NCF Nation: Pac-10 Conference

Press coverage: The nation's No. 2 league?

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
3:42
PM ET
The SEC is king in college football after producing each of the last four national champions. That won't change until a team from another league hoists the crystal football.

But the SEC has a reason to look over its shoulder this season. Several of them, in fact. The Big 12, Pac-10 and Big Ten are trying to catch the SEC, and all three leagues can make cases for being the nation's No. 2 conference right now. According to the ESPN Stats & Info conference power rankings, the Big 12 is No. 2, followed by the Pac-10 and the Big Ten.

Which conference is right behind the SEC?

Bloggers David Ubben (Big 12), Ted Miller (Pac-10) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) weigh in.

Adam Rittenberg: What the Big Ten lacks -- an undefeated team -- it more than makes up for with incredible depth. The league boasts three 1-loss teams in Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State, all of which could finish 11-1. It also boasts a veteran Iowa team that no one wants to face in a bowl, in addition to decent squads like Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan. Even Illinois has made some major strides from 2009.

[+] EnlargeIowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Big Ten boasts some great talent at quarterback, including Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, who ranks third in the nation.
This is the deepest the Big Ten has been since 2006, when it entered late November with the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 team and three teams -- Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- ranked in the top 7 of the final BCS standings. The Big Ten's rise also has occurred while Michigan rebuilds. The league also has significantly upgraded its quarterback play, boasting five of the nation's top 15 rated passers. Although the Big Ten's nonconference performance was just so-so, competition within the league seems to be largely undervalued by those evil BCS computers. A top-tier SEC or Big 12 program seems to get much more credit for beating a mid-level team in its league than Wisconsin gets for beating Iowa on the road or Michigan State gets for beating Northwestern on the road. The human voters see the Big Ten in a different light.

The Big Ten finished the 2009-10 bowl season as the nation's No. 2 conference, recording four victories against top 15 opponents.

Nothing has changed to move the Big Ten off of the second line.

David Ubben: Hey, I get it. In college football, a conference is only as strong as its strongest link. That's how the expression goes, right? Gimme a break.

The Big 12 has landed a team in the title game in each of the past two seasons. Despite being on the outside looking in on this year's chase, the league still has five teams in the top 20, and earlier this year, nine teams were in the poll or receiving votes. All that should be even more impressive considering the league's glamour program, Texas, at 4-6, is having a "down year" that is insulting to down years. Nine consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins for the Longhorns has come to a rather spectacularly bad end.

But otherwise, strength is everywhere. Baylor is having one of the program's best years and should be just as good in 2011. Missouri, had they not tripped up at Texas Tech, could be in the top 10. Oklahoma State has emerged as the league's surprise top 10 team and Nebraska is proving everybody wrong who thought they were overrated in the preseason. Texas A&M struggled early, but has won four Big 12 games in a row to reach the top 20. All in a down year for the two programs who have ruled the conference, Oklahoma and Texas.

Outside of Colorado, which is leaving anyway, and rebuilding Kansas, every team in the league is proving to be, at the very least, capable. Iowa State, despite playing the toughest schedule in college football, still has a chance to qualify for a bowl, and if Texas does the same by beating rival Texas A&M, the league could have 10 bowl-eligible teams.

So maybe the Big 12 doesn't have a team vying for the crystal football this year, but it has a whole lot of really good teams, and a handful of others who are proving there's no such thing as an easy week in the Big 12.

Ted Miller: Over at the Pac-10, we're grinning. We're about to point out the Pac-10 plays a nine-game conference schedule, which automatically adds five losses to the conference, which, of course, hurts the conference's national perception, not to mention its number of bowl-eligible teams. Every other BCS conference plays eight, other than the eight-team Big East. But that’s not why we're grinning. We're grinning because the Big Ten and the Big 12 will do that soon, and then they'll find out the perception consequence of not giving your entire conference an extra win with a nonconference patsy. Of course, the savvy SEC will continue to play eight conference games, schedule weak nonconference opponents and then trumpet itself as super-awesome.

