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Friday, September 27, 2013
Pac-12 looks good from SEC turf

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

As a card-carrying member of the SEC-rules-college-football club, I understand the consequences of saying this.

But here goes:

This just might be the Pac-12's year.

There, I said it, and while realizing that we're only four weeks into the season, there's ample evidence that the Pac-12's depth, overall talent and balance across the league stacks up as well as it ever has against the SEC.

Now, if we could only get an Alabama versus Oregon matchup in the VIZIO BCS National Championship game. That's the game everybody wants to see.

Toward the end of Oregon's 59-14 smackdown of Tennessee a few weeks ago, the Ducks' fans chanted, "We want Bama."

And leading up to that game, Oregon offensive lineman Jake Fisher echoed what a lot of people outside the SEC's footprint have been rolling their eyes and saying as the league's national championship streak has swelled to seven in a row.

"They're really big and scary," Fisher said of the Vols, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "So we're all really, really intimidated by the SEC. We're just going to have to keep our minds right."

It was a given that Oregon and Stanford were going to be strong again this season, but where it looks like the Pac-12 has made up the most ground on the SEC is the middle of the pack.

Oregon Ducks and Tennessee Volunteers
Oregon, which obviously is loaded with speed, isn't intimidated by the SEC's physical reputation.

Look at what Jim Mora has done with that UCLA program. Washington is greatly improved, particularly on defense. We'll find out more about unbeaten Arizona on Saturday at Washington, and Arizona State has a big one this weekend as well against USC.

Who would have guessed in the preseason that USC would be only the sixth- or seventh-best team in the Pac-12?

But even the Trojans, as hapless as they've been on offense, are a load on defense with several future pros sprinkled throughout that starting lineup.

"One of the things you're seeing is that the defenses in the Pac-12 have caught up in terms of the athletes in the front seven -- the length of those athletes, their size and their ability to be physical," said one current Pac-12 coach. "Speed has never been an issue in this league, but now you're seeing teams that are combining a little bit of it all."

Indeed, Stanford is probably the closest thing to an SEC team in the Pac-12 when you start talking about lining up and being physical and winning the line of scrimmage.

Stanford held Oregon's warp-speed offense to two touchdowns last season and bullied the Ducks in a 17-14 overtime win. Oregon has to travel to Palo Alto this season in a Thursday night game Nov. 7.

Ironically, one of the things working against the Pac-12 this season in the national championship race could be the very thing that has been so challenging for the SEC.

It could be that the Pac-12 beats up on itself and fails to produce any unbeaten teams at season's end.

The biggest factor in this whole debate is the crimson elephant in the room -- Alabama.

The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide have won three of the past four national championships and are still one of the top four or five teams in the country.

But they're not what they were, at least talent-wise, the past four years.

That doesn't mean they won't be right there playing for the title again this January, but the gap has narrowed.

"The last four years, Alabama might as well have been the 33rd NFL team," said one veteran coach, who has spent time in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12. "They were in a grouping all by themselves.

"They've lost enough good players over the last few years that they're back in the top grouping with everybody else now. They're easily one of the best three or four teams in the country. But when the gap closes like that, on any given day, anything can happen."'

Despite the 49-42 win at Texas A&M earlier this month, Alabama has looked vulnerable at times this season. Part of it is the dizzying standard that the Crimson Tide have set. They've also had some injuries, but the overall up-and-down nature of this team has been frustrating for Nick Saban.

He knows that can't continue, especially with No. 21 Ole Miss coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.

"I don't know how to explain it. We've got good kids," Saban said. "You know how there's always a real sense of purpose in everything you do, and I think there's a sense of purpose with these kids. I really do. But there's something I can't quite put a finger on with the inconsistencies. It's been all year, even last week against Colorado State. We've been very inconsistent in terms of paying attention to detail, making mental errors, technique errors and not communicating.

"We're still trying to get the chemistry of the team where there's that mental toughness that you need to be a consistent, relentless, grind-it-out competitor, which is really what we've always been here."

Trent Murphy, Angel Santiago end Ben Gardner
Stanford's smothering defense bears a similarity to the traditional SEC styles of defense.

Nobody has come close to slowing down Oregon, which has scored 59 or more points in all three of its games this season.

Of course, any time the Oregon versus the SEC argument comes up, SEC apologists such as myself have tended to point to Auburn's 22-19 win over Oregon in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game and LSU's 40-27 win over Oregon to open the 2011 season in Arlington, Texas.

In both of those contests, it's worth noting that Auburn and LSU had a long time to prepare for Oregon's spread offense. The Tigers, who weren't a great defense that season, had more than five weeks.

