The Three Eras of the Pac 10/12

This is the second of my three-part series about eras during the Mike Riley II tenure.  There are three distinct shifts in Riley’s staff and approach in the Pac-10/12, and in how we should view OSU’s future. Today, I am focusing on the three eras of the Pac 10/12.  I will give you a hint: the very conference name should give you a good idea of what the third one was.

Well, there have been some huge changes in the last few years. So the Riley II stint can be split into three eras:

1. The USC Era (2002-2008)*
2. The darkest days in history (duck era)  (2009- 2011)
3. The Pac 12/Pac 12 Network Era (2011+)

The USC Era (2001 – 2008):
There are few, if any, times in the history of the Pac-8/10/12 that we have seen such dominance as what USC did under Pete Carroll.  Since the dawn of the conference (1916), only Cal had won more than three conference titles in a row (1920-1923). USC only lost nine games during its run of seven straight Pac-10 championships, one being a close National Championship loss to Texas. The Trojans never lost more than one conference game during that time and won four Rose Bowls. In fact, they never played in an bowl that wasn’t a BCS bowl during that time, playing in five Rose Bowls, and two Orange Bowls.

During this time, pro-style offenses were king, and USC dominated recruiting. During this time, USC had the No. 1 recruiting class three years in a row (2004-2006) and only had one class ranked outside of the top 10, the 2002 class. The 2008 class was a “lowly” No. 8 according to Rivals. To put this in perspective, USC had more 4- and 5-star recruits during those three years (49) than OSU has had in its entire program history, and more than they had 3-star recruits during the same time (43).  So if you think the Beavers’ wins against USC in 2006 and 2008 were amazing, that is just scratching the surface of what they had to do to get those wins. And for that matter, what anyone had to do.

There will probably never be another era as dominant as USC’s in the Pac-12, for a lot of reasons, but it marked a time when the Pac-10 got very little respect except for one team. And while they all scrambled to find ways to win, only one was able to come up with a formula that was unique enough, and find enough talent to pull it off, and make another dynastic run.  Unfortunately, it’s also the most puke-inducing era of sports.

the darkest days in history (duck era)  (2009- 2012)
Crap. Even having to write about this makes me want to eat mothballs and watch an Ishtar marathon. So this jerkstore team in Eugene had a really bad year in 2006. At the end of that disaster, including a pre-game brawl with BYU in an eventual Vegas Bowl loss, the administration at said pseudo-educational institution (along with their financial partners in crime) decided it needed to do something. This set in motion the domino string that would lead to three straight conference titles.  First, Gary Crowton, who first installed a spread option-style, no-huddle offense took a job at LSU.  The ducks went out and hired wunderkind coach Chip Kelly from New Hampshire. Chip came in, and with the help of some steadily improving recruiting classes and a core of solid coaches, the ducks turned the corner.

The 2007 team looked poised to go to the Rose Bowl until a season-ending knee injury removed QB Dennis Dixon from the equation. The team never recovered and lost three of their last four games. That winter, the ducks had a shift at athletic director, replacing the architect of most of their success, Bill Moos, with uber donor Pat Kilkinney — who really shook things up in duck land. While USC won with tried and true formations and playing style, as well as being superiorly athletic to their their opponents, the ducks used innovation and a fresh style of offense to “win the day” (BARRRF) over and over again.

When Chip Kelly was hired in 2007, roughly eight of the 10 conference teams were pro-style teams. The Sonny Dykes-era Arizona teams were more air raid than West Coast, but the ducks were onto something new. Or new-ish. They had been a spread option team for two years now, but Kelly refined that and implemented a different tempo, with an emphasis on simplicity to perfection. And speed. The ducks were the one team you had to shelve your typical defensive plan to do something different than all season long.  Every week, they played lost-looking team after lost-looking team, as players who were used to drop back passing and punting on fourth and short, were now being forced to move constantly and pay attention to everything because they never knew where the ducks were going to hit them from.

This era peaked in 2010 when the ducks made the BCS title game and lost to the team that devised the defensive blueprint for stopping this offense. You just had to get super huge and talented defensive tackles… which obviously grow on trees.

Overall, what the duck dynasty did in this case, was shake up the status-quo in the Pac-10, and force teams to evolve how they recruit, who they recruit, and how they defend speed. So teams began recruiting smaller, switched to 3-4 schemes or 4-2-5, and beefed up their nickel packages for using on every down.

Something else happened that changed the face of the conference forever.

The Pac 12/Pac 12 Network era (2011+)
In 2011, the Pac-12 invited Utah and Colorado to join the party and created the Pac-12 from the skeleton of the Pac-10.  Along with the two new teams, came more money for each school — a lot more for some. The influx of cash led to a new pressure for many of the conference programs: expectations.

In 2011, Arizona, WSU, ASU, and UCLA all went in a new direction in regards to coaches. This new influx of coaches included big names such as Mike Leach, Jim Mora, Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez, who brought in systems that were more in line with that the ducks were doing.  These new coaches, followed by a new coach at Cal, the firing of half the UW staff, the firing of USC’s coach, the hiring of the UW staff to USC, and the dawn of the Chris Peterson era at the University of Washington, have led to a dramatic increase in coaching talent and influx of new, high-powered offenses in the Pac-12. Last season, only Stanford and Oregon State used what could be called pro-style systems, while everyone else was using high-octane, uptempo spread -type offenses.

These changes are reflected in the winning percentages of the schools, as the overall Pac-12 record jumped from .53 percent to .58 percent  The previous best percentage since 1980 was in the .56% range. So that is a huge difference. Teams are playing better, expectations are higher, coaches are paid more, and the brand of football is beyond anything we have seen before. During the USC era, there was one top 5 team and a bunch of teams that tried to fight it for any top 25 spot. Heading into the 2014 season, the Pac-12 has six teams preseason-ranked, four being in the top 15.

During the USC era, there were so many teams that had one or two years during which they took their shot. It was a time where winning nine games was easier because everyone was fighting for USC’s leftovers. In the duck era, you saw a shift, not just in offenses, but in how people recruited, with the rise of recruiting services and passing leagues/summer camp circuits. It was no longer good enough to have relationships with coaches, you needed to be in with their mentors, with their passing league coaches, and active on the camp circuit.

Now, as OSU aims to settle into the Pac-12 era, it’s in a rarified place. The Beavers have only one systematic peer that they have to fight for pro-style offensive recruits. Another benefit? Most teams aren’t preparing for pro-style offenses, so opponents won’t be as familiar or used with the Beaver offense.

OSU also is in the toughest era of the Pac 10/12. It takes far more to win than it did in 2006 or 2007. Recruiting is harder and the competition is constantly improving. The Beavers are making the necessary changes to try and keep up, but they are behind in a lot of ways. Starting facilities enhancements will be huge, as well outside-of-the-box thinking. Ultimately, it is going to come down to constantly improving coaching, constantly refining the narrative that recruits hear from the coaches, and showing progress in the arms race that college football facilities has become.

With the challenges to the NCAA, potential unionization or player payment options, things are not going to get easier for smaller, mid-tier programs such OSU. So the program needs to continue to improve, strike now and get a leg up on some of their competition, and keep their fans engaged now. Or things can get ugly quick.

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