Can the Pac-12 Challenge the SEC for Conference Supremacy?

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Can the Pac-12 Challenge the SEC for Conference Supremacy?
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From top-to-bottom, the Pac-12 Conference has never been as good as it is now. No longer is it a conference with one dominant team and some also-rans, as was the case during the "USC and the other guys" era of the mid-2000s. 

Of course, the Pac-12 last won a national championship in 2004 amid that era, and it has sent teams to the title game just twice since. 

Compare that to the SEC, and it's seven straight national championships. What more really needs to be said? 

The conference is the standard bearer of college football, and it has earned its often invoked bragging rights. Chants of "S-E-C" will only be silenced once another conference's champion is able to wrest away the trophy from the titans of the Southeast. 

This season, the Pac-12 is the closest any conference has been to stacking up directly to the dominant SEC. If the cheers of fans in Autzen Stadium are any indication, the conference is eager for an opportunity to prove it on the field. 

Reigning conference champion Stanford has drawn favorable comparisons to the heavyweights of the SEC, combining power offensive football with a stingy defensive approach. 

Oregon boasts one key element largely unique from any team in the nation. Marcus Mariota's captaining of the high-tempo Oregon Ducks offense and the many weapons surrounding him, like De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff, poses intriguing mismatch potential for SEC defenses.

Mariota is also an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, an award that has eluded the Pac-12 since 2005 and landed in the SEC four times in that same stretch.  

Both the Cardinal and Ducks are viable championship contenders and legitimate threats to the SEC's title domination. 

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Washington and UCLA occupy the conference's next tier. Both have been impressive through their first three games and broken into the top 16 of the Associated Press poll. 

"[The conference is] known for variety, quite honestly," Sarkisian said on last week's teleconference call. "Oregon has done their thing here now for the last half-decade...then you can go to the opposite extreme of what Stanford's done and their style of play."

"You look at what Cal's doing now and Washington State's doing and their ability to throw the football. You look at the tempo Arizona and UCLA and ourselves are operating at, and you still see some of the traditional stuff out of Oregon State and USC," he added. "There's a lot of variety in our conference right now...and there's not only a lot of variety, but a lot of good football teams and good coaches and good players." 

With the Bruins and Huskies joining the Ducks and Cardinal, the Pac-12 features an upper-tier that rivals the much ballyhooed and top-heavy SEC. There's little drop-off from there. 

Arizona and Arizona State returned numerous key contributors from eight-win teams. Utah has shown off an improved offense. Oregon State features one of the nation's top quarterback-wide receiver combinations in Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks. 

Even the conference's bottom rung is playing at an elevated level thus far. Washington State scored a road win over USC and sits at 3-1. Colorado already surpassed its 2012 win total. Cal, the only team with multiple losses, suffered each against a Top 25 opponent—and scored 30-plus points both times. 

The conference's depth may actually be its greatest barrier to a championship, something that has long been said of the SEC. That proved true last season for Stanford, which suffered an early season setback at always treacherous Husky Stadium. 

"It makes it tough week in and week out. You better be ready to play," Sarkisian said. 

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This depth isn't a one-year aberration. The Pac-12 has steadily built itself over the past four seasons through new coaching additions, more competitive recruiting and improved facilities.  

The 2010 campaign marked a significant turning point in the course of the conference. It landed two teams in BCS bowls for the first time since 2002, and a program other than USC in the title game for the only time since the system's inception. 

That title game presented the SEC its greatest season finale challenge amid its seven-year run. Were it not for then-Auburn running back Michael Dyer's improbable rush on the final possession, the Ducks and Tigers would likely have gone to overtime. 

The Pac-12 has sent multiple teams to BCS games every season since, going 4-2 in those opportunities. The SEC's record in that same period is 3-3. This season, the Pac-12 is 29-4 against non-conference opponents. The SEC is 28-7. 

Of course, any direct comparisons between the Pac-12 and SEC made now are based largely on conjecture.

The head-to-head sample size are two games that hardly provide an accurate portrait of either conference's overall prowess: Auburn outlasted Washington State at home in a showdown of teams that won a combined six games in 2012, and Oregon easily handled a rebuilding Tennessee. 

Those are not the marquee matchups for which fans from either side are clamoring. The only means of pitting the elite of the Pac-12 against that of the SEC this season is in Pasadena for the BCS championship. 

 

Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.

   

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