Showdown Saturday: How the Pac-12 should define success on the biggest day of the season

Washington head coach Jimmy Lake, center, stands with teammates on the sidelines against Montana late in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle. Montana won 13-7.

Washington head coach Jimmy Lake, center, stands with teammates on the sidelines against Montana late in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle. Montana won 13-7. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)



With four matchups against Power Five opponents and two showdowns against ranked teams, Saturday stands as the most important day of the season for the Pac-12.

How should we define success?

One of the conference's most passionate and astute observers believes a split would be a victory.

"A successful weekend is 2-2,'' said Brock Huard, the Fox color analyst and former Washington quarterback.

Huard called the UCLA-LSU game from the Rose Bowl and will be in Denver this weekend when Colorado faces No. 5 Texas A&M.

He knows the Pac-12 rosters, has scouted the opponents and is keenly aware of the national media narrative dogging the conference.

And he knows there is only one way to change that narrative: Win.

"Realistic is probably 1-3, and 0-4 would be a further disaster," Huard added, alluding to the poor opening weekend by the North division. "In order, the (likelihood) is probably, 1-3, then 0-4, then 2-2.

"But if the one win is Oregon, then it's like LSU and UCLA. As bad as the North was, UCLA saved face for the conference and looked like a top-15 team.

"If Oregon wins at Ohio State, it reverberates. If you said to (commissioner George Kliavkoff) that Oregon would win and the other three would lose, he'd probably be OK with that. It's what happens at the top that matters, and the conference would have big wins by Oregon and UCLA."

The sport is increasingly defined by participation in the College Football Playoff, which favors top-heavy leagues at the expense of those with quality depth.

The Pac-12 is as deep, if not deeper than the ACC and Big 12. But its reputation suffers without equivalents to Clemson and Oklahoma — the CFP regulars who dominate their conferences.

"I've talked to (Pac-12) presidents, athletic directors and Kliavkoff extensively about the future and brand of the Pac-12," said Heather Dinich, a senior writer for ESPN who covers the CFP as her beat.

"While the TV contracts and kickoff times and other factors are all extremely important, there's also a candid realization that they need somebody — anybody — to contend for the playoff.

"It's amazing how that one variable can change perception from coast to coast."

That variable played out in the national narrative last week when the ACC's three ranked teams, Clemson, North Carolina and Miami, lost their season openers.

"Everyone is already hammering the ACC," Dinich said, "because without Clemson, the rest is exposed."

The Pac-12 also took a beating in Week One — but not at the top: Four ranked teams survived, and UCLA toppled the 2019 national champions.

Week 2 brings additional opportunities to collect marquee wins and widen the path to the playoff. In addition to the Oregon-Ohio State and Colorado-Texas A&M duels, Washington heads to Michigan and Cal visits TCU.

Put another way:

  • One opponent from the SEC, one from the Big 12 and two from the Big Ten.
  • One game at a neutral site, three on the road and all four on broadcast television.
  • Also: Zero second chances.

These are the Pac-12's last major intersection games of the season, save for USC and Stanford playing their annual home-and-home series against Notre Dame.

The perception that emerges Saturday night is unlikely to change — for better or worse.

"None will be bigger than what's in front of Oregon,'' Dinich said.

"If they can somehow find a way to beat Ohio State on the road, the Pac-12 just might have itself a contender. I can't even imagine what would happen if Colorado beat Texas A&M.

"Until proven otherwise, though, the Ducks are the league's best hope at changing the narrative."

Huard doesn't expect any "bloodbaths," even though the Pac-12 is an underdog in all four and a double-digit underdog in all but one (Washington).

Instead, he used the term "competitive" to describe the matchups — including the daunting task facing his alma mater.

"The Huskies will be more competitive than what you might think, despite how they looked in that loss to Montana," he said.

But to bolster its reputation, the Pac-12 might need two teams to be more than competitive.


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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