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Can Pac-12 football become nationally relevant again, earn spot in College Football Playoff?

There’s no substitute for winning big games. It’s time the Pac-12 shows it belongs in the same conversation with the other Power Five conferences by having a program represent it in the CFP

The Utah Utes and the USC Trojans square up at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
The Utah Utes offensive line and the USC Trojans defensive line square up at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Aside from all the issues the Pac-12 must deal with right now, new commissioner George Kliavkoff understands the importance of making football nationally relevant again.

On the day he was introduced in mid-May, Kliavkoff ensured that everyone knew his priorities for the “Conference of Champions.”

“I want to be clear. We know where our bread is buttered,” he said. “We’re focused on revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”

Kliavkoff also added that the Pac-12’s biggest weakness is “the number of years it’s been since (the Pac-12) won a football or a men’s basketball championship. We’re going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that.”

As part of that stance, Kliavkoff strongly supports a change with the College Football Playoff.

“I want to go on the record: The Pac-12 is in favor of expansion of the College Football Playoff,” he said.

Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, only two Pac-12 teams, Oregon and Washington, have qualified.

Two years ago, Utah entered the Pac-12 championship game as the No. 5 team in the CFP rankings. A win over Oregon probably would have propelled the Utes to one of the four playoff spots. But the Ducks dominated 37-15 and, once again, the Pac-12 was shut out of the CFP.

It’s no secret that over the past decade, the Pac-12’s football brand has been diminished, including its inability to consistently win meaningful games on a big stage.

Former Utah athletic director Chris Hill said it’s crucial that the Pac-12 earn its way to the CFP.

“People talk about branding all the time. Branding is not hurting our image right now,” Hill told The Athletic. “Ninety percent of it is not being in the College Football Playoff.”

A year ago, the Pac-12 postponed the season until the spring due to the pandemic — before changing course and kicking off a truncated campaign in November, which made it extremely difficult for a Pac-12 program to get into the playoff.

And despite some intriguing Pac-12 storylines during the short season, the league failed to gain much traction in terms of attracting national attention.

ESPN “College GameDay” analyst Kirk Herbstreit offered a blunt assessment of the Pac-12 last December.

“They’ve become less respected than the American (Athletic Conference). That’s where the Pac-12 is right now,” Herbstreit said during an episode of “GameDay.” “I know they started late, but they have an undefeated USC team. Colorado’s been a great story. Nothing. They’re not even a blip on the radar. I always try to fight for the Pac-12, and I’m not saying those teams are worthy of being in the top five. But to not even be recognized or talked about isn’t right.”

Things got even worse for the Pac-12 from there. Due to cancellations and uncertainty due to COVID-19, the league even struggled to crown an undisputed champion in 2020.

At one point, Colorado was 4-0, 3-0 in the Pac-12, while USC was 4-0 in the Pac-12. The Trojans were supposed to play the Buffaloes, but USC had to cancel due to COVID-19 issues.

That caused a messy, convoluted situation that stirred up controversy because it meant the Trojans could clinch the South Division title by virtue of having more conference wins without having to play Colorado.

The response from Pac-12 headquarters?

“Prior to the start of the football season, the Pac-12 Conference established a 2020 schedule and related tie-breaking protocol,” the conference released in a statement. “The schedule and tie-breaking protocol were developed in consultation with, and approved by, Pac-12 athletic directors. We are following this agreed upon schedule and tie-breaking protocol.”

So instead of updating the rules amid the most bizarre college football season in history, the Pac-12 refused to push back the USC-Colorado game until later to allow those teams to settle the Pac-12 South championship on the field.

As it turned out, Colorado fell to Utah that weekend while USC edged crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans earned their way to the Pac-12 championship game.

In the Pac-12 North, meanwhile, Washington had to pull out of the championship game due to COVID-19 issues in its program. That opened the door for Oregon to play then-No. 13 USC in the title game.

Some believed that if the Trojans were to beat the Ducks, they should receive consideration for the CFP.

USC, the Pac-12’s traditional flagship program, had an opportunity to flex its muscles. Instead, the Trojans fell flat in a 31-24 loss to Oregon.

“With the exception of that 2016 Rose Bowl win over Penn State, this is the state of USC football since the beginning of (coach Clay) Helton’s tenure six years ago,” wrote Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “The college football world doesn’t consider them elite, because they’re not. They’re never included in the same conversation as Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State, because they don’t belong there.

“The Trojan program is one based in mediocrity. The Trojan image is one bordering on irrelevancy. In big games, the Trojan tradition has been trashed. Under the brightest of lights, the Trojan swagger has been suffocated. Despite going 45-23, Helton has basically led this team nowhere, with no end in sight.”

No doubt, the Pac-12 needs to become nationally relevant again. But it’s not going to happen overnight. The road to relevance begins with recruiting — not allowing homegrown West Coast talent to bolt for the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12, like it has for years.

As for 2021, Athlon Sports released its preseason top 25 in mid-May and it featured four Pac-12 teams: No. 9 Oregon, No. 15 Arizona State, No. 18 USC and No. 22 Washington. Utah was listed first in a group of teams that “just missed” the top 25.

That’s a good start. But it’s all about performance — proving it on the field.

Boasting several experienced quarterbacks, and other talented skill position players, could this be a banner year for the Pac-12? Can the league finally break into the College Football Playoff again? Or will the league continue to cannibalize itself with no single program emerging on the national stage?

There’s only so much the Pac-12 leadership can do to support the league’s football programs — but it must do all it can to help, not hinder, the product.

Certainly, there’s no substitute for winning big games. It’s time the Pac-12 shows it belongs in the same conversation with the other Power Five conferences by having a program represent it in the CFP.

In the coming weeks, the Deseret News will look at the state of each Pac-12 football team going into the 2021 season.