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Opinion: How the Pac-12 Conference bungled its football postseason

Brent Schrotenboer
The Pac-12 Conference can’t seem to help itself. After staging another underwhelming football season, this time the league put on a championship game that managed to make its postseason even worse.

Oregon beat Southern California in the Pac-12 title game Friday night 31-24, putting the Ducks (4-2) in a top bowl game they didn’t really earn.

And that’s only part of this mess. In the end, it’s almost like the Pac-12 carried out a backwards blueprint:

How could the league help ensure that its best regular-season teams were not represented at the most important time of the year – USC (5-1), Colorado (4-1) and Washington (3-1)?

Just don’t tell the Ducks this championship deserves an asterisk.

“Everybody who’s not a winner is going to say that,” said Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the game’s MVP. “So who are we leaving it up to: winners or losers?”

League commissioner Larry Scott defended the game’s arrangement Thursday, noting it was made according to agreed-upon rules, with input from the league’s football experts. They wanted the league title to be “earned on the field” instead of by decree, he said.

The problem with this perspective is Oregon didn’t really earn the right to be on the field in this game.

Other leagues had better judgment, by comparison. The Big Ten, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences had a policy of preserving the integrity of their championship games. If a rightful participant in their title games had to drop out, those leagues would have canceled. Not the Pac-12.

And that’s not to blame Oregon for any of this. The Ducks seized the moment and played the champion’s role with style, including a green Gatorade bath afterward for coach Mario Cristobal. But they also entered the game as the league’s fourth-most deserving team and benefited from being healthy and rested enough at just the right time.

The Pac-12 put USC at a disadvantage

Pac-12 South Division champion USC (5-1) was the league’s last unbeaten team but now will fall to a second-tier bowl game after being forced to play Oregon on four days’ notice. The Trojans last played on Dec. 12 and then didn’t learn it would play the Ducks until Monday. By comparison, Oregon hadn’t played since Dec. 5, though it did have to prepare for two other games that were canceled, in the meantime, against Washington and Colorado.

USC looked flat and sloppy Friday, including nine penalties for 98 yards and three interceptions from quarterback Kedon Slovis, who flopped in the fourth quarter this time after three fourth-quarter-comeback victories this season.

USC coach Clay Helton acknowledged afterward the team “had to do a 180 in the middle of the week” but said his team’s preparation was “great.”

“We had the opportunity, and we didn’t make it happen this time around,” he said.

Instead of disadvantaging the Trojans by making them face a pinch-hitter with scant notice, the Pac-12 could have changed its rules to declare the game a no-contest, making USC the undefeated de facto champion, worthy of a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. That would have been fairer.

An unranked Ducks team now earns the Fiesta Bowl berth instead – a team that lost its previous two games against Cal (1-3) and Oregon State (2-4).

The Pac-12 robbed Colorado

Colorado was more worthy of playing USC for the Pac-12 title than the Ducks. Colorado also was USC’s pinch-hitter in waiting, in case the Trojans could not play Friday because of COVID.

To be ready for the call-up, the Buffaloes originally were supposed to play Oregon this weekend in a standby consolation game at the same stadium as the title game in Los Angeles. But after Oregon filled in to replace Washington, CU was left without a game.

The Buffs even sent an equipment truck to a midway point between Boulder, Colorado, and Los Angeles this week to be ready to complete the drive west if USC couldn’t play. It didn’t happen.

“I do have a lot of empathy for Colorado,” Scott said Thursday.

The league also wouldn’t allow CU to play USC for the title because they are both in the same South Division. According to league rules, the South Division winner is supposed to face the winner of the North Division for the title. Except Oregon isn’t really the winner of the North. And Colorado never got the chance to play USC this year because their scheduled game on Nov. 28 was canceled due to COVID issues at USC.

After being a good sport and doing everything it was asked, what will CU get in return? A berth in the Armed Forces Bowl?

Is this how you treat your best teams?

In effect, each of the league’s three top regular-season teams got a bad bargain at the end of a truncated season: USC (see above), CU (see above) and Washington, for getting sick (which was not the fault of the league).

Much of that could have been prevented if the league would have been more flexible and willing to adjust irrelevant rules when necessary, much like other conferences have done for their best teams this year.

Such inflexibility instead only adds to the Pac-12’s reputation of being aloof, out of step and easily burned by self-inflicted wounds that already include poor on-the-field officiating and lagging revenue.

Now the second-place team in the North Division won the Pac-12 championship. In a certain, twisted way, that’s perfect, at least for Oregon.

“We were just talking about it in the locker room,” Cristobal said afterward. “Back in March, we said whoever handles this pandemic best was going to end up holding up that trophy.”

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