Picture this: a college football team still licking its wounds after a 50-0 shellacking, finishes the regular season at 6-6, including five losses with margins of 25-plus points. The coach has been served his walking papers.* Then that same team has a chance to play one more game, and with a win would earn a berth into the grand-daddy of bowl games—the Rose Bowl.
The stuff of fairy tales you say?
No more a fairy tale than two of the proven conference powerhouses (Stanford and USC) standing on the sidelines looking in at the Pac-12 championship game.
That UCLA is even a participant in this playoff is an obvious cruelty of fate. Nevertheless, due to USC's final year of NCAA sanctions and a bizarre end to the regular season in the Southern Division of the Pac-12, the Bruins are in.
Yet, even as the UCLA football team drags itself out of Autzen Stadium this Friday night, the Pac-12 big wigs will go through the motions and declare a successful inaugural season, then present to the nation its conference champion, likely the University of Oregon Ducks.
And while the crowned champion may well have a legitimate claim to that title, the twisting and bumpy road leading to that conclusion will forever bear the pot-holes of a worst-case scenario come true.
Everyone wants to see the best team meet the best to determine a champion. When that doesn't happen, a sense of closure never materializes. Second-guessing and doubt fill the void.
Like the proverbial dog chasing its tail, this is the quandary which will fuel the endless debate that under-girds the anticlimactic championship game: Who beat whom?
In overtime, Stanford beat USC, 56-48, in LA. USC recovered under the leadership of QB Matt Barkley and was peaking as one of the strongest teams in the nation. Unfortunately, that NCAA suspension (from postseason play) ended their season.
Oregon beat Stanford, 53-30, in Palo Alto. Stanford, with that one loss, is now ranked No. 4 in most national polls. They will surely land a prestigious BCS bowl game berth.
USC beat Oregon, 38-35, in Eugene. But behind a maturing defense and multiple offensive weapons, Oregon is a virtual shoe-in for a chance at redemption in the Rose Bowl.
Up and down the Pacific coast—even after the national champion is finally determined—because of the fickleness of happenstance, that sense of finality as to who really is the best in the West will never come.
The Pac-12, seeking to claim national respect in its fledgling year, had hoped for something better than the ambiguity this crazy season has produced.
There is only one thing imaginable which could thicken the fog of confusion—a UCLA win in Eugene.
*Update: UCLA coach Neuheisel fired.