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Beyond the Empire: Pac-12 Realignment, Matchups, and West Coast Snacks with Coug Center

From USC (and UCLA) bolting to three matchups between the Pac-12 and Big Ten, what’s going on out west? Jeff Nusser of Coug Center helps us break down the landscape beyond the Rockies:

Gift guide 2018 Food Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There’s plenty of Big Ten football on the way, but how to know if the Wyoming Cowboys are a good Mountain West team or just an also-ran that beats Illinois? [Well, we got that answer, but I’m not changing the intro.] If Washington State beats Wisconsin, should we point and laugh or nod and say “Well, the Coogs are supposed to be better this year”? [please let us laugh, please let us laugh, please let us laugh...]

That’s where Beyond the Empire comes in.

We reached out to writers from other conferences around the country, previewing all their games against the Big Ten, asking where they stand in realignment, and giving us all the talking points for your Tuesday night MACtion and Saturday night #Pac12AfterDark viewing.

Today, to help us with that, we’re fortunate to talk with Jeff Nusser of the Washington State blog Coug Center for all things Wazzu, soccer, beer, and more. Follow him at @PodvsEveryone, and keep up with your Washington State news, a great podcast, and some cool interactive graphics at Coug Center and on Twitter @CougCenter.

Part I: The State of the Conference

OTE: Oooooooo-kay. So. This is awkward, but it’s always part of the first section.
...Realignment, huh?

We realize the Big Ten’s decision to pick up UCLA and USC–then ink an $8 billion TV deal with FOX, CBS, and NBC–has not only upset the balance of things across the PAC-12, but that it’s got specific ramifications for schools like Washington State as the conference makes the occasional set of eyes at Washington, Oregon, Stanford, and Cal. Give us your thoughts on realignment and expansion. How do you feel about the UCLA/USC defection? Where does Washington State (and perhaps UW) wind up when the carousel stops? What do you, now-commissioners of the PAC-12, do in the future?

Jeff Nusser: It stinks! But also, this is the way of the future, and we’ve seen it coming for a while. Even if nothing happens in the near term with the Big Ten and Washington/Oregon/Stanford/Cal/whatever, it really just feels like it’s inevitable that we end up with a world in which there are 30-40 teams in the first tier of college football, and programs like WSU get relegated to a second tier. (Or maybe even a third tier.) It’s unsurprising that chasing down every last possible television dollar has led us here, but it’s disappointing nonetheless – the charm of college football as a regional sport with national appeal will be extinguished.

However, I do think it’s pretty likely that the Pac-10 survives in the near term with the four aforementioned schools intact, and maybe even with some minor expansion (San Diego State comes to mind) – provided Notre Dame decides to continue to sit tight at least until the next round of media rights negotiations. So I guess we have that going for us for the next seven or so years while we try to pay off as much of our crippling debt as possible.

OTE: At least in Sagarin’s metrics, the PAC-12 is projected to actually be a stronger conference than the Big Ten in 2022! While the games aren’t played on the spreadsheets, obviously, there’s some top-to-bottom depth, with only Colorado and Arizona looking like true basement teams. Heading into this season, what are the conference-wide narratives we’re looking at beyond the Rockies? Any dark horses we should look out for or spicy narratives as teams take aim at the B1G defectors, and any players who will be getting some national love?

JN: We can talk about metrics all we want, but until the conference starts winning the marquee games, none of that will matter. While Ohio State was beating Notre Dame, Oregon was getting embarrassed by Georgia and Utah was choking away a lead against Florida. Is Utah better than Florida? Yeah, I think so, but that doesn’t matter at all – the conference’s best team will need to win the next 12 straight to even think about being in the CFP picture. Frankly, we’ve gotten used to the conference’s CFP hopes being dashed in week one.

For spicy narratives, USC is obviously the big headliner here, with them finally deciding to get serious about football again now that they’re leaving the conference that they helped to destroy with their on- and off-field ineptitude. Lots of hype for Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams, but there are real questions about the level of substance in Los Angeles.

If Arizona’s week one is any indication of what they’ll be capable of in season two under Jedd Fisch, they could end up being that dark horse you were looking for.

Part II: The Game Previews

Washington State Cougars at #19 Wisconsin Badgers

September 10 | 11:30am | FOX | wisc -17.5 | O/U 49.5, O/U TBD

OTE: We LOVE the Wisconsin connection of UW-Stevens Point grad and new Cougs HC Jake Dickert…what a journeyman story, and it seems like he’ll fit right in in Pullman.

JN: We also like Jake Dickert so far! He’s hit all the right notes in his first 9 months on the job, and while things looked a little bit rocky in the first game, there doesn’t seem to be any cause for alarm. I wrote this about Dickert. Maybe people will enjoy it:

The big thing here for WSU is that we don’t want to see the turmoil of the last couple of years undo all the good work Mike Leach did to create a foundation and culture of winning – at the very least, the Cougs will be looking to extend their program-record bowl run to seven.

I think they actually match up pretty well with Wisconsin, insomuch as they have a pretty stout front six on defense. The offense remains a pretty major question mark after week one – a new coordinator and new QB running a familiar offense (Air Raid) led to some hiccups. Cam Ward will get a ton of hype, but the guys to watch in this one are running back Nakia Watson and defensive end Ron Stone Jr. Watson is a Wisconsin transfer, and the Cougs will need to control the ball a little. Stone can be unblockable at times, and the Cougs are going to need some negative plays to put the Badgers behind the chains.

I think WSU’s defense holds out for a little while, but Wisconsin eventually wears the Cougs down and pulls out a 27-13 win.


