Before handing off the Pac-12 conference championship trophy to either USC or Oregon, Football Outsiders' Brian Fremeau suggests taking a look at Stanford and UCLA first.
Fremeau examined five programs that are closing the talent gap versus the top teams in their conference — and two of the five programs are right here in the Pac-12.
Stanford, fresh off a second-straight BCS bowl game, tops the list.
Fremeau on the Cardinal:
Stanford made the most of the Andrew Luck era, appearing in back-to-back BCS bowl games and winning 31 games over the past three seasons with Luck at the helm. For a program that was at the bottom of the Pac-12 only a short time ago, it has been a dramatic climb. The question is whether that momentum can be sustained going forward.
Head coach David Shaw delivered the best class in recent Stanford history, headlined by a signing day haul of top offensive line recruits that will be expected to anchor the balanced Cardinal offense going forward. Running back Barry Sanders (son of the former NFL superstar) may be an impact player right out of the gate as well.
The hole left behind by Luck will be tough to fill, and a step back in 2012 is to be expected. But the Cardinal have been winning with unheralded classes for the past few years. What may they do with a talent advantage going forward?
Rounding out the list at No. 5 is UCLA. Here's Fremeau's take on the Bruins:
A tumultuous coaching transition usually dooms a recruiting class, but new head coach Jim Mora finished strong and delivered a top-20 group to get the Bruins in position to contend immediately. UCLA has a long way to go to match crosstown rival USC, but the Bruins' overall talent level suggests UCLA can win now against most of the rest of the Pac-12.
The PFEI numbers tell another tale altogether, one that suggests the Bruins need time to patiently improve. UCLA made our list of five biggest recruiting underachievers, but as we mentioned in that article, it starts with keeping losses from getting out of hand. Eliminate the blowout losses first and close the gap over time.
That said, UCLA has more talent accumulated right now according to our weighted recruiting measure than at any point in the Rick Neuheisel or Karl Dorrell eras. UCLA has been recruiting like one of the top programs in the country, so no one should be too surprised if Mora delivers early returns.