With vital signing day at hand, Pac-12 struggling to keep up with Power Five cohorts

Dan Wetzel
<span>With a lack of success on the field and in recruiting in his conference, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott should be pushing for playoff expansion. So why isn’t he? (AP)</span>
With a lack of success on the field and in recruiting in his conference, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott should be pushing for playoff expansion. So why isn’t he? (AP)

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told the Athletic on Tuesday that he’s open to discussing expanding college football’s playoff from four to eight teams. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby previously expressed similar interest. An eight-team playoff would almost assuredly include automatic bids for major conferences and thus end the Power Five leagues being left on the outside of the sport’s grandest stage.

Still uncommitted though is Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, and it is, perhaps, the most curious of opinions. It’s not just that for the third time in five years, the Pac-12 didn’t make the playoff.

It’s what’s about to happen on Wednesday as college football’s early signing period begins.

The Pac-12, with the exception of Oregon, is going to get drubbed.

“The conference’s reputation is just so bad,” Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said. “They just aren’t national title contenders. They aren’t in the playoff. They aren’t relevant. A lot of kids are gravitating to playoff teams and conferences.

“You have California kids going to Clemson,” Farrell said. “You have California kids looking at SEC schools. In all the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen so many five-star players on the West Coast having no interest in staying home.”

As of Tuesday night, the entire conference had but one five-star recruit committed to sign – defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux of Westlake Village, California, who says he’s headed to Oregon.

The SEC, by comparison, has 12.

Thibodeaux, ranked No. 10 overall by Rivals.com, is the only player in the top 50 headed to the Pac-12. He represents the crown jewel of the only truly strong recruiting class in the conference – Oregon is ranked fifth nationally by Rivals.

Washington checks in at No. 15. Stanford is No. 17. USC (31), Cal (32) and Arizona State (35) are way behind. After that, there is no reason to look.

Those are numbers that should sound alarm bells and spark panic in the league offices.

“If you have a chance to play for USC or Clemson or Alabama and your goal is to win a national championship, what are you going to pick?” Farrell asked. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Essentially, missing the playoff feeds upon itself by causing fewer great recruits to choose your schools, which causes you to miss additional playoffs. Along the way your conference championship race lacks sizzle and fewer people pay attention.

All of this comes with two obvious caveats.

First, this isn’t over. USC, which historically leads the conference in attracting top talent, is predicted to land five-star athletes Bru McCoy of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, California) and wide receiver Kyle Ford of Orange Lutheran (Anaheim, California).

Will Mater Dei’s Bru McCoy choose USC? (Getty Images)
Will Mater Dei’s Bru McCoy choose USC? (Getty Images)

Second, recruiting rankings are hardly foolproof and lots of prospects emerge from the three- and even two-star ranks. That said, you’d rather have the really good ones. Recruiting success has actually proven to be very predictive of high-end success in the sport. In general, you need at least two, and more often three, top-10 recruiting classes on campus to win the national title.

The average Rivals.com team ranking of the four 2018 playoff teams over the past four years is 12 or better – Alabama (2.5), Oklahoma (8.75), Clemson (10) and Notre Dame (12).

Five-star hearts can get you only so far. At some point, you need five-star talent. The Pac-12 doesn’t appear to be getting enough of it.

Maybe most alarming is the number of high-level prospects from California that are leaving.

If commitments and predictions come through, the Pac-12 may land only half of the top-10 ranked California players. That would be the most top-10 players from the state to sign elsewhere in at least a decade. In some of those years, the Pac-12 would sign nine or even all 10 of the top 10.

Instead they are signing, or predicted to sign, with Clemson, Michigan, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina. Yes, South Carolina. The state’s highest-rated quarterback, Ryan Hilinski, is going to attempt to rebuild a 7-5 SEC program rather than any place close to his Southern California home.

“California kids historically would go and take visits to SEC schools or Big Ten schools and then just stay home in the end,” Farrell said. “That isn’t happening with this group.”

There are more reasons than just missing the playoffs. USC normally drives the league’s recruiting success, but it’s a mess and coach Clay Helton’s job security is an issue. Meanwhile, UCLA coach Chip Kelly has been very selective in his choices and hasn’t loaded up with highly rated prospects – the Bruins’ class ranks 59th, with just two four-star recruits.

While Mario Cristobal is clearly making things happen at Oregon, much of the rest of the league is a bit flat-footed.

The Pac-12 Network’s continued struggle to find vast audiences probably doesn’t help. Neither does the general mood that the league takes a backseat to the action elsewhere.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Farrell said.

Nothing though is as fixable as assuring that the Pac-12 champion gets a chance to play for a national title. Having an automatic bid means league coaches can promise a pathway to the playoff that doesn’t currently exist. It also would add drama and meaning to the league race, which has too often been marginalized by mid-October.

Yet Scott isn’t banging the drum for change. He has expressed satisfaction with the status quo, even as his states are bleeding the recruits that are the lifeblood of the sport.

“It’s the playoff more than anything,” Farrell said.

Worse, as more and more West Coast recruits head out, more and more recruiters arrive from everywhere else. The SEC, ACC and others are finding suddenly fertile grounds. Farrell says the 2020 recruiting class in California is particularly loaded, the kind of year that should supply league schools with a surge of talent. Three of Rivals.com’s top four current juniors, and 14 of the top 100, hail from California. Arizona and Nevada are stacked as well.

“If the Pac-12 doesn’t rebound next year, it will be in even bigger trouble,” Farrell said.

Right now, all the league appears to be doing is crossing its fingers and hoping.

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