Can Cougs keep it close?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Nah, wisconsin rolls
    (79 votes)
  • 37%
    Sure, Cougs cover but fall short
    (55 votes)
  • 9%
    (14 votes)
148 votes total Vote Now

Michigan State Spartans at Washington Huskies

September 17 | 3:30pm CT | ABC | Line, O/U TBD

JN: Like the Cougars, the Huskies are trying to recover from a mess with their previous head coach and sustain something that was built by the guy before him. Washington overwhelmed Kent State in their opener as former Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. threw for four TDs. It was a good start to a new era.

It’s tough to say how they match up with Big Ten physicality anymore; under Chris Petersen/Jimmy Lake, they always had beasts on the inside (Vita Vea comes to mind). But while they were stout against Kent State, the last time they played a Power 5 team, the Cougars ran up and down the field on them in the Apple Cup. This is one is definitely TBD.

I can never pick the Huskies to win a game, so I’ll go 45-20, Michigan State. Just because.


We respect the petty. But do you, the reader, agree? We’ll set a 20.5-point line.

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Sure! Sparty rolls.
    (43 votes)
  • 50%
    Nah, Huskies keep it close.
    (66 votes)
  • 17%
    Hate all you want, Washington’s winning this game.
    (23 votes)
132 votes total Vote Now

Colorado Buffaloes at Minnesota Golden Gophers

September 17 | 2:30pm CT | ESPN2 | Line, O/U TBD

JN: The Buffaloes have been stuck in football purgatory for some time, and it was surprising that they picked Karl Dorrell to try and pull them out of it. Let’s just say it’s not going great when, in your second year, a local columnist writes – in Dorrell’s second year – “You trying to get fired, Karl Dorrell? Because this is how you get fired.” TCU walked all over them in the opener in front of a pretty sparse crowd at Folsom Field. It’s a shame, because that’s a fan base that’s thirsty for winning and Boulder is a fantastic place.

But I digress. The Buffaloes are very likely still pretty bad, and Minnesota probably will have their way with them. Colorado didn’t have even one player on the preseason all-Pac-12 first or second teams, so … yeah.


We in for a repeat of last year?

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Yep. Gophers cover.
    (109 votes)
  • 5%
    Nah, Buffs are getting it together. It’s close-ish.
    (7 votes)
  • 6%
    (8 votes)
124 votes total Vote Now

Part III: What PAC-12 Football Means to Me

OTE: OK. I have to talk about the cheese. (Link for our edification only, obviously. For what it’s worth, I’m still bitter about the 2011 Klay Thompson NIT game against Northwestern, too.) Am I fixating too much on how odd canned cheese is, or is this one of those land-grant things that, much like a creamery at Wisconsin or Penn State, I just need to get on board with? Should I be dropping cash to order some Cougar Gold? [Or: tell us about the beers to look for in Pullman and, perhaps, visiting Sparty fans to Seattle.]

You absolutely should be dropping cash on Cougar Gold. Yeah, the can is weird, but you can age it in your refrigerator for years if you want to! How cool is that??!!?

In all seriousness, it is absolutely delicious, and I always bring back a few cans when I visit Pullman – it costs $26 on campus for a can, but specialty meat and cheese stores in the Seattle area charge $40+ … and people pay that much! Plus: If you order direct from the creamery, they charge a flat shipping fee no matter how much you order. In addition to Cougar Gold, I highly recommend the smoky cheddar and also the Dill Garlic Viking cheese. And if you’re into spicy, you can’t beat the Crimson Fire! (Although if you REALLY like spicy, you have to go to Pullman to get the smoky cheddar ghost pepper.)

If you’re looking for beer in Seattle, there are plenty of amazing places to choose from. I’ll recommend two: Georgetown Brewing and Holy Mountain Brewing. Georgetown crafts exceptional versions of all your standards (Bodhizafa IPA is legitimately one of my top 5 beers, and Rogers Pilsner is top notch), while Holy Mountain is famous for experimenting with pales and hazys and tart beers. I have literally never had a beer there that wasn’t delicious, no matter how unfamiliar it sounds.

OTE: Is there a quintessential experience at your Washington State—and, perhaps if you can bring yourselves to say something nice about UW, in Seattle—that you think even fans of a Big Ten team would get on board with? What’s one tradition, one rivalry (hello, Apple Cup!), one team, one event that we ought to know more about?

I hate to say something nice about UW, but the setting of their stadium – situated near the shores of Lake Washington – is, indeed, quite beautiful. That’s all you’ll get out of me.

Part IV: Game and Season Predictions

OTE: How does the PAC-12 shake out in 2022, and specifically against the Big Ten? Who makes the conference championship game, and who wins? Any College Football Playoff contenders?

I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Pac-12 go winless in those three games against the Big Ten, but I suppose Washington has a puncher’s chance against Michigan State since the game is in Seattle.

I really liked Oregon and Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, but I’m trying hard not to second-guess the Ducks after that giant turd in the opener. I guess I’ll stick with it for now. I think Utah is the class of the conference, hands down, so I’ll pick them. And no, I don’t think they’ll win the next 12 to get into the CFP.


Who wins the Pac-12?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    (55 votes)
  • 6%
    (9 votes)
  • 43%
    (61 votes)
  • 10%
    Someone else
    (15 votes)
140 votes total Vote Now

Thanks, Jeff! I really can’t emphasize enough what he said about that Jake Dickert piece—it is an interesting read, given Washington State’s...uh...last coach:

Follow Jeff for all things Cougs, soccer, beer, and more at @PodvsEveryone, and keep up with all the Washington State goings-on both at Coug Center and on Twitter @CougCenter. Thanks again, guys!