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Inside College Football | Chris Dufresne ON COLLEGE

Pac-10 Is On the Outside Looking In

October 02, 2003|Chris Dufresne

Tom Hansen failed to finish the famous quote when he basically said over the phone that winning isn't everything.

There was no dramatic pause to add, as Vince Lombardi reportedly did, that winning was "the only thing."

No, we heard Hansen right: He meant winning isn't everything.

The Pacific 10 Conference commissioner was trying to put a happy face on the fact that this is the sixth year of the bowl championship series and probably the sixth season the Pac-10 won't put a team in the BCS title game.

Did you know the Pac-10 is the only BCS conference not to have made a title-game appearance?

Losses suffered last weekend by contenders (pretenders?) USC and Oregon left the conference with no undefeated teams and significantly reduced the Pac-10's chances of advancing a school to the Sugar Bowl in January.

Yet, Hansen said there are more important things than national championships.

"I think that's a second goal, not the primary goal," Hansen said.

"Not for the conference. It is for each university and each coach to try to win the national title, just like we do in every other sport. But it's a pretty tough thing in football when you're that balanced, and you don't get a second chance like you do in basketball."

Hansen was probably just spinning, as a good commissioner should, yet his point was oddly accurate.

In college football, playing in a tough conference reduces your chances of winning the big prize.

It is no accident that the Atlantic Coast and Big East conferences, generally regarded as the worst BCS leagues, have combined to claim six of the 10 spots in five previous BCS title games.

Florida State of the ACC has the most BCS appearances with three while Miami (twice) and Virginia Tech have represented the Big East.

You want a lopsided league? From 1992 through 2000, Florida State lost two ACC games, an average of one loss every 4.5 seasons.

The Big 12 has advanced two teams (Oklahoma in 2000 and Nebraska in 2001) to the BCS title game with one entry each for the Big Ten (Ohio State in 2002) and Southeastern (Tennessee in 1998) conferences.

The most important factor in winning a national title besides having an opposing quarterback fumble the ball on a play in which he wasn't hit (see Arkansas versus Tennessee, 1998) is avoiding the land mines that come with competitive conference play.

Although many consider the Pac-10 the most balanced and entertaining conference west of ESPN, that does not lend itself to hoisting championship trophies.

"I think as nice as it would be to have a team in the game, it's better for the conference if there's a very competitive situation pretty much top to bottom," Hansen said.

The Pac-10 is Mary Lou Retton when it comes to balance, with nine of the 10 teams in Hansen's conference having finished first at least once in the last 10 years.

"The fact that one of your members may get in the national championship game may mean it's really been kind of a tough year for the other seven, eight, nine, 10 members of your conference," Hansen said.

In the college game, where championship participants are decided by a rankings system, one loss all but puts you out of contention while two losses ... well, ask USC about it.

As Hansen says, this isn't basketball.

"Arizona won the national championship [in 1997] and finished fifth in the conference," Hansen said of Lute Olson's basketball team. "You can't do that in football."

In truth, the Pac-10 has been competitive in the BCS.

Only once has the conference not had a school ranked No. 6 or better in the final BCS rankings.

And in a sport where a play or two can swing your whole season, you also need a few bounces and your share of good fortune. Ohio State went undefeated last year en route to the national title, with five of those games coming down to one play.

The Pac-10 has come tantalizing close to BCS bliss.

In 1998, a heartbreaking loss at Miami in December cost UCLA a spot in the Fiesta Bowl.

In 2000, Oregon State and Washington each finished with one loss and won BCS bowl games. Close, but no BCS title-game cigar.

In 2001, Oregon was ranked No. 2 in both polls yet was denied a spot in the national-title game because it finished fourth in the BCS standings. The computer nerds kept Oregon out for winning too many close games.

Last year, many considered USC the best team at the end of the season, but two tough, early losses knocked the Trojans out of contention.

Two things must happen for the Pac-10 to win its first national title since Washington claimed half a share in 1991:

1. Conference schools need to ease back on nonconference scheduling. The Pac-10 takes too many risk-reward games before conference play. And although this makes for great theater -- for example, Washington State's overtime loss to Notre Dame this year -- it makes mounting a national-title run more difficult.

2. One Pac-10 school needs to break from the pack and become a dominant power.

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