It’s easy to take shots at the woebegone Big East. The conference is being picked apart by vultures from Chicago to Greensboro. It’s a year away from being sent from the first-class cabin to steerage aboard the HMS BCS. It’s now even not above begging schools in Greenville and Fresno to take up membership.
But you know something? When it comes to playing against the big boys in the bowl season, the Big East has more than held its own. In fact, over the past three seasons, the Big East had the best bowl winning percentage of any conference, at .647 by going 11-6.
The conference that’s truly the laughingstock of its brethren? If you’re wondering, it’s the one with the richest TV contract of them all: the Pac-12 conference.
Since Larry Scott took over as the commissioner in July 2009, he has done much to raise brand awareness of his conference. He didn’t quite corral Texas and Oklahoma, but he did snatch Colorado and Utah to expand from the Pac-10 to the Pac-12 and add a conference title game. He negotiated a 12-year, 4.3-billion TV deal with FOX and ESPN, and launched a new Pac-12 Network. And he even held a preseason press conference in the Big Apple, making sure the conference of the Left Coast wasn’t left out because of East Coast media bias.
But despite his efforts, the Pac-12’s reputation has been growing mostly in marketing circles. On the football field, it’s another story.
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The 2009 season is a good demarcation in examining the conference’s on-field fortunes. Besides being the first year of the Larry Scott regime, it also marked the start of the post-USC era. The Trojans had played in a record seven consecutive BCS bowls – winning six – between 2002-08. But their dynasty would soon crumble as a result of severe NCAA sanctions and the departure of coach Pete Carroll.
Between 2009-2011, the Pac-10/12 had the worst bowl record of any AQ conference, going 6-12 for a paltry .333 winning percentage. The Pac schools went 5-9 against fellow AQ conferences and 1-3 against non-AQ competition. Overall, the Pac ranked 10th, fifth and ninth out of the 11 conferences in those three seasons, respectively.
How AQ conferences fared in bowl games between 2009-2011 seasons:
- Big East – 4-2, 4-2, 3-2 = 11-6 (.647)
- SEC – 6-4, 5-5, 5-2 = 16-11 (.593)
- Big 12 – 4-4, 3-5, 6-2 = 13-11 (.542)
- Big Ten – 4-3, 3-5, 4-6 = 11-14 (.440)
- ACC – 3-4, 4-5, 2-6 = 9-15 (.375)
- Pac-12 – 2-5, 2-2, 2-5 = 6-12 (.333)
What makes the Pac-12’s record even more awful than it looks is that, unlike the much-maligned Big Ten, most of its teams played in bowls much closer to home and, other than BCS bowls, usually against lower-tiered or -ranked opponents. Yet, in those three seasons, no conference team has managed to win more than one bowl game.
And things are hardly looking up in 2012, as the conference scarcely could’ve gotten off to a worse start. Arizona needed a monumental choke job by Nevada to eke out the Pac-12’s lone bowl win so far, with Washington losing to Boise State in Las Vegas and UCLA inhumanely destroyed by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
The Pac-12’s putrid bowl record is mostly the result of a top-heavy conference that’s had little parity, something that dates back a decade, to the beginning of the USC dynasty. It’s just that instead of the kingpin Trojans, the Pac-12 is now dominated by the two-headed monster of Oregon and Stanford, which will each represent the conference in BCS bowls for a third consecutive season – unprecedented in the history of the BCS.
In the past three seasons, Oregon and Stanford have gone a combined 51-2 in conference games when they weren’t playing each other. USC beat the Ducks last season and Washington upset the Cardinal this season for those two teams’ lone losses. During the Trojans’ reign from 2002-08, they lost a total of seven conference games over seven seasons.
That trend is unlikely to change, with Oregon and Stanford entrenched as the conference’s powerhouses while USC is still only into the second of its three years of massive scholarship reductions. The rest of the Pac-12 looks like a giant blob of mediocrity, with UCLA, Washington and Oregon State all exposed in their respective late-season slides.
For the Pac-12 to gain the national recognition and respect that it craves, its teams must do better when playing out-of-conference competition. And not just in the bowl season, either. Both Stanford and USC were step stools in Notre Dame’s march toward the BCS title game, and Washington – which beat Stanford and Oregon State when both were ranked in the top 10 – was mercilessly annihilated at LSU.
Much work is still ahead for Scott, who needs to make the Pac-12 Network more viable as it will spend its inaugural season off DirecTV, the leading sports programming provider. Its once-vaunted basketball programs are also in disarray, as only one team (Arizona) is currently ranked in the AP top 25 a season after the conference’s regular-season champion was snubbed of an NCAA tournament berth.
But nothing gives the conference relevance and legitimacy quite like success on the football field. For the Pac-12’s “conference of champions” motto to be less of a mocking derision, its teams will have to bring home a few tacky bowl hardware first.