The Pac-12 Doesn't Need Saving

Also, I allow myself to be completely trolled by a spectacularly annoying Sonny Dykes quote

On Tuesday, Stewart Mandel of The Athletic put out a column that has become a common sight over the past few years. This particular version was titled “They have to want to win: How to save the Pac-12 for the sake of college football.”

Ordinarily with articles like these, I’d read it, roll my eyes a couple times, and move on. But this particular article was advertised using a particular quote from a particular person:

“While I was there, it seemed like the brand deteriorated every single year,” said SMU coach Sonny Dykes, who was Cal’s head coach from 2013-16. “I was at Arizona (as an assistant from 2007-09), left to go to Louisiana Tech. I came back three years later and the quality of football had deteriorated so much in those years. The brand had deteriorated, the interest had deteriorated.”

BEGIN LONG, SEMI-OFF-TOPIC RANT

Mandel claims that Sonny Dykes said these things, but I think that this quote was synthetically designed in a lab to drive me over the edge.

Never mind that Sonny Dykes elected to come to Cal, then proceeded to get regularly schooled by all of the other teams in a conference that had ‘deteriorated’ so badly. His statement doesn’t even pass a basic history test.

In 2009, the Pac-10 saw just two schools finish in the top 25 and the entire conference went a mediocre 23-14 in non-conference play and 2-5 in bowl games. 2007 and 2008 were a bit better but not remarkably successful, and the Pac-10 failed to get more than the one guaranteed team (their conference champion) into a BCS bowl. There was nothing particularly good about the Pac-10’s performance from 2007-2009. Meanwhile, in 2013, the Pac-12 finished with six ranked teams and went 6-3 in bowl games. Seven teams finished ranked in 2014, and Oregon went to the national title game. Five teams finished ranked in 2016. By any reasonable metric, the Pac-12 when Sonny Dykes coached at Cal was better than the Pac-10 when Dykes coached at Arizona.

So if what Dykes said isn’t even correct, why did he say it? That’s unclear but I’m sure it’s for a reason that’s self-serving. My best guess? “Boy, I would’ve been great at Cal but I was thwarted at every turn by folks who just don’t want to win that badly! My defense wasn’t the problem, it was those darned water polo and rugby loving fans, boosters, and administrators!”

END RANT

OK, what about the substance of the actual article?

Mandel gives a five point plan to ‘save’ the Pac-12:

  • Admit that football is important

  • Sell recruits on the advantages of the West Coast

  • Lead the push to expand the College Football Playoff

  • Pac-12 TV rights should embrace the streaming market

  • Make the LA schools great again

I’m not really here to argue for or against those five proposals. Most are fine, though I’m personally against the LA schools becoming great in any particular capacity. I think the single most important part of the entire debate was glossed over with a throwaway mention at the end of the column:

A lot of folks in Columbus, Ohio, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, probably have a simpler theory why you rarely see Pac-12 teams in the Playoff: It’s because they don’t care about college football out there.

Bingo!

The Pac-12 can ‘admit that football is important’ every day of the week, but it will never be more important for the average Pac-12 school than it is for the average SEC school. The Pac-12 can sell recruits on the advantages of the West Coast 24/7, but they will never argue harder or spend more (both above and below the board) than the SEC. The Pac-12 can embrace whatever media rights concept is out there, but they will never be able to sell it for more money than the SEC.

If you prefer, you can substitute the Big-10, Clemson, Oklahoma, or Texas in place of SEC in that paragraph. The point remains the same - the Pac-12 at large will never be able to bring the same resources to bear than the elite conferences (and particularly the elite programs) can, because those conferences have more fans, and those fans care more, and that fact directly translates into money and resources.

This ‘problem,’ by the way, is the same problem faced by ACC teams not named Clemson, or by Big-12 teams not named Oklahoma and Texas. Is the life of a West Virginia or Texas Tech or NC State or Virginia fan meaningfully different from the life of an Arizona or a Cal fan? No! But because the power team in their conference make the playoff, we pretend that their lot in life is somehow different.

Hell, consider this reality. When you take away Alabama, Clemson, Ohio St., and Oklahoma (combined 20 playoff appearances) here’s how the conferences rank:

SEC: 2 playoff appearances
Pac-12: 2 playoff appearances
ACC: 1 playoff appearance
Big-10: 1 playoff appearance
Big-12: 0 playoff appearances

The problems facing the Pac-12 aren’t unique to just the Pac-12 - they’re the same ‘problems’ that 97% of FBS programs face.

And is it even a problem? I guess it might be if you’re an Oregon fan and your team might be good enough to make the playoffs, and you need the rest of the conference to pull their weight. But me, a Cal fan? I’m enjoying the current status of the Pac-12 just fine. A conference that won’t be won by the same team 80% of the time, a conference where the same team won’t win the conference title six years in a row. Where games are regularly wacky, competitive, and entertaining.

Honestly, my interest in the rest of college football has waned over the last few years, in part because the larger landscape of the sport isn’t particularly competitive. But my interest in the Pac-12 has grown, because I legitimately enjoy the on-field product. Not necessarily because that product is the best of the best, but because that product has some drama to it.

Pac-12, if you’re listening, thanks for getting rid of Larry Scott, please fix your distribution packages so it’s not a gigantic pain to see all your games, and don’t let the fact that the rest of the country is obsessed over who gets into the playoffs distract from the fact that you have a fun product. Just keep the Pac-12 after dark flowing into my veins and we're cool.