- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Sunday, the Pac-12 will celebrate its first birthday. If you forgot to get the conference a gift, just send a check my way. I'll make sure Larry Scott gets it. Promise.
A year ago, Utah and Colorado held celebrations on campus as they officially transitioned into a new conference. Colorado moved from the prairies and tumbleweeds of the Big 12 into a more like-minded conference with big cities, snow-capped mountains and beaches. Utah took a step up from a non-AQ conference, the Mountain West, to an AQ one, meaning it could blow raspberries at programs with whom it once shared a common gripe. It's fun to sip single-malt inside the penthouse, eh Utes? And easy to forget the little people.
As for the Pac-10 members, there was some ambivalence. The 10-member symmetry was gone. There were scheduling sacrifices. But a $3 billion TV deal mostly kept the grousing in check.
So how do we feel after one year with two new members, 12 teams, North and South Divisions, and a conference championship game?
If there is a groundswell of unhappiness, the Pac-12 blog isn't hearing it. And it's not like you guys are shy about complaining. Moreover, here's a guess that when the new TV deal kicks in this fall, as well as the debut of the Pac-12 Networks, and every freaking football game is on TV, folks are going to find themselves thinking, "This is pretty cool."
What about the new members? Well, it's hard to imagine that you found Salt Lake City and Boulder lacking as new road trip destinations. Two great towns, two strong stadium experiences.
As for football, the Utes darn near won the South Division, getting shockingly cut down at home by those Buffaloes in the season finale, which perhaps will provide a nice boost for efforts to make that a rivalry. They also won the Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech, one of just two Pac-12 victories in a seven-game bowl season. Utah should again be in the South mix this fall, as well as a threat to push into the Top 25.
Colorado? The Buffs, lacking team speed, struggled. And they probably will again this season. But this is a program with a split national title, six Big 8/12 conference titles, a Heisman Trophy winner and a Fiesta Bowl berth in 2001. The Buffs will rise again.
And here's hoping you Buffs and Utes enjoyed your new digs.
As far as the new format -- divisions and a championship game -- it could have been awesome but mostly stunk. That's because, with true South Division champ USC ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, a middling and overmatched UCLA squad became a sacrificial cub for Oregon in the conference title game. Still, the game management was solid. There was nothing lacking other than a compelling matchup. And it's too early to pass judgment on the No. 1 seed hosting format.
Expect the title game this season to be far more compelling. In fact, it's a good bet it will have national title implications.
There were other changes, most notably four new coaches who commanded big salaries. The SEC-ness of the salaries -- though not completely there yet -- is due in large part to the TV money. It's also nice that Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Mike Leach are nationally recognizable names. It doesn't hurt, either, that some of them are controversial. You know what they say about publicity -- even the bad is good.
That TV money also is paying for facilities upgrades across the conference. It seems as though just about every program is either finishing up, in the midst of or planning new buildings and renovations that will make their programs more appealing and up-to-date. (Let's not dwell on these millions going toward sports instead of academics -- no one likes a party pooper.)
Let's not romanticize things too much. The Pac-10 became the Pac-12 to make more money. Hard to say that mission wasn't accomplished. Yet things move quickly in college football these days. As we saw with the gamesmanship this offseason with discussions about a new postseason format and rumblings of further conference expansion/contraction, there are plenty of competing interests out there. Pac-12 leadership needs to remain vigilant and nimble. It might not be time to get too comfortable. Being proactive seems like a better strategy than being reactive. The conference might, in fact, rue the day it opted to not bring Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech aboard.
Further, as we eyeball the future, let's have no illusions about what needs to happen next: Winning.
It's certainly nice that the Pac-12 does well in the Director's Cup standings, and that the conference continues to pile up national titles in nonrevenue sports, but football is the engine inside the college sports machine. The Pac-12 needs to win football national titles. It needs to produce multiple elite teams annually. It needs to scatter itself evenly throughout the Top 25. It needs to win bowl games.
Oregon and Stanford rose impressively as USC faltered. Now the Trojans appear back in the mix. Can all three be top-10 threats on a regular basis? Maybe. Is anybody else ready to make a move?
Amid massive change across the college football landscape, Year 1 of the Pac-12 certainly feels like a success. And promising for the future.
So, happy birthday. Now, back to work.