- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.
Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.
OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.
The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steele ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.
Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.
"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."
Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.
While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.
There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.
"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."
That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.
Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.
So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?
The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.
No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."
What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.
"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."
The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.
But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.
The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
4dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller