Pac-12's mediocrity on full display with Utah's lackluster showing against Oregon

Justin Herbert #10 of the Oregon Ducks shakes hands with quarterback Tyler Huntley #1 of the Utah Utes after the Ducks defeated the Utes 37-15 in the Pac-12 title game. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Oregon's Justin Herbert shakes hands with quarterback Tyler Huntley #1 of the Utah Utes after the Ducks defeated the Utes 37-15 in the Pac-12 title game. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

SANTA CLARA – The cold drizzle, empty seats and large black tarp covering a swath of the stadium offered a perfect backdrop. The happy-hour kickoff gave an excuse for the assembled masses to drown their sorrows.

The Pac-12 conference, with its lagging revenue, intermittently blindfolded officials and star-crossed flagship programs continued a searing streak of infamy on Friday night. No. 5 Utah’s face-plant in its 37-15 loss to No. 13 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game continues the dueling droughts that define the league.

Utah’s loss drops the Pac-12 to an all-too familiar place. No Pac-12 team will win the national title for the 15th consecutive season. Much worse, no Pac-12 team will reach the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season.

The national title drought is the longest of any Power Five league. The three-year playoff drought will stand alone by the end of the weekend as the longest in the Power Five. And the Pac-12 picked the perfect way to celebrate its status as the most irrelevant big-money league, as it put on a boring game in a sterile atmosphere which reminded everyone why they’d spent much of the year ignoring the league.

"The stage was set,” Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley said after the game. “We just didn't show up.”

The Pac-12 season finished as an ode to the league’s irrelevance. The blowout of Utah will be Oregon’s only victory over a team that will finish in the top 20. The Utes will finish the season with no wins over any team that finishes the season in the Top 25. And nothing quite sums up the Pac-12 like a pair of undistinguished division champions atop a collection of interchangeable 7-5 teams. Pac-12, the Conference of Chameleons.

The biggest worry for the Pac-12 is that there’s no clear path out of this pit of mediocrity. USC has finally gotten out of its spin cycle of poor leadership, but there’s no one who views Clay Helton as the coach who’ll end the league’s national title drought. Oregon will be favored to win the league next season, but it’s hard to imagine a more consistent offense without Justin Herbert.

The concerns for the league in the macro are still glaring. The Pac-12 Network has accomplished little other than offering the league a constant reminder of its shortcomings. At this point, its lack of cable reach and revenue have become symbols of the league’s inability to keep up with the Big Ten and SEC.

The other macro concern comes with recruiting. USC’s two seasons of purgatory with Clay Helton simmering on hot seats has crowbarred open the door for the best recruits in Southern California to go elsewhere. Oregon has swooped in to snare its share. But so have Clemson, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State, as USC doesn’t have commitments from any of the top-20 players in the state in the 2020 class. The Pac-12 has become easy to recruit against, with its flagship school behind and the current recruits in diapers when the league last won a title.

Oregon Ducks safety Brady Breeze (25) celebrates after his first-half interception against the Utah Utes on Saturday. (Cody Glenn/Getty Images)

The game itself was a study in self-destruction for Utah. The Utes went 0-3 on fourth downs, undercutting coach Kyle Whittingham’s aggression. The failures showcased that Utah’s alleged strength – dominating the line of scrimmage – wasn’t as glaring against even competition. (On another potential fourth-and-short, Utah got a pre-snap penalty and then had the subsequent punt blocked. That sequence just about summed up the night.)

Oregon squandered a pair of chances to blow the game open. They settled for a 23-yard field goal in the first half after throwing to their left tackle behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-goal from the 6. The Ducks squandered two other deep red-zone opportunities, settling for chip-shot field goals in the second and third quarter.

Oregon’s failure to finish those second-half drives injected a dollop of drama to a game that, frankly, didn’t deserve it. Utah had the ball early in the fourth quarter trailing by eight, but didn’t exactly show the urgency necessary with a College Football Playoff slot on the line.

On a fourth-and-4 from the Oregon 40-yard-line, Whittingham decided to go against his aggressive mindset and punt. The Utes soon received the karmic payback that typically accompanies stealing plays from Mark Dantonio’s strategic dossier.

Five plays later, CJ Verdell ended the game’s morsel of alleged drama by cutting 70 yards through the heart of the Utah defense for a runaway touchdown. That was the same Utah defense that was supposed to be the reason they could compete with the elite teams in college football. The same menacing front that NFL scouts were drooling over before the game.

“Obviously tonight was a huge disappointment,” Whittingham said after the game. “We lost the game in the one area we’ve been undefeated all season, the line of scrimmage.”

Even if Utah had cobbled together a comeback and won in overtime, the performance certainly didn’t feature any distinguishing qualities that would have pushed the Utes up into the top four. They’d likely still have lost a résumé comparison if they’d somhow managed a way to win.

In the end, the game was much like the Pac-12 itself – underwhelming, uninspiring and giving no reason for the country to take notice. “These are important milestones,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said prior to the game of CFP appearances and national titles. “We're eager to see it happen.”

And after another sleepy title game, the Pac-12 remains lost in the college football wilderness. It lacks the money, cable reach and cachet of its power conference peers. And this slog of a night will serve as a cold shiver heading into the offseason – there aren’t a lot of signs that things will be changing soon in the Pac-12.

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