When Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher declared the ACC "the premier conference in college football" at ACC media days, it could have been viewed as a dig at the SEC or, perhaps, the Big Ten. But the league that should heed Fisher's message most is the Pac-12.
Conferences in the era of the Bowl Championship Series and the College Football Playoff are measured by one variable: the ability to win national titles. The ACC has found the ideal formula. Not only has it won two national titles in the past four years, but it has done so with two different champions who are capable of continuing their success for years to come. In Florida State and Clemson, the ACC has two bona fide powers, propelled by top coaches and elite recruiting. No other conference can match the ACC's model. The SEC pins its hopes on Alabama, the Big Ten on Ohio State, and the Big 12 on Oklahoma.
The Pac-12 is mired in the longest national title drought of any Power 5 league (12 years). The league touts its top-to-bottom strength, its aggressive scheduling approach inside and outside the league, and its balanced divisions. But the Pac-12 enters 2017 with a chance to replicate the ACC's blueprint.
It's the best thing that could happen, whether the Pac-12 and its fans want to admit it or not.
USC and Washington are set up to be the Pac-12's best national title contenders this season, and each has the ingredients to remain on the top shelf without spoiling. In many ways, the Trojans and Huskies are mirroring in the Pac-12 what the Tigers and Seminoles did to achieve their hegemony in the ACC.
USC enjoys advantages unrivaled in the nation, let alone the Pac-12: championship pedigree, proximity to talent, resources and investment, etc. No Pac-12 program comes close to matching the Trojans in terms of tradition. The Pac-12 needs USC to be great, and while premature proclamations of the Trojans' return to greatness have become a well-worn August cliché, they appear better equipped to fulfill expectations in 2017.
If USC is the Pac-12 equivalent of Florida State, the league's Clemson in 2017 will understandably spark debate. Oregon went 80-14 between 2008 and 2014, winning four Pac-12 titles and twice reaching the national championship game. Stanford is 76-18 since 2010 with three Pac-12 titles and two top-four finishes. But Washington will pair alongside USC as the Pac-12's primary contenders. The Huskies have had more success historically. They have a location edge over Oregon and can recruit a larger talent pool than Stanford. It is no coincidence that the rise of the Ducks and the Cardinal coincided with Washington's bottoming out in 2008 and then languishing in mediocrity.
Oregon and Stanford both have had opportunities to become the Pac-12's Clemson. Neither could complete the final step. Washington might fail, too, but the Huskies are ahead of schedule under Chris Petersen, who led them to a league title and a College Football Playoff appearance in his third season. Their lone league blemish came against USC, which overcame a listless start to win its final nine games, including the Rose Bowl against Penn State.
At Pac-12 media days this week in Hollywood, there should be no ambiguity about the league's headliners, nor about the expectations they're facing. Parity hasn't helped the perception of the Pac-12 nationally one bit. There needs to be a shift, and USC and Washington present a compelling case. Both teams return standout quarterbacks in Sam Darnold, the Vegas favorite to become USC's eighth Heisman Trophy winner, and Jake Browning, the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Both defenses bring back key pieces in the front seven. And, significantly, they reside in different divisions. Since the Trojans and Huskies don't meet in the regular season, the Pac-12 championship could become a playoff play-in. Imagine an undefeated or one-loss USC lining up across from undefeated or one-loss Washington at Levi's Stadium. Is there a better scenario for the Pac-12 in 2017? Good luck finding one.
There won't be many easy weeks for USC, which has lost six of its past nine against Stanford, or for Washington, which closes with Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State.
Both teams face a Pac-12 schedule that has proved to be the toughest to navigate in the Power 5. Teams have posted perfect conference records recently in the Big 12 (Oklahoma, 2016); SEC (Alabama, 2016); ACC (Clemson and North Carolina, 2015) and Big Ten (Iowa, 2015). It hasn't happened in the Pac-12 since Oregon in 2010.
The Pac-12 is still a league where the tiers aren't quite as distinct. Coaching and quarterback play give just about everyone a shot.
But the "Conference of Champions" can no longer be the "Conference of Parity," not with its national title drought at 12 seasons and counting.
That's why USC and Washington will step into the spotlight this week.
The Pac-12 needs both to stay put throughout the fall.