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Pac-12-SEC challenge: Alabama vs. Oregon

8/10/2015
It's fun to speculate how Mark Helfrich and Oregon would attack Alabama's physical front seven. Getty Images, USA TODAY Sports

The overwhelming consensus heading into the 2015 season -- as it has been most seasons of late -- is that the SEC and the Pac-12 are the nation's two best Power 5 conferences. Last year, in fact, more than a few folks tapped the Pac-12 for eclipsing the mighty SEC.

The only way to provide concrete answers to such a debate would be to play real games, top-to-bottom throughout the conference, as say the Big Ten and ACC do in basketball. Of course, that won't happen in real life.

But what if we do it through the glorious written word via ESPN.com? Not nearly as good? No. But, hey, it's all you've got at present.

We decided to have a little bit of fun and match up teams as they appear in the preseason USA Today Coaches poll. (We took some liberties with our final matchup, including Utah from the "also receiving votes" section.) A Pac-12 reporter and an SEC reporter will square off and make the case for their league's team -- assuming they faced off on a neutral field.

This is the "debate" lineup for the week:

Alabama vs. Oregon: Monday

Auburn vs. USC: Tuesday

Georgia vs. UCLA: Tuesday

LSU vs. Arizona State: Wednesday

Ole Miss vs. Stanford: Wednesday

Arkansas vs. Arizona: Thursday

Missouri vs. Utah: Friday

Let's get ready to rumble.

Ted Miller: Hey who wants to debate which is the best college football conference heading into the 2015 season. Anyone? Anyone?

Well, Ed, funny seeing you here! Seems like the SEC and Pac-12 just can’t quit each other, which is a good thing for college football fans. We all need frenemies! So this hypothetical Pac-12-SEC Challenge should be great fun, though not nearly so much fun as it would be if we actually, you know, signed game contracts and said, "Let’s get ready to rumble!"

The good news is the SEC hasn’t won a national title in ... like ... forever! It’s been so long for the SEC (2012) that it’s pretty much the same with the Pac-12/10 (2004). Wait. Where’s my eraser? That’s not a path I want to follow.

Anyway. Everyone knows the SEC is in decline and the Pac-12 is rising since, well, that’s a fun new angle some sportswriters are dead-horsing with their laptops.

We are starting things off here with an Alabama-Oregon matchup, a game that many folks would love to see. Though it might not represent our personal choices for SEC and Pac-12 favorites -- I think we both like Auburn in the SEC and I picked UCLA in the Pac-12 -- it is a sexy matchup that would captivate college football fans.

Edward Aschoff: You know, I've always liked you, Ted. You're a very talented writer and your Facebook posts always leave my stomach aching from laughter. But I can't tell if this argument was meant for work or for your Facebook following.

The SEC in decline? Really? The SEC West, the best division in football, continues to get better (all seven teams had winning records last season). The SEC East isn't great, but five teams went to bowls last season and were 5-0. I know, I know, the SEC West was terrible in postseason play (2-5), but if the division had a winning bowl record after a phenomenal regular season, no one would be tossing dirt on the conference.

But the haters will always grasp onto one little thing.

That's why I wish we had this SEC-Pac-12 Challenge. Everyone has been waiting and waiting for big bad Bama to take on the Quack Attack. I thought we were going to get it last season, buuuuuut Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott is still stomping on Alabama's exhausted defense.

For all the questions I have about Alabama, this front seven is just too talented not to control the line of scrimmage and make whoever plays behind center for the Ducks miserable for 60 minutes. Alabama returns five starters from its front seven, including possible All-Americans in A'Shawn Robinson (one of the nation's best tackles) and linebacker Reggie Ragland. The quarterback who takes over for Oregon will have a steep learning curve, and you don't want that against an Alabama front seven that plans to be very aggressive this season (Oregon gave up 31 sacks last season) after pressuring quarterbacks on 13 percent of snaps in 2014.

Sure, Alabama struggles against spread offenses like Oregon's, but if Alabama's front seven takes away the run (ranked fourth nationally, allowing 102.4 yards per game) and makes the Ducks one-dimensional, there won't be much quack in this attack.

