Pac-12 Media Day is full of optimism about the future

After a pandemic abbreviated 2020 football season that felt incomplete, Pac-12 football schools are ready to roar back into action and show the nation the strength of west coast college football. Washington Huskies head coach Jimmy Lake said it best when he stated that, "There's really a sense of unfinished business with our football team." After his Huskies team went 3-1 in 2020, it is easy to see why he feels that way. That seemed to be a view shared by everyone in the Pac-12 conference.

The optimism is based on the return of many starters to programs as well as some excellent recruiting by the top programs in the conference. UCLA returns 20 of 22 starters this fall and were among the most successful teams in the nation in the transfer portal this offseason. Oregon was the No. 6 ranked team in the nation in recruiting and USC the No. 7 ranked team in the nation in recruiting.

At the Pac-12 Media Day event in Hollywood on Tuesday, while each school was represented by their head coach and two players, the star of the event was the new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who began in his new position effective July 1st. Kliavkoff is taking on the job at a time of great change in college football and a lingering pandemic that just will not seem to go away.

Among the challenges the new commissioner faces are the Pac-12 Network, new rules allowing college athletes to earn money for use of their name, image and likeness, the proposal to expand the playoffs to 12 teams and the earthquake rocking decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 conference for the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The addition of these two powerhouse football programs to the strongest conference in college football has certainly gotten the attention of the other power conferences.

The SEC addition of Oklahoma and Texas was an issue that Kliavkoff addressed in his opening remarks: "We believe the move by Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 to the SEC strengthens our unique position as the only Power 5 conference with teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. We have a stable, highly successful, and well positioned membership with a high bar to entry. Given our investments in football and men's basketball, our historic domination of other sports, we do not think expansion is required to continue to compete and thrive."

While that is a very optimistic point of view from Kliavkoff, the reality is the Pac-12 will fall further behind the SEC in net revenue per school with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma. But as Kliavkoff points out," We still own all of our media rights. This gives us unlimited flexibility in how to structure new deals beginning in 2024. In fact, we believe our media rights will be even more valuable if there is further consolidation among the FBS conferences in the next two to three years."

Kliavkoff added, "Given the proliferation of bundled media services and the unique and very limited nature of live sports, I believe we will have a large and diverse group of bidders for our media rights." The plan for the Pac-12 athletics is to get to the end of the contract in 2024, which would probably indicate that expansion would not be on the table before 2024.

Kliavkoff did admit that the distribution of the Pac-12 Network was a problem that may not be resolved soon: "I wish distribution was better. But some of our current and existing distribution contracts make it very difficult to expand distribution under the current model. I think we have to look forward to 2024 and set our fans' expectations. That's when we'll be able to reset the distribution." As of December 2020, the Pac-12 had only 14.8 million subscribers. The SEC is estimated to have over 60 million subscribers.

Kliavkoff was well-received by the coaches at the Pac-12 Media Day event. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said of Kliavkoff, "I thought he was really intelligent, sharp. I think he's articulate. He can explain his vision in terms of what he wants to get accomplished. I'm excited to work with him. He seems like he is collaborative. That was kind of the words he talked about yesterday with us as coaches. So I'm excited to kind of see what the direction of this conference is under George's leadership."

USC Trojan head coach Clay Helton added: "I loved he said we're here to win championships, our conference as a football program is here to win championships. The conference is going to support us and those teams that put themselves in those positions to help them get there. To be able to hear that enthusiasm was exciting as a coach. To hear some of his vision of where he sees us progressing to as a conference is exciting."

Kliavkoff was not the only individual receiving praise at the Pac-12 Media event. UCLA head coach Kelly received praise from a couple of fellow coaches. Coach Lake of the Huskies said of Kelly: "I give a lot of respect to Chip Kelly. Chip Kelly changed football back at Oregon when they were going up-tempo. Changed high school, college, and the NFL football. Now you see a lot of teams still doing a little bit of those things he was doing back then."

Stanford head coach David Shaw added to that: "I don't think nationally Chip Kelly gets the credit he deserves for changing college football. Chip's thinking advanced college football by at least a decade for what he did at Oregon. You've seen other people have different offenses, but really following Chip's lead there. I think he changed college football. I've always respected him for that."

Kelly responded by saying that, "I think the game of football is cyclical. There's ebbs and flows to everything that goes on. It's very gracious of David to say that. I owe him 20 bucks because I didn't believe he would say it."

The UCLA offense under Kelly is among the best in the country and with the return of senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Bruins at a minimum should have a winning record and a bowl appearance. The addition through the transfer portal of running back Zach Charbonnet, who rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman at Michigan, just adds depth to an already strong backfield, while the addition of wide receiver Kam Brown from Texas A&M adds depth at wide receiver.

Among the players at the Pac-12 Media event were Oregon Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and USC quarterback Kedon Slovis. Thibodeaux is considered the best defensive player in college football and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Thibodeaux played his high school football at Oaks Christian high school in Westlake Village.

Slovis is a two-year returning starter for the Trojans. Slovis is among the favorites for the Heisman trophy and is a possible first round pick in next year's NFL draft. USC is favored to win the Pac-12 South and Oregon in the Pac-12 North, so while the two teams will not meet during the regular season, there is a good chance they will meet in the Pac-12 Championship game at Allegiant Stadium in La Vegas on December 3, 2021.

Kliavkoff has brought back hope to the Pac-12 and as he said, "Going forward the Pac-12 conference will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing College Football Playoff invitations and winning national championships. This is a decision fully supported by all 12 of our athletic directors." That should bring hope and optimism to all Pac-12 fans.


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