It’s hard to say whether the thesis for this column will be true by the start of next month or even next week.
Sports are infamous for providing flashes of fairy tale only for reality to quickly quash it.
But as of now, the ostensibly lame-duck league that is the Pac-12 is the most interesting conference in college football. It isn’t riding off into the sunset. It’s taking out every opponent under the sun.
Again … very early. Probably way too early to think this level of intrigue is going to hold up. As of press time, the Pac-12 has all the elements necessary for top-tier drama. Among them?
Heisman candidates galore
FanDuel lists four Pac-12 players among its top nine candidates with the best odds to win the Heisman. USC quarterback Caleb Williams (+350) is first, Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (+1000) is fourth, Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders (+2500) is tied for eighth, as is Oregon QB Bo Nix. Scroll down a little further and you’ll see Colorado receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter in the mix, too. Star power drives most sports. College football isn’t much different. And when you have five players (for now) that could end up in New York by season’s end, it will affect the eyeball count across every time zone.
The Prime Effect
As much as Sanders and Hunter have excelled individually through two games, they are cogs in a Colorado machine that has become the nation’s most discussed program. Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, who famously (infamously?) encouraged unfit Buffaloes to hit the transfer portal when he took over as head coach, is now sitting at 2-0.
These weren’t narrow escapes against Group of Five also-rans, either. This was a three-point win over then No. 17 TCU, followed by a 22-point rout of Nebraska seven days later. Deion’s son, Shedeur, has posted 903 passing yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the process.
This team was 1-11 last year. And it has a coach selling games the way Floyd Mayweather sells fights, with the media suddenly fascinated by this pending matchup with Colorado State, which would have been irrelevant 12 months prior. Maybe the Buffs end up failing the way many predicted they would. Hasn’t happened yet, though. Not even close.
The Cougs vs. the Everybody
Again, another phenomenon that could be short-lived, but at the moment — it’s galvanizing a fan base. Abandoned — from its perspective, at least — by teams such as Washington and Oregon, who bolted for the Big Ten, Washington State football is fighting for its survival as irrelevancy looms.
The Cougs’ answer? Start the season 2-0 and beat No. 19 Wisconsin — of, yes the Big Ten — last week to surge to No. 23 in the country. Saturday, WSU takes on Northern Colorado (0-2), which should be an easy win but you never know with this program. Assuming a victory, a compelling matchup with Oregon State (2-0) — also left out of the power conference realignment — awaits on Sept. 23.
Eight ranked teams and a 21-4 record
No, it’s not as if anyone in the conference took out Alabama the way Texas did last week. And other fallen behemoths — such as Clemon and LSU — have come courtesy of the ACC. But as impressive as that unblemished Week 1 was for the Pac-12, its résumé has improved since.
Entering Saturday, USC (No. 5), Washington (8), Utah (12), Oregon (13), Oregon State (16), Colorado (18), Washington State (23) and UCLA (24) all occupy spots in The Associated Press Top 25. Arizona may very well have found itself in the mix had it been able to pull off the victory against Mississippi State, which beat the Wildcats in overtime last Saturday.
You can’t say this because of teams eschewing opponents from Power Five conferences, either. From Utah downing Florida, to Oregon beating Texas Tech — plus the aforementioned wins by the Cougs and Colorado — the conference has stepped outside its comfort zone and triumphed. Rest assured people are noticing.
After Washington’s 33-point win over Tulsa last Saturday, Penix Jr. donned a Pac-12 hat during his postgame scrum with the media. It’s clear he has pride in the conference, and this far, the conference is demonstrating that pride to the country.
For years, critics have said the league is short on talent and direction. Maybe. As of now, it’s certainly not short on storylines.