The home field used to be a sanctuary -- a safe haven for teams looking to gain an edge on their opponents with the support of a noisy and raucous student body.
In the old days, there was a word for that: Advantage.
But the 2014 Pac-12 season has taken that advantage and blown it all to Hades. Through 18 conference games this season the road warriors hold a decisive 14-4 edge over the home team. And the audible antics of Autzen, the ringing reverb of Rice-Eccles or the tympanic torture of Husky Stadium haven't been immune.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian’s response echoed the sentiment of nearly all of the Pac-12 coaches, who could find neither rhyme nor reason as to why the Pac-12’s home cooking this season has tasted more like week-old leftovers.
“It’s a crazy year in the Pac-12,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team once held the nation’s longest home winning streak at 17 games, only to see that snapped in Week 2 against USC . “It’s just shaping up that way. It’s hard to explain it any other way. Every week is tough. Every game is hard. It’s tough to win on the road. And then the road teams are winning in crazy fashion. Everything is up for grabs this year.”
There are two ways to look at this -- depending on how full or empty your glass is. Either the Pac-12 has the worst home conference record in college football, or the best road record. In conference-only games, the Pac-12 ranks last among all FBS conferences with its 22.2 winning percentage at home. The Big 12 (6-7) is the only other league below .500.
One fairly sound theory, presented by Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, is that with so many veteran quarterbacks, environment isn’t a factor because experience is winning out. Sounds logical -- except for the fact that his quarterback, in his second career road start, won at Autzen. Or that Mike Bercovici, Arizona State’s backup, won at The Coliseum in his first career road start.
UCLA coach Jim Mora actually tried to talk through an explanation, only to come up with nothing.
“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Mora said. “I can’t put my finger on anything. I wish I could, obviously, as do I’m sure the other coaches. I’ve actually given it a lot of thought the last week or so. I can’t come up with anything quite yet. Other than maybe there’s a psychological element to when you go on the road you close ranks a little bit and that sense of mission. Maybe? Maybe that helps you a little bit? But that doesn’t seem logical to any of us who are used to the home-field advantage.
“I wish I knew.”
One word the coaches kept coming back to was “parity.” With every Pac-12 team sitting on at least one conference loss and all but Colorado with a league win, the congruity within the conference has all but eliminated the concept of home-field advantage.
While that’s fun for the fans, it creates national problems while trying to lobby for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
“I think our conference has this perception of parity equals mediocrity,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “There are a couple of conferences where parity equals strength. I think it’s the strongest it’s ever been top to bottom.”
Helfrich did offer one other explanation: “It’s a non-leap year? I have no idea.”
This might help: Through the first 18 conference games, the home team has a minus-11 turnover margin and the average margin of victory (or defeat) has been slightly more than four points. When you consider one home game was won on a Hail Mary, another was lost on a Hail Mary, and three more home games were lost on missed field goals, one or two plays could significantly swing the win/loss total.
That’s why league newcomer Chris Petersen isn’t putting too much stock into the trend -- at least not yet. Having only played two conference games, his Huskies fit the trend so far -- losing at home to Stanford and winning at California.
“I think this will play out,” he said. “If the records are that skewed by the end of the season, there’s something to it. We’re only two games into it so I don’t know. It will be interesting to see at the end [of the] season where everybody is.”
Every coach in America will say his school has the best fans in the country. Even if he doesn’t believe it, there’s probably a tiny footnote somewhere in the Mayflower Compact that requires him to say so. But that doesn’t mean their minds aren’t in overdrive trying to make sense of what has already been a season short on logic.
“It’s been the exact opposite in year’s past,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I can’t explain it other than maybe it’s the matchups ... the hardest thing to do is win on the road.”
The record suggests otherwise. And for now, most of the coaches are just chalking it up to another unexplained phenomenon in the continued zaniness that is the Pac-12.