Why is the Pac-10 No. 2? Well, it's got the nation's No. 1 team in Oregon. It's got the nation's No. 6 team in Stanford, which many believe to be the nation's best one-loss team. And four of 10 teams are ranked. Are Iowa and Wisconsin good teams? Absolutely. But Iowa lost to Arizona, which has three Pac-10 defeats, and Wisconsin got a fluky one-point win at home over Arizona State, which is 2-5 in the Pac-10. The Pac-10 is 10-4 overall vs. other BCS conferences. It's ranked No. 1 by the Sagarin ratings, which for some reason don't believe stadium size is a true measure of a team or a conference. Even lowly Washington State is no longer the pushover it was the previous two seasons.

Depth? Let's put it this way: The Pac-10 would love to match the team that ends up second to last in its conference versus the one that ends up in that spot anywhere else.

Rittenberg: Three strong cases for the No. 2 spot. But are any of these leagues closing the gap with the SEC?

Ubben: I guess we'll find out come bowl season, but I don't know that anybody in the Big 12 is in position for a run like the SEC's enjoyed in the latter half of the last decade.

Oklahoma and Texas will be Oklahoma and Texas, but the strength of the Big 12 has been a rising middle class with teams like Oklahoma State, Missouri, Texas A&M and maybe Baylor and Texas Tech positioning themselves to become mainstays in the top 25 during the next couple years or beyond.

That's good for the computer ratings, but not good for a league trying to field a national champion. And for better or worse, a league's ultimate identity boils down to its best team or two. Thanks to that rising middle class, getting inside the top five and staying there could be harder than ever in the next few years.

[+] EnlargeOregon quarterback Darron Thomas
AP Photo/Paul SakumaThe SEC might be the top rated conference, but the Pac-10's Darren Thomas leads the nation's No. 1 team in Oregon.
Miller: Are we talking reality or perception? Because the SEC's ostensible superiority is largely about perception -- i.e., fan passion equals great football. The Pac-10 has a winning record vs. the SEC over the past decade, and the Big Ten has done just fine vs. the SEC in the Capital One and Outback Bowls. The SEC is probably No. 1, but the margin is thin, and the conference refuses to prove its superiority during the regular season by consistently scheduling tough nonconference games.

When USC ruled the Pac-10 from 2002-2008, folks called the conference the Trojans and the nine dwarfs. Now that USC has fallen, Oregon has risen, and teams such as Stanford and Arizona also have made moves. But USC will be back. That's just inevitable. And if Utah continues to play at a high level after it joins the Pac-12, you could make the case that the Pac-10 should start to produce multiple top-10 teams and five or six top-25 teams annually, which would put it on par with the SEC.

And, honestly, with resurgent Nebraska joining the Big Ten, I'm not sure we won't have a new No. 1 conference in 2011 anyway.

Rittenberg: Well, Ted made most of my points for me. I'll be sending a gift basket to Scottsdale.

The Big Ten certainly has matched up well with the SEC in the Capital One and Outback bowls, and the addition of Nebraska next fall truly enhances the league's clout. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often points out the only way his league truly regains national respect is by beating the best from another conference at the championship level. The Big Ten still gets bashed for Ohio State's stumbles against the SEC in the BCS title game, and barring a wild final three weeks, a Big Ten squad won't be facing Auburn on Jan. 10 in Glendale. So the Big Ten must wait for that true statement game.

When I look at these two leagues from top to bottom, I don't see much difference. The Big Ten has continued to build off of its strong finish to 2009, while the SEC seems to have backslid. All you need to do is look at the SEC East division. Could Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State beat Auburn or LSU? It's possible, but I really think the entire league matches up better now with what the SEC is offering.

Like Ted writes, it's all about perception. Until a team from another league beats the SEC at the highest level, the SEC will keep living off of its incredible run.

But the Big Ten is catching up.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

By all accounts, 2008 was a landmark season for Big 12 football.

The unprecedented three-way tie for the South Division championship that involved Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma made the conference must-see television for the second half of the season for fans across the country. Attention was riveted to the conference unlike any previous time in the Big 12's history.

It should be more of the same this season as strong races are expected in both the North and South Divisions.

