Why the Pac-12 Is Poised to Become the New SEC

Lisa HornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterMarch 5, 2013

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 02 : Cornerback Anthony Gildon #18 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates winning the Pac-12 Championship against the UCLA Bruins at Autzen Stadium on December 2, 2011 in Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks won the game 49-31 to earn a berth in the Rose Bowl. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

All good things must come to an end. Out with the old, in with the new. There's a new sheriff in town.

The cliches regarding change are endless and usually elicit a rolling of eyes from those who just aren't ready to embrace a changing of the guard.

But if college football history has taught us anything, it's that the sport is cyclical—nothing is ever forever. 

Some perspective, if you will: Some of this year's class of 2013 college seniors were born the year Colorado won the AP National Championship and Georgia Tech won the UPI National Championship in 1990. Last season Colorado went 1-11 and Georgia Tech had to get a waiver to play in the Sun Bowl. My goodness, how things have changed since 1990.

Nebraska won two championships in three years—the Cornhuskers were the unanimous national champions in 1995 and the USAToday (coaches) poll champion in 1997. Last season Nebraska got beat 70-31 by Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.

It seems like such a long time ago, and perhaps that's because we focus too much on "now" and don't respect enough of "then."

The SEC is currently ruling college football, and it's largely due to the reemergence of an Alabama football program coached by Nick Saban. We can point to Florida as the catalyst for the SEC's dominance in college football for seven consecutive years, but Alabama has been the reason for the stranglehold on that crystal ball trophy.

Love them or hate them, you can't help but respect what Alabama has done in the last four years—three BCS Championships is simply incredible. It's a legitimate dynasty with no coups in its near future.

So yeah, the SEC West is where the big boys play, but the playground is going to be a little more crowded due to an uprising in the Pac-12. That's right, the Pac-12.

No, I'm not predicting a Pac-12 team will win the BCS Championship this year, but I am predicting that the Pac-12 will be just as competitive, if not more competitive, than the SEC. 

Respect aside, the SEC looked a little diluted last year—Arkansas was still reeling over the Petrino debacle and went 4-8. Mississippi State looked strong, but its 8-5 record was deceiving—of its first seven opponents last season, four were against Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State and the other three were against SEC teams (Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee) that didn't sniff a winning season.

Texas A&M looks like a serious West challenger to Alabama at this point, but this also could be a temporary situation for Texas A&M—ask Auburn how its program has done since quarterback Cameron Newton left for the NFL.

LSU is always dangerous, but two things have kept it from a BCS Championship victory since 2007—head coach Les Miles and consistent quarterback play. The latter can be fixed but Miles, despite his popularity, still seems to make some sideline decisions that result in tight games or inexplicable losses.   

Mississippi looks better but settle down, folks—we went down this road in 2009 when Ole Miss went 9-4 only to see the Rebels lose to Jacksonville State in its season opener the following year. It's been three years since Ole Miss last went bowling, and despite an incredible recruiting class this year, the Rebels are going to have to earn more respect—remember, Texas laid 66 points on Ole Miss last year in Oxford. 

Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the East are also legitimate contenders, but of all three teams, South Carolina remains the most dangerous. The Gamecocks have steadily improved over the last decade, and consistent improvement is how great teams are made.

Florida is recovering from the Tim Tebow era, but the loss of Urban Meyer makes me hesitant to go all-in on the Gators. Georgia, is well, Georgia—seemingly on the cusp every year but hasn't beaten South Carolina since 2009. Georgia also has struggled against Kentucky since 2007—only once in its last five contests against Kentucky has it won a game by more than nine points (2010) and it dropped a game to the Wildcats in 2009.

In all, the SEC has six teams that are all elite and will contend for the BCS Championship: Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

So where does the Pac-12 stand in all of this?

Stanford and Oregon are legitimate. Stanford's two losses last year were to Washington and Notre Dame—the loss to the Irish was controversial and may have prevented the Cardinal from going to the BCS Championship. David Shaw was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year and has made Stanford, a school with extremely tough academic requirements, a powerhouse.

Oregon is a team no one wants to play—while football pundits may snub their noses at what they perceive as a gimmicky offense, the Ducks have proven they belong on the big stage. Oregon State has also made a run in the Pac-12 North—the 9-4 Beavers lost at Washington, at Stanford and to Oregon in the regular season, and starting quarterback Sean Mannion missed the middle of the season due to injury.

