PHOENIX — Just two years ago, the Pac-12 didn’t come close to filling its bowl allotment, sending four teams to the postseason.
Two of those teams went to BCS bowls — Oregon played for the national championship and Stanford played in the Orange — but it wasn’t what the conference was hoping for, even as a 10-team conference.
In its first season as the Pac-12, the conference bounced back, sending seven teams to bowl games a year ago.
It’s even better this season: eight bowl-eligible teams, two possibly to BCS games, an outside shot at the national title game.
After a season of teams beating up on each other and some surprising upsets, the Pac-12 has re-emerged as a powerhouse conference.
“It’s just indicative that this conference is really good and really competitive, and I think has done pretty well on a national scope,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said Tuesday.
There’s still a lot to be decided in the final two weeks.
No. 15 UCLA has the South Division’s spot in the Nov. 30 Pac-12 championship game wrapped up, but can have an impact on who wins the North in the final weekend of the regular season.
The Bruins, who have a two-game lead over Southern California after beating their SoCal rivals last week, host No. 11 Stanford, which shook up the BCS standings by knocking off then-top-ranked Oregon last weekend.
If the Cardinal beat UCLA, they will win the North and face the Bruins again the next week in the Pac-12 title game. If UCLA wins and No. 5 Oregon beats No. 16 Oregon State in the Civil War on Saturday in Corvallis, the Ducks will play the Bruins in the championship game.
What may be the best scenario from a conference standpoint would be if Stanford and Oregon both win.
If the Cardinal beat the Bruins on Saturday, it won’t matter who wins the Pac-12 title game the next week since the champion has a slot in the Rose Bowl already waiting. If Oregon beats Oregon State, the Ducks are almost certain to get an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, most likely the Fiesta.
Oregon still has an outside shot at the national championship game, but, at No. 5 in the BCS standings, would need some help from the teams ahead to play in Miami on Jan. 7.
“The only thing that matters is winning on Saturday,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “You can run through 27,000 scenarios, but if we don’t win Saturday, none of them come true.”
The Pac-12 has plenty of postseason options.
Arizona has had a successful first season under coach Rich Rodriguez, fighting a thin roster with an explosive offense to win seven games.
Up Interstate 10 in Tempe, Todd Graham also has Arizona State bowl eligible in his first season as coach, clinching the six-win mark last week by rolling over Washington State in the final home game for the Sun Devils’ seniors.
The desert rivals face each other on Friday in their annual rivalry with bragging rights and positioning for a bigger bowl on the line.
Riley’s Beavers shook off consecutive losing seasons and dire predictions for this one to win eight games so far and become bowl eligible.
Washington corrected its problems during a three-game losing streak midway through the season to become bowl eligible for the third straight season.
USC didn’t live up to its national-title expectations, losing four games, but will still head to a bowl in the first season after its two-year bowl ban was lifted.
Utah is facing some long odds to make it nine Pac-12 teams in the postseason.
The Utes are 4-7 heading into their season finale against Colorado, which in most years would knock them out of the bowl picture.
But if there aren’t enough eligible teams to fill the 35 bowls, teams with the highest APRs will be placed in a group for bowls with open slots to negotiate with. Utah has an APR of 33 and, with a win over the Buffs, could be in the running for a bowl with schools like Rice, Wake Forest and Missouri.
Don’t beat Colorado and it won’t matter, sending Utah to its first four-win season since 2000.
“I’ve told this team many times you shouldn’t need a carrot out in front of you to play hard,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It should be just for the respect of the game and the competitive fire that is within. That should be enough.”
Even if the Utes don’t squeak in, it’s been a good year for the Pac-12.
What was supposed to be a runaway to the title game by Oregon and Southern California turned into one of the most competitive seasons in recent years for the conference.
It started with Stanford upending USC’s national-title hopes in the conference opener and the standings changed seemingly every week, capped by the Cardinal’s overtime win over Oregon last Saturday night.
Once the dust settles, the Pac-12 will have teams playing throughout December, maybe even a couple in January.
“We kind of predicted it coming in, you could see it happening: this is the most competitive this league has been ever, I think,” Riley said. “It’s very exciting for the fans, but very hard on the coaches.”
And good for the conference.