Pac-12 crown jewels USC, UCLA steering league's sudden resurgence while preparing for Big Ten departures

Pac-12 crown jewels USC, UCLA steering league’s sudden resurgence while preparing for Big Ten departures

Melva Thompson-Robinson might reflect the current state of the Pac-12. Her son, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, is UCLA’s star quarterback and a Heisman Trophy candidate who has led the Bruins to an undefeated record nearly midway through the season. But her heart — at least part of it — is with her alma mater 1,600 miles away.

“My mom is a diehard Michigan fan,” Dorian said. “She’s been a little bit disappointed I can’t go play in The Big House. Shoot, even sometimes she’s watching the Michigan game on her phone while she’s at my game.”

That would be a pithy anecdote except that UCLA will soon be playing Michigan in Big Ten conference games. The resurgence of the Pac-12 this season, then, might come with an asterisk. (* Don’t get used to it.)

USC and UCLA are both undefeated and on their way out the door. For every game they win, it puts the current Pac-12 closer to a playoff berth. It’s also part of a long, painful goodbye from the conference they made famous.

Thanks to the shocking events of the summer, the Trojans and Bruins have 1 ½ seasons left in the Pac-12 before heading to the Big Ten in 2024. Meanwhile, the current state of affairs is a reminder, as the conference is back on the national radar, how weakened it will be without the two Los Angeles centerpieces.

“It’s been a long time since both L.A. schools have been this successful out of the gate,” UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said. “There are still a lot of games to play … but you’ve got to enjoy these moments.”

Call it bittersweet or refreshing. The West Coast is back. The Pac-12 has four teams ranked this late in the season for the first time since 2019. USC and UCLA are both 6-0 for the first time since 2005. Oregon has won five in a row. Defending champion Utah has played in three of the last four Pac-12 Championship Games.

For a league that hasn’t participated in the College Football Playoff in six years, this is heady stuff.

Also, an omen: USC and UCLA were always the shining jewels of the Pac-12. They have combined to win at least a share of 56 conference titles going back to when the old Pacific Coast Conference was formed in 1915. Together, they have played in 46 of the 108 Rose Bowls.

Now, they’re something like carpetbaggers. When they leave for the Big Ten in two years, there will be a giant hole for the conference in Los Angeles.

“I’m not giving up on L.A.,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said before the season.

At the same time the L.A. schools are winning, behind the scenes they are transitioning to a new league. Another bittersweet going-away reminder: There is now a possibility that one or both could be playing at “home” in the Rams’ SoFi Stadium, site of the 2023 CFP National Championship.

“You don’t want to see the Pac-12 schools go away,” Melva Thompson-Robinson said. “But, you know, it’s also a new world.”

A pair of showdowns in the next two weeks will sharpen the nation’s focus on the Pac-12. No. 6 USC plays at No. 20 Utah on Saturday. The defending champion Utes split their last eight meetings with the Trojans. Then next week, No. 11 UCLA travels to No. 12 Oregon. The Ducks been on a run since that embarrassing loss to Georgia.

Utah is 4-2 but still in line for another Pac-12 title. The key is to stay away from the league’s familiar habit: failure to produce a dominant team. There hasn’t been a one-loss or no-loss team in the Pac-12 across a full season since 2016.

For now, this is the highest of times for the Pac-12 since Washington made the conference’s last CFP appearance that season. The Huskies were quickly eliminated by Alabama in the semifinal. Since then, it’s largely been a struggle on the national scene.

Dan Lanning is Oregon’s third coach in the last seven seasons. Washington and Washington State have each had three in that span. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is the standard. Only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz has currently been at an FBS school longer. The Utes have grown stronger as time has passed winning four division titles since 2015 and playing in their first Rose Bowl in January.

That’s part of the reason the Big 12 is interested in scooping up Utah if realignment continues.

Kliavkoff declined to comment for this story. Instead, the conference forwarded a statement from Merton Hanks, senior associate commissioner for football operations.

“Our member schools, working with the conference, have made a concerted effort over the past 18 months to elevate Pac-12 football,” read the statement in part. “… These efforts have benefited the football programs at all of our schools, and we are very pleased with the results on the field to date this season.”

For now, it’s OK just to bask in excellence. Lincoln Riley’s turnaround at USC has surpassed the most optimistic projections. Oklahoma transfer QB Caleb Williams has delivered as promised becoming a Heisman candidate himself. USC’s defense has made a quantum leap under coordinator Alex Grinch. The Trojans lead the country in interceptions and sacks.

Positivity abounds. Riley was asked this week about being undefeated at the halfway point and playing six more games.

“Just six?” asked Riley rhetorically, obviously referring to the Trojans’ season lasting longer than 12 games. “That’ll get quoted. Everybody calm down.”

It’s hard to calm down when L.A. is buzzing.

