Pac-12 is poised for a happy ending with new playoff picture

Pac-12 is poised for a happy ending with new playoff picture
Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of the many talented quarterbacks in the Pac-12, knows that the new College Football Playoff will be beneficial to teams outside the SEC. "I can't wait to watch it. I can't wait to see how it all goes down." (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Pac-12 Conference launched its 2014 football season Wednesday under sunshine and umbrellas at Paramount Pictures — the perfect venue for a league looking to rewrite the script to so many unhappy endings.

Everything is teed up for Larry Scott, entering his sixth year as commissioner, to yell "that's a wrap" on a film in which his heroes actually prevail.


Scott has delivered on a $3-billion television deal that has fattened coffers and allowed his lower-rung schools to hire coaches such as Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez.

Facilities have been upgraded to the point that Rodriguez joked Oregon "changes it out like Porta-Potties."

The conference is peaking in star power as it returns 10 of its 12 starting quarterbacks.

The one thing missing is the league's first national championship since USC's vacated crown of 2004.

"Until we win a national championship, there will be an asterisk," Scott said Wednesday under the shade of a movie-lot tree. "And that goes with the territory, it's competitive, and our coaches get that."

The best news in years is the implementation of a four-team playoff that promises to offer access to more schools outside the Southeastern Conference's suffocating sphere.

The Bowl Championship Series was torture to the Pac-12 and the league should rejoice in its death. The system did not satisfactorily compensate a conference that played a nine-game league schedule and refused to gloss its statistics against out-of-conference weaklings.

The BCS seemed skewed toward the SEC, with its eight-game, dodge-ball schedule and strategic pairings against Furman. Most years, the SEC was the best conference in college football. But was there really that much of a competitive gap between the top two teams and No. 5?

SEC teams won nine national titles in 16 BCS years, finished second twice, and was furious in 2004 when Auburn got left out. The Pac-12 put three teams into the championship game — in 2004, 2005 and 2010.

It became lazily accepted the Pac-12 was inferior to Southern football and had only one program to fear: USC.

Most years, the Pac-12 had its nose pressed firmly against the candy store window. It just couldn't crack a BCS code that spit out the two "best" teams with a complicated computer\human matrix that somehow left the Associated Press' top-ranked team, USC, out of the title game in 2003.

The Pac-12 also lagged in public relations and getting seen on TV in the East before midnight.

Had the four-team playoff started in 1998, the Pac-12 would have bathed in playoff consideration. Oregon would have had three shots, not one, at the title.

The Pac placed 20 teams in the top six of the final BCS standings, compared to 24 for the SEC. Yet, the SEC won eight more championships.

And USC was not the only Pac school in the hunt. The Trojans were top six only six times. UCLA finished No. 5 in 1998, even after a heart-breaking loss at Miami on the final weekend. In 2000, Washington was fourth and Oregon State was sixth. Oregon was No. 4 in 2001, No. 5 in 2005, No. 5 in 2011 and No. 4 in 2012. Washington State was sixth in 2002.

Remember when Texas out-lobbied California for No. 4 in 2004? Today that odorous battle would have been for the last playoff spot.

Scott says the lack of national exposure hurt the Pac-12 in the BCS era. "We weren't as deep, we weren't respected and we weren't viewed to the extent we are now," he said.

The coming playoff seems perfectly timed with the steady rise of the Pac-12's reputation.

"I think it's recognized we're right there with the SEC in terms of competitiveness and depth, both at the top and overall," Scott said. "I think we're going through a pretty virtuous cycle right now."

Oregon and UCLA are the league's strongest playoff candidates, with USC possibly on the cusp.

The league is simply crawling with quarterback talent, while Chris Petersen's arrival at Washington adds another layer to an already exceptional coaching roster.

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, a self-avowed college football nut, thinks the playoff is the best thing to happen to the Pac since Jim Plunkett.

"It will definitely help the Pac-12," said Halliday, who passed for a school-record 4,597 yards last season.

Halliday says four playoffs spots put the Pac-12 on equal footing with the SEC.

"Out here on the West Coast, we just don't get the play they do…" Halliday said. "Maybe Oregon does a little bit because they've been there for a while."

Halliday added, "I can't wait to watch it. I can't wait to see how it all goes down." And, "I can't wait to see all the comments after the fifth team gets left out."

However, good news doesn't come rent free. Death to the BCS means nothing unless the Pac-12 takes advantage.

"Certainly we've had teams knocking at the door," Scott said. "We've got the capability but, you know, you've got to win."

Follow Chris Dufresne on Twitter: @DufresneLATimes