Since bringing in Utah and Colorado in 2011, forming a couple of six-team divisions, and holding a championship game at the home site of the team with the better record, the Pac-12 has seen power shift completely toward the teams in the North. Essentially the conference has become a two-horse race, with the winner of the Oregon-Stanford game effectively determining the Rose Bowl representative in non-championship years.
Is that about to change? We have seen teams around both divisions hiring coaches with strong track records of success. The South has become stronger each season — the rankings and records of the division of the lower (latitudes) have bobbed upward with the tide in each of the past three seasons. Remember, UCLA was an unranked 6-6 representative against the Ducks in the inaugural championship game, only there on the technicality of USC’s postseason ban. After losing to Oregon in Autzen and then falling to fellow 6-6 squad Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, they earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first division champion to finish 6-8 for the season since the advent of divisions in I-A football in 1992.
The next year, USC was ranked 17th in the AP poll and BCS standings when they played Stanford in Palo Alto a week after losing to the Cardinal in Pasadena. They put in a much tougher effort in the second matchup, though Stanford prevailed in the 27-24 championship showdown. By last season, the last of the BCS era, the Cardinal was actually having to go on the road to play 11th-ranked Arizona State in Tempe to earn their way to the title.
In 2014 the Los Angeles schools look like the biggest threat to Northern supremacy, while the Arizona universities and Utah will also have a chance to play spoilers to the California dreams. As much as I’d like to say that either UCLA or USC could win the conference, though, the Pac-12 is more likely than not to boil down to one game, just as it has for the past four years — Stanford at Oregon on November 1. (You could say this is really the sixth year of the rivalry if you want to count Stanford’s upset of an Oregon team that was 7-1 and undefeated in league play at the time of their meeting in 2009, though the Ducks still won the conference that season.)
With the championship moving off campus and into Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, for the next three years, it will be interesting to see how the dynamic of neutral-site games plays out for whichever two teams emerge from the North and South. Barring an unforeseen surge from Washington, though, we should be able to pencil one contestant by the first of November.
Click ahead to see predictions for the order of ranking in the South and the North…