Pac-12 Proves It's a Follower, Not a Leader, In College Football Landscape

The Pac-12 has more national championships than any other competing sports conference in America, and it's not even close. It's the only conference to win 500 combined national titles, which is beyond 200 more than the Big Ten, which has close to 300 championships.

When it comes to the best of the best in college football, though, both of these conferences have noticeably lagged behind during this century. Over a couple of decades, neither of these two Power 5 conferences has landed a team in more than four national championship games, and they have been outliers during the restart of college sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the SEC starts this weekend, and joins the ACC and Big 12 which are already in progress, the traditional Rose Bowl conferences might be on the outside looking in.

Pac-12 is the most prestigious collegiate conference on the West Coast, and it has dominated the overall college landscape when it comes to national titles. But those are just numbers when it comes to overall leadership in the current climate of collegiate sports.

Oregon and Pac-12 Football
Juwan Johnson #6 of the Oregon Ducks flips after being tackled by Jaylon Johnson #1 of the Utah Utes during the Pac-12 Championship football game at Levi's Stadium on December 6, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. The Pac-12 has only placed four teams in the national championship game since 1998, with three of those happening in the early part of this century. Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Though the Pac-12 leads in national championships that include swimming, volleyball and many other athletics called "Olympic Sports," the last month has shown that it follows the lead in the biggest sport of all—football.

When college football seemed to be in doubt this Fall because of COVID-19, the Big Ten was the first major conference to bail. The Pac-12 shortly followed. Just last week, the Big Ten said it would ultimately play this Fall. A week later, the Pac-12 said it would do the same. It might be too little and too late for the Pac-12, though. And not just for the upcoming football season.

Of the Power 5 football conferences, the Pac-12 has efficiently worked its way to fifth place, and not just because of recent leadership. It's because of College Football Playoff appearances and competing on a national level. If not for the success of USC and Oregon earlier in the decade, then the Pac-12 wouldn't even have a chance.

Then again, if it weren't for Ohio State, the Big Ten would have none over that time frame as well. But the Buckeyes have been consistent over 20 years. Not so much for the rest of the Big Ten.

In the six years of the College Football Playoff system, only two times has the Pac-12 been represented: Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016. Oregon lost in the championship game to Ohio State, and Washington lost to Alabama in the semifinals.

Going back to the 1998 when the Bowl Championship Series was first introduced, and all the way until now, the Pac-12 (and former Pac-10) have only made the championship game four times. (Note: many argue that USC should have made it during the 2003 season, but the BCS selected LSU vs. Oklahoma).

Sure, the Big Ten has only made four appearances, and Notre Dame just once. Regardless, in 22 years of championships, here's how many times the major conferences have appearances in the championship football game:

SEC: 17
ACC: 8
Big 12: 7
Big Ten: 4
Pac-12: 4
Big East: 3 (Miami, Virginia Tech — pre-ACC)
Independent: 1 (Notre Dame)

The COVID-19 pandemic had everyone on edge after the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships, and then when the virus spread around the world and ultimately shut down economies and led to nearly a million deaths now.

The world stopped turning for the sports world in March and April, but slowly began opening in May with a few major sports.

Football in America—particularly college and professional football—was the last piece of the sports puzzle. The NFL vowed to play, and now it is going into its third week of regular season. College football was pretty much left to individual conferences, but it has started. College football is now in its fourth week. There will be full slates of ACC, Big 12 and SEC games this weekend.

College ball seemed to be in limbo when August arrived. The Big Ten announced on August 11 it would postpone its season. Later that evening, the Pac-12 said it would postpone its season and try to play Fall sports in the spring.

Meanwhile, the other three schools among the Power 5—ACC, Big 12 and SEC—never flinched, and moved forward with their modified schedules.

President Donald Trump called upon the Big Ten to play football as other conferences ramped up their practices toward a 2020 season. The president never called the Pac-12 by name—not until the Big Ten made the decision to play. Now, the Pac-12 will try to make a season out of it.

The Pac-12 will now try to wrestle for TV dollars and perhaps try and find a way to get people in the stands. That might be easier said than done with strict laws concerning coronavirus, and with poor air quality in Western states where wildfires burn.

The Pac-12 may have been handcuffed by state and local governments, but schools and conferences in other states made it work. Now, the Pac-12 is not calling an audible, but a Hail Mary.

Football is the backbone for college athletics. Without football, then the soccer teams, swim teams, softball, field hockey and other sports may not exist. For a league like the Pac-12, losing those can be hard. It's a matter of time, now, to see if football can keep it all together.