The conference again will feature cutting-edge offensive units that will score boatloads of points and be powered by the most talented collection of quarterbacks that can be found anywhere.

Those numbers are nice, but the Big 12's lack of defensive production is the main reason I still think it ranks behind the Southeastern Conference.

The top athletes in the Big 12 are clustered on offensive units, helping to result in shootouts.

In the SEC, those same athletes seem to end up playing defense. It might not be as much fun to watch, but the physical nature is apparent.

In recent bowl games, the Big 12 has struggled to match that defensive nature of the SEC for many statement-making victories.  Oklahoma's loss to Florida in the BCS title game and Texas Tech's defeat to Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl last year indicated there's still a gap between defenses found in the SEC and the Big 12.

The SEC also has a deeper concentration of top teams, as seen by its four teams in the top 10 when the USA Today coaches' poll was released earlier today.

It doesn't mean the Big 12 won't be exciting or fun to watch this season. Because it will be -- again.

But until Big 12 teams can notch some statement-making victories where defense isn't an afterthought, its national perception will continue to lag behind the SEC's.

The rest of the nation is no comparison. Big 12 teams can occasionally win their BCS bowl games, unlike the ACC. It might not have the fancy television network of the Big Ten, but has a more exciting brand of football to showcase. And it's not nearly as top heavy as the Pac-10 with its concentration of USC and Oregon at the top and little balance after.

Here's my ranking of the top eight conferences heading into the upcoming season

    1. SEC
    2. Big 12
    3. ACC
    4. Big Ten
    5. Pac-10
    6. MWC
    7. Big East
    8. WAC
      Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

      For the second consecutive season, officials from the Rose Bowl are attending the media days of both the Mountain West and the WAC, but this year will be the first time the bowl is making connections with coaches, players and conference commissioners with the intent of actually hosting one of those teams.

      The Pac-10 and Big Ten have a contract to be the first selections of the Rose Bowl, but from the 2010 season through the 2013 season, if a champion from either the Pac-10 or the Big Ten is not available -- it qualifies for the national championship game -- and a nonautomatic qualifying team earns a BCS bid, then the Rose Bowl must take that team.

      "Under certain circumstances, they can play their way into the Rose Bowl, which hasn't been true in the past," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Monday at Big Ten media day. "That's additional access. Standards have been, I think, lightened to access the BCS."

      The Rose Bowl only has to do this one time during the 2010-13 span and then it can go back to picking from the six BCS leagues. But despite Delany's comments, it's not necessarily true that it gives the non-AQs more access. What it really does is stop the Rose Bowl from hiding behind its contractual obligations to the Pac-10 and Big Ten and distribute the non-AQ qualifier evenly. Only the Fiesta Bowl and the Sugar Bowl have hosted nonautomatic qualifying schools.

      Since the BCS began in 1998, no team from the nonautomatic qualifying leagues has played in the Rose Bowl. Utah played in the Fiesta Bowl in 2004, Boise State played in the Fiesta Bowl in 2006, Hawaii played in the Sugar Bowl in 2007, and Utah played in the Sugar Bowl in 2008.

      Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

      When the new BCS contract begins during the 2010 season, there's a chance you could see a team like Boise State, Utah or TCU in The Granddaddy of Them All. 

      As first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and confirmed to ESPN.com by BCS administrator Bill Hancock, the Rose Bowl will be required to take an eligible non-BCS team if it loses the Big Ten champion or Pac-10 champion to the national title game. This policy would only take effect once during the four-year BCS bowl cycle. 

      Here's how the policy change works. Let's say USC is selected for the national championship game following the 2010 season. Rather than selecting another Pac-10 team, the Rose Bowl would have to take a non-BCS team if that team is eligible for BCS bowl selection and not headed to the national championship game. So you could have the Big Ten champion against a team from the Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, MAC or Sun Belt.

      No teams from those leagues have ever appeared in the Rose Bowl. 

      "It's only going to happen once if it happens at all," Hancock said.

      The change will open up more opportunities for non-BCS teams to play in these big-time bowls. It also will prevent, at least temporarily, teams that don't necessarily deserve BCS berths from appearing in these games simply because of their conference affiliation.

