The Pac-12 likes to call itself the “Conference of Champions,” and there is good reason. Current Pac-12 member schools have won 500 NCAA national championships across all sports, becoming the first conference to win 500 team titles, which is 193 more than the next closest conference, the Big Ten.
That’s a laudable achievement when many schools just give lip service to Olympic sports and the goal of excellence for all student-athletes. On the other hand, it’s been 13 seasons since a conference school won a football national championship — so long that the conference was the Pac-10 back then.
The NCAA officially stripped USC of its 2004 title (won in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4, 2005), but the Associated Press still recognizes USC as champion. In the ensuing 12 seasons, every other Power 5 conference has won a national championship. The SEC has eight, the ACC has two, and the Big Ten and Big 12 each have one. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are the only two Power 5 conferences that have not won a title in the College Football Playoff era.
As much as the Pac-12 likes its self-ascribed moniker, no national championship provides a conference a greater profile than football.
“Those of us who cover the Pac-12 know it’s some of the most exciting college football you’ll see and it’s incredibly competitive,” Pac-12 Network college football analyst Evan Moore said. “The problem for the Pac-12 is that it has a ton of parity. That’s a good thing to watch; it’s good theater, but it’s not necessarily going to get you a national title.
“What the Pac-12 needs is for one of its powerhouses to dominate and win a national title, and it needs to happen soon because this drought has gone too long.”
Four Pac-12 teams are ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25: No. 4 USC, No. 8 Washington, No. 14 Stanford and No. 24 Washington State. The Trojans, Huskies and even the Cardinal are considered contenders for this season’s College Football Playoff. USC was picked to win the Pac-12 in the conference’s annual preseason media poll.
“When you look at USC and the 11 national championships we have here, it’s a tradition here,” Trojan coach Clay Helton said. “We have played 125 years of football and it’s something that is expected and we understand that. That’s why we came to USC is to win Pac-12 championships and national championships.”
“We hope as a conference, year in and year out, we’re one of those four playoff teams competing for a national title. I think that’s what our conference expects, our fans expect and our alumni expect. We look forward to having the opportunity to try to get there.”
When asked how important a title is to the conference’s identity, Stanford coach David Shaw noted how difficult it is to make it through the Pac-12 schedule unscathed, or with just one loss, because of the strength of the conference from top to bottom, and the fact that the Pac-12 plays more in-conference games than the SEC and ACC.
“We are very cognizant of the fact that we play nine conference games, usually a pretty tough out-of-conference schedule and we don’t shy away from that,” Shaw said. “We believe if you’re able to win this conference, you’ve accomplished something very difficult and hopefully you have an opportunity to get to that playoff.”
Once in, the Pac-12 still needs to win it, however. National runner-up Alabama beat Washington, 24-7, last season in the semifinals.
There is an argument to be made for the wear and tear that the Pac-12’s depth has on its teams compared to other conferences, but the SEC and ACC both have some heavyweights, and the Big Ten boasted excellent depth last year. If the Pac-12 really wants to fly that “Conference of Champions” flag, it has to stop making excuses. Its coaches know they have to break through in football.
“I’m sure it’s important,” Petersen said. “Everybody from the national stage pays attention to what conferences are winning the most and winning national championships.
“We don’t get hung up on that. We can only worry about ourselves. We have our goals. We focus very little on those long-term goals like that. We focus day-to-day and week-to-week. Our guys know what we’re competing for, but we don’t spend a bunch of time talking about that. We spend a bunch of time talking about how to do this process correctly. If everything else is correct then the good things will happen at the end of the season.”