Parsing Out the Parity

I have heard for years how the Pac-10 Conference teams can rarely win the National Championship in football because there is so much parity in the league and it is extremely difficult for teams to run the gauntlet of conference play without a loss. Historical evidence supports this position as teams from the Pac-10 Conference have only won the college football National Championship seven times in the last 48 years.

UCLA tied for the title in 1954 going undefeated. USC was the undisputed champion in 1962 and 1972 without any losses. USC had a single loss in 1967 but still managed to win the honor outright. In 1974 and 1978, USC sustained a single loss each season and tied for the National Championship. Washington tied for it in 1991 while going undefeated. Since 1991, the Pac-10 Conference has had a long dry spell in National Championships.

Interestingly, looking back over the 133 years of college football dating back to 1869, only 35 teams have won or tied for the National Championship with something other than a zero in the loss column. All but two had a single loss. LSU tied for the National Championship in 1935 while incurring two losses, as did Minnesota in 1960. Truth be told, now that college football has adopted the Bowl Championship Series, it is a lot more difficult for a team to win the coveted prize simply because ties are more unlikely. It's been 30 years since a Pac-10 Conference team has won an undisputed National Championship. Coincidently, 1972 was the same year that Title 9 became an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Title 9 precipitated the reduction of men's college football scholarships to a limit of 85. The goal of Title 9 is to provide equal opportunity to college athletics for men and women and promote even participation rates. To some extent the goal has not been achieved. Of all the schools affiliated with the NCAA, there are over 200,000 men participating in sports and only 128,000 women. Remarkably, 55 percent of all students enrolled in these schools are women. Since 1992, as schools endeavor to become more compliant while balancing fiscal responsibility, 350 men's sports programs have been dropped. The lack of parity despite efforts to change is also somewhat understandable given that 60.5 percent of all high school sports participants are boys. At this point, the interest level in sports for girls would not appear to facilitate equality.

With all that said, the limit set for football scholarships has helped to create parity amongst teams and provide more interesting and more competitive college football. The limitation makes it very difficult for teams to stockpile players. More quality players get to start and play. The most fertile football recruiting grounds in the country are located in California, Texas and Florida. It is perfectly understandable that without any restrictions home teams from those areas could sign the largest quantity of quality players whether those players ever got a chance to play or not. It is a safe assumption to make that a scout team from USC in the 60s and 70s not only contained players that would have started for many of the other teams in the league but probably could have won a league championship as a unit in other conferences. Today, USC only has 25 scholarships to give each year at the most. They have to consider whether to take one player over another, not just take them both and decide later who plays. This circumstance has contributed significantly to establishing parity within the Pac-10 Conference, which has contributed to the position that the teams within the league cripple each other before any can emerge unscathed and contend for the National Championship.

Over the last ten years nine Pac-10 Conference teams have either won outright or tied for the league championship - California being the only team left out. Seven different Pac-10 teams have played in the Rose Bowl. Washington State and UCLA have visited the Rose Bowl twice, 1998/2003 and 1994/1999 respectively. Oregon would have also participated twice during this period, 1995 and 2002, but because of the BCS National Championship game schedule, the Ducks attended the Fiesta Bowl in 2002. USC, the giant of the 60s and 70s, has only participated in the Rose Bowl once in the last ten years, 1996. Arizona State went in 1997. Stanford attended in 2000 and Washington was the Pac-10 Conference representative in 2001.

Furthermore, over the last ten years only two teams have gone undefeated in conference play, UCLA in 1998 and Arizona State in 1996. In fact, in 1992 and 1993, teams with two conference losses tied for the league championship.

Looking at the sequence and outcomes of Pac-10 Conference games this year is testament to the theory that parity does exist. Oregon State gets blown out by Washington then blows out Arizona. Washington then gets beat by Arizona. Oregon shuts out Stanford. Stanford beats Arizona State, which routed Oregon. California with a 5-6 record and only two Pac-10 Conference wins beats USC in overtime. USC soundly throttles Washington State, which has only one conference loss and routed Oregon yet Oregon beat California. There are other examples as well.

Notwithstanding the advantage it gave to teams that stockpiled players prior to Title 9, the ingredients for winning at college football aren't exclusive to player talent. Coaching, facilities, team chemistry and experience, lack of injuries, and dumb luck can all play a role.

The college football pundits project that if USC wins out this year against Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State that the Trojans will go on to play Oklahoma for the National Championship. And, on paper, one would have to agree its looking hopeful for the men of Troy. USC will have the more difficult games against UCLA and Oregon State at home and only Arizona on the road. Furthermore, USC is playing with momentum with its early loss (fourth game of the season) against California neatly tucked behind the dirty clothes hamper in the closet. But strange things have happened in the Pac-10 Conference. Oregon's loss to Stanford in 2001 kept the Ducks out of a National Championship game. And, don't forget that Washington's loss to Oregon in 2000 also kept the Huskies out of a National Championship game. USC could suffer a key injury such as to its starting quarterback, Matt Leinart, which could impact the outcome in any one of the pending conference games. Or, USC might behave as Washington did against Arizona and forget to show up. Or, Oregon State might just reincarnate its "Giant Killers" of 1967. Or, UCLA plays over its head against its cross-town rival and spoils yet again another USC season finish.

There is no doubt that the Pac-10 Conference is overdue to place a team in the National Championship game. And, why not USC, the most successful team in the history of the conference to bring that distinction back to the conference. In my mind, the Trojans will have certainly earned the right if they can prevail in their three remaining conference games. But even if they do, does it portend the school's return to greatness of the 60s and 70s? I don't think so. The scholarship limitation, inevitable coaching changes, injuries and the quirky way the college ball can bounce at times will all have a say.

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