Watch out SEC, Pac-12 coming on strong with varied approaches
The Pac-12 is on the rise. Yes, the SEC is still the best, but the conference out West is staking its claim on the college football landscape.
Here is not how commissioner Larry Scott -- marketing genius and revenue maximizer that he is -- figured his league would evolve ...
• With perhaps the Pac-12's most retweeted moment being an unscripted blooper by momentarily clumsy Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.
• With academically lofty Stanford dominating the classroom and national recruiting. To date, coach David Shaw has the Pac-12's best 2014 recruiting class. It is top 20 nationally in that category.
• With UCLA's Jim Mora Jr. wresting back control of the city from the hated Trojans and monopolizing LA in a space of 16 games.
• With a former coaching vagabond posting the league's biggest win Sunday morning (ET) with more YouTube hits than proper explanations. Congrats to Arizona State's Todd Graham, who received an extension Wednesday through 2018.
All of this resurgence, for now, has come without much input from the conference' flagship -- Southern California.
"And I don't think they're far off," Pac-12 Network analyst Rick Neuheisel said.
It's one big happy, far-flung family out West. Their shared trait -- besides being the nation's second-best conference behind You Know Who -- may be football diversity. Stanford runs an NFL offense. Oregon runs people out of the stadium. Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) and Mike Leach (Washington State) found new life in the Pac-12. Utah and Colorado found new homes.
Someone has to be second when it comes to current domination of college football. Pac-12 is that No. 2, though, with a bullet. While the SEC remains hundreds of yards ahead of everyone else in most people's minds, it's time the nation is reminded there is another Sun Belt out there.
"I'll probably get my house firebombed," said Cal's Sonny Dykes, who spent two seasons coaching at Kentucky. "I think the Pac-12 from top to bottom is as solid as anyone in the country."
This week the league has the nation's best nonconference record (23-4), three of the four losses coming at the hands of Ohio State, Northwestern and Auburn. No shame there. It has arguably the nation's best freshman quarterback in Cal's Jared Goff. It has as many teams in the top 15 in total defense (three) as the SEC.
Stanford and Oregon, at least, are national championship contenders having played in six BCS bowls over the past three seasons. Perhaps the best part is the future. Seven of the league's 12 coaches have been hired within the past two seasons. Leach went to 10 straight bowls at Texas Tech. Early on, Mark Helfrich looks like Chip Kelly reincarnated at Oregon. Graham just beat Wisconsin, which has been to three straight Rose Bowls.
This week, five Pac-12 teams populated the AP Top 25, second only to the SEC's seven. Undefeated Arizona is receiving votes. That's half the conference that was easy to ID back in the day. A quarterback league. A USC league. A finesse league. Certainly not an elite league when most of the toughness existed in the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC.
"All the votes," Washington's Steve Sarkisian said this week, "can't come from the West Coast."
While there might be some credit there for the Pac-12 Network spreading the word via the ol' cathode ray machine, by God (or Don James), this resurgence has been about football -- not how it's packaged.
Start at the state of Washington, trace your finger down the Rand-McNally to Arizona and, according JC Shurburtt, 247Sports' national recruiting director, "I think geographically the Pac-12 is in good shape as far as where to get players. It's almost like New Jersey to Florida. They've [Pac-12] always been set up that way."
Take four of the conference's star players at random -- receiver Marqise Lee (USC), defensive lineman Will Sutton (Arizona State), receiver Paul Richardson (Colorado) and quarterback Marcus Mariota (Oregon). Lee and Richardson attended Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif., in the LA area. The school sends 98 percent of its players to college. Richardson may have been the most polished out of high school. Three other Serra grads -- Lee, Robert Woods and George Farmer -- went to USC. Richardson headed for the Rockies, where he is leading the country in receiving yards per game.
