Can the Pac-12 catch the SEC?

Not yet, but they're getting closer -- and here's why

Originally Published: August 23, 2014
By Andrew Lewellen | ESPN The Magazine

Adam Schulz, Leonard WilliamsLouis Lopez/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesUSC's Leonard Williams is a southeast native. The Pac-12 needs more like him.

LEAVES TO RAKE. Shorter days. SEC supremacy. Ahh, the joys of autumn. Year ... after year ... after year. You know the refrains. The SEC gets the best recruits! (Since 2010, it has signed 37 percent of the ESPN 150 and 300.) The SEC sends guys to the NFL! (It had 49 drafted in 2014, the most of any conference.) The SEC wins championships! (It won seven BCS titles in a row before losing to the ACC's Florida State last season.) But here's a new riff: Signs point to the Pac-12 rivaling the SEC as the best conference top to bottom. As bad luck would have it, the two leagues are the only ones in the Power Five that don't square off during the regular season. So unable to wait until January, we turned to ESPN Insider Brock Huard and ESPN recruiting coordinator Tom Luginbill to tell us how these conferences stack up.

If ever there was a year for the Pac-12 to sneak past the SEC, it's 2014: A&M loses a Heisman-winning QB (Johnny Manziel), Alabama a two-time titlist (AJ McCarron) and Georgia its all-time leader in passing yards and TDs (Aaron Murray). "Compare them apples to apples and the Pac-12 is what the SEC was a year ago -- with even more upside," Huard says. "It's mass productivity across the board." ASU's Taylor Kelly (4,243 total yards in one year), OSU's Sean Mannion (400 completions) and WSU's Connor Halliday (five games with four-plus TDs in '13) prove there are stars beyond Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Brett Hundley (UCLA) and Kevin Hogan (Stanford). Advantage: Pac-12.

What the SEC lacks through the air, it makes up in the trenches. "The difference between these two conferences is what the SEC can do up front," Huard says. "They have the 6-4, 315-pound linemen everyone else craves." Yes, Pac-12 teams get to QBs-last season they had 366 sacks, nine more than the SEC-but, Luginbill says, they're not built to overwhelm at the line. That relative dearth isn't for lack of trying but lack of resources. Since 2010, 106 ESPN 150 and 300 DL preps have come from SEC states. Pac-12 country: 23. "I'd argue USC's Leonard Williams is the best Pac-12 lineman," Luginbill says. "Know where he's from?" Florida. Advantage: SEC.

This offseason Nick Saban campaigned in vain for a rule to slow up-tempo offenses. Seems that the fast pace popularized in the Pac-12 prevents certain defensive-minded coaches from subbing at will. In 2013, eight Pac-12 teams averaged fewer than 25 ticks per play, compared with four SEC squads. An influx of innovative coaches has made the Pac-12 more competitive across the board, and Chris Petersen's move to Washington will only heat things up more. As it stands, when it comes to titles, no one holds a candle to Saban and Les Miles (five combined). As Huard says: "It's like old guard vs. new startup." Advantage: Push. See you in January.

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