To suggest that the SEC might not be college football's best conference in 2014 will strike some as appalling, shocking or simply insane. However, contrary to recent history, I predict the Pac-12 will emerge as the nation's top conference.
Why? Two reasons: coaches and quarterbacks.
While the SEC is in a rebuilding year after losing significant star power at quarterback, the Pac-12 is stacked with the innovative coaches and veteran signal-callers necessary to dethrone the kings of college football.
Coaches are the Pac-12's unheralded weapons. It started with the financial gains provided by new TV contracts. Over three years, conference schools have "invested" in football. Facilities from Pullman to Tucson are undergoing major improvements. Even UCLA has committed to improved infrastructure and increased coaching salaries.
But the biggest "get" has been the head football coaches: Rich Rodriguez, Jim Mora, Mike Leach and Todd Graham have arrived following success in other conferences. David Shaw and Mark Helfrich have sustained success after being promoted from within.
It was the Pac-12 that finally lured Chris Petersen from Boise State, Mora from a lifetime in the NFL and, in the Pac-10 era, kept Steve Sarkisian from becoming the Oakland Raiders head coach.
Strong head coaches attract excellent assistants. There are no greater examples than Jim Harbaugh/Shaw at Stanford and Mora at UCLA. The Bruins lost defensive coordinator Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans but had 10-year NFL linebacker Jeff Ulbrich as a replacement. Stanford lost DC Derek Mason to Vanderbilt but had Lance Anderson ready.
|2013||11-3||Shaw||Rose Bowl - L|
|2012||12-2||Shaw||Rose Bowl - W|
|2011||11-2||Shaw||Fiesta Bowl - L|
|2010||12-1||Harbaugh||Orange Bowl - W|
|2009||8-5||Harbaugh||Sun Bowl - L|
And most of the Pac-12's top men specialize in offense, with varied schemes but consistent results. Quarterbacks and receivers realize the Pac-12 is a place to play a style of game increasingly embraced by the pros: spread the field, throw and catch.
This year's QB crop is deep and experienced. Mora showed Brett Hundley a presentation emphasizing 30 college starts as a predictor of NFL success. Hundley understood and returned to UCLA.
Here is the Pac-12 QB rank by games started:
|Sean Mannion, Oregon State||31|
|Brett Hundley, UCLA||27|
|Taylor Kelly, Arizona State||27|
|Marcus Mariota, Oregon||26|
|Kevin Hogan, Stanford||19|
|Connor Halliday, Washington State||19|
|Travis Wilson, Utah||16|
|Cody Kessler, USC||14|
|Jared Goff, Cal||12|
Their skills are as varied as the offenses they command. Sean Mannion may be the best pure passer of the group, while Hundley has breathtaking running skills. Marcus Mariota reminds me of a younger Colin Kaepernick and, I believe, is the best overall QB. Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan (10 wins over ranked teams) also have winning resumes.
Can the SEC, even with a fine array of coaches, approach this level of QB play? The only coach/QB combo that rivals the Pac-12 is Gus Malzahn/Nick Marshall at Auburn.
Finally, let's address perception. In last year's AP preseason poll, the SEC had five of the Top 10 while the Pac-12 had two of the Top 20. Neither computer polls nor BCS formulas could compensate for the overwhelming human bias. SEC teams winning national championships created a faulty assumption of assured success the following year. That head start has been too much for any conference to overcome.
The four-team playoff with its selection committee and no ranking until late October should diminish that bias. If so, then the Pac-12 rises, carried by its coaches and QBs. They are too good.
Pac-12 schools play some of the toughest schedules in the country. Early games of importance:
Sept. 6, Michigan State at Oregon: Mark Helfrich told me the one spring game he tried to watch was Michigan State. This is the win Oregon needs to legitimize itself as a playoff contender.
Sept. 6, USC at Stanford: The conference opener is close to a must-win for Stanford. The Cardinal face a brutal road schedule and can't afford an early home loss.
Sept. 13, UCLA at Texas (Arlington, Texas): This will be Hundley's biggest national test and the Bruins' opening to enter the national conversation.
Oct. 4, Stanford at Notre Dame: The second of five tough road games on the Cardinal's schedule, this is a perception game. Winning in South Bend still carries weight. And Stanford has not forgotten its painful 2012 OT loss at Notre Dame Stadium.
Is Oregon Tough Enough?
The Ducks' longtime DC, Nick Aliotti, is now on TV. But his words linger.
He would confide that playing defense at Oregon was made more difficult by the tempo of the Ducks offense. Simply, Oregon scored fast, forcing its defense to spend more time on the field. It wore down, being run over by Stanford and Arizona last year.
Kadeem Carey ran for 206 yards against the Ducks last November. I charted each run, and he had over 80 yards after first contact with an Oregon defender.
To reach its long-awaited match with Stanford, and to handle Michigan State, Oregon's defensive front will have to be stronger and tougher.
Will Stanford Change Its Identity?
Talking to David Shaw at the Cardinal's spring game, I sensed his hope that Barry J. Sanders would emerge as their top running back. Heading into their first game, it appears Kelsey Young is the starter. But the back to watch is freshman Christian McCaffrey, the son of former Stanford and Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey, who arrived on the Farm "ready to play."
But will Stanford "ground and pound" without a dominant back in the Stepfan Taylor-Tyler Gaffney mold?
Don't Sleep on Washington State
My dark-horse team in the conference is the Cougars. They won't win the North, but they will upset one favored team—and reach a second straight bowl. Connor Halliday has thrown a ton of passes and should have full comfort in Leach's offense. No one relishes a prep week for Leach or the Pullman trip. My first upset watch: Oregon on Sept. 20.