot of Petersen’s success at Washington will depend on the same thing from our Big 12 roundtable yesterday … finding a quarterback. Again, no quarterback, no success in football.

Even Petersen and his brilliant coaches and evolving schemes are not immune. When Jared Zabransky and Kellen Moore exited stage left, Boise struggled to keep the torrid pace it had been on. The guess here is that Petersen wins a championship (whatever they call it at the time) before he leaves Seattle. This is truly one of the brilliant hires over the last five years.

Bow down. And soon, look up (to Washington).

Matt Zemek:

Washington, it must be said, is not just Don James’s program, though for any college football fan who is at least 35 years old, James is rightly associated with Washington football. Here’s a bit of perspective on the stature of UW over the long march of time, not just in the James era: The Huskies have 14 Rose Bowl appearances to their credit. Before Stanford reached the 2014 Granddaddy against Michigan State, Washington had been tied with Ohio State for third place. That’s now a three-way tie with Stanford. USC leads the list with 33 Rose Bowl appearances, and Michigan is second with 20.

The point is plain: Washington, though not the signature program in the Northwest right now (Oregon owns that distinction), lays claim to a substantial tradition and legacy. Ever since James left, Washington has been searching for a worthy successor to “The Dawgfather.” It’s going to take a great coach to resurrect this program.

Petersen could certainly be that man. His body of work at Boise State needs little explanation or embellishment. The only question is if his achievements in the little ol’ Mountain West can carry over to a power conference.

Say this about Washington: The avenue of opportunity is evident; it’s a matter of whether Petersen is good enough to guide the Huskies down that road. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has to show he can lead his team — that’s a question mark for the Ducks this year and possibly into the future, especially when Marcus Mariota leaves. David Shaw begins a new era without several of his defensive cornerstones at Stanford (Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner). The Cardinal have their own questions to answer. Petersen showed he could beat Oregon at Boise State. He’s not going to win the Pac-12 North this year, but if he can have the Huskies ready to be at their best next season, they could make a breakthrough. If they can make that breakthrough in the first three years of Petersen’s tenure, a domino effect could perhaps take root in the fertile soil of rain-nourished Seattle.

Regardless of how this story unfolds and ultimately ends, it will be one of the most fascinating coaching dramas to watch over the next few years.

Terry Johnson:

I am one of the “old codgers” that Matt was referring to. When I was growing up, Don James had the Huskies contending for a Rose Bowl every year, and was recruiting some of the best players in the nation, including Napoleon Kauffman, Lincoln Kennedy, Billy Joe Hobert, and Mark Brunell.

Let’s be honest: Things haven’t been the same since James left after the 1992 season. Sure, there have been a couple of good years since then (1996, 2000, 2013), but they haven’t resembled the championship form Washington had from the late 1970s to the early ’90s.

Chris Petersen is just the guy to change that.

In his highly successful tenure at Boise State, Petersen went 92-12, capturing two Fiesta Bowl titles with the Broncos. Despite being saddled with the “mid major” label, Petersen had no trouble assembling talent. In fact, during his time in Boise, Petersen collected a number of wins over the “big boys,” including Oregon (2-0), Oregon State (2-0), Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, and Georgia.

Ironically, the only team he had trouble beating was Washington, which went 2-1 against him, which is indicative of the talent that exists on campus in Seattle.

That’s why I like his chances to turn the Husky program into what it used to be (or for you young ‘uns it would be “the next Oregon”). If Petersen can win at Boise without the benefit of four- and five-star players, he can fare just as well – if not better – at UW.

Just remember that you heard it from me first!


3. Could the conference land two teams in the College Football Playoff?

If the Pac-12 is going to get two teams in the College Football Playoff this season, either David Shaw's Stanford Cardinal or the UCLA Bruins will need to join Oregon as a one-loss team. That's going to be hard to pull off.

If the Pac-12 is going to get two teams in the College Football Playoff this season, either David Shaw’s Stanford Cardinal or the UCLA Bruins will need to join Oregon as a one-loss team. That’s going to be hard to pull off.

Terry Johnson:

Could it or will it?

Call me cynical, but I don’t think it will happen. Even though the Selection Committee claims that it’s going to factor in strength of schedule, the metric it’s using is still the good, old-fashioned eyeball test. Unless one league is heads-and-shoulders better than another, I’d expect the first year of the College Football Playoff to include only conference champions.

Now, could the Pac-12 pull this off? Yes, it’s possible. Here’s one scenario:

  • UCLA finishes the regular season undefeated, but loses to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.
  • Oregon goes 12-1, avenging an earlier loss to the Bruins.
  • Texas wins the Big 12.
  • One of the other Power 5 conference champions finishes with two or more losses.

While the odds of all of those things happening are unlikely, it would present the Selection Committee with a very difficult choice. How could the committee possibly keep the Bruins out since they beat the Big 12 champion during the regular season? Does it really want to send the message that conference championships are more important than strength of schedule, which it would be doing if it selected a two-loss conference champ over the once-beaten Bruins?

Obviously, the Selection Committee would have to take the Bruins in this scenario. Otherwise, it would violate its own mission statement, which is to pick the four best teams for the bracket.

Matt Zemek:

For reasons that have already been mentioned in my answers to the previous two questions on this list, you’re not very likely to see two Pac-12 teams in this year’s playoff. Too many programs in this league face an in-between situation (in one or more dimensions) as the 2014 season arrives. You should see a highly competitive Pac-12 season, but not one in which two teams are able to clearly rise above the rest. The champion will not be undefeated, and the second team in any kind of playoff pecking order will almost certainly have two losses, eliminating it from consideration. Getting a second slot in one of the four non-playoff top-tier bowls is a much more realistic goal this season. Maybe in 2015, the Pac will be ready to contend for two CFB Playoff berths.

Bart Doan:

I suppose if Dane Cook can find a legion of people who think he’s funny, there are no bounds to what can happen in this world. I wouldn’t bet two mules and a quart of butter on it though.

Why? Too many of the good teams play one another. To play for a title with a loss, you need the benefit of a high ranking, for one. This mostly goes unnoticed when it comes to playing for a title in college football, but if you start outside the top 25, it’s like shaving a beard dry with a straight edge to get into the title talk. Ask Auburn in 2004.

The conference should place one team in, but its depth always can sabotage those chances in a hurry. There are no short cuts in the conference, and aside from Oregon and maybe UCLA, it’s tough to understand if any of the teams will be ranked high enough in the preseason to be able to withstand a loss … because at least one will need to.

The most plausible scenario would be one team’s only loss coming to an opponent it avenges it against in the Pac-12 championship tilt.

But this year in my personal opinion will be the playoff system wanting to come off as all-inclusive, so two teams from any conference are unlikely. Remember, actual football doesn’t solely decide who gets in this thing.

My real hope is that the CFB Playoff committee will suck down enough Starbucks to actually watch those late Pac-12 games. I’d settle for that.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.