Offensively, all Bama has to do is hand it to Derrick Henry (5.8 yards per carry) and have him carve up a defense that allowed 165.4 rushing yards per game last season.

Ted Miller: The SEC West looked great all last season ... until it played non-SEC teams. Then it got whomped. Again. And again. And again. Five agains, actually.

I felt bad, to be honest. We had read all year about how cute it was that the Mississippi schools were both good. Then both got crushed in bowl games. Big bad LSU? The doughty Bengal Tigers lost to Notre Dame, which had spent November getting crushed by Pac-12 teams.

Rugged SEC West defenses gave up an average of 501 yards of offense in their five bowl losses. And none played Oregon. Oh boy.

But look [insert snarky wink] Texas A&M gets to play Arizona State in a season opener, the only Pac-12-SEC game in the regular season. Pac-12 folks are elbowing each other and giggling about this one. Buckle up Aggies. Remember: It's not a one-game season, and you will shortly revert to the typical nonconference patsies and overrated SEC foes you have handled well since making a seamless transition from the Big 12. Just take your whipping like a man.

As for our hypothetical matchup here with the Ducks and Crimson Tide, we have great respect for Alabama's front seven. It will do a great job against simple teams, such as Arkansas with its "You go here!" play calls.

But this is Oregon, which plays fast and plays in space and goes where you are not. As good as Alabama's front seven is, its secondary is as questionable. That means when the Ducks line up with four receivers who are better than any receiver any of those young defensive backs have seen in practice in Tuscaloosa, well, Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost will think of a beautiful Thanksgiving buffet.

And when that rugged front seven is huffing and puffing, it will be Royce Freeman using his 230 pounds to show how physical the Ducks can be.

Then there's the Tide's offense. Golly. Derrick Henry. And ... hmm. So, yeah, Derrick Henry.

Ed, a one-man band won't beat the Ducks' defense, which does very well against one-dimensional teams -- see it holding Utah and Stanford to 3.4 yards per rush last year.

I will give you this. Oregon, which will be breaking in a new quarterback this fall, won't score its usual 40-plus points against Alabama. It will score only, oh, 35. And Alabama will score 17.

Maybe.

Edward Aschoff: It's cute that you think Oregon's undersized offensive line (I saw those guys in the flesh in Texas back in January and knew immediately that they were in for a loooooong night against Ohio State's beefier, more athletic defensive line) can really hold its ground for 60 minutes against the Tide. Yes, Alabama's secondary is still very much a work in progress, but when your front seven can push around its opponent like the Tide easily would in this one, I could play cornerback against that PlayStation offense and be fine.

You can't get burned by something that doesn't have time to rev up. Bama's cornerbacks might have to put in extra stadium steps after this one to meet their FitBit requirements, because they will hardly break a sweat.

And don't sleep on this Alabama offense. All Nick Saban and the ubercreative offensive mind of Lane Kiffin (yeah, that Lane Kiffin) did was turn little-used Blake Sims, who at one point played running back and safety, into the most prolific single-season passer in school history. Sims threw for a school-record 3,487 yards last season, powering the Tide to their best offensive season ever (eight games with 500-plus yards, including four 600-plus-yard outings). So excuse me if I don't laugh at the unheralded names on Bama's offensive roster.

As long as Kiffin (yeah, that Kiffin) is running things, this offense will run like a Ferrari. And don't forget about Kenyan Drake, who is a slasher as a running back and a headache for any cornerback when he gets into space as a receiver (31.8 yards per catch on five receptions!). Good luck, Ducks.

Anyway, I just wish this could happen. The SEC needs it, the Pac-12 needs it, and America needs it. Regardless of the bumps, bruises, scrapes and scratches the Tide would inflict on the Ducks, this game would be fun for everyone. And hey, with the way conferences (even the SEC!) are beefing up their schedules, maybe we'll see a scintillating "challenge" like this in the future.

I just hope those Pac-12 guys lay off the gluten-free, avocado, sunflower sprout-infused, tofu sammiches in order to pack on the appropriate pounds to hang with the SEC's best for at least three quarters.