Throughout history, ruling classes define eras. The 2016 Pac-12 football season began the transition into a new era.
Washington won its first conference championship since 2000, combining Chris Petersen’s vision of defensive tenacity with offensive innovation to break up a seven-season period of Duck-and-Tree rule. The Dawgs’ dominance signals a transition of power out West — but the new capital city of the Pac-12 isn’t necessarily Seattle.
The coming seasons will define the next era in Pac-12 football, much in the same way 2009 was pivotal for the conference’s direction over the previous six years.
In 2009, the landscape out West shifted dramatically. USC had gone largely unrivaled for the previous seven seasons. Yes, the Trojans shared a conference title with Washington State in 2002 and lost the Rose Bowl tiebreaker, and various league foes beat USC along the way, including Oregon State twice.
But the era of Pac-12 football from 2002-08 can be best defined as the Reign of Troy.
The 2009 campaign marked the first in eight years in which USC didn’t win at least a share of the conference championship. Oregon took advantage of the Trojans losing grip on the trophy, thus setting off a new era.
Pete Carroll’s departure after 2009, coupled with heavy sanctions at USC, served as the proverbial Trojan horse Chip Kelly steered to Oregon dominance. But even with two national championship game appearances in five seasons, the Ducks dynasty did not stand uncontested.
Oregon’s rise coincided directly with that of Stanford. In every season from 2009-15 that the Ducks didn’t win a Pac-12 title, the Cardinal did. For two of those years — 2010 and 2011 — Stanford’s only regular-season losses came against the Ducks.
The budding Oregon-Stanford rivalry defined the Pac-12 for a half-decade. As with USC in the previous era, however, coaching changes contributed to Oregon’s fall. Mark Helfrich is out after a 4-8 2016, and Willie Taggart — the first outside head-coaching hire at UO in four decades — is in.
2017 begins a truly new era at Oregon, and it coincides with fluctuation around the conference.
Once dominant against rival Washington, the Ducks now look up at the Huskies. Such is the case for most of the Pac-12, seemingly signaling the continuation of Northern rule. Since the conference expanded to 12 members and split into divisions in 2011, the Pac-12 champion has always come from the North.
Attribute that to the South lacking a banner-carrier, at least in part. Five of the division’s six teams played in the Pac-12 Championship Game from 2012 through 2016. Meanwhile, and perhaps ironically, the division’s most consistent team of the last three years — Utah — was the only to miss a title game.
The South’s parity functioned as a terrific indicator of overall Pac-12 strength, something the league badly lacked in the 2000s. However, it proved less than ideal for producing a champion. That should change in the new era.
From the ashes of an old dynasty, a new empire’s building.
USC finished 2016 on a nine-game winning streak — which included handing Washington its only loss of the regular season — capped with the program’s first Rose Bowl victory since the end of the Reign of Troy.
The Trojans aren’t looking up at the Huskies — not in the final Associated Press poll, which has USC at No. 3, and Washington at No. 4. USC quite literally looks down at the new, defending Pac-12 champions.
USC-Washington could develop into the new, cross-division rivalry the Pac-12 needs to add excitement to a championship game decided by double-digits in all but one installment since its inception.
Before December, though, the rise of USC and Washington gives the conference flagship programs around which to build in the evolving, College Football Playoff-driven world.
Both are located in metropolitan areas. Both boast impressive historical lineages. Both are built to compete repeatedly for the immediate future.
The Trojans and Huskies combining to dominate the top of the Pac in a fashion similar to Stanford and Oregon is anything but a given. A vastly stronger conference from top-to-bottom now than in 2009 ensures that.
As long as David Shaw remains at Stanford, Nerd Nation can still find a way to prevail. After all, the Cardinal won 10 games and finished ranked No. 12 in a down year.
Taggart’s exuberance and proven track record for rebuilding programs bode well for Oregon — a program backed by the resources of Nike.
Mike MacIntyre may be just scratching the surface of Colorado’s mile-high potential, and the sleeping giants of Arizona State and UCLA could wake up at any moment.
The future of Pac-12 football may not be predictable, but it’s exciting. And 2016 will go down as the season that a began a new era.