Since the Pac-12 expanded and split into two divisions in 2011, the North has clearly been the stronger conference.
The South made up some ground on the recruiting trail in the 2014 signing period, netting four of the Pac-12's six highest-rated classes, including USC's No. 1 crop, putting the division's contenders on the right course to also be league contenders.
Oregon and Stanford have enjoyed a five-year monopoly on the Pac-12 Championship, but their shared dominance of the crown doesn't tell the whole story. North-division teams have more total bowl bids with 13 in the three seasons since conference expansion and all six have reached at least one postseason.
The South has 11 bowl bids in that time—USC was denied one in 2011 because of NCAA sanctions, but UCLA was granted a special exemption despite its 6-7 record. The South also has one member, Colorado, who has yet to reach the postseason.
This year's recruiting class follows a positive trend for the South, however, both in the division's overall quality and its chances of producing the Pac-12 champion.
The conversation starts with USC, which topped the conference with the nation's No. 13-ranked signing class. Despite a late start because of his December hire and NCAA-imposed scholarship limitations, new head coach Steve Sarkisian nabbed letters of intent from three top-100 recruits on national signing day.
Sarkisian's recruiting trail crescendo alone doesn't mean USC is back to championship from, simply by virtue of the class' ranking. The Trojans never struggled in that facet, even during a relative down period of three single digit-win seasons since 2009.
No, this signing class is significant to USC's conference title aspirations because it addresses many of the program's most glaring needs. Line play and pass defense were two of the program's more evident deficiencies in 2013, and Sarkisian landed letters of intent from four offensive linemen rated 4-stars by 247Sports.com.
The two marquee additions of the class, Adoree' Jackson and John "JuJu" Smith, both have immediate star potential in the secondary.
The Trojans still have ground to make up on Arizona State and UCLA, both of which defeated USC in 2013. And with their solid recruiting classes, neither the Sun Devils nor the Bruins appear likely to concede their spots as South-division title game contenders without a fight.
Both landed top-30 nationally ranked classes on national signing day. Right behind them at No. 32 was Arizona, which won eight games each of the last two seasons.
The top of the South is building upward, and it's a trend that began a few years ago.
For example, UCLA landed top-20 classes three out of four years from 2010 through 2013. Those prospects are now veterans and largely responsible for the Bruins appearing in the top 10 of very early 2014 rankings.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora has proven more than willing to give true freshmen an opportunity, playing 18 last season. Thus, top 2014 signees like linebacker Zach Whitley could find a place in the Bruins' Pac-12 title pursuit alongside the veterans.
Referring to Rivals.com's 2009 recruiting rankings, the class that produced the 2013 season's redshirt seniors, the conference's five highest-ranked recruiting classes were USC, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon.
Those same five teams all reached 10 wins in the past campaign. Three are representatives of the South. Compare that to 2011, the first season after expansion and a campaign that was anything but banner for the division as a whole. Below is what the South's standings looked like at the conclusion of the 2011 regular season:
- USC 10-2 (7-2)
- UCLA 6-6 (5-4)
- Arizona State 6-6 (4-5)
- Utah 7-5 (4-5)
- Colorado 3-10 (2-7)
- Arizona 4-8 (2-7)
Meanwhile, the top of the conference's 2007 class that produced the 2011 season's fifth-year seniors looked like this, per Rivals.com:
- Colorado (as a Big 12 member)
Just one South-division team that was actually recruiting to compete in the Pac-12 finished ranked in the top five. Not coincidentally, it was also the only program to finish the regular season with more than seven wins.
Oregon and Stanford still set the benchmark for the conference, and both landed their own highly rated recruiting classes on national signing day. But as the South begins to match the recent consistency both the Ducks and Cardinal have enjoyed on the recruiting trail in the last half-decade, the product on the field will do the same.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting rankings obtained via 247Sports.com unless otherwise noted.
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