Why you should care
California's route back to college football success might depend on more beef in the diet.
By the time college football’s conference championship weekend concluded on Dec. 7, blowout wins by Louisiana State University and Clemson, a decisive Ohio State victory and an overtime thriller from Oklahoma made sure that the four usual suspects headed to the semifinals, which kick off today. Absent from the lineup? Any representative from the once-mighty Pac-12.
It’s the third straight year that the Pac-12 is absent from the College Football Playoff. The Western U.S. collegiate conference that claims 10 consensus national championships hasn’t made a title appearance since Oregon in 2015. And its chances are thinning. The rise of the spread offense has enabled teams with inferior talent — say, Washington State — to bypass the interior line battle, getting the ball in skilled players’ hands more quickly. Massive offensive linemen are no longer the foremost way to build a winner in college. Giant, athletic defensive linemen who relentlessly rush the quarterback, however? They’ve never been more important, and the Pac-12 — and health-conscious California in particular — has a shortage of them.
It’s no secret these days that if you want to recruit the big boys, you have to go down South.
Trevor Matich, ESPN college football analyst
According to Banner Society, California has produced an average of just two four- and five-star interior defensive linemen (weighing more than 275 pounds) over the last decade. That’s down from an average of three such players in the aughts and a far cry from the days when USC defensive linemen regularly wreaked havoc in the 1980s and 1990s. California is averaging 0.75 such players from the 2017-2020 classes, down dramatically from 2.75 between 2011 and 2014 (and 3.25 between 2012 and 2015). California football players are shrinking in size.
“It’s no secret these days that if you want to recruit the big boys, you have to go down South,” says ESPN college football analyst and former NFL lineman Trevor Matich. “You either have to go recruit those players from SEC country or change the way you play,” he adds, referring to the Southeastern conference.
Not all regions are equal when it comes to college football recruiting. Florida, Georgia and Texas produce more great football players than the Northeast. For college football success, the two most important positions are quarterback and defensive linemen. Land five-star prospects, likely destined for the NFL, at those positions and you’ll build a winner. California has historically bred great quarterbacks, but over the last decade a state that was once fertile ground for elite defensive linemen has dried up.
“I think you see extremely high-level athletes all across the field on the West Coast, but there’s no doubt that we’re missing a certain type of world-class defensive linemen,” says Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth.
Youth coaches across the country have embraced passing offenses. The rise of the spread offense has meant that “the biggest kids get moved to offensive line,” as former California high school coach Manny Douglas puts it. “Smaller, quicker athletes are playing all across the defense,” says Douglas. “You see more high school teams playing five and six defensive back sets than ever before.”
But there are also very real non-football aspects at play. California has grown into one of the most obscenely expensive places to live, with the third highest housing costs in America and the nation’s highest income tax. For many low-income households — which many great football players regularly hail from — living in California is less feasible than ever. California is bleeding residents to other states.
The athletes who do still live in California are getting slimmer. In line with the national average until 2004, California’s obesity rate is now 5 percent lower. Only Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Massachusetts are lighter. Not surprisingly, elite defensive linemen don’t come from those states either.
Obesity rating — defined by the percentage of people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0 or higher based on reported height and weight — is hardly a perfect science, but for football purposes, it’s quite concise. Elite defensive linemen might object to being categorized as obese, but their BMIs would land them on that side of the scale.
“Throughout the West Coast and the Northeast, there’s a clear through line of lower obesity,” says Kelly Morrow-Baez, a fitness and wellness psychologist. “That comes from increased awareness about things like BMI, and healthier decisions are made possible in areas with higher disposable income.” These factors have led to a reality in which programs at USC, Stanford and UCLA are (currently) irrelevant.
But not all is lost for the Pac-12. After taking over in 2004, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has built the state into one of the nation’s best producers of offensive and defensive line talent outside the South. How? By embracing Mormon athletes. Alongside Brigham Young University, the Salt Lake City-based university has become a destination for Mormon athletes throughout the U.S. and the Polynesian islands. Players like Star Lotulelei (Buffalo Bills), Paul Soliai and Sione Po’uah all came to Utah before jumping to the NFL. Oregon, meanwhile, became an elite program via innovative offensive schemes.
That’s still not proving to be enough, though. It might need the reintroduction of red meat and dairy into the elementary school hot lunch program in California to bring the Pac-12 back to its past glory. Skinny players just aren’t working.