Pac-12 schools may soon threaten the Southeastern Conference's long dominance of the sport.
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."
Among those changes: Stanford and Oregon made bold, innovative hires in Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly, respectively. Those coaches then figured out how to beat Carroll and USC, which directly led to their schools' respective BCS successes the past few years.
The 2009 hiring of Larry Scott, the CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, to be the Pac-10's commissioner has had a big effect as well. Within one year of taking the job, Scott expanded the conference to 12 teams by adding Utah and Colorado (and their Mountain Time Zone TV markets). This allowed restructuring the league into two six-team divisions and adding a conference title game, just like ... the SEC.
A year later, Scott brokered the richest college sports TV deal ever with ESPN and Fox, a 12-year agreement for 2.7 billion dollars, surpassing the TV deal of ... the SEC. This tripled the TV money each Pac-12 school's athletic department received every year, to about $20 million. And one year after that, in 2012, the Pac-12 launched its own television network to show the full range of sports its schools compete in and to set itself up for further future financial success.
By West Coast football standards, these were bold moves. The Pac-12, belatedly but suddenly, became a major player in the college football arms race.
But it's not just the money. Fischer points out that the culture has been changing, too.
"One thing happening on the West Coast is that, like the South, you're seeing more of the summer 7-on-7 passing leagues," he said. "They have travel teams now, like the AAU [basketball] setup. It's grown tremendously—and it helps develop the skill possession players. QBs are throwing year-round, reading defenses. It starts earlier and earlier and the results are evident on the field. They've been a little bit behind the curve compared to Texas and Florida—but it's a trend that bodes well for Pac-12."
Both writers cite an improving overall talent level—"better, stronger, and deeper" said Huffman—in the high schools in the Pac-12 states.
But is all of that enough? One area on the field that the Pac-12 and every other conference have trailed the SEC in recent years has been on the defensive line, where the size, power, and speed of SEC linemen have devastated opponents. "The Gulf Coast states just churn out quality defensive tackles," Fischer said. "That's the biggest reason the SEC has won all those national titles."
But, he notes, "You're seeing more and more of those type of players from California, and also in Utah, with its big Samoan population."
It's too soon to say, of course, whether this all will add up to the Pac-12 champ dethroning the SEC. And the vagaries of the BCS selection process don't help: Five SEC teams with one or more losses have been chosen to play in the title game during this stretch; no one-loss Pac-12 teams have been chosen.
But a four-team playoff is coming to college football in 2014, which should alter the mix.
And if national signing day is any indication, the Pac-12 is on the rise. On Wednesday, four Pac-12 schools signed recruiting classes ranked by Scout.com to be in the top 20 in the nation, led by UCLA's class, ranked fifth in the country—ahead of LSU, Florida, and Georgia, it should be noted. Compare that to the Big Ten (3 teams in the top 20), ACC (two) and Big 12 (one). That should be reason enough for fans in the west to start daydreaming again about their teams' futures.