If USC running back Silas Redd lines up out wide Nov. 9 at California's Memorial Stadium, he could see a familiar and yet surprising face staring back at him.
When Redd and linebacker Khairi Fortt were teammates at Penn State, the thought of Fortt marking Redd in man coverage seemed absurd. Fortt played strongside linebacker in Penn State's Cover 3 defense, a tried-and-true scheme that suited the Big Ten. His responsibilities consisted of, among other things, "hitting the fullback constantly."
"The only time we really covered running backs at Penn State were in one-on-ones [practice drills]," Fortt said. "It was more of a smashmouth defense."
Both Fortt and Redd entered a new reality when they left Penn State in the wake of last summer's NCAA sanctions and landed at Pac-12 programs.
Fortt, who redshirted last season while rehabbing a knee injury he suffered before transferring, is preparing to cover not only Redd, but also many other Pac-12 running backs this season. There's no choice in a conference in which, as Fortt puts it, "the killer is speed."
You're probably saying, "Aha! Perception is reality!" The Pac-12 is, in fact, the speed league, while the Big Ten is all fullback dives and nine-man boxes. Just like you thought all along!
Put those labels away, folks.
Yes, each FBS conference is marked by certain characteristics. But players who have spent time in multiple leagues say that the generalizations often applied to those leagues tell only part of the story. Just because a conference is rooted more in an area or a scheme doesn't mean it's allergic to another.
The differences between leagues are more subtle than sweeping.
"It's a little misguided," NC State defensive end Forrest West, who started his career in the Big 12 at Colorado before transferring in 2011, said of the public perception of conferences. "Every conference does have its own style of play. The Big Ten is definitely more ground and pound. The SEC is known for defense and not really that much offensive talent, even though they have it. Every league is known for their own thing, but there's really not that much of a difference. It's kids from different parts of the country, and they're all great athletes.
"You can't say one conference is that much faster than another."
Other transfers echo West's belief that the differences between leagues are overblown.
"Division I athletes are Division I athletes," said SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who started his career in the Big 12 at Texas before moving to Conference USA and will play this season in the newly formed American Athletic Conference. "The perception [with Conference USA] is that the speed is a little less, when, in reality, each team brings something a little different to the table, whether that's [being] very fast or a big team up front. The speed and size are not different from any other conference."
The players acknowledge the schematic differences and emphasis points that vary from league to league. Michigan State's DeAnthony Arnett and Northwestern's Kyle Prater, two wide receivers who grew up in Big Ten country but started their careers in other leagues -- Arnett with Tennessee in the SEC, Prater with USC in the Pac-12 -- before transferring back, said the Big Ten's physical style turned out to be as advertised.
Players keep a league's playing style in mind as they prepare for games.
"In the Big Ten, you weren't really going into a week saying, 'This team is really fast,'" said Ray Vinopal, a safety who transferred from Michigan to Pitt after the 2010 season. "You were more going into the week saying, 'This team is going to knock the s--- out of you. You better be coming downhill.'"
When Redd went to USC, he expected to join a league filled with great skill players. The Pac-12 didn't disappoint, but there were some surprises, too.
"I always thought it was a pass-first league, a spread league," Redd said. "The Pac-12 definitely runs the ball more than I thought. That was a surprise. They're not just fast; they're physical as well."
West thought he had left the no-huddle offense – and its strain on defensive linemen – in the rearview mirror when he departed the Big 12. When he arrived in the ACC, he saw plenty of it from opponents like Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Duke.
"It's actually starting to turn into like the Big 12. A lot of athletes," West said. "I thought it was going to be more of a power league, more run the ball than anything. I wasn't expecting the receivers to be as quick as they were."
Players' perceptions about other leagues are a lot like those of outsiders. Before coming to Cal, Fortt, who, like Redd, grew up in Connecticut, thought the Pac-12 was "a bunch of 7-on-7 players flying around. They didn't want that much contact."
Redd, meanwhile, had to defend the Big Ten to some of his new USC teammates, who "thought it was a slow conference."
The league formerly known as the Big East often serves as a national punching bag, even though it has outperformed the ACC in BCS bowl games.
"I thought it was more of a speed football, and maybe the players weren't as tough," Vinopal said. "Quickly, I realized that's not really the case. … In the Big Ten, there may be more challenges week in and week out, but there's a lot of good teams in the Big East. There's just as much speed, there's just as much toughness and strength. It really [changed] what I had in mind."
Most debates about conference strength usually end with three letters: S-E-C. After winning the past seven BCS national championships and dominating the recent NFL drafts, the SEC has established itself as college football's kingpin league.
Speed has been at the core of the SEC's rise. Jay Prosch, a fullback who transferred from Illinois to Auburn after the 2011 season, said speed is "the biggest difference between the SEC and Big Ten." But Prosch also notes that SEC teams worked more to create space and capitalize on their speed, while the Big Ten played "straight-at-your-face football."
"Everybody has speed. Everybody can play," Arnett said. "When I was at Tennessee, you had the Honey Badger [former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and you had [former LSU cornerback Morris] Claiborne and you had [Brandon] Boykin from Georgia. But when I came to Michigan State, we had [cornerbacks] Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. Those guys belong in the same category."
Several players see teams in their new leagues that remind them of their old leagues. Redd, Fortt and Prater mentioned Utah, Stanford and Colorado as teams that could fit in the Big Ten, while Redd thinks Ohio State could blend in with the Pac-12 because of its speed. West has lined up across from several ACC offenses (Florida State, Miami) that remind him of those in the Big 12, while Vinopal singled out Rutgers as the Big East team that best exhibits the physical style linked to the Big Ten. Rutgers joins the Big Ten next season.
The cross-pollination in conferences can be traced to the nomadic nature of college coaching. Coaches move from job to job and conference to conference. At Michigan, Vinopal played for Rich Rodriguez, who had come to Ann Arbor after building West Virginia into a Big East power. He left for Pitt to play for Todd Graham, who bolted for the Pac-12 (Arizona State) after only one season. In stepped Paul Chryst, the longtime Wisconsin offensive coordinator, who brought several assistants from Wisconsin to Pitt.
"When I was at Michigan, we were running the 3-3-5 defense, which isn't really a Big Ten defense in most people's eyes," Vinopal said. "With our new coaches here at Pitt coming from the Big Ten, I think I'm playing more of a Big Ten-style defense now than when I was in the Big Ten."
Vinopal's perception will change again this season as Pitt enters the ACC, a league he thinks will blend what he saw in both the Big Ten and Big East. He expects it to be more physical than the Big East but notes it's a speed-driven league filled with skill-oriented teams. He'll soon find out if his presumptions are correct.
The same holds true for Gilbert in The American.
"It's going to be new for all of us," he said.
Conference perception will continue to be driven by familiar factors: national championships won, number of ranked teams, number of NFL draft picks. Players who have lived life in multiple leagues, while understanding these gauges, don't subscribe to the same simplistic reasoning.
To them, the gaps between talent -- and leagues -- are narrow.
"It's hard to measure that," Fortt said. "It's subtle. Each conference has their strengths, adjustments and ups and downs. When you look at it, it's all football."