Why State of Arizona Is Key to Pac-12 Rivaling SEC as Best Football Conference

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Why State of Arizona Is Key to Pac-12 Rivaling SEC as Best Football Conference
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The Pac-12 title doesn't normally come through the state of Arizona, but the long-term health of the conference will be boosted by what happens there. 

On Wednesday, Arizona and Arizona State reportedly locked down their respective coaches—Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham—with extensions and raises. 

Rodriguez is in line to make $1.5 million in base salary plus $100,000 raises every year and a retention bonus based on stock options, according to Doug Haller of USA Today. Graham is set to make $2.7 million under his new agreement. Both contracts have yet to be finalized. 

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

But what really matters in all of this is that a pair of Pac-12 South programs have found good fits. Both programs have passionate fanbases and supportive athletic directors. In short, Rodriguez and Graham are in a good place and both schools are happy to have them. 

Make all the jokes you want about Graham and loyalty—no, really, go ahead; he's earned them—but he has the Sun Devils competing at a high level. 

Rodriguez is accurately described by Ted Miller of ESPN.com as "among a small handful of true offensive innovators." The disastrous stint at Michigan aside, Rodriguez has won at just about every level of college football. The guy knows X's and O's like few others in the business.

Together, Graham and Rodriguez can take the Territorial Cup out of Arizona and make it one of the better national rivalries in college football. Miller explains: 

When both teams are good, a rivalry is better. That appears to be where these two are headed. That means more national relevance and, therefore, more national attention. That is good for both schools, at least as long as one or the other doesn't establish a strong pattern of dominance. 

For the record, Graham holds a 2-0 edge on Rodriguez in the rivalry. If both programs are competitive on any given year—that shouldn't be an issue under either coach—the series will naturally even out. 

There's no question Graham and Rodriguez are solid coaches, but now think about the Pac-12 outside Arizona. Start listing off the coaches in the South Division: Jim Mora (UCLA); Steve Sarkisian (USC); Kyle Whittingham (Utah) and Mike MacIntyre (Colorado). There are some rebuilding projects in Boulder, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, for sure, but there are a lot of recognizable names.

Now, list off the North Division coaches: Chris Petersen (Washington); Mike Leach (Washington State); Sonny Dykes (Cal); David Shaw (Stanford); Mike Riley (Oregon State) and Mark Helfrich (Oregon). 

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Chris Petersen

From top to bottom, the Pac-12 is stacked with excellent head coaches. 

There's no predicting the future. Anyone could leave at any time. But it seems like everyone is happy where they are. With $334 million in revenue coming according to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, Pac-12 schools can pay their coaches and provide them with proper facilities.

In short, the Pac-12 is in good position to challenge, and perhaps, eventually take over the SEC in terms of being the most complete conference in college football. 

Just last year, Washington State gave Auburn, which would eventually play for a BCS championship, everything it could handle in a 31-24 loss. That's not intended to start a "could X team beat Y team" debate, but it does show there's quality football being played in the western United States.

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There's also no replacing Alabama's Nick Saban, Auburn's Gus Malzahn or South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. But this isn't about replacing them, either. It's about acknowledging that Shaw, Petersen or Leach could go headset-to-headset with anyone in the country. 

The key, like all conferences, is in recruiting. On that front, the Pac-12 can always do better. Three Pac-12 teams—USC, Stanford and UCLA—finished with top-20 recruiting classes this past February. The SEC had nine. National championships come when you combine blue-chip prospects with top-level head coaches. 

With an expanded postseason field in College Football Playoff starting this year, perhaps some of these coaches will finally get to face off against one another. And the fans win in that situation. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports

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