Pac-12 has never been better -- or worse

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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As much as Oregon's Chip Kelly wanted the focus on football at media day, it wasn't. (US Presswire)  
As much as Oregon's Chip Kelly wanted the focus on football at media day, it wasn't. (US Presswire)  

LOS ANGELES -- There was no need for sunscreen like last year at the Rose Bowl. There was a need for "no comment."

For all the glitz, glamour, booming narration and, well, news that came out of Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles, the one thing everyone had to tap-dance around was that elephant in the room. Of the NCAA variety.

It is, after all, a violation to even mention the elephant.

"Obviously, I know the one question everybody is waiting to have answered is," Oregon head coach Chip Kelly opened with. "I'd love to talk about it. There are a lot of answers I'd love to make sure we can get out there."

Kelly, at the center of the controversy surrounding a $25,000 payment to Texan Will Lyles for his scouting service, was the star of the show. It's probably an accomplishment in itself for him to steal the attention about NCAA violations away from Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin.

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"In these processes, there's nothing you can do," Kiffin said about his ongoing case from when he was at Tennessee, "you can't comment on it either."

On a day that was supposed to be about a new image for the conference -- a new, numerically correct conference mind you -- the storyline was mostly about the one image everybody in the front offices didn't want. Kelly was asked so many times about the investigation that a Pac-12 spokesperson had to cut off questions and tell the room, "This is about the season."

Oh, that.

"Nationally, perceptions are changing," Scott said of the Pac-12's brand of football. "People are looking a little more West at what we are doing."

But are they looking at the conference of champions or the conference of compliance?

Even the preseason media poll was complicit, tabbing Oregon and USC to win their respective divisions. The fine public relations staff that put out the release probably had the section about how USC was ineligible for the conference title game in their computer clipboard from overuse. The Ducks and Trojans have combined for the past eight Pac-10 titles and frequently been in the national championship discussion yet both programs have the stain of being in hot water.

For a conference promoting itself on the fact that it plays football as well as anyone, perhaps the Pac-12 is more SEC-like than ever having its two highest profile teams winning while the nation whispers about they're doing it.

"We're obviously living in an environment where there is a lot of noise," Scott said. "It's regrettable whenever there are accusations or penalties like USC's. It takes away from all of the good stories you want to talk about, the good in college sports. It creates a dominant narrative about everything that is bad."

Of his rival's troubles, Oregon State's Mike Riley said: "It's rough to see. This is an information age that when something bad happens, it just explodes. Everybody knows about and you hear about it over and over and over again."

The Pac-12's future never has been brighter on the field while its off the field future has never more cloudy.

The preseason conference fourth-team quarterback, Arizona's Nick Foles, would be good enough to be on the first-team at other BCS leagues. Two Heisman finalists return for a pair of teams ranked in the top 10. A team with 19 returning starters was picked to finish second in its division. The NFL scouts are drooling at some of the potential players entering the draft next year.

"I've been in the conference a long time now, 11 years," Riley said. "And I've seen the competition rise to where every week is like the Super Bowl. So I think it's going to be really, really competitive."

That image was what the conference wanted to project.

"When Larry Scott came in and shook the world up and talked about Texas being in the league, people started taking note," Riley continued. "If you look at the records with our old Pac-10 conference, they're pretty darn good. SEC, ACC, Big 12, the head-to-head stuff has been pretty darn positive in our way."

Instead, Lyles' name was overheard more than UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin's was.

"I wouldn't know Lyles if he was in this room right now," California's Jeff Tedford said after being asked if he knew him.

Do you know a Willie Lyles coach?

"I see it as a paradox between college sports having never been more popular than it is right now," Scott said of the root cause of the conference's issues. "At the same time, it seems like the system has never been under more pressure. I don't think the status quo is sustainable."

That was about the furthest the commissioner would rock the boat. Tuesday tried to be about depth charts, left tackles, the Pistol offense and quarterback Matt Barkley being unable to find a USC cupcake but supporting the conference by eating a Pac-12 one.

But it just wasn't.

It wasn't as much about what schools the conference added, Utah and Colorado, as it was a program that has won more bowls than any team in the conference has even played in being on the sidelines again this year or the league favorite opening with a date at the Will Lyles Bowl.

"We need to find two receivers," Kelly lamented. "We've got to find three O-linemen, I now have to find a second tight end, we've got to find a third running back, we've got to find three more D-linemen. Those are the things that we're concerned with."

Slowly but surely, talk will drift back toward football. But, with the media having a chance to fire away with every question they had, it was a bit uneasy for some coaches under the watchful eye of the NCAA.

"There is a great buzz with all that is new," Scott said. "It certainly seems like it's been a great day."

Unfortunately for the commissioner, that might only have been true had he passed out writer's block instead of sun block.

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