Washington is the sleeper of the Pac-12 North—the Huskies beat Stanford and Oregon State, but also had to play a brutal four-game stretch against Stanford, Oregon, USC and Arizona which resulted in three losses. Still, Washington is a player this year and has slowly built back up its football program under head coach Steve Sarkisian.

The South division is also poised to make some noise. Last season UCLA won the South not by default—as it did in 2011—but by its resume. Its defense takes a hit this year with some heavy losses, but head coach Jim Mora has recruited well, and the Bruins shouldn't see a drop off this year.

USC had an awful 2012 season going 7-6 and don't think for one minute that its underclassmen are ticked off about the Trojans being last season's national punchline. While USC is weakened with only 75 (perhaps less this year) scholarshipped players, the quality of talent is second-to-none. If USC can stay healthy and find its new quarterback, the Trojans will be nasty this fall.

This brings us to the two teams that will take the next step up—Arizona and Arizona State.

Arizona had a very difficult schedule last season with this six-game stretch—Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, USC and UCLA.  The Wildcats dropped their first three games before beating Washington and USC and then getting blown out by UCLA. Still, Arizona went 7-5 in the regular season under first year coach Rich Rodriguez and went on to beat Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. This fall, all 11 defensive starters return for the Wildcats. 

Arizona State, like Arizona, went 7-5 in the regular season under its first-year head coach Todd Graham. The majority of the Sun Devils' losses came in a consecutive four-game stretch—Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC. Arizona State has always been one of those teams that has underachieved in the Pac-12, but one of the main reasons for those disappointing seasons has been lack of discipline. Graham seems to have reversed that trend by coaching the Sun Devils from a No. 120 national ranking in penalties in 2001 to No. 8 in 2012.

Utah is a big question mark this year due to the loss of its biggest strength last year—three of its front four are gone. The Utes also had to deal with injuries to key players which included the sudden retirement of quarterback Jordan Wynn. Utah will upset someone in the league this year because Kyle Whittingham coaches talent up better than most, but Utah, like former Big 12-member Missouri in the SEC East, is still adjusting to a tougher league schedule just two years out of the Mountain West conference.

The Pac-12  looks to have eight teams battling it out for its divisions' crowns—Washington, Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State in the North and Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and USC in the South. In layman's terms, that's 75 percent of the league's teams in the thick of it. 

The SEC looks to have three teams in the West (Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M) and three in the East (Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) battling for the divisions' crowns—even if we add Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vandy to the mix, that's still only 64 percent (nine teams) of the league's 14 teams.

Last season the SEC sent nine teams bowling (64 percent) while the Pac-12 sent eight (75 percent)—that doesn't imply the Pac-12 is better than the SEC, but it does imply the league is getting stronger. Moreover, the Pac-12 plays a schedule that includes nine conference games as opposed to the SEC's eight. While it's impressive that Mississippi State went 8-4 in the regular season and went bowling—it lost to a very underrated Northwestern team in the Gator Bowl—four of its wins were over non-BCS teams. When a team only needs six wins to get bowl eligible, that's a fairly nice cushion. 

Without doubt the SEC did play a much tougher overall schedule than the Pac-12 last year—six SEC teams had a top 10 strength of schedule ranking (SOS) last season, according to Sagarin ratings. The Pac-12 had four teams with a top 25 SOS, and only Cal's schedule was ranked in the top 10 of the 2012 season.

What this all means is that while the SEC is the conference of the century so far, the Pac-12 is catching up to the SEC, albeit the passion of SEC fans is still unrivaled.

Only two conferences sent the maximum allowable two teams to BCS bowls last season—the Pac-12 and the SEC. While the ACC and the Big Ten's more respected programs—Miami, Ohio State and Penn State—were all serving out postseason sanctions, the Big East's Louisville beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and the Big 12's top two teams—Kansas State and Oklahoma—got blown out in their respective bowls by SEC and Pac-12 teams.

The SEC is ahead of the pack—and rightfully so—but its view of its competition no longer requires a pair of binoculars. The Pac-12 is right in its rear view mirror, and objects may be closer than they appear.

Change is coming. It's a new dawn.   

Go ahead and roll your eyes at the cliches.

This too shall pass.