If you’re a college football fan, now is the time to consult the Horace Greeley playbook.
It is time to go West.
From Oct. 5 through Nov. 7, the resurgent Pac-12 is the most interesting conference in the nation. It is the place to find the most relevant and competitive football. Check your local listings and stock up on caffeine if you must, but don’t miss what’s happening on the left coast.
Four teams from that league currently ranked in the AP Top 16 will play each other in a fascinating series of games that will have a major impact on the national picture: No. 5 Stanford beat No. 16 Washington last week (and the coaching crossfire from that 31-28 thriller is just not subsiding); No. 2 Oregon visits Washington this week; No. 11 UCLA plays at Stanford on Oct. 19 and at Oregon on Oct. 26; and then the Ducks visit the Cardinal on Thursday, Nov. 7, for a showdown that will be must-see TV.
The SEC can swagger back onto center stage after that, starting Nov. 9 when LSU visits Alabama. But until then, enjoy the Pac-12 renaissance in all its late-kickoff glory. “I’ve always thought (the league) was pretty good,” said 13-year Oregon State head coach Mike Riley, “but I think it’s at its best right now.”
This is a league with just one bad loss in non-conference play: Riley’s Beavers were beaten 49-46 by FCS No. 6 Eastern Washington. There have been victories over Boise State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee and BYU. Ten of the 12 teams are ranked in Sagarin’s Top 50 – and one of the two outside that range, Colorado, is significantly improved over the previous two years.
“From top to bottom, I’m really impressed with the Pac-12,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, who was in the Big 12 during one of its heydays, with Oklahoma or Texas playing in five national championship games in a seven-year stretch. “The top of the conference is big, strong, physical, a lot like the Big 12 was. And the lower end of the Pac-12 is really strong. I don’t know who’s going to end up being there, because everyone’s beating everyone.”
Perhaps most impressive and surprising, the Pac-12 is this robust despite some significant changes in the last few years.
Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the NFL in 2010 – and Stanford has continued to thrive. Few predicted that. Chip Kelly also left Oregon for the NFL – and while he’s only been gone half a season, early returns are that the Ducks are as dynamic as ever without the architect of their Blur Offense.
And the league has risen without much help from perennial kingpin USC. The Trojans are 3-2 and fired their coach, Lane Kiffin, and have not contributed a bowl victory to the league bragging rights since 2009. There was a time when the league was USC and a rotating cast of intermittent strivers. Today, the Trojans are just part of the pack.
Oregon is the national glam program – and Stanford, with its national appeal to high achievers and intellectuals, is not far behind. UCLA is adeptly carrying the banner for Los Angeles. Washington is working on its best season since 2000, and Washington State on its best since 2003. Arizona State and Arizona could both be on their way to their second straight eight-win seasons.
That kind of depth makes every Saturday an adventure.
“There are no weeks off in this conference,” Utah’s Kyle Whittingham said.
There are reasons for the upgrade in overall quality.
The Pac-12’s exposure is skyrocketing, thanks to new media deals with ESPN and Fox and the launch of the Pac-12 Network (though the proliferation of key games at 10:30 p.m. ET guarantees a fraction of the potential audience on the East Coast). The change in league leadership, starting with commissioner Larry Scott, has modernized what had been a mom-and-pop operation.
But the biggest reason is the coaching improvements. Just about everywhere you look, there are accomplished winners in charge.
Seven current head coaches have had at least one season of double-digit victories: Leach was 11-2 in 2008 at Texas Tech; Riley was 10-4 in 2006 at Oregon State; Harbaugh successor David Shaw is a whopping 28-4 at Stanford; Whittingham was 13-0 in 2008, 10-3 in ’09 and 10-3 in ’10 at Utah; Arizona State’s Todd Graham had three seasons with 10 or more wins at Tulsa; Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre worked an absolute miracle, winning 10 games last year at San Jose State; and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez had three seasons of 10 or more victories at West Virginia.
The slackers of the group are Jim Mora at UCLA and Sonny Dykes at California. They only won nine games apiece last year – Mora in his debut season Westwood, Dykes at Louisiana Tech.
The other three coaches? Steve Sarkisian at Washington, first-year head coach Mark Helfrich at Oregon and interim coach Ed Orgeron at USC all were assistants on teams that won a national title or played for one.
“What’s happened coaching-wise with our conference, I think it’s at an all-time high,” Riley said.
Now the question is whether the coaches can get along – and if they can’t, hey, it only adds to the intrigue.
Sarkisian is mad at Shaw, alleging that Stanford faked injuries to slow down Washington’s new no-huddle offense. Shaw is furious at Sarkisian for making such a suggestion, and read a scathing statement Tuesday on the Pac-12 teleconference responding to Sark.
Mora has been unafraid to tweak USC since arriving at UCLA – and unafraid to bark at the media or anyone else. Plenty of people are offended by Oregon building facilities an Arah oil sheikh would find excessive. (Although every school wishes it had its own Phil Knight to splurge shamelessly on their program.) Leach has a well-established track record of rubbing rivals the wrong way – and upsetting Washington last year in his debut season got that relationship off to a splendidly competitive start. The feistiness between Arizona and Arizona State is running hotter than it has in several years.
Even in this area, the league barely misses USC. The Trojans got rid of an accomplished jerk in Kiffin, but there still is plenty of contentiousness to go around without him.
So you’re strongly advised to watch Pac-12 football in the coming weeks, even if it means staying up past your bedtime. The most likely contenders to dethrone the SEC are out West. Get to know them.