As I perused early national title odds earlier this week, a question struck me: Where is the Pac-12?
Sixteen teams had equal or better odds to win the title than the presumed Pac-12 favorite, Stanford. Oregon and Stanford have over/under win totals of just 8.5 and 8, respectively, in early wagering.
For all the nail-biting the Big 12 is doing over potentially being left out of the College Football Playoff if it doesn't expand, the real worry, if oddsmakers are right, has to again lie west of the Rockies for the 2016 season.
And yet, the Pac-12 doesn't seem like a bad league at all. There are a lot of good teams in the No. 15-40 range nationally. But just maybe not a great team.
"I think the depth has improved this season, but I'm not sure this season there's a team that will compete for the Playoff," Jon Wilner, a Pac-12 expert, said on Fox Sports' The Audible podcast.
I've seen this movie before. It was called the late-2000s ACC. The late-2000s ACC was not a great league, but it was not as bad as some believed. There were some very good teams, especially defensive teams. But those teams were not the classically dominant teams, and because the league's best teams were not its biggest names and because it did not have a team seriously contending for the national championship, it gained a far worse reputation than it deserved.
Having a high floor and a lot of very good but not great teams is a bad combination when looking for respect. In 2008, 10 of the ACC's 12 teams made bowls, which at the time was a record. But its highest team in the BCS was Georgia Tech, at No. 14. The league was an afterthought.
It's also magnified by the nine-game schedule of the Pac-12. To get through the league schedule with zero or one loss likely takes an elite team, not just a good one.
And we can make some loose team-to-team comparisons.
Florida State was the ACC's marquee program in those days, capable of recruiting with anyone, but had been on hard times. The media every year was eager to declare FSU was "back." Everyone basically realized that this program getting back on top was the quickest way to national respect. Oh, hello, current USC.
Virginia Tech played hard-nosed defense and consistently won 10 games, but it wasn't really taken seriously as a national championship contender in part due to a lack of explosion on offense. That sounds like Stanford.
Clemson was flashy with a lot of skill position talent, but never could seem to get over the hump, and its failures were often mocked. That's similar to Oregon.
North Carolina is a program in a talent-rich state, and people couldn't seem to figure out why it wasn't better. This fits UCLA.
Miami is in a great location but was nowhere close to being a contender, which is similar to Arizona State.
Wake Forest never got any respect but won a lot of games with underrated defense. That's Utah.
Georgia Tech was pretty good for going to a bowl every year but not much more, which has been Washington this entire decade.
Maryland at one point was really good and then was not. That fits Cal.
Clearly, these aren't perfect. I actually think the Pac-12 is better than the ACC was during the late 2000s.
But this is definitely a trend worth monitoring.
Is there a non-Oregon team capable of playing at a national championship level? USC is the obvious long-term answer as the only member school to win a national title in the last quarter-century, but the Trojans still seem a bit away. The Pac-12 missed the Playoff last year, and not by a small margin. If it happens again this year, it risks becoming a trend. And that's bad. The ACC didn't get its reputation overnight.
This recipe is also quite bad timing for a league that is putting less of its games in the late night slots to appeal to East Coast viewers. People will watch a game involving a Pac-12 team contending for a shot at the Playoff, but will they watch Stanford-Arizona State over Tennessee-Ole Miss?
As a recruiting guy, I am a big believer in the trend that has existed since the turn of the century: If you want to win a national championship, recruit more four- and five-stars than two- and three-stars. I've called it the blue-chip ratio.
The Pac-12 actually has two of these schools: USC and UCLA.
USC's numbers are a bit skewed, because a percentage measure does not fully capture the impact of NCAA scholarship sanctions, but UCLA has lost 16 games in Jim Mora's four seasons. Stanford and Oregon, meanwhile, feel very good at maximizing their talents, but they don't bring in enough raw talent on the recruiting trail to meet the threshold. USC's struggles are magnified when neither Stanford nor Oregon is contending for a title.
I have no idea how this will all shake out, but I'll be excited to watch.