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Only one game remains in this year's college football schedule, and that's tonight's championship bout between two heavyweights, the University of Alabama and Clemson University.

As you probably know, neither of those teams plays in the much-maligned Pac-12 Conference, which landed seven teams this season in postseason bowl games but once again didn't have a team that had a real shot at making the four-team college football playoff.

You'll recall that the Pac-12 last season went 1-8 in bowl games, the worst record ever posted by one of the nation's elite athletic conferences. So there was unusual interest this year in how the conference's football teams would fare in postseason play.

And to be fair, the conference did better, posting a 3-4 mark in those games, with Washington State, Oregon and Stanford coming away with bowl victories. Washington, California, Arizona State and Utah lost. (To add insult to injury, Arizona State was beaten by a Fresno State team led by former Oregon State quarterback Marcus McMaryion.)

But the improved record this year hasn't done much to silence critics who argue that the Pac-12 is falling behind its conference counterparts in terms of football. 

The three wins, for example, were by a combined four points. And, arguably, only Washington State played close to its potential, in a pulsating 28-26 win over a solid Iowa State team. 

For fans of Beaver football, there is a silver lining of sorts in the Pac-12's woes: It arguably makes it a little easier for OSU coach Jonathan Smith in his continued efforts to rebuild the program. After all, he doesn't have to try to reach the heights set by Alabama or Clemson; he just has to figure out how to compete against Washington or Oregon.

But this matters to Pac-12 football fans, and here's why: Football pays most of the bills for college athletic programs. If those programs start to slip, it could put additional stress on the budgets in those departments.

It doesn't help matters that the Pac-12 distributes less money to its members than do two other major conferences, the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten. (Is it a coincidence that the SEC is the dominant conference in college football? Perhaps.)

Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, recently conceded to The New York Times that the conference has fallen behind other conferences, in the "short term."  (The headline in the Times: "A Power Conference's Declining Clout.") But Scott and other conference executives are looking forward to what could be a big payday in 2024, when all of its media rights will be up for purchase by networks with deep pockets.

To be fair, as the Times reported, even though the Pac-12 is falling behind, Scott has increased conference revenue from $100 million to $500 million since he was hired in 2009. And the average amount each school receives from the conference has nearly quadrupled. But the conference also has racked up expenses that are higher than other conferences, mainly due to the costs of running its Pac-12 Network.

In the meantime, if you're looking for another reason to worry about the state of the Pac-12, try this on: The men's basketball teams in the conference ended December play with a 38-36 mark in nonconference games. It represented the worst monthly performance by a major conference in 20 years. (By contrast, you could make a good case that the Pac-12 is the strongest conference in the nation for women's basketball.)

But at many schools, men's basketball turns a profit. As the conference ponders the possibility that none of its men's teams will earn an at-large bid for the NCAA's postseason basketball tournament, this could end up being a long winter for the Pac-12. And you couldn't blame the conference's athletic directors for thinking that 2024 seems a long ways off. (mm)

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