The Pac-12 just had its best year yet but it was two years too late

ByKyle Bonagura ESPN logo
Friday, December 8, 2023

LAS VEGAS -- This is what the Pac-12 could have always been -- both over the last decade and in the future.

For over three and a half hours Friday night, the eyes of the college football world were trained on Allegiant Stadium. They witnessed two national title contenders led by a pair of soon-to-be Heisman finalists -- Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon's Bo Nix -- trade blows in the most high-stakes Pac-12 game of all time.

This was the sport at its best, and more than 11.1 million people tuned in on ABC at its peak as Washington became the first team in conference history to cap an undefeated season with a win in the conference title game, 34-31. Never mind who -- or if anyone -- was handing Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer the trophy, for these players and this team, the purple and white confetti that fell from the rafters will be a more integral memory for their future selves.

But for those without a vested interest in either team's success, commissioner George Kliavkoff's presence on that stage served as yet another reminder of the game's historical importance: It was the day Pac-12 football was put to rest.

While there were others who contributed significantly to the conference's downfall, history won't forget who was in charge when it all came crashing down. That's why it was awkward to see Kliavkoff involved in the trophy presentation in any capacity. There's nothing that requires a conference commissioner to hand the trophy to the winning coach, and any idea that some kind of tradition needed to be honored is fantastically ironic given how many of them are about to fade away.

When Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was booed mercilessly on stage the next day by Texas fans, it was earned given the adversarial tone he's taken with the Longhorns with their looming departure for the SEC. He wore it like a badge of honor. When his conference was on shaky ground, he charted a path forward. Kliavkoff did not.

It should be noted Washington and Oregon had the power to stabilize the conference. With college football about to expand the playoff, the Huskies and Ducks would have been well-positioned with the looming 12-team format to be regular participants, finishing the season No. 2 and No. 8, respectively, and had that structure been in place this year, they likely both would have been selected.

Yet, despite a future in which they could have been the dominant forces on the West Coast, they essentially looked at where the Pac-12 leadership was taking the conference and decided they were better off taking 50 cents on the dollar within the Big Ten with the bonus of a much more difficult path to the playoff. Maybe the move exceeds even their best internal expectations, but there will also exist a sense of what could have been?

After all, the Pac-12 put on one of the best and most exciting overall conference performances this season.

Either way, there was Kliavkoff on Friday night to hand off the trophy like some kind of going away present.

"I'm wondering why he's still around, at all," one longtime Pac-12 staff member told ESPN at the game. "If letting your organization die off isn't grounds to be fired for cause, I don't know what is."

They were only sort of joking.

THIS WAS THE type of season that might have saved the Pac-12 had it occurred even two years ago. That certainly would have been the case had they had come in consistent intervals during the playoff era.

"The league was as tough as -- and I'm going based off of what a lot of the people who have been around here and some of the coaches who have been in the league for a long time say too, because I've only been in it two years -- but they said it's the best that they've ever seen it," DeBoer said.

This is a conference that began the year with arguably the deepest group of quarterbacks in college football history, had nine different teams spend time in the AP Top 25 and had not only the best collective nonconference winning percentage (.806) of any conference in the country, but the best winning percentage (.583) against Power 5 opposition.

It was such a unique year for the Pac-12 that the coach of the worst team in the conference, Colorado's Deion Sanders, was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year after guiding the Buffaloes to a 1-8 conference record. Not only was Coach Prime's Boulder takeover the biggest story in college football for about a month, it was culturally relevant in a way few college sports stories have ever been.

It was so deep at quarterback that Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and projected No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, was relegated to an honorable mention on the all-conference team. And it wasn't because his play necessarily regressed: Williams ranked seventh in the country in passing yards (3,633) and his touchdown to interception ratio (30-to-5) was among the best in the nation. More than anything, Williams' chance to secure additional accolades was sabotaged by the fact that the rest of the Pac-12 offenses made light work of his team's defense, and that was never more evident than when USC faced Utah.

