We’ll start with the Rose Bowl, then broaden our scope of topics and time …
1. What. A. Game.
We were utterly baffled by Utah’s strategy in the final minute. Either use the timeouts or let Ohio State score. The only scenario the Utes couldn’t allow was the one that unfolded before their very eyes: The Buckeyes kicked a chip-shot field goal to take the lead with too little time for the Utes to respond.
But that issue will be lost to history, buried by the memories of an incredible game, sensational performances and the end of a season unlike any in Utah athletics history.
It was more than one season, actually: It was 53 unforgettable weeks of tragedy, elation and exhaustion — from Dec. 25, 2020, the day of Ty Jordan’s death, through Sept. 26, 2021, the day of Aaron Lowe’s death, to Dec. 3, the day of Utah’s first Pac-12 championship, to Jan. 1, 2022, the day of a Rose Bowl for the ages.
Ohio State’s 48-45 win was so engrossing that Utah quarterback Cam Rising’s 62-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one is about 17th on the list of memorable plays.
At one point, the teams combined for five touchdowns in less than three minutes.
Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud set a Rose Bowl record with 573 yards passing and wasn’t the best player on the field.
That honor went to Buckeyes receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who had 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
The Utes led 35-21 at halftime, were outscored 24-3 for most of the second half, then tied the game on a touchdown pass with two minutes left by a walk-on quarterback (Bryson Barnes) but couldn’t stop the Buckeyes’ last drive.
Both teams were shorthanded because of injuries and opt-outs, specifically Ohio State’s receivers and Utah’s defensive backs. But OSU’s replacement playmakers were a tick better than Utah’s replacement play-preventers.
Unlike several of their Pac-12 peers, the Utes should be deeply proud of their performance.
2. Bowling for facts
The postseason could not have gone any worse for the Pac-12: It participated in five bowls, lost them all, and had to cancel a sixth game just hours before kickoff (because of COVID).
There are myriad explanations for the 0-5 record: injuries, opt-outs, transfers and coaching changes all impacted performance.
But those challenges aren’t exclusive to the Pac-12. Bowl-eligible teams in every Power Five conference must combat roster turnover, yet only the Pac-12 failed to win a game.
Bowl records to date (listed by win total):
Big Ten: 6-4
Big 12: 4-2
It gets worse, however.
The Pac-12 was 0-2 in bowl games in the COVID-disrupted 2020 season, meaning it hasn’t won a postseason game since Jan. 1, 2020, when Oregon beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to conclude the 2019 campaign.
That’s back-to-back postseasons without a single win. In chronological order from Dec. ’20:
Texas 55, Colorado 23 (Alamo)
Iowa State 34, Oregon 17 (Fiesta)
Utah State 24, Oregon State 13 (LA)
Oklahoma 47, Oregon 32 (Alamo)
Wisconsin 20, ASU 13 (Las Vegas)
Central Michigan 24, Washington State 21 (Sun)
Ohio State 48, Utah 45 (Rose)
This marks the fourth time in the past five seasons that the Pac-12 lost more bowl games than it won.
In that span (2017-21), the conference is 8-22 in the postseason, with no playoff berths and a 1-5 record in New Year’s Six games. (Oregon over Wisconsin is the lone win. The losses: Utah, USC and Washington to Ohio State; Washington to Penn State; and Oregon to Iowa State.)
3. The panoramic view
As forgettable as the 2021 postseason might have been for the Pac-12, we’re careful not to draw too many conclusions because of the roster upheaval that strikes so many teams, everywhere.
The most accurate assessment can only come from tallying the results of every non-conference game, from Week Zero through New Year’s Day.
So that’s exactly what we did …
Pac-12 vs. FBS opponents in the regular season: 9-18
Pac-12 vs. FBS opponents in the bowl season: 0-5
Pac-12 total record vs. FBS opponents: 9-23
The results include Oregon’s victory at Ohio State at one end of the spectrum and, at the other, five losses to Brigham Young, two losses to San Diego State and two to Utah State, plus the first loss to a Mid-American Conference team (Central Michigan) in Pac-12 history.
The facts are the facts, folks.
Flip the records (18-9, 5-0 and 23-9), and we’d be praising the conference for a stellar showing from start to finish.
But given the reality, no other conclusion can be drawn: The Pac-12’s collective performance over the sweep of the 2021 season was poor, if not awful.