“I’m trying to stay inside my house as much as possible,” said the UCLA quarterback nicknamed DTR. “Stay out of all the noise so I can stay focused. I’ve been there before when we got a nice win and nice ranking and then it’s gotten taken away from us and nobody wants to deal with us anymore.”

Such is life in a city where you’re only as good as your next championship. UCLA hasn’t won the Pac-12 since 1998 when it was the Pac-10 and Bob Toledo came within a game of taking the Bruins to the first BCS title game. USC has won one Pac-12 title since 2008. Utah are Oregon are the established power in the league the last five years. Since 2018, it’s the Ducks (40-13, two Pac-12 championships) and the Utes (37-16, one) ranked 1-2 in winning percentage.

Meanwhile, USC is in the middle of one of the nation’s biggest turnarounds this season as it continues to rebound from a 4-8 record in 2021.

“It’s just a start,” Riley said. “It’s not a guarantee to anything. This is when it gets most fun.”

Riley should know. This is why USC spent more than $100 million over 10 years to get him. The 39-year-old coach has already been to three CFPs.

UCLA was already building something in Westwood. Dorian Thompson-Robinson chose a fifth year with the Bruins over the NFL after the program showed signs of life in an eight-win 2021. All at once, UCLA has matured. DTR and Bruins coach Chip Kelly arrived together five years ago. The quarterback was a coveted four-star prospect from Las Vegas who committed to Jim Mora Jr. (fired before DTR arrived).

Meanwhile, Kelly committed to restarting his college career after a largely unsuccessful NFL run.

All of it took a while. Kelly was extended in December by Jarmond. It was a show of support and commitment. The school could have avoided a potential $9 million buyout by allowing the original contract to expire, but that would have required an eight-figure transition to a new coach. UCLA was already upside-down budget wise, which explains a lot regarding the move to the Big Ten.

“I think I’m more focused on us building something out West and playing some great football,” Jarmond said. “To me, that’s the most important thing. There has been a narrative that West Coast football has not been national. We’re showing the best football is being played out West in Los Angeles.”

DTR has put himself in the Heisman conversation setting the school record for career touchdown passes and leading the league in passing. Duke transfer Jake Bobo has become his favorite target, leading the team in receiving and catching five of DTR’s 15 touchdown passes.

“It was a group of guys who came on official visits,” Thompson-Robinson recalled. “There were offensive linemen on the visit with [Bobo]. But I had to host those two because I needed some offensive linemen this season. Bobo was there. I didn’t know even know he was a recruit. He was kind of in the background, kind of shy.”

This sort of success has begged a previously unasked question: Can West Coast football be exported to the Midwest?

USC and UCLA minds are already drifting East. Kelly said this week his offense is “what the [Big Ten] conference is all about.” When he was at New Hampshire, Kelly was inspired by Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense. At the FCS power, Kelly called it the “See Coast Offense.”

“We see it, we like it, go run it,” Kelly said.

Sorry, but Bo Schembechler never came to mind when Kelly was chasing champions and strafing defenses with his high-powered Oregon offenses 12 or so years ago. Kelly is a forward thinker who puts an emphasis on program development, nutrition, sleep and winning the day. We’ll see how that blends with a bratwurst and beer in 30-degree temperatures.

Kelly’s new defensive coordinator is an old friend, veteran Bill McGovern. The former Holy Cross defensive back has coached west of Chicago once in 37-year career (2020 as a Nebraska analyst). The Bruins defense had to get better, and McGovern’s unit has gone from 107th nationally in 2021 to No. 2 in the Pac-12 this season.

“He lets us be free,” senior safety Stephan Blaylock said. “Anything we want to bring up, we can bring up. We had a lot of player-led meetings. We had dinner on our own. I felt like that brought us all together.”

Maybe Big Ten affiliation can grow what have been disappointing crowds at Rose Bowl this season. Attendance is down more than 24% year-over-year, the biggest decrease among Power Five programs, according to D1Ticker. The reasons are many: heat, traffic, quality of opponent, entertainment competition.

“I know the [Big Ten] fan base is amazing. Them coming out here might help fill out the stadium more,” said Blaylock, a native of nearby Compton, California. “… I tell people, ‘I don’t blame y’all for not getting out there. When I was a recruit, I didn’t want to drive to Pasadena and sit through traffic. Then the parking is crazy also.”

Sounds a lot like game day at The Big House or The Shoe. And that’s where the dichotomy emerges again.

Melva Thompson-Robinson couldn’t be more Michigan. She went to school with current Michigan AD Warde Manuel. The year she graduated, 1989, Michigan won the NCAA Tournament and Rose Bowl.

Her son still exchanges texts with Arizona coach Jedd Fisch, whom he met on a Michigan recruiting visit when Fisch was a Jim Harbaugh assistant.

“I think it will be fun for me to come back as an alum to catch some away games and some home games with how well the Big Ten travels,” DTR said.

“I still cheer for the Maize & Blue,” Melva said. “I think it would be pretty awesome if UCLA ended up playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl.”

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