Utah, the two-time defending conference champion, spent the offseason preparing as if two-year starter Cam Rising -- the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback in 2021 -- would be back from a gruesome knee injury suffered in last year's Rose Bowl, but that was not the case. His was one of several key injuries that prevented the Utes from mounting a serious bid for a third straight crown, but he will return next season as Utah begins life in the Big 12.

But even a depleted, offensively challenged Utes team without their premier QB remained USC's kryptonite as backup quarterbackBryson Barnesoutdueled Williams in Los Angeles.

"They've got a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, so they're gonna make some things, and that's just the way it is," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game. "But we've got ourselves a pig farmer at quarterback, so we're proud of that guy, too."

With Williams' Heisman campaign derailed (USC finished the season 7-5), Nix's and Penix's campaigns remained strong as the Pac-12 would end up having a pair of Heisman finalists for the first time since 2010, not to mention the award's likely winner -- LSU's Jayden Daniels -- began his career at Arizona State.

Arizona freshman QBNoah Fifitamight have also received Heisman consideration had he been the Wildcats' starter from the season opener. Fifita didn't start his first game until the Wildcats' fifth game of the season, but in October and November -- as Arizona closed its season with a six-game winning streak -- Fifita was among the best players in the country. In those two months, Fifita ranked No. 7 in FBS with 2,214 passing yards and had 20 touchdown passes to four interceptions.

Ahead of Arizona's move to the Big 12 next season, coach Jedd Fisch is exuding optimism.

"If you just go down the list of guys that played [in 2023] that were a part of [Arizona's 2022 recruiting class], there should be an ESPN '30 for 30' done about it," Fisch said. "If we all stay together and the amount of games that I think they can win this year and next will be a story of college football."

If only that hope could have been for the Pac-12.

But for all the on-field highlights, there remains the ongoing lawsuit from Washington State and Oregon State. In September, the conference filed to dismiss WSU and OSU's lawsuit that would have given them control of the Pac-12 board. Then, after WSU and OSU were granted control in Washington superior court, the conference joined the departing schools -- led by UW for jurisdictional reasons -- in asking for review in the state supreme court.

As that continues to play out in the courts, this season isn't quite yet done in regards to the conference's legacy.

WHILE BOWL SEASON doesn't carry the same gravitas as it once did thanks to the transfer portal and trend for NFL prospects to sit out less consequential games, Washington's performance in the playoff will have a major factor in how this season is ultimately remembered.

"Us representing the Pac-12 here in the last year, it's an honor," DeBoer said. "It's something that, obviously, we take a lot of pride in as far as representing, but we'd love to represent the Pac-12 here in this last year in a great way."

All year, DeBoer stressed the importance of his players being able to enjoy their success.

After the Huskies' first win against Oregon this season, DeBoer said, "This is what coaching is all about. Trying to have an environment where they can have these types of opportunities and experiences and moments. It's just super special."

It's hard to imagine something more special than what the Huskies have the chance to do now. They are the first Pac-12 team to make multiple playoff appearances having been the last team in the conference to do so, in 2016.

Not since USC won the BCS National Championship game in 2004 has the Pac-12 claimed a national title in football, and while that one was later vacated by the NCAA, how it is officially recognized does nothing to diminish how that Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush-led team is remembered.

Starting with Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day,Washington is two wins away from what amounts to Pac-12 immortality.

About an hour after Washington cleared the stage and returned to the locker room, Pac-12 conference and network employees gathered on the same spot to take pictures and share a final moment together.

Green Day's "Good Riddance" played over the stadium speakers as a montage of Pac-12 moments played on the video board, and the raucous, celebratory atmosphere that filled the building was gone. Instead, there were shared elements of a graduation, a going-out-of-business sale, but mostly, a funeral, at which point, it was more bitter than sweet.

Related Video