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Will 2021 be more of the same for Pac-12 football?

Some things you can’t unsee, like the Pac-12 North’s 1-5 mark in the league’s first full week of games

Washington fans look on from the student section during game against Montana Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle.
Washington fans look on from the student section during game against Montana Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle. The Huskies fell to the FCS Grizzlies in the opener, but weren’t the only Pac-12 North team to have a rough day.
Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

The Pac-12 hoped to come out and polish up its fading reputation in football.

So far, it’s not going too well.

This didn’t help: Pac-12 teams lost six of their 12 nonconference games, but that’s not the worst part of it; they lost to teams they’re supposed to beat.

Washington, ranked No. 20, lost to Montana 13-7. That marks only the fifth time an FCS team has beaten a ranked FBS team, the others being Appalachian State over No. 5 Michigan in 2005; James Madison over No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010; Eastern Washington over No. 25 Oregon State in 2013; and North Dakota State over No. 13 Iowa in 2016.

Meanwhile, Washington State lost 26-23 to Utah State, a team that won one game last season and fired its coach. It was a good start for new coach Blake Anderson, but not so much for WSU’s Nick Rolovich.

Oregon State lost to Purdue 30-21 in a battle of conference also-rans (Purdue has had two winning seasons in the last 13, and Oregon State has had seven straight losing seasons).

California lost 22-17 to Nevada of the Mountain West Conference.

Arizona lost to BYU 24-16, an outcome that was at least predictable and expected.

Stanford lost to Kansas State and it wasn’t even close, 24-7.

Maybe the Pac-12’s indecisiveness and lack of play during the 2020 pandemic season has come back to bite them.

It was difficult to read much into the league’s six victories, aside from UCLA’s 38-27 win over powerhouse LSU. The Pac-12’s other wins included two wins over FCS opponents — Arizona State beat Southern Utah 41-14, and Utah beat Weber State 40-17. Oregon nearly lost to Fresno State, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just under three minutes left in the game (final: 31-24). USC beat San Jose State 30-7.

Meanwhile, in nonconference games, the Big Ten was 6-0 and the SEC 12-3.

The Pac-12’s performance might not be alarming if it weren’t part of a trend. The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national title since 2004. Since the College Football Playoff was created seven years ago, the Pac-12 has claimed only two of the 28 berths, the last one in 2016. The league has lost 22 of its last 33 bowl games.

None of this is lost on new commissioner George Kliavkoff.

“The greatest weakness, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is the number of years it’s been since we won a football or men’s basketball championship,” he said when he was introduced as commissioner. “We’re going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that. … We know where the bread is buttered. We’re focused on the revenue sports and winning in men’s basketball and football.”

At this point it’s fair to wonder if the so-called Power Five should be the Power Four or perhaps the Power Three given the decline of the Pac-12, as well as the shakeup in the Big 12 Conference. Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12. They are the conference’s brand.

Perhaps because of conference realignment and the freer movement of players among schools, college football might actually be moving toward increased parity (the loaded SEC being the exception). That might help account for the Pac-12 losses last week, as well as the six losses suffered by FBS schools to FCS opponents last weekend.

East Tennessee State defeated Vanderbilt 23-3.

Holy Cross beat Connecticut 38-28.

UC Davis defeated Tulsa 19-17

South Dakota State didn’t just beat Colorado State, but did so handily, 42-23.

Eastern Washington beat UNLV 35-33 in double overtime.

And of course Montana defeated Washington.

Several other FBS schools nearly fell to FCS schools. Northern Iowa took No. 7 Iowa State to the wire before falling 16-10. Montana State narrowly lost to Wyoming 19-16. Missouri State, a 40-point underdog, came within a touchdown of beating Oklahoma State on the road, losing 23-16.

Maybe the FCS’s decision to play in the spring has prepared those teams better for the fall season just a few months later. Or maybe, as the Pac-12 discovered, there isn’t as much difference between the haves and the have-nots as we might have thought.