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Will Pac-12 Football Be Successful In 2021?

This is the Pac12 logo in Rice Eccles Stadium before the Utah Utes and Brigham Young Cougars college football game on September 10, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – There is no secret that the Pac-12 has been a few steps behind the rest of the Power 5 conferences in terms of national prestige, and specifically appearances in the College Football Playoff have been lacking.  Only Washington and Oregon have made the playoff field, and the last time a Pac-12 team was included was the Huskies in 2016.

There are a few reasons as to why the Pac-12 suffers, a few that are more controllable is USC not being a dominant team as it was in the early 2000s. Also, talent not staying within the footprint, the failure of the Pac-12 Networks, and the other that can’t be changed is the time zone and evening kick times which do not reach the Central and Eastern time zones when games end well after midnight.

Could there be hope in 2021? Or is this just a repeated trope that the Pac-12 will be good, just like every year “Texas is back?”

It all depends but there is some actual hope when looking at Bill Connelly’s initial preseason SP+ projections. His system not only has Utah at No. 19 but the Pac-12 has half of its league in the top 25 with Oregon leading the way at No. 5. However, the Ducks could take a hit with starting quarterback Tyler Shough transfering.

The way SP+ works is that it takes into account returning productions, recent recruiting and recent production. Two of those three really favor the Utes as they are top-10 in returning production and in two of the past three years, Utah has played in the Pac-12 title game.

When looking at the end of year rankings, 2020 can sort of be skipped when it comes to the Pac-12. The league played a very reduced schedule and only USC was in the final AP Top 25 at No. 21. When looking at 2019 and 2018, the conference had two each year and they were four different teams in Oregon, Utah, Washington State and Washington.

The league has a lot of parity over the past few seasons and some of it has to do with playing nine league games which feature tougher opponents and more opportunities for losses compared to other leagues that play eight conference games.

Is Utah A Top 20 Team?

The Utes are projected as the preseason No. 19 team and a lot of that has do with who is coming back. Nearly the entire defense will be back from 2020 and that offsets the losses on offense that includes a new starting quarterback in 2021.

Utah is at a point now where it is getting respect and moving up the national college football landscape. Just look at heading into the 2019 season in which the Utes were projected to make the College Football Playoff, and it nearly happened.

The next step is to show up and be there consistently and the Utes are slowly getting that respect and at the very least a dangerous team that is in contention to win the Pac-12.

KSL Sports’ Scott Mitchell feels the Utes are rated about right at No. 19 due to its recruiting and even knowing the offense will be re-tooled again.

“I’m OK with where it is. I think that there’s a lot of spots on this Utah football team that have done well, the offensive line, the defense,” Mitchell said. “It’s a young defense at the skill positions. The quarterback is a suspect and they’ve got to find a replacement running back, kind of like almost a year ago. All these other parts of the team have done well. And Utah has recruited as well as they’ve ever recruited.

“Utah is in a mindset that they have a process that they really believe in. They know that they’re going to get the most out of every athlete they get at Utah,” Mitchell added.

It will eventually take more than a mindset to get Utah over the top and win the Pac-12 and even make the College Football Playoff. It is a long process and it took time to move up from the Mountain West and compete in the Pac-12. Utah is clearly competing by appearing in a pair of conference title games but like the rest of the league, the Utes need to take that next step and get onto the national stage consistently.

At Some Point, Pac-12 Teams Need To Show Up

The Pac-12 performing well on a national stage has not gone well over the past 20 years. The USC teams lead by Pete Carroll were really good and went to seven major bowl games and was awarded the national champions by the AP in 2003 but the 2004 BCS title was vacated due to NCAA allegations.

Besides that early 2000s success sprinkled in with Oregon making the BCS championship game in 2011 and a few finishes in the upper half of the top 10 but none of them really competed for a national title. The Ducks have been the closest of late with those runs and a national title berth in 2014, yet no team has been able to get to the top.

The 1991 Washington team was a split national champion by earning the coaches poll vote for No. 1 and USC’s 1972 team is the last to be named the champion by the Associated Press.

Enough with the history lesson, the league is in a time where winning is very important to its future. There is going to be a new commissioner and a new media rights deal that is going to start being negotiated by the conference when the 2021 season ends.

The initial SP+ rankings are kind to the Pac-12 this year and looking back at the initial 2020 rankings there was Oregon at No. 12, USC at No. 16, and Utah just outside the top 25 sitting at No. 26. In theory, this upcoming season is off to a better start.

KSL Sports’ Alex Kirry points to Oregon to getting this national respect is because of recruiting and its facilities, which is also helped by that Nike money.

“You’re getting that backing from Nike. And it looks as much as a pro situation if you’re ever going to be in when you talk about facilities and even if you go to USC and you go, ‘yeah, this is L.A., man, this is the Coliseum,'” Kirry said. “This is the Trojans of USC. Oregon can always put on a better show, it seems like because they’re able to do the donations ‘wink’ that they’ve been able to get from Phil Knight and Nike and all the things that go into this is a huge part of why they’re always in those preseason rankings.”

National branding is a big deal and with the unique uniforms that the Ducks roll out and the success under Chip Kelly has still allowed them to be perceived as an elite national brand. In reality, Oregon is really good but not consistently an elite national team. KSL Sports’ Scott Mitchell points out that perception is why the Ducks are able to recruit really well without having a base.

“Part of why they recruit well is because they portray this image of being a national brand. These kids from Utah said ‘we know going to Oregon the focus is on Pac-12 championships, getting to the College Football Playoffs, going to the Rose Bowl kind of focuses,'” Mitchell said.

“I don’t know that Utah is really quite there yet,” Mitchell added. “I don’t know that they and they can’t, I mean Eugene, Oregon, is not in this major metropolitan area. Oregon doesn’t have this pipeline of athletes. I mean, they’re getting kids from Utah. They’re getting kids all around because they’re putting out this image and doing a phenomenal job.”

For the Pac-12 to not fall further behind it sounds easy but it just takes wins to cure the poor reputation the league has by not often being in the conversation for the national title.

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