10 Ways Pac-12 Football Can Overtake the SEC in College Football Playoff Era
The Pac-12 is a tremendous football conference. In fact, you could make a very strong case that it's the second-best league in college football with Oregon, Stanford and UCLA all looking like top-notch teams heading into 2014.
But yes, the second-best conference. Because like it or not, the SEC still holds the title of the toughest league in the sport. A recent history littered with national titles and Heisman Trophies proves that. So does tons of first-round draft picks, highly rated recruiting classes and future Hall of Fame coaches.
Nobody in Pac-12 country wants to hear those same things 10 years from now, though. So what can be done about it?
To start, we must look at where the SEC excels over the Pac-12. What exactly is it that makes it a better overall conference? Then, the Pac-12 must bridge those various gaps if it hopes to contend for the title of best league in college football. Let's be clear, too, that this league isn't that far behind. We're not comparing an expansion team to the '97-'98 Bulls. But it is indeed behind.
Here are 10 ways that the Pac-12 can overtake the SEC during the college football playoff era. And let's be honest, if it goes the way of the BCS era, the SEC fans will become insufferable if they aren't enough already.
(Just kidding guys, you're welcome anytime and there's plenty of microbrews for everyone.)
All stats via cfbstats.com
10) More Publicity for the Pac-12 Network
Hey, have you heard anything about the debut of the brand new SEC network? Of course you have, because it's been publicized all over the place for many months now. The new channel (part of the ESPN umbrella) even managed to snag Brent Musberger as its lead college football announcer.
Regardless of what you think of the guy, he has a voice that oozes college football, and it's a major victory for the conference, which hopes to make the new network as big and far reaching as possible.
The same goals exist for the Pac-12 network, too, but can you name its top football announcer? Actually, name anyone who calls the games on Saturdays in the fall. If you can't, you aren't alone, and that's because the Pac-12 network is awesome for folks out West but irrelevant everywhere else.
It may not seem important to bring more notoriety to a channel that usually scoops up the conference's second- and third-tier games each week during football, but prestige is the name of the game. The Pac-12 can inch closer to the almighty SEC with a better effort on the media side, which would include finally getting DirecTV on board.
9) Close Gap in NFL Draft
Sending players off to the NFL may not be as important as recruiting top-tier talent (more on that later), but it still raises the level of excellence for a conference when it has the most pro talent on its collective sidelines.
In the 2014 NFL draft, the SEC led all conferences with 49 draft picks or three-and-a-half players per team. The Pac-12 finished third, with 34 players selected. That includes 11 players from the SEC going in the first round, while the Pac-12 had only three.
That's a trend that has to stop if the Pac-12 wants someday to overtake the SEC. Because while having the most players in the NFL doesn't guarantee success, it's a pretty good indicator of how much talent a conference is churning out.
Winning this category won't automatically make the Pac-12 a better conference, but it would signal to everyone that the gap is closing.
8) Seize the Opportunity When the National Spotlight Is on
Part of what makes the SEC king of college football at the moment is that it knows how to seize the moment.
Take Oregon-LSU in 2011, for example. The game was hyped all offseason as the premier nonconference matchup of the season and the Tigers stomped all over the Ducks, setting the stage for an undefeated regular season.
It was special, and it was a heck of a way to open up the 2011 campaign.
LSU seized the moment, but aside from nonconference games, the Pac-12 must figure out how to capture that same magic when it enters league play as well. You won't find any Stanford fans unhappy about the Cardinal beating Oregon last fall, but the Ducks could have made a huge statement not only for themselves but for the entire conference if they had gone down to Palo Alto and handled business to stay in the national title hunt.
This isn't meant to harp on Oregon, one of the two teams carrying the league mantle over the past few years. But when big games take place on a national stage, the Pac-12's best must put on a real show.
7) Keep Coaches Around
When was the last time you saw a well-known SEC coach leave the conference to do something else? The answer is probably Urban Meyer, who left Florida and eventually wound up at Ohio State.
But the league has held on to one of the greatest coaches ever, Nick Saban, as well as Les Miles and Steve Spurrier, two more legends. Mark Richt has also created quite a legacy as has Missouri's Gary Pinkel. Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn could be well on their way.
The point is, it behooves a conference to keep top coaches around. In the Pac-12, we've seen both Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh bolt for the NFL. Who knows what might happen if Jim Mora's continues his winning ways with UCLA.
Either way, the league's best coaches have to stay put, otherwise it signals that better opportunities are out there. Granted, the NFL is a can't-miss chance-of-a-lifetime spot and no one could blame either Kelly or Harbaugh for seizing it. But the longer the coaches hang around (assuming they're winning), the better.
6) Don't Be Scared to Recruit in SEC Country
There seems to be a stigma about trying to recruit top players from states like South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia: That's SEC country, so stay away.
You might add Florida and Texas to the list, although the two states have so much talent that it's impossible for one or two leagues to swoop in and get everyone. After all, one of the top defensive ends in the 2015 class, Byron Cowart of Florida, is strongly considering Oregon.
