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Pac-12's 'next man in' not good enough

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Sad duck faces after TCU comeback (0:19)

A couple of Oregon fans sitting in a TCU fan section begin to hit a low point after the Horned Frogs make a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. (0:19)

Maybe nobody will look closely at the Pac-12's bowl record. Maybe they'll see "6-4," deem it a decent runner-up tally to the once-again bee's knees SEC and move on. Maybe they won't realize there's only one quality win against a ranked Power 5 team. Maybe they won't see the Pac-12 as Stanford and everybody else.

Funny thing is, if Saturday had gone according to expectations -- and with Oregon leading TCU 31-zip at halftime, it was cruising along swimmingly -- the Pac-12 could have felt good about itself. But the distance between 8-2, which would have tied the SEC, and 6-4 is the distance between the conference's season feeling like the success it might have been vs. the failure it was.

First off, Stanford, well done. Your Rose Bowl performance was dominant and impressive in every way. There is no question at present which program is the Pac-12's lead dog. Only the Cardinal (Notre Dame and Iowa) and Utah (Michigan) posted quality nonconference wins this year, which is the best measure of the conference's national standing.

Good for Arizona, Utah, Washington, California and Washington State for posting bowl wins, too. While only the Cougars beat a Power 5 team -- and Miami fired its head coach at midseason at that -- winning the last game of the season is never a bad thing.

Yet that apocalyptically bad second half for Oregon against TCU seemed to better represent the conference in 2015-16 than what Stanford did to separate itself.

Coaches squawk about "next man in" a lot, and Pac-12 coaches are no different. In 2014, Oregon thrived with that dictum in a notably underrated way. If you look at the players the Ducks were missing in the national title game against Ohio State, it was just short of miraculous they got there.

Yet this season when the first man -- or often men -- went down, conference teams often folded. Oregon, for example, was only good this season with a healthy Vernon Adams at QB. Take him away and the Ducks could be described as no better than mediocre. While one might add the concomitant loss of center Matt Hegarty and his ability to deliver a shotgun snap played as much a role in Oregon's self-immolation against the Horned Frogs, that still fits in with theme of "be healthy or crumble."

Without question, Washington State had a good season. But with quarterback Luke Falk sidelined, the Cougars were pounded 45-10 at Washington. Unlike Nebraska, Utah couldn't exploit a poor UCLA run defense after Devontae Booker was lost for the season, a defeat that ended up making USC the South Division champion. Arizona's season pretty much seemed doomed once linebacker Scooby Wright and, well, just about all the Wildcats' backup linebackers went down.

Everyone knows UCLA suffered through epidemic injuries this year, particularly on defense. But that doesn't excuse yielding 326 rushing yards to a Nebraska team that didn't run the ball particularly well this season. Heck, the Cornhuskers lost their starting center early in the game -- hey, Oregon! -- and didn't fall apart.

Toss in USC's loss to Wisconsin, and the Pac-12 went 1-2 against the Big Ten. Toss in Arizona State's inability to play defense against West Virginia, and the conference went 0-2 against the Big 12. The 1-0 mark vs. the ACC and beating New Mexico, BYU, Southern Miss and Air Force doesn't make much of a statement, particularly when the SEC's 8-2 bowl record included wins over Nos. 3, 13 and 16, and it was 3-0 vs. the Big 12 and 3-1 against the Big Ten.

We know that all you non-SEC folks are tired of hearing about the SEC -- no national titles since 2012! -- but you would reduce the media's SEC hyperventilating if you could get your teams to consistently beat the SEC in bowl games. You might recall that we were all too glad a year ago to write epic poems about the SEC's poor 2014 bowl season.

As for what ailed the Pac-12, which figures to finish the season with just three ranked teams unless Washington State grabs voters' fancies, there were injuries, coaching issues (USC) and talent gaps. Quarterback play wasn't up to its usual level, and it turned out the celebrated the loss of a Power 5-leading 25 selections in the first three rounds of the 2015 NFL draft probably hit harder than expected.

The "next man in" from 2014's attrition to 2015, as well the injuries after the season started, turned out to be not good enough. That speaks to depth. Stanford was the only team that seemed to have enough health and depth to ultimately compete on a national level.

It will be interesting to see how national pollsters view the conference next fall. Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State will merit consideration for preseason national rankings, but it's possible that the conference will be shut out of the preseason top 10 for the first time since 2010, though Stanford is a solid bet to slip in between Nos. 7 and 10.

The bowl season was a chance for the Pac-12 to redeem itself after falling short of preseason hype and becoming the only Power 5 conference left out of the College Football Playoff. That appeared to be on track to happen until things blew up on Saturday.

If 2016 is going to be better, one of two things must happen, though it would be best for both to be present. The conference must stay healthier. And it must improve its depth.