Recruiting laid the foundation on which the SEC's empire was built, and the conference continued to build on this year's national signing day. However, the ground the Pac-12 made challenging college football's most dominant conference through the 2013 season extended to the recruiting trail, thanks to a strong finish.
The Pac-12 was right on the SEC's heels in some key areas of collective success last season: The SEC finished bowl season 7-3, the Pac-12 6-3; half of the SEC's 14 teams were ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25, and the Pac-12 also finished with half of its membership ranked.
It wasn't quite as close in this recruiting cycle, as the SEC landed nine teams in the top 20 of 247Sports' national rankings, the most of any conference. The Pac-12 was second, though it only had Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC ranked No. 22 or better.
There's certainly still ground for the Pac-12 to make, but Wednesday brought some measures of progress. And making progress in catching the SEC's recruiting prowess starts at home.
Pac-12 programs won some important head-to-head recruiting battles against counterparts from the SEC. Two of the big three who made USC head coach Steve Sarkisian's day one to remember, offensive lineman Damien Mama and cornerback Adoree' Jackson, spurned Alabama and Florida to become Trojans.
Jackson and Mama signing with USC marked a victory of sorts for the entire conference, helping to build a fence around Southern California. Other high-profile prospects like Oregon-bound running back Royce Freeman, an Alabama target, did the same.
That's significant because the SEC's geographic footprint already covers the talent-rich Southeast. Allowing SEC programs to infiltrate the Pac-12's deepest recruiting pipeline would strike a major blow to the conference's progress in recent years.
To truly catch the SEC, Pac-12 teams must establish inroads to the South, and this year the conference went there for a few noteworthy signings.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora landed three letters of intent from Texas players, including 4-star linebacker Zach Whitley. The Bruins' marquee signing-day coup was 4-star linebacker Kenny Young from New Orleans' John Curtis Christian High School.
Of course, every athlete who faxed a letter of intent on national signing day is dreaming of what's to come at his own program, not how signing impacts his conference affiliation. That dream is universal: winning a national championship.
"My favorite player was Reggie Bush," Jackson said on the ESPNU broadcast of his announcement. "I just want to go back to those days and put USC back on top."
Like Bush, a star on both offense and special teams, Jackson can make an impact in multiple ways.
"[USC coaches] talked to me about playing both [offense and defense]," Jackson said.
Adoree’ Jackson said USC has talked to him about playing offense and defense, said his favorite player was Reggie Bush— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) February 5, 2014
Also like Bush, he's a product of Southern California who brings 5-star attention to the Trojans' recruiting class. But the ultimate comparison a USC player following in the former Heisman Trophy winner's footsteps can earn is helping the program to a national championship.
A title has eluded the conference since the 2004 season, whereas the SEC enjoyed a seven-year monopolization of the national championship that only ended this season.
Not until the Pac-12 reclaims the championship is the gap truly bridged. But the conference's collective signing day success has it moving on the right path to challenge the SEC empire.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting rankings and information obtained via 247Sports.com.