"It's really like a mini-spring practice," said one SEC coach. "It's not like a regular game week where you have two or three days to prepare and go play. Most of those spread offenses aren't going to beat you with execution. They're going to beat you with confusion, and when you have five weeks or more, you have so much more time to rep it and prepare."

Similarly, I bumped into former Auburn coach Pat Dye following the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, and he made a similar point.

"When you have this much time in between games, it always helps the defenses and hurts the offenses," Dye said.

Both of those offenses were prolific in 2010, but Auburn managed to pull out a slugfest.

Suffocating defense has been a common denominator in the SEC's run. Six of the past seven national champions have finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

But outside Florida this season, at least among those SEC teams who started the season ranked in the top 20, it's a stretch to say that any of the defenses in this league measure up to what we're used to seeing.

For one, the SEC has lost 23 underclassmen on defense the past two years who were taken in the NFL draft. At some point, that kind talent drain takes it toll.

And let's give the quarterbacks in the SEC some props as well. Can any other conference offer up three quarterbacks as good, talented and experienced as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray? That's not to mention the way LSU's Zach Mettenberger, South Carolina's Connor Shaw, Missouri's James Franklin and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace are playing right now.

In other words, no wonder the SEC's offensive numbers are up and the defensive numbers are down.

We'll further flesh out the pretenders and contenders in both the Pac-12 and SEC this weekend thanks to several key showdowns.

And in a few months, we'll revisit this whole Pac-12 versus SEC debate.

I'll say this: From where I sit, perched right in the heart of SEC country, those guys on the West Coast are more than just fast.

But as one coach in the Pac-12 told me this week, "The only way we're going to change the perception that we're the weaker sister to the SEC is to go out and beat them on the big stage."

That stage this season just happens to be on Pac-12 soil -- the Rose Bowl.

•  •  •

Georgia's defensive line embraces depth

Georgia enters the LSU game Saturday ranked last in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, and the Tigers and Zach Mettenberger have been red-hot throwing the football.

Much of the focus will be on how well Georgia's young secondary matches up against LSU's receivers, but even more important for the Bulldogs will be pressuring Mettenberger.

One thing you saw in Georgia's 41-30 win over South Carolina earlier this month was that the Bulldogs looked fresh in the second half and came up with key stops. They gave up only six points after halftime.

One of the big differences is that they're playing a lot more guys in their defensive front than they did a year ago.

Against South Carolina, Georgia played 12 guys across the front, counting the outside linebacker positions, according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

"We didn't have that many last year, so we were a little bit handcuffed," Grantham said. "It's important to play more guys up front, to keep them fresh. If you're going to win the game in the fourth quarter, you've got to finish it off, and it takes a lot of energy to rush the passer."

•  •  •

UCF unearths gem in Blake Bortles

It could be that South Carolina faces the best NFL prospect it will see all season at quarterback Saturday, and the Gamecocks aren't even playing an SEC game.

Jamie Collings, Blake Bortles
Blake Bortles has NFL size and has looked sharp this season.

UCF junior Blake Bortles is ranked fifth nationally in passing efficiency. He has thrown seven touchdown passes and just one interception in his first three games. He has NFL size at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds and an NFL arm.

South Carolina was torched for four touchdown passes a few weeks ago by Georgia's Aaron Murray, and one coach on the Gamecocks' staff told me that Bortles looks even better on tape than Murray and can fit the ball in the tightest of windows.

You can bet that Bortles is looking forward to going up against an SEC defense, too. He didn't get a sniff from SEC recruiters as a quarterback coming out of high school. He just happened to play in the same county in Florida as another quarterback who did wind up in the SEC -- Jeff Driskel.

•  •  •

Nine SEC games an uphill climb

The general feeling coming out of the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., this summer was that moving to a nine-game conference schedule was inevitable.

Commissioner Mike Slive has said he wants to see teams in the league play 10 good games, and Saban also has said he thinks the SEC should go from eight to nine conference games.

But the more athletic directors I talk to in the league, the more I wonder if there will be eight schools voting for nine conference games. The league has said it would review future scheduling in 2016, and based on my unofficial polling of league athletic directors, there's not enough support to get the majority vote needed.

At least, not now.

Alabama announced Thursday that it opted out of a deal to play Michigan State in a home-and-home series in 2016 and 2017. Saban said the uncertainty of what the future SEC schedule holds was a major reason, not to mention some more lucrative possibilities at neutral sites such as Atlanta and Arlington, Texas.