4. QB woes and the COVID whammy
Now that we have described what happened to the conference this season, a few words on why it happened.
Why did things go sideways so early, so often and so late?
Many fans will naturally blame the previous administration (Larry Scott) or specific coaches, teams or issues (the Pac-12 Networks, the nine-game league schedule, etc.).
But not all of the deficiencies are specific to the 2021 season — some are woven into the fabric of the conference, have surfaced repeatedly in recent years and will continue to plague the Pac-12 until they get resolved … if they get resolved.
We believe the quarterback play in 2021 was as poor as it has been in forever, and nobody will convince us otherwise.
In several instances, the management of the quarterback position by the head coaches and offensive coordinators was equally poor, especially with regard to selecting the Week One starters.
But that alone doesn’t account for the unseemly results; it does not come close.
In our opinion, there was an indisputable, lingering effect from COVID.
No major conference encountered as much disruption from the virus in 2020 as the Pac-12: It played fewer games, conducted fewer practices and produced fewer bowl teams than its peers.
The impact was felt this season, too. Pac-12 teams simply were not as prepared to play in September as their competition.
The best example is Brigham Young, which collected three head-to-head wins in the opening weeks.
In 2020, the Cougars started training camp in early August, as usual; they played 11 regular-season games, held bowl practices and played in a bowl game.
Each BYU player probably received three times as many repetitions (in practice and games) as the equivalent Pac-12 player.
How could that not have benefitted the Cougars, in relation to their Pac-12 foes, early this season?
No, the COVID carryover doesn’t explain the postseason face plant we just witnessed. But again, there isn’t a single explanation, a theory of everything.
5. The scene from 40,000 feet
The Pac-12’s performance this season isn’t a one-off by any means — the conference has struggled for years relative to its peers. The playoff drought (last appearance: 2016) is but one manifestation of the collective sag.
Some of the challenges are outside its control; some are self-inflicted.
Some can be fixed sooner than later; some might never be fixed.
Some are rooted in missteps at the campus level; some can be hoisted upon the previous regime at Pac-12 HQ.
Yes, it would help immensely if USC became a top-10 program under Lincoln Riley.
It would help if the Pac-12 is able to convince the top prep talents in California to stay home.
It would help if the Big Ten agrees to drop to eight conference games and partners with the Pac-12 in an Alliance series.
It would help if the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams.
It would help if the university presidents and chancellors across the conference were committed to winning at the highest level and allocated the necessary resources.
And it would help if commissioner George Kliavkoff hits the jackpot with the upcoming media rights negotiations.
But the issues run deeper even than those cited above.
The Pac-12 has a pipeline problem and, in that regard, isn’t much different from the Big 12 and the Big Ten.
The overwhelming number of elite recruits — the four- and five-star prospects who win playoff games and dominate the NFL Draft — reside in the southeastern quadrant of the country.
It’s true of the skill position players, and it’s especially true of the offensive and defensive linemen.
There are more big, fast bodies in SEC territory than in all other Power Five footprints combined.
And the gap is expanding.
It’s expanding because families are moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, and it’s expanding because concussion fears have impacted high school football participation on the West Coast to a much greater degree than in the SEC.
The Pac-12 footprint simply has fewer football players in general and fewer big bodies in particular, with the declines accelerating.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, prep football participation in California dropped 11.7 percent from 2014 to 2018 (i.e., pre-COVID data).
Meanwhile, Florida experienced a decline of just 0.6 percent over that five-year span, while Georgia, another key feeder state for the SEC (and others), lost just 3.2 percent.
These demographic trends don’t create a hard ceiling for the Pac-12. They don’t prohibit the conference from competing for CFP berths and national titles in future years.
But the trends indicate the Pac-12 must become more efficient in all aspects of football operations.
They also suggest the Pac-12 programs that have the richest traditions and the greatest resources and the strongest recruiting bases and the best chance to compile playoff-caliber rosters — those programs cannot swing and miss.
That’s USC, first and foremost. But it’s also Oregon and Washington and, on the next tier, Utah and UCLA.
The prospect pipeline is shrinking, the on-field product is floundering, the competitive gap is expanding, and the new commissioner only has so many cards to play prior to the 2024 season, when the new media rights deal begins.
Time to get creative and get invested. Or the conference might fall so far behind that it can’t catch up.
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