      I can't imagine the Big Ten is too pleased about the change. The league has sent more teams to BCS bowls than any other conference, and the Rose Bowl tie-in is a big reason why. When the Big Ten lost Ohio State to the national title game in 2006 and 2007, it still sent a representative to the Rose Bowl.

      It's a pretty good bet a 9-3 Illinois team wouldn't go to Pasadena under the new policy, as it did in 2007.

      I'm a big fan of the non-BCS teams and enjoy seeing Utah, Boise State and others routinely go against the big boys. On the other hand, there's not a more tradition-rich game in the country than the Rose Bowl.

      Though the game has featured three Big 12 teams this decade -- Nebraska in 2002, Oklahoma in 2003, Texas in 2004 and 2005 -- as well as Miami in 2002, it would be odd to see a Mountain West or a WAC team in Pasadena. I could get used to it every once in a while, though I doubt Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany could. 

      It would be interesting to see how a non-BCS team would affect attendance and ratings for the Rose Bowl, which continues to thrive in both areas.

      Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

      CHICAGO -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany reads your letters and e-mails.

      A growing continent of college football fans advocate some sort of playoff system, and they're directing their opinions toward Delany, the man many believe is most responsible for the BCS system staying put. Delany on Thursday reiterated that the Big Ten and the Pac-10 are not the two primary roadblocks to a college football playoff. He said five of the BCS governing members had no interest in a playoff system during meetings this spring, and the two members who expressed interest "weren't committed to the concepts."

      The "consensus" among the powers-that-be is that the current system works, but what about the fans? Don't the BCS conference commissioners and the Notre Dame athletic director have a responsibility to listen to the majority of their constituents?

      "We do have a responsibility to consider it," Delany said. "My address is well known. I get lots of communications on the subject. I read them all. But I think also we have responsibilities to our schools, to our athletes, to our teams and to the bowl system. ... I will tell you this: in many, many ways the college football fan votes with their feet by going to the games and the college football fan votes by watching the games. I think they're voting fairly affirmatively for what we have."

      Playoff proposals present several problems, according to Delany. A playoff would spill into the second semester or occur during final exams, creating problems for the school presidents. A bigger issue is determining which teams would qualify for a playoff, and how many.

      "Once you go to a four-team playoff, that means in last year's circumstances, Georgia and (USC) are not included," he said. "That would take about 18 months to be able to make the playoff based on political pressures. Then, you have eight, who should get them? The six conference champions? If you don't give it to the conference champions, then you've really relegated your championship. ... If you give it to all conferences, then you're at 10 automatic qualifiers. I've seen the (NCAA) basketball tournament, the automatic bid is the most important thing. So very quickly, we'd be at a 16-team playoff. The slippery slope argument is there."

      Delany also weighed in on several other topics:

      • Post-Thanksgiving games are likely here to stay in the Big Ten, as coaches requested and received a bye week after previously playing 12 straight games before the holiday. "We have the bye this year, we don't in '09 and in '10 we have it again," Delany said. "And then going forward indefinitely, as far as we have schedules, it will be after Thanksgiving."
      • Would the Big Ten ever implement a Rooney rule to increase its number of minority head coaches? The league has been underrepresented, with no black head coaches since Michigan State's Bobby Williams (1999-2002). "I wouldn't be opposed to talking about it," Delany said. "The six major conferences have been bringing 18 African-American football coaches, 18 athletic directors, six conference commissioners and search folks together for three years now, the goal being at the end of six years, there will be 100 African-American coaches who know 100 athletic directors. We've got to reach out. We've got to open up."
      • The Comcast-Big Ten Network deal is done, but negotiations are still ongoing with several other cable providers in the Midwest. "Our job is not finished," Delany said. "We're only in about seven out of 10 homes in the Midwest."
      • Delany on the Big Ten's recent BCS bowl performance: "We want to play the big games on the big stage, and sometimes you just get whipped, and we did. So you have to kind of nuzzle up to that and sort of accept it. But what I don't like to do is take it further than you should."

      SPONSORED HEADLINES