Coming after the Apple Cup and before the big bowl games, the Pac-12 championship game — no offense to Washington or Utah — is kinda bleah.
Um . . . I’m not feeling it.
You know, the big regional sports championship Friday night. In Santa Clara. Washington Huskies vs. Utah Utes. Winner of the Pac-12 title game goes to the Rose Bowl.
Are you feeling it? Didn’t think so.
The weirdness of college football is hitting home. What if they gave a championship, and few cared?
Somehow the dithering divas of NCAA football, with the cooperation of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, have managed to marginalize the supposed biggest game of the year on the West Coast.
For Huskies fans, the game falls between the Apple Cup the previous weekend and the potential for a New Year’s Day in Pasadena for the first time in 18 years.
For college football fans in the Bay Area, I’m guessing not more than three will bother to grind through Friday night rush hour around San Jose by the 5 p.m. kickoff to watch two teams in which they have no rooting interest play a game that lacks an other-worldly talent or two who have made national splashes.
It’s the 404 Error Code Bowl.
This has nothing to do with the worthiness of the teams and coaches, nor the importance of a win to the victors.
But in this year’s case, the matchup was already played once, Sept. 15 in Salt Lake City, a fairly dreary affair won by Washington, 21-7. I doubt the average Huskies fan can remember anything about it except that UW QB Jake Browning threw the worst-looking interception in his fairly chubby history of bad balls.
The problem is that the NCAA and member conferences, in their awkward effort to blend tradition with modernity, have developed a hodge-podge of a seasonal conclusion. The rivalry games have more heft than the title game of a mediocre big-time conference.
At least in the Seattle market, the season’s apex moment was the previous Friday in Pullman, when the Huskies and Cougars played a much-anticipated Apple Cup, which had the unintended bonus of a nearly game-long snowfall to ratchet up the theater.
As with most big-school rivalry games, it already had a little something-something that creates anticipation and appreciation.
There were stakes too, the championship of the North Division — another layer of confection now in its eighth season in the Pac-12. So far no one has come up with a catchy nickname for the triumph — “Titans of the North” sounds like another bad Netflix series.
After the emotional peak of rivalry games, the conference title game seems an after-thought, and fans treat it accordingly. Partly because the participants in the league championship typically aren’t known more than a week ahead, and partly because college football in the Bay Area is a second- or third-tier sport, fans don’t show up to Levi’s Stadium.
Of course, it could be that the residual toxicity of 49ers games has reached the “very unhealthful stage” and public officials yellow-taped the stadium entrances.
When I flew down two years ago for the Huskies’ first title-game appearance, the airline was giving away game tickets as part of a promotion. Fliers took the bag of pretzels.
Then there’s the title games themselves. Until USC beat Stanford 31-28 last year, the previous four games, including Washington’s 41-10 win over Colorado, were decided by an average of 28 points.
Hanging over all is the national image of the Pac-12 football programs. Last season’s 1-8 record in the bowls was the worst in history for a Power 5 conference (outscored by a cumulative 87 points), and the league is being left out of the College Football Playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Since the other Power 5 conferences play Saturday, Friday night seems a backwater for the Pac-12. But as John Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News reports, the past four title games on Friday averaged 5.1 million homes on Fox, and two Saturday games on ESPN average 2.0 million.
So an exclusive national window on Friday has its benefits. But not for creating a championship atmosphere for its final game. If the cameras dare to pan the stands Friday, look carefully for the inflatables.
Part of the increased ennui around the Pac-12 stems from the CFP, which sucks up a lot of attention on a final field of four, while everything else is relegated. But the CFP is actually good for college football because a champion is finally determined on the field after more than 100 years of the sport being operated by the Marx Brothers.
There just isn’t enough of the CFP. The field needs to be 16, games distributed among existing bowls. An example here from College Football News from week eight of last year demonstrates how it could work.
The news this week that 10-2 Washington State, ranked 13th in the CFP behind three three-loss teams, may end up out of the New Year’s Six bowls, is yet another example of misdeed that can be erased with an expanded field, which will include just 14 percent of the 130 schools playing big-boy football.
The expansion doesn’t directly solve the all the Pac-12 title-game problems. But instead of a conference title game, what if the division winners of all Power 5 conferences were given the first 10 seeds, then the remaining berths are selected at-large, selected by committee? Yes, team No. 17 will be aggrieved, just as team No. 69 in the college basketball tourney is wounded.
But guess what? I don’t care, and neither do you.
A 16-team field would eliminate the need for a conference title game. If that outcome causes you to weep, you have self-identified as an eater of tofu and sprouts and must seek emergency transport to a good Mexican restaurant.