Move over, SEC: Why the Pac-12 will be the nation’s best football conference

Pat Forde

The programming pom-pom wavers at CBS and ESPN don’t want to hear it. Paul Finebaum’s collection of crazies doesn’t want to hear it. The “SEC! SEC! SEC!” chanters don’t want to hear it.

But hear this: The Pac-12 should be the premier conference in college football in 2014. To quote Jim Morrison, the West is the best.

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In a watershed year when access to the national title is broader than ever, Larry Scott’s league has three important things going for it:

[ Slideshow: Pac-12 football at a glance]

The deepest pool of proven coaches it has ever had.

The finest collection of quarterbacks in the nation. By a wide margin.

The toughest schedules anywhere, in a year when strength of schedule (allegedly) will matter more than ever.

Oregon's Marcus Mariota is a serious Heisman Trophy contender. (AP)
Oregon's Marcus Mariota is a serious Heisman Trophy contender. (AP)

The combination may not yield a national champion, but it almost certainly will yield a College Football Playoff participant – and if things break right, possibly even two. Which could cause some folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line to threaten secession once again.

“The Pac-12 is probably better than it's ever been,” said Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, “and it's not going backwards.”

Rodriguez is one of 10 league coaches who have had at least one 10-win season in their careers – in fact, he’s had three of those. He’s also one of four league coaches to have won a BCS bowl. With the addition of Boise State mastermind Chris Petersen (seven 10-win seasons and two BCS bowl wins) and the deletion of Lane Kiffin, no conference had a bigger year-over-year sideline upgrade than the Pac-12.

This is also Year Three for Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State. All four immediately improved their programs, and the recruiting and strategic imprints should be indelible by now. They have helped elevate the middle and lower class of the league in a substantive way.

“I think our coaching and our conference has been phenomenal, continues to be phenomenal,” said Stanford’s David Shaw. “Our coaching roster, I'd put it up against anybody.”

What the Pac-12 must prove now is that it has a championship-caliber coach. Pete Carroll was that guy at USC (despite all those vacated wins). Chip Kelly was close to being that guy at Oregon (until the NFL and NCAA Enforcement both came calling). Jim Harbaugh could have been that guy at Stanford.

USC blew its first chance at succeeding Carroll by hiring Kiffin; now it will try again with another former Carroll assistant in Steve Sarkisian. Oregon promoted from within with Mark Helfrich, who won 11 games his first season as a head coach and still had people wondering if he’s the right man for the job. Shaw has done an excellent job of maintaining Harbaugh’s momentum at Stanford, taking the Cardinal to three straight BCS bowls.

If anyone appears poised to become the straw boss of the league, it’s Mora. He’s repurposed previously soft UCLA as a tougher team, and ramped up recruiting in a hurry.

“I think you can make a case of what Jim Mora has done in the last two years at UCLA is as good as what anybody's done in the nation,” Shaw said. “As far as rebuilding a program or given a program an identity or recruiting-wise, as far as what they've done and style of play, they've become a physical, get-after-you football team. … He's built something in UCLA that was not there before.”

Of course, Mora also has an absolute stud at quarterback in Brett Hundley, who surprised a lot of people by turning down the NFL draft. But UCLA hardly has the Pac-12 market cornered on great quarterback play.

Ten of the 12 teams have a returning starter. Six of them threw for more than 3,000 yards in 2013. Five of them accounted for 34 or more touchdowns. Of the top 20 national returnees in pass efficiency, five are from the Pac-12.

“I don't think there is a conference that's close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks,” Mora said.

Marcus Mariota of Oregon is the headliner and will start the season as Jameis Winston’s strongest competition for the Heisman Trophy. Hundley is not far behind. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan doesn’t sling it a lot, but he has led the Cardinal to consecutive Pac-12 titles and Rose Bowl berths. Cody Kessler flourished in the second half of last season at USC. Taylor Kelly of Arizona State has amassed nearly 7,800 yards of total offense in two years as the starter. Sean Mannion of Oregon State (4,662 yards) and Connor Halliday of Washington State (4,597) are the top two returnees in the nation in 2013 passing yardage. Utah, California and Colorado form the league’s basement, but all have hopes for a rebound behind proven QBs.

“It's not like you have 10 returning quarterbacks and some of them can't play dead in a Western or something like that,” Rodriguez said. “I mean, they're all good.”

Something else that’s nearly all good: the Pac-12 schedules. This could be a huge factor in the College Football Playoff race if the selection committee practices what it has preached.

Coach Jim Mora has turned UCLA into a physical presence. (AP)
Coach Jim Mora has turned UCLA into a physical presence. (AP)

At present, no other power-five conference plays nine league games and a league championship game. The divisional champions will endure a 10-game gauntlet.

And then there is the non-conference slate. This is not a league full of teams looking to exclusively schedule FCS and low-end FBS softies. Among the non-conference games: UCLA against Texas in Arlington; Utah at Michigan; Michigan State at Oregon; and three Pac-12 teams (USC, Stanford and Arizona State) take on Notre Dame.

All total, 29.7 percent of the league’s non-conference games are against teams from power-five conferences or Notre Dame. The SEC, by comparison, plays 19.6 percent of its non-league games against power-five opponents.

So between the ninth conference game and the willingness to play a 10th quality opponent, the Pac-12 has set the bar in terms of strength of schedule.

"I know the SEC and rightfully so, they should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it and they've done it,” Rodriguez said. “But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do. … So a lot of teams have a championship game, but they don't have non-conference games. We have both. So I think it makes us unique. That on top of the fact that every program in our league, I think, has gotten better, or getting better than they've ever been before, makes our league a pretty good spot.”

It makes the Pac-12 the best spot – at least on paper – in 2014.

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