Like It Or Not, Ducks Carrying Pac-12 Flag

Now that SEC fans don’t have anything to crow about anymore, can Pac-12 fans take similar ownership in a title if Oregon beats Ohio State?

I forget which bowl I was watching over the holidays. It was probably the Liberty Bowl. Near the end of it all, once it became apparent that Texas A&M was going to beat West Virginia, the Aggies fans in the house weren’t chanting “gig ‘em!” or yelling any other traditional College Station cheers.

Instead, they were yelling the chant that tickles the gag reflex of every college football fan north of Interstate 40: “S-E-C! S-E-C!”

This may only be Texas A&M’s third season in the SEC, but Aggie fans have quickly learned one thing about life in their new conference: every win by an SEC team clearly and decisively proves that conference’s superiority in all things college football. And, even better, every win by an SEC team provides an opportunity to lord that supposed fact over everyone else.

But that chant won’t be heard after Monday’s national championship game, much to the chagrin of many of our friends in Waffle House land. Instead, a different refrain might possibly be heard tumbling down from the stands, one that isn’t so familiar: “Pac-12! Pac-12!”

For the second time in five seasons, the Oregon Ducks are playing for a national championship. For the first time in nine seasons, no SEC team is involved in college football’s biggest game. Ohio State opposes Oregon in a matchup that seems more appropriate for pristine Pasadena instead of average Arlington, Texas.

Make no mistake, the Ducks earned their spot in this game. Just when it looked like we may have been heading for an all-time great Rose Bowl, Florida State folded like a tortilla, and Oregon hit the afterburners like only they can. By day’s end, all Jameis Winston had to show for his day was his first collegiate loss and the most meme-ready play since the Buttfumble.

So, based on how SEC fans act, if Oregon wins the whole ball of wax, this means all Pac-12 fans can crow about it and take ownership of it too, right?

I remember thinking about this the last time a Pac-12 team took the national title. That’s when U$C went down to Miami and flogged Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 55-19. Ted Leland, Stanford’s athletic director at the time, and I watched a good portion of that game together. As the Trojans scored another touchdown, an impressed Ted turned to me and said, “this sure makes the Pac-10 look good, doesn’t it?”

At the time I nodded my head. But the more I thought about it, the more that result spoke to me about U$C. What the Trojans did during that entire timeframe said more, much more about U$C than it did about the rest of the conference.

The Trojans were far and away the class of the Pac-10. Cal had the best shot at joining them, but they ultimately proved unworthy of the big stage. Everyone else in the Pac-10 at that time couldn’t even see the Trojans with binoculars. U$C was carrying the flag for themselves. (I even remember writing about it—ironically enough, ten years ago today.)

Now, today? Oregon is the best team in the Pac-12. I think we can all agree on that. But the gap now between the Ducks and everyone else isn’t anywhere near as wide as it was when the Trojans were running the show. It’s not U$C and the nine dwarfs, like it was in January 2005. Ten years later, Oregon owns the top tier, but Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, this year’s U$C are all good teams who can compete and beat just about anyone they face on any given day.

But you know how the national narrative works, especially when it comes to the Pac-12 and the SEC. When Arizona beats Oregon, the talking heads slam the Ducks and call the Pac-12 soft. Any time a Pac-12 team loses a big game—even in conference play—it always somehow reflects badly on the entire conference. Meanwhile, when Alabama loses to Ole Miss, it just proves how deep and how great and how mighty the SEC is.

That seemed to be the prevailing opinion again as this year’s bowl season began. But a funny thing happened as the bowl games were played: LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State fell on their faces. And those incessant “S-E-C!” chants got much, much quieter.

And, of course, after the shocking Sugar Bowl result, it was radio silence from most of those folks. Watching the SEC Network’s postgame coverage was like watching old CBS coverage of the Kennedy assassination, with Paul Finebaum doing his best Walter Cronkite. That network covered that game like it was a state funeral. Which, I guess, in a sense, it was.

Now, I’m not ready to declare the SEC dead and call this bowl season a power shift in college football. Far from it. Look, the SEC West still put out a higher-quality product every week than the NFC South and the AFC South combined.

But the fact that the Pac-12 is alive heading into championship week and the SEC isn’t? I’ll admit it puts a small smirk on my face. And because the conference this year was deep from one to eleven (sorry, Colorado), I think Pac-12 fans can puff out their chests with a little more pride and take a little more ownership of the title this time if the Ducks win it.

By the way, the more I think about it, it had to be the Liberty Bowl I was watching. Hard for me to watch that game every year without having flashbacks to 1995 and Mark Butterfield throwing pick-sixes in the freezing rain to East Carolina the whole time. Oh, well. At least the Pirate fans in the house didn’t spend all their time chanting their conference’s name. They couldn’t. “In-de-pen-dent!” just doesn’t have the same ring.

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