New commissioner … same old problems?
That’s one way to ease into Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday at the W Hotel in downtown Los Angeles as the league gathers together after a withering year filled with COVID-19-induced stops, starts and interruptions.
Along the way, Larry Scott lost his job as commissioner and now the league has a fresh outlook. New commissioner George Kliavkoff took over July 1, and while early reviews have been favorable, he faces a bold new world with conference realignment seemingly in full effect. For the moment, that aspect overshadows the league’s other top concern: how to jump-start football.
The Pac-12 has appeared in the College Football Playoff just twice within the first seven years of the four-team bracket — the last appearance coming after the 2016 season (Washington). The league welcomes only one new coach (Jedd Fisch, Arizona) but is bogged down by a few of the same old problems, such as heading into Year 18 without a national championship on the football field.
Let’s dive into some of the prevalent topics set to be discussed this year at Pac-12 Media Day.
Conference realignment ahead?
How does the Pac-12 — or any Power Five conference — react to the SEC’s apparent raid of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12?
The current Pac-12 television deal has three more years to run. While the league is expected to get a bump in its media rights, even if it stands pat, is there a group of schools from perhaps a wounded Big 12 that make sense? Scott made a bold play 11 years ago trying to steal away half the Big 12, including Texas and Oklahoma. It didn’t work at the time, but is the climate favorable now with widespread realignment expected?
One TV media rights insider said there’s no value in, say, taking Texas Tech and Oklahoma State from the Big 12. Regardless, the coming realignment is going to be an immediate test of Kliavkoff’s ability to think on his feet.
He recently said the Pac-12 is “an exclusive club with high barrier for entry.”
On-field improvement needs to be addressed
Kliavkoff is regarded as a bright, tech-savvy leader familiar with the entertainment space having served as an MGM executive. Sounds a lot like Scott, no? The difference being that, at least early on, Kliavkoff has engaged the athletic directors and been willing to listen. The Pac-12 schools themselves are some of the most admired in the country. But if he doesn’t know it yet, Kliavkoff was hired to fix football.
Easier said than done.
The league has been easy to dismiss early in the season after losing an important nonconference game or two. There was a recent two-year period in which each team in the league except one — Washington State — all lost at least three games. There has been recent slippage in Pac-12 recruiting, as well, as the likes of Alabama and Clemson have hauled major talent out of southern California.
Kliavkoff needs to turn around an aircraft carrier, but here’s how it begins: assemble the 12 league presidents in a room and tell them, “You can retain your academic integrity and still compete at a high level in football. That means spending aggressively on football and hiring the right coach when the opportunity arises. Football doesn’t get better until that happens.”
It looks like Oregon and everyone else. While Arizona State and USC should be factors in the South Division, the Ducks from the North are the class of the league until further notice.
Oregon won a second consecutive Pac-12 title, but only because Washington couldn’t play due to COVID-19 protocols. Nonetheless, Mario Cristobal heads into his fifth year with a loaded roster that includes national defensive player of the year candidate Kayvon Thibodeaux, tailback C.J. Verdell and linebacker Noah Sewell.
The biggest question is whether quarterback Anthony Brown is the difference-maker Cristobal thought he was when he replaced Tyler Shough in the Fiesta Bowl, a move which caused Shough to transfer to Texas Tech. Now Brown, a dual-threat transfer who started 28 games for Boston College, will be asked to win the Pac-12 and get the Ducks to the CFP as a senior.
We’ll know early about Oregon’s — and the Pac-12’s — fortunes when the Ducks travel to face Big Ten favorite Ohio State on Sept. 11 after COVID-19 wiped out last year’s scheduled meeting in Eugene. Win this one and it changes the narrative about the entire league.
Big nonconference games on the horizon
In addition to the Oregon-Ohio State matchup, there’s a series of prominent nonconference games that will sink or elevate the Pac-12.
LSU at UCLA, Sept. 4: The Tigers have a sizable talent advantage, but it’s been a weird, troubling offseason for Ed Orgeron. Traveling across the country to face the improving Bruins is going to be an early test.
Washington at Michigan, Sept. 11: Jimmy Lake had an impressive yet abbreviated rookie season after replacing Chris Petersen. The Huskies finished 3-1 and may be the next big thing in the Pac-12. Lake has to replace four starters from the defense who were drafted but returns all five starters on the offensive line and budding quarterback Dylan Morris. Judging by Lake’s first season, the Huskies should at least be the equal to Michigan. Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, is coming off a tie for his worst college coaching performance (2-4).
Utah at BYU, Sept. 11: BYU is back on the national radar after an 11-1 season. Utah never left. From 2014-19, the Utes have won less than nine games only once and has won the last nine Holy Wars. The teams haven’t met for two years, so there will be plenty of, um, emotion built up.
Minnesota at Colorado, Sept. 18: Two teams from the middle of the pack in their conferences. But a win over a Big Ten opponent would be impressive for the rejuvenated Karl Dorrell.
USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 23: Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis may be the Pac-12’s best Heisman candidate. Coach Clay Helton, who continues to suffer outrageous slings and arrows from the fan base, is 1-4 vs the Irish.
The Sun Devils open the season under a dark cloud as the NCAA is investigating allegations that recruits were brought in during the COVID-19-induced dead period. If true, that would be a massive ethical breach and public health violation.
Coach Herm Edwards, who has not been implicated directly, was one of the feel-good stories of the league. Now questions have arisen as to how Arizona State does business. Edwards will speak publicly for the first time in Los Angeles, so there will be plenty of questions to ask.
If the Sun Devils can stay focused with controversy swirling, they could be the league’s second-best team. Twenty-one starters return to a team that played only four games. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is a budding star, while junior tailback Rachaad White averaged 10 yards per carry.