BURBANK, Calif.—The SEC is vulnerable. The league’s two-year national title drought and dismal 2014 bowl season have dimmed its stature as the premier conference in college football. SEC Media Days in July featured a flurry of obituaries memorializing the end of its dominance atop the sport. Pass the smelling salts to Paul Finebaum—college football is gaining ground on the SEC.
Here at Pac-12 football media days, the packets of SPF 30 sunblock made available to attendees could also double as protection from the optimism. As the SEC has slid over the past two years, the Pac-12 delivered an authoritative 2014: Oregon played for the national title, Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and the league won six bowl games. “In my view, we were [the best conference] last season,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “I don’t think any conference had the résumé that our conference had. I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation had Oregon beat Ohio State.”
The 2015 season presents an opportunity for the Pac-12 to rush past the SEC. The Pac-12 has far superior returning quarterbacks than the SEC does, is amid a facility-building boom and features a division, the Pac-12 South, that’s comparable to the vaunted SEC West. The Big Ten and ACC lack depth and the Big 12 couldn’t get a team into the inaugural College Football Playoff. That leaves a two-horse race for the best league from top to bottom, and for the Pac-12 to leap past the SEC it needs a sparkling season from its signature program. With USC freed from the shackles of NCAA sanctions, back to its full complement of scholarships and favored to win the league behind Heisman candidate quarterback Cody Kessler, the Pac-12 could make the final argument it needs. “Until [a Pac-12 team] wins the national championship, it’s hard to make that claim,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “What I do know, being in this conference for so many years, is this is the best it’s ever been.”
Now before the emails and tweets start flowing in, let me make a few things clear. Arguments about league superiority are fragile. Consider: If Auburn didn’t lose in the waning seconds of the 2013 title game against Florida State, and if Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had kept handing the ball to Derrick Henry in last year’s Sugar Bowl semifinal against Ohio State, the SEC could well be on a nine-year national title run. At the same time, the SEC caught a few breaks along the way that offer a reminder of the serendipity necessary for such a distinct run of dominance. The SEC’s streak of seven straight national titles began thanks to a stunning UCLA upset of USC in ’06 that helped Florida find a backdoor way into the title game. A two-loss LSU team won the title despite losing to Kentucky in ’07. Auburn escaped Oregon in ’10 after tailback Michael Dyer’s savvy jump up from the ground. The SEC streak will never be considered lucky, but the plot twists that went into some of the title seasons hint at the confluence of factors needed to produce a champion.
First-year SEC commissioner Greg Sankey chuckled during a phone interview this week when the spate of recent SEC obituaries was mentioned. “We’ve set such a high standard for ourselves,” he said. “We finished second two years ago on a touchdown with 13 seconds to go and lost in the semifinal game last year, and some people think that means the clouds are forming. I’m confident we’ll be O.K.”
Sankey is right, of course. There’s no reason to think the sky is falling from College Station to Gainesville. Just take a peek at the recruiting rankings. But there’s one glaring concern in the SEC this season that makes any assumptions of conference dominance a bit naïve. The SEC has a quarterback problem—and a big one. After All-SEC choice Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, the caliber of quality passers drops precipitously. Arkansas’s Brandon Allen is solid and should improve under new coordinator Dan Enos. Kentucky’s Patrick Towles, Missouri’s Maty Mauk and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs showed flashes last season. The combination of Gus Malzahn’s mind and Jeremy Johnson’s potential is intriguing enough to make Auburn the SEC favorite. But right now there are more questions than answers, especially at flagship schools such as LSU, Alabama and Georgia. In this dynamic offensive era of college football, it takes more than a caretaker at quarterback to produce a winner. “Some people made fun of me last year when I said the Pac-12 South is as good as the SEC West or better,” Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. “I felt like the quarterback play in the Pac-12 was really consistent.”
After Alabama couldn’t tackle Ezekiel Elliott in New Orleans, no one was laughing. And in the Pac-12’s superiority argument, quarterback is the biggest difference-maker. Kessler is a Heisman candidate, Cal’s Jared Goff is a subject of infatuation among NFL scouts and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan has already won two Pac-12 titles. Both Arizona schools have proven talent at the position, as Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici produced in relief last season and Arizona’s Anu Solomon should make a jump in his second season starting for Rich Rodriguez. Add in Utah senior Travis Wilson and the potential of UCLA freshman Josh Rosen (the top-ranked quarterback in the 2015 class) and Oregon transfer Vernon Adams and the Pac-12’s group is distinctly better. “When you have consistent quarterback play, your team consistently shows up better,” MacIntyre said. “It makes a huge difference.”
There are weaknesses in the Pac-12, though. The South is so loaded that the league could end up cannibalizing itself. (Even Colorado hung tight in a lot of league games last season and lurks as more of a threat than Vanderbilt is in the SEC.) Beyond Oregon and Stanford, the Pac-12 North is fairly unimposing.
USC also needs to prove it can reestablish itself as a national contender, as flipping on the film of Boston College thrashing the Trojans 37-31 last September could dash any optimism about USC’s prospects. That loss reminded everyone of Sarkisian’s lack of big-game coaching acumen, as his biggest win as a head coach came in his first year at Washington in 2009, when the Huskies upset USC 16-13. Sarkisian is a good coach, but there is precious little evidence that his sideline coaching matches his recruiting touch. This season can either change that reputation or perpetuate it, and Sarkisian knows there are no more excuses with a talent-laden roster and the NCAA handcuffs off. “I chose to come here because I wanted to win championships, and so did our players,” Sarkisian said. “And so I don’t know if pressure is the right word. I think we understand the standard that’s been set and the expectations.”
Opening weekend will offer a strong barometer of the Pac-12’s standing. Arizona State plays Texas A&M in Houston, and a Sun Devils’ victory could become a key cog in the Pac-12’s superiority case. One of the thorny parts of the SEC-Pac-12 debate is that no teams from the two leagues played each other last season. The Arizona State-A&M game—the only SEC-Pac-12 matchup this year—will offer a precious data point. While neither team is favored to win its respective league, the game will offer a litmus test of the depth of the two conferences and their strongest divisions. Scott referenced the Big Ten’s early struggles last fall, including when Ohio State lost against Virginia Tech and Michigan State lost at Oregon, as a “cautionary tale” to not put too much stock into early-season results. Still, with so little direct comparisons between the leagues, the result on Sept. 5 will loom large. “You have to give a lot of respect to the SEC and the championships that they’ve won, but I’m anxious to play it on the field,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “How you match up on the field, the athleticism and explosiveness of the offense. I would put this conference up against just about anybody in the country.”
The influx of money from television contracts has flattened the college football world. If the Pac-12 produces a national title winner in 2015, it could offer the final piece of evidence that the league has jumped ahead of the SEC.