Will Sutton is from Corona, Calif., the same city as Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. Mariota was a three-star recruit (Rivals, four by 247Sports) from Hawaii who was deemed perfect to run Oregon's Blur offense following the 2010 national championship run. This week Mariota is No. 1 on a lot of Heisman lists.
All of them were kept "home," inside the Pac-12 footprint (including the little-known South Pacific Division).
Neuheisel is the league's unofficial spokesman. He has the face, the knowledge and credibility. And, oh yes CU fans, he still has that guitar too.
This particular website practically blew up chronicling Pac-12's gold rush into expansion and TV. At some point the conference had to deliver the goods on the field. Oregon and Stanford are in the top five. UCLA owns LA until further notice. Neuheisel is Mr. Pac-12 across all platforms, having coached at three conference schools (Colorado, UCLA, Washington). He's good and he doesn't hold back.
"If Lane [Kiffin] would just stop being so damn stubborn," Neuheisel said. "Utilize [Cody Kessler] with a moving pocket."
This, from a former coach who chuckles that he once declared USC's "monopoly" of LA "officially over." Neuheisel could have an axe to grind against his former employers and former Pac-12 rivals. Thankfully for the network's cred he plays it spectacularly down the middle.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars spent for infrastructure have all these kids more developed," Neuheisel said. "The key to the SEC is the development of the kids after they come. Everybody says they have five stars but who creates a five star? You look at Alabama and Georgia what they've done nutritionally. That's absolutely as important as what Stanford has done. They have tough guys and they develop them."
Neuheisel breaks it down to the subatomic rivalry level: UCLA nutritionist Becci Twombley switched to USC.
At the heart of the matter: The SEC used to be the national leader in the way the game was played until Alabama-Texas A&M. Now it is entirely possible the latest Game of the Century will be remembered by how it could have fit comfortably being played within surfing distance of the Pacific Ocean.
"At the end of the day the best way to judge a defense is to give up one less point than you scored," Dykes concluded. "I think football is changing. I don't think it's going back anytime soon. Look at Alabama. If you asked a few years ago if they gave up all those yards are they going to win? The answer would be no. The idea is figure out a way to win."
Only one Pac-12 team (USC) has scored fewer than 30 points in a win. You know the reasons: Southern California and the West Coast are hotbeds for offensive talent because of the talent and coaching. In Bart Wright's fine new book Football Revolution, the author contends today's modern zone read spread has its roots going back to the 1940s in the Northwest.
Shaw calls Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti "the most underrated guy in the league." Aliotti's defenses have finished 35th, 34th, 67th and 44th while the Ducks have gone to four straight BCS bowls. If this year's unit stays at No. 30, it would be Aliotti's best statistically since he took over the defense for the second time in 1999.
"The league is incredibly competitive," Dykes said. "In a lot of ways it reminds me of the SEC when I was at [Kentucky] in the SEC (in 1997 and '99]. People [in the Pac-12] know what they're doing and they have some real distinct methodology on how to get it done.
"I certainly see why people have that perception of the SEC with seven titles in a row. I don't know if that's necessarily how you judge your league."
It's time to reassess the Pac-12. It was a quarterback league. It was a USC league, at least since the turn of the century. USC and UCLA got not only most of the attention, but an unbalanced share of conference revenue.
That changed when Scott expanded and sold the rights of an underperforming league to ESPN and Fox. While carriage for the Pac-12 Network is still an issue for Scott's TV baby, the product is not the problem. This week's Arizona State-Stanford game is arguably the nation's biggest. Drop in at Washington during the offseason and you might have seen the quarterbacks of the Huskies (Keith Price) and the Seahawks (Russell Wilson) working out together with their receivers. Leach is cooking up something up there in Pullman having already beaten USC.
Oregon's new Death Star football facility might be the best in the country. It's certainly the most impressive.
Then look close at Alabama, where they're not quite crimson with embarrassment. But suddenly that No. 1 ranking may not include the ultra-modern weight training facility. It's only 37,000 square feet.
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