Rest in peace to the greatest conference that ever existed.
This Friday, Oregon and Washington will square off for the Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas. As the only top-five matchup of Conference Championship weekend, and a rematch of one of the best games of the regular season, it’s bound to be a highlight of the weekend, but it’s also an incredibly somber occasion. That’s because, due to widespread conference realignment, this is set to be the last game in the history of the Pac-12, at least as we know it to exist.
With 10 of the conference’s 12 members set to leave the conference next season, the Pac-12 is all but done for. Oregon State and Washington State are both technically still members, but you can’t have a two-team conference; they’ll each need to find homes, or drastically rework the conference to the point where it’s unrecognizable compared to the one we know and love.
So, we’re left to mourn what once was. The Pac-12 was the Conference of Champions, with more national championships won across all sports than any other, but let’s focus on football for now. The conference’s greatest legacy within the sport was sending its yearly champion to the Rose Bowl, the greatest tradition in football, which itself is now in peril as the conferences and postseason format both change.
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The Pac-12 was defined by parity, to a fault. It looks like the conference is going to send a team to the playoff this year- for just the first time since 2016. Due in part to strong members from top to bottom and a willingness to play challenging out-of-conference opponents, the conference hasn’t produced a one or zero-loss champ since then, which is part of what makes it so special, but also what keeps it off of the national stage so often.
Perhaps it’s a self-perpetuating issue; Pac-12 teams seek recognition, so they play tough schedules, lose more than one game, fail to make the playoff, and lack recognition, thus starting the cycle again. Of course, the late time slots don’t help- several Heisman Trophy voters have shamefully admitted that back in 2015, Christian McCaffrey missed out on their votes because they failed to stay up for his games.
But there’s sort of a magic to that. Those of us on the East Coast who stayed up late enough to watch Pac-12 After Dark felt like we were admitted to an exclusive club. We can tell everyone who missed out that “you just had to be there,” and to an extent it’s true. You can watch the highlights of McCaffrey’s historic campaign, or other conference legends like Marcus Mariota, Andrew Luck, and before their era, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, but it’s just not the same. Those late nights held an energy that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in sports, and of which I will forever lament the loss when the conference’s last game is a thing of the past in just a few days.
Above all else, the Pac-12 was fun, and it was weird. It was accused of being a gimmick, low-quality, or distributed frustratingly through its own network, but “boring” and “predictable” were words thrown around the conference. In a conference where Caleb Williams failed to make the College Football Playoff in two years at USC, Jake Browning got the job done at Washington. Williams joins Luck, Aaron Rodgers, John Elway, and Troy Aikman as conference legends who never won a Rose Bowl- but Kevin Hogan played in three and won a pair. Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount somehow played on Cal and Oregon, of all teams. Sam Darnold became the only USC quarterback to win the conference title game since its inception in 2011, despite the hype surrounding names like Williams, Matt Barkley, and even JT Daniels.
But more than that big-picture randomness, the Pac-12 was magical because any given Saturday, you could turn on the TV in the middle of the night and watch total beautiful chaos. Whether it was a freshman backup taking down a #1 team on the road, a massive, nearly-impossible comeback, or just a plain old West Coast shootout, Pac-12 After Dark always delivered.
The venues were also sheer perfection, from the legendary Rose Bowl and Coliseum in Los Angeles, to the raucous Husky and Autzen Stadiums in the Pacific Northwest, to even the homes of newer members Colorado and Utah- owners of perhaps the best home-field advantage in the conference by virtue of Rice-Eccles Stadium- the games were always played somewhere special, with a crowd that never failed to bring the energy.
So, goodbye to the Pac-12. Snippets of the conference’s legacy will be visible across the country for years to come- Washington, Oregon, UCLA and USC will head to the Big Ten and continue to play one another, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado will do the same with the Big 12, while the Bay Area rivalry between Stanford and Cal will live on in the ACC.
Hopefully, the late-night matchups between all of these longtime foes will help us reclaim just a shred of the magic, and feel for a moment that the good times were never gone. Maybe some rivalries torn apart by the shifts- looking at you, Stanford and USC- will strike a deal to play as a non-conference matchup from time to time.
Either way, it’ll never be the same as it was when all twelve of these vastly varied programs wore the same crest on their chests. To everyone who made the conference what it was, from players and staff to fans and commentators- thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for compelling me to love football the way I do today. For all of you East Coasters and Midwesterners who watched along with me through all those late nights, it’s been a profound honor learning how unimportant sleep really is when compared to West Coast football glory. For everyone who missed out- I’m truly sorry, you just had to be there.
Now let’s watch some offensive fireworks one more time and on Sunday, bemoan the decisions of the College Football Playoff committee. For old times’ sake.
This is an article written by Will Schwartz
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