Pac-12 Ends On A High Note, But The Future Is Much More Daunting For 2 Remaining Schools

An Oregon fan waves a sign noting the final game of the Pac-12 Conference, during the second half of the Pac-12 championship NCAA college football game between Washington and Oregon on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
An Oregon fan waves a sign noting the final game of the Pac-12 Conference, during the second half of the Pac-12 championship NCAA college football game between Washington and Oregon on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — George Kliavkoff, as is the custom for a conference commissioner, handed the Pac-12 Championship trophy to Washington coach Kalen DeBoer on Friday night and quickly got out of the way.

Having been at the center of the Pac-12 meltdown and with this almost certainly the conference's last championship game, Kliavkoff could hardly be blamed for wanting the spotlight shone elsewhere.

As joyous as the third-ranked Huskies felt about defeating No. 5 Oregon 34-31 for a spot in the College Football Playoff, those emotions also were tempered about what's being left behind. Both teams will be Big Ten Conference rivals beginning next season.

“It is sad to see it happen, for that to be the last football game,” DeBoer said. “I think the other part was understanding how strong the conference was this year. There were eight teams, I believe, that at one point were ranked in the Top 25 and we played the best ones and one of them twice. I don't think there's anyone else in the country that's gone through what we've gone through.”

Now the Pac-12 becomes the Pac-2 with only Oregon State and Washington State sticking around. They were the ones left behind, and on Friday announced a six-game scheduling alliance with the Mountain West.

What happens beyond next season is anyone's guess. Oregon State and Washington State could agree to some kind of merger with the Mountain West or look to rebuild Pac-12 by taking the top teams from the Group of Five leagues.

Or they could outright join the Mountain West.

The Conference of Champions has been reduced to the Conference of Could've Beens.

“The Pac-12 has been an historical conference for a long time,” Oregon quarterback Bo Nix said. “I don't know necessarily what the future holds or what it looks like, but to have the year we had with the Pac-12 and the conference as talented as it was, it's a huge respect level for the entire Pac-12.”

The fans came out Friday for one last bit of Pac-12 glory before the bowl season and College Football Playoff start. Then the 10 departing teams begin in earnest to plan for what's to come, be it in the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference or Big 12.

Jason and Kelli Baucom are two of those fans. They've been together for 20 years, 13 as a married couple, and the two Las Vegas residents always watch Oregon play on Kelli's birthday.

“She is from Oregon and over 20 years of influence and psychological manipulation, I have become an Oregon Duck fan,” said Jason, who was grew up a UCLA fan.

What hasn’t been easy for the Baucoms is knowing the complexion of the Pac 12 will look different with two teams next season. They are saddened by what's happened to the conference, which made being at the title game even more meaningful.

"It only seemed fitting that we were playing to avenge our (only) loss, and for a chance to land in the College Football Playoff," Kelli said before the game. "As an Oregonian and lifelong Oregon fan, there is no better scenario that I could think of to the end of the Pac-12 era.”

Also sitting in the stands was Lincoln Kennedy, a star offensive lineman at Washington before going on to an 11-year NFL career, including eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders.

“I’m excited for what the Dawgs have an opportunity to do here in Vegas," said Kennedy, the radio analyst for the Las Vegas Raiders. “The conference is dissolving, but I will never forget what it means to be a Dawg and the history and people this great conference has created.”

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Freelance writer W.G. Ramirez contributed to this report.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football