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Yes, the Pac-12 is doing great, but ...

8/2/2015
Play0:23
USC to best Oregon in Pac-12?

Paul Finebaum thinks Oregon could suffer from a hangover effect with no Marcus Mariota and USC could be the team to watch out of the Pac-12.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott led off media days last week lauding his conference's football teams. He pointed out that ESPN ranked the Pac-12 as the No. 1 conference in 2014. He said he expected the conference to again be on top in 2015. He said "no one will have a tougher road to the playoffs than the Pac-12 champion."

Maybe so. The Pac-12 turned in perhaps its best-ever football season last year. Six teams finished nationally ranked after the conference produced a 6-2 bowl record. It won the Heisman Trophy, produced more All-Americans than any other conference per capita and led the NFL draft in the spring in first-round picks and selections through three rounds. There's a general feeling, at least among conference coaches, the league will be even deeper in 2015, top-to-bottom, than last fall.

"Everybody is going to be better than they were a year ago," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I think it's going to be an insane year in our conference."

And yet there is still a "but," and Scott himself volunteered it.

"But," Scott said, "until we win the national championship, I don't think we will get the recognition nationally that we're looking for, and that's fair to an extent. That's just the way our culture is. To the winner go the spoils."

Of course, this whole discussion is as much about the SEC as the Pac-12 because, well, it's difficult to talk about college football's big picture without including the SEC, and it's not like SEC adherents would allow themselves to be ignored anyway. Two years ago, it was folks fretting that the SEC was too good after winning seven consecutive BCS national titles. After two years without the SEC winning a national title, it's folks fretting about whether the SEC is in decline.

National media were all over this sort of angle last week, knowing full well they could click bait an audience coast-to-coast, the Pac-12 chest pounding inspiring rolled eyes in the Southeast with plenty of "What about us?" from Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC country. Sports Illustrated asked, "Has the Pac-12 passed the SEC as college football's top conference?" USA Today queried, "For Pac-12 football, how strong is too strong?" Perhaps annoyed with all these carpetbaggers leaching onto a West Coast narrative, Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times turned a quasi-skeptical eye to the Pac-12's salesmanship.

Still, everyone pointed to the lack of a national championships since 2004 as a blinking yellow caution light.

The idea in itself is flawed: A conference's overall quality isn't demonstrated by one of its teams winning a national title -- see Florida State in 2013 and Ohio State in 2014. A conference's quality is about how many good teams it has, not how good its best team is. Yet the psychology of the notion is fully ingrained into our sports culture. Championships matter more than statistics or, really, even sound evaluative reasoning. It's why many, for example, might rate Terry Bradshaw a better NFL quarterback than Dan Marino. The ring is the thing.

While a Stanford grad like Shaw might point out the logical fallacy in that -- "I don't think so," he said when asked if the conference needed a national title to earn respect -- the predominant Pac-12 opinion, from Scott to the coaches to the national and regional media, is the lack of a national title since USC won 11 years ago stands as a gaping void in an otherwise strong resume.

"Obviously, until you win the national championship you can't say you're the best," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.

If Oregon had won the national title game in 2010 or 2014, as Scott noted, the Pac-12 certainly would face fewer, if any, skeptics. In fact, the Ducks themselves are part of this discussion, as the program's enduring run as a national power is lacking only a national championship. So the perceived return of USC as the conference's alpha program after it emerges from NCAA sanctions -- media picked the Trojans to win the conference last week -- resurrects a potential perception of the Pac-12 as a one-star constellation, at least in terms of its trophy case.

The last Pac-12/10 team other than USC to win a national title was Washington in 1991, a split championship with Miami. Before that, if then-Big 8 member Colorado's 1990 split championship doesn't count, it's UCLA in 1954.

As for more tangible evidence of the Pac-12's quality, it's there. While the conference will again be superior at quarterback compared to most leagues, particularly the QB-berefit SEC, it's the improved across-the-board talent, including coaching, that is most notable.

An offensive, skill position driven league that isn't physical and ignores defense? Nope. Sixteen of the conference's 25 picks through the first three rounds of the NFL draft this past spring played defense. Eleven of those were linemen from either side of the ball. Depth? Nine Pac-12 teams had at least two players drafted.

That draft success happened despite the conference welcoming back as many starters in 2015 as any other conference.

So few will question if the Pac-12 is going to be good in 2015.

"I think the league is going to be a lot better this year than it was last year," Graham said.

"Good" is a widely accepted stipulation. "Great" or "best," however, appears to be a judgment that hangs on whether the Pac-12 will end up with a team atop the final polls.