A College-Football Coup Brews in the West

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Pac-12 schools may soon threaten the Southeastern Conference's long dominance of the sport.

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Stanford head coach David Shaw is doused after his team wins the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

College football's "National Signing Day," that first Wednesday each February when star high-school seniors officially sign on their college's dotted line, should summon visions of future glory in the heads of fans nationwide. But in the past few years, it's been hard for anyone who roots for a team that's not in the Southeastern Conference to get too giddy about what the games ahead hold.

After all, Alabama's humbling of Notre Dame last month marked the seventh consecutive season that a team from the SEC team won college football's national championship. The South's dominance, impressive as it's been, has gotten a bit monotonous.

SEC adherents would have everyone believe that its conference's gridiron hegemony will not be slowed anytime soon. And indeed, yesterday the SEC scored six of the top ten recruiting classes as ranked by Scout.com. But non-SEC college football fans need to dream. All reigns come to an end ... right?

Which conference, though, can put forth a team to threaten the SEC's run? The Big 12, with Texas and Oklahoma? The Big 10, with Ohio State and Michigan? Maybe even the ACC, which features Florida State and Miami? Historically, those would be the safe picks.

But I'd make the case for a different challenger: the Pacific-12. Yes, the former Pac-10—oft-dismissed as playing finesse (code for "soft") football, as being "USC and the nine dwarfs," as just seeming too, well, casual about this whole college football thing—has remade itself in recent years.

Through savvy coaching hires, conference expansion, facilities investments, and lucrative television deals, the Pac-12 has arguably passed the ACC, Big 10, and even the Big 12 to be the second-best conference in the land. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

"I think the Pac-12 is trending upward," Brandon Huffman, national recruiting analyst for FoxSports.com, told me. "With Stanford, Oregon, and throw USC in there, the top tier of Pac-12 programs are better than the top tier of the other (non-SEC) conferences."

Bryan Fischer, the former national college football writer for CBSSports.com, agrees that the Pac-12 "could go toe-to-toe with the SEC"—though, it must be pointed out, he's now a senior correspondent for Pac-12 Network. Still, he cites some concrete developments that, while not unique to the Pac-12, represent a new way of doing things on the West Coast

California recently completed a $321 million renovation on its stadium. Washington ($260 million), UCLA ($180 million), Arizona ($72 million), and Washington State ($65 million) are partway through theirs. Lavish "football-only" facilities on campus have recently been completed at Oregon and USC—and more are in the works.

The results are starting to show. Oregon has been in four consecutive BCS bowls (including the 2011 BCS Title game against Auburn, a last-second 22-19 loss that was the only close game during the SEC's title run). Stanford, incredibly and impressively, has been to three BCS bowls in a row. UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State, each with an expensive first-year coach, won at least eight games this season, with the Bruins narrowly missing out on a Rose Bowl berth.

The seeds of this renaissance were probably sown about a decade ago, when USC hired Pete Carroll to coach. By Carroll's second season in 2002, his Trojans were dominating the rest of the conference and won the Orange Bowl. It was the first of seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and seven consecutive BCS bowl appearances by USC.

"Pete Carroll singlehandedly changed the entire focus and direction that other Pac-10 schools had to take in order to be competitive," Huffman said. "And it took a couple of coaching changes for the other schools to figure it out."

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Kennedy Cosgrove is a former sportswriter for The Los Angeles Times who has also covered UCLA basketball for Scout.com.

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