Pac-12 football is experiencing a conference-wide renaissance that is just getting started.
Commissioner Larry Scott touted the overall strength as one of the conference's defining qualities during his press conference Saturday, and the numbers back his claim.
"We've had four or five teams ranked in the [Associated Press] Top 25 most of the season [and] two out of the top five many weeks," he said. "We had 31 non-conference wins this season, the most in our history. And this includes a 6-3 record against the ACC, SEC and Big Ten combined."
A record nine teams qualified for and were invited to bowl games, which Scott called "indicative of the depth of the conference right now."
All nine bowl-bound teams were members of the conference when it had 10 members, from 1978 through 2010, including Washington State. The Cougars were the Pac-12's last to earn their bowl eligibility, but no team is more indicative of the league's rise.
Washington State entered the season on a decade-long bowl drought. Years of futility prompted the university's athletic brass to hire Mike Leach, a proven winner at Texas Tech, in December 2011. Leach's innovative offensive philosophy and a quality supporting staff produced six wins this season and an invitation to the New Mexico Bowl.
With 35 bowl games, the bar for making the postseason is lower than it was even seven years ago, when Washington State last finished 6-6. But to dismiss the Cougars' season as the byproduct of lowered bowl standards is misguided.
The Cougars beat both Arizona and USC on the road, the latter a feat the program hadn't accomplished since 2002. Their prowess away from the Palouse should come as no surprise, though. Washington State set the tone in Week 1 when it lost at Auburn, but drove in the fourth quarter with an opportunity to force overtime.
All Auburn's done since is win the SEC title and earn a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Leach is one of many head coaches recently added to the conference who has made himself at home home in short order. Of the nine teams headed to bowl games, seven are led by coaches who were hired after the 2010 season.
|Pac-12 Head Coaches|
|Coach, Team||Years There||Record There||Career Record|
|Rich Rodriguez, Arizona||2||15-10||135–94–2|
|Todd Graham, Arizona State||2||18-8||67–37|
|Sonny Dykes, Cal||1||1-11||23-26|
|Mike MacIntyre, Colorado||1||4-8||20–29|
|Mark Helfrich, Oregon||1||10-2||10-2|
|Mike Riley, Oregon State||11* (current tenure)||79-59*||87-73|
|David Shaw, Stanford||3||34-6||34-6|
|Jim Mora, UCLA||2||18-8||18-8|
|Steve Sarkisian, USC*||-||-||34-29|
|Kyle Whittingham, Utah||9||76-39||76-39|
|Chris Petersen, Washington||-||-||92-12|
|Mike Leach, Washington State||2||9-15||93-58|
The Pac-12's true metamorphosis began the next year, when Washington State, Arizona (Rich Rodriguez); Arizona State (Todd Graham); and UCLA (Jim Mora) hired new coaches.
All four brought immediate culture change to their respective team. Three reached a bowl in their first season. Two won divisional championships.
This year's Pac-12 coaching carousel is far less active than two years ago, but the changes made promise to have as profound an impact as those four hires made in 2011.
Steve Sarkisian's departure from Washington for the USC vacancy opened a spot for Boise State's Chris Petersen, who was officially introduced in a press conference Monday. Petersen's .885 career winning percentage is best among all active coaches.
USC is asking Sarkisian to build a national championship-caliber program from a solid foundation. Coincidentally, he left a solid foundation at Washington for Petersen to do the same.
If the previous round of coaching changes solidified the Pac-12's depth, this year's addition of Petersen and Sarkisian should make the conference stronger at the top.
Numerous teams competing for bowl bids is good. Several competing for a national championship is better. That's exactly the next step the Pac-12 must take to establish itself as college football's premier conference in the College Football Playoff era.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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