That kind of thing needs to happen more often though. Why not take a stab at a top player from Louisiana? The worst thing that can happen is the kid won't give your program a second of attention and that's it. But if the Pac-12 can manage to steal a Jadeveon Clowney or Leonard Fournette every now and then, it would be huge.
The Ducks have already landed a verbal commitment from 5-star back Taj Griffin of Georgia. If he stays, it will be big for both Oregon and the prestige of the league. But the key is making that happen on a semi-regular basis.
5) Keep West Coast Talent on the West Coast
On the other side of the coin that we brought up in the previous slide is keeping top talent close to home. That means when a quarterback like Kyle Allen is receiving national attention but lives within a few hours of both Arizona and Arizona State he ends up a Wildcat or a Sun Devil and not an Aggie.
It's especially important in states like Oregon, Washington and Arizona because there isn't nearly the amount of talent that you'll find in California. Players like Thomas Tyner and Max Browne must stay in the conference or else the league risks them making headlines somewhere else.
With the state of California, you're bound to see a few big recruits head elsewhere. But it isn't ideal, and it must be minimized.
If the Pac-12 can not only poach a few recruits from SEC country but keep home-grown talent nearby as often as possible, it will have an opportunity to become the best conference on the playing field, where it matters the most.
4) More Heisman Trophies
One thing that might help the Pac-12 overtake the SEC is winning the biggest honor in all of sports: the Heisman Trophy. You have to go all the way back to 2004 before finding a Pac-12 player (USC's Matt Leinart) who won the award (Reggie Bush won it in 2005 but it was later vacated).
Carson Palmer took home the bronze statue in 2002, and then you have to travel back another 21 years to Marcus Allen in 1981 to see a player from the Pac-12 taking home the prize. Even crazier, the last time a non-USC player from the Pac-12 (excluding Colorado, which wasn't a part of the conference when Rashaan Salaam won it in 1994) won the Heisman was 1970. Thank goodness for Jim Plunkett and Stanford.
The point here is that the league needs to win this award more often regardless of how media-driven it may be or how often you try to convince yourself it's become meaningless. You can't tell me it doesn't look bad when the SEC has four different schools that have won a Heisman since 2007 and the Pac-12 has just one in the past forty-plus years.
Putting players in contention hasn't been a problem; the Pac-12 needs to actually bring home the Heisman Trophy if it wants to overtake the SEC.
3) Multiple Top-Tier Teams
There's no hidden meaning behind this one: Having multiple top-tier teams makes a conference better as a whole.
The Pac-12 has rarely had more than one or two teams in the hunt for a national title. In the last few years both Oregon and Stanford have had chances (with the Ducks reaching one), but you never see more than two programs in the Top 10 at any point in the season.
Compare that to the SEC, which saw Alabama, Auburn, Missouri, South Carolina, LSU and Texas A&M all make a case for inclusion among the Top 10 at some point during the 2014 campaign. You could argue all day about whether or not the teams deserved that kind of recognition, but voters and media obviously felt they did.
Like it or not, that stuff matters, and if the Pac-12 can put forth three or four teams that look like world-beaters, it would cause plenty of folks to reconsider what conference is the best in the country.
2) Scheduling and Beating the SEC in Nonconference Matchups
Beating the SEC in a head-to-head matchup is one thing, but getting the two conferences to meet up on the gridiron is the toughest battle of all.
Last season, we saw the back end of a home-and-home between Oregon and Tennessee, and the Ducks looked like they were scrimmaging a local high school team. It was an awesome display of football that resonated throughout the country, though by the time the noise reached the East Coast it was a mere whimper if anything.
That's because the Volunteers weren't very good. Now imagine if Oregon had beaten LSU or Texas A&M or, dare we say, Alabama? It would take the single biggest bite out of the SEC's reign that we've seen in a long time.
The two conference's rarely meet up in the postseason, with the one notable result being Auburn's 22-19 win over the Ducks in the national championship. If the Pac-12 can schedule and then win regular-season games against the SEC, it will be concrete evidence as to which conference reigns supreme.
1) Winning National Title(s)
This final point is far and away the most important aspect of operation: overtake the SEC.
What's the very first argument you'll here about why the SEC is the best conference? Before Auburn lost to Florida State in January, it was the fact that the conference had won seven straight BCS championship games. Now, the verbiage simply switches to "seven of eight."
Winning national championships is the ultimate goal in college football, and USC was the only Pac-12 program to do so in the BCS era (like Bush's Heisman, this was later vacated). The SEC, meanwhile, won the crystal football in nine of the previous sixteen seasons.
We're not making a prediction that the Pac-12 will become the premier conference in college football. But if it's going to happen, several items on this list should probably be addressed.
But there's no "probably" about this final slide. The Pac-12 absolutely must bring home national championships at least every few years for the right to be called the top league in the land.