Of any of the major conferences, it seems the Pac-12 is often the most uncertain. Not only does it suffer through bouts of parity, it also is known for having an abundance of surprises along the way. In the Pac-12, there might be an idea of what the end result will look like, but generally no one knows the path each team will take to get there.
To be sure, you could say this for a great deal of conferences. Outside the dominant programs that universally succeed year in and year out, there are going to be surprise teams and disappointments. You'll see programs succeed that collapsed a year prior and others flounder even though they had put together something successful in the past. So, in that regard, I'm not suggesting the Pac-12 is all that unique - it just seems the conference is better at doing it, and does it more, than those other conferences.
I'm not even going to begin to touch on why that is - but it should offer every program a cautionary tale and also hope because whenever a team fails to succeed, another one is doing exactly that. Last year, Utah was a disappointment in the Pac-12. There is no other way of looking at the 2012 campaign. The Utes went from Pac-12 South contenders, the program most felt would best contend with USC (another disappointment), to barely, just barely, staying out of the conference cellar. It took a come-from-behind win at Colorado for that to not happen. On the other hand, a program like Arizona State, who knows a thing or two about disappointment, was picked to finish just ahead of Colorado in the Pac-12 South. 2012 was not a hugely successful year for the Sun Devils, but they certainly impressed just as much as Utah disappointed and that success made them a surprise team - likely at the expense of the Utes.
UCLA and Arizona were the other two surprise Pac-12 South teams. USC, as I mentioned, was just as disappointing, if not more so when you consider their context (preseason #1 to 7-6 and losers to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bow), than Utah. The only team that met expectations was Colorado and that only happened because no one expected anything from the Buffaloes.
So, it reasons that this season there will be another disappointment and another surprise. It happens every year. In 2011, Utah's first season in the Pac-12, Arizona State was expected to win the South and potentially the conference. Many thought it would be their year and they fizzled badly, finishing 6-7 and in the process, lost their head coach because of it. USC, oddly, even without the incentive of playing in a bowl game, did all right - surprisingly going 10-2 with a win over the Oregon Ducks on the road. It's a big reason why they entered last season with so much promise and for whatever their reasons, none of it came to fruition.
Obviously, none of this means Utah is poised to pull an Oregon State or Arizona State - it just means there is an outline that suggests it's probably a bit more possible in the Pac-12 than a SEC team making dramatic shifts from season to season. In fact, those changes has really defined the conference and plays into why there is such parity - most teams do not position themselves at the bottom for long. The constant among every Pac-12 program - from Arizona on down to Washington State - is that they have, at some point, tasted success fairly recently. Granted, the varying degrees of that success differ (the Beavers haven't played for a Rose Bowl since the 60s, the Wildcats haven't ever and the Cougars had a good enough run under Mike Price to eventually get to Pasadena twice), but the success is there. Most these teams don't see droughts quite like what Duke had experienced just recently - making one bowl appearance since 1994 (last year's Belk Bowl).
It's that parity that really changes the landscape in this conference. Because of it, no team is immune to the challenges and it means there are likely upsets that level the playing field a bit - like Washington taking out Stanford last year. Even though the Huskies once again finished 7-6, they still managed to upset two undefeated teams (along with Stanford, they gave Oregon State their first loss). If they had lost both those games, which was possible, since they only won 'em by a combined seven points, and they're looking at a season very similar to what the Utes produced. That was the difference. Certainly a big difference because those were not easy wins, but they used that parity to their advantage.
Good teams do that. Teams that succeed do that. The schedule is just too brutal to get through without using the parity to your advantage - especially when you factor just how difficult it is to win on the road. The Huskies victories over Stanford and Oregon State were vital to their season because they also lost, on the road, to Arizona (52-17) and Washington State (31-28).
If Utah's going to be good, which I think they have the potential to be this season, they're going to have to take advantage of that parity because I guarantee you, it's likely going to take advantage of them at least once. The Huskies were good enough to beat Stanford, who only lost once more that season, but then lost to Washington State, who had lost to Colorado and then entered their game winless in the Pac-12. Yes, it was a rivalry game, and those are certainly harder to win than an average contest, but it's certainly not unique to the conference as a whole. The Wildcats, who decimated Washington at home, also got blanked 49-0 by Oregon and abused 66-10 against UCLA - both those games were on the road.
But they made up for it by beating USC and the Huskies at home.
For the good teams, that parity evens out. For the bad teams, it doesn't. There are one or two more losses than wins and instead of bowling, as we witnessed last year, we are stuck at home asking what's wrong with the program. Had Utah parity'd itself a victory against the Trojans, the season is certainly not remembered as spectacular, but it's remembered enough because it would've ended with a bowl game. Instead, when they had their shot at home (and again a month later against Arizona), they crumbled and couldn't get it done.
They'll have to in 2013 or this season will be just a replay of last.