Commentary

Pac-12 off to sizzling, surprising start

Originally Published: September 12, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

In his three years as commissioner, Larry Scott has transformed the Pac-12 from merely an athletic conference into a business-school petri dish.

Scott expanded the league from 10 members to 12 (but not before trying for 16). He seized the conference's games, marketing and media, declared them "intellectual property" and created Pac-12 Enterprises -- an umbrella multi-platform content company -- to sell and monetize them. He has planted the league flag on the far edge of the Pacific Rim, vowing to eventually stage Pac-12 competition in Asia.

And then there is the conference's biggest innovation of all, the seven channels under the umbrella of the Pac-12 Networks. In this, the networks' fourth week of telecasting, the league struck a deal with the Dish Network that more than doubled the Pac-12 Networks' subscriber base to 24 million customers.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesUCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, who leads the nation in rushing with 431 yards, is just one of the Pac-12's plentiful early-season success stories.
Scott made over the league from A to Z -- with the exception of F. The more the league surged ahead in its business model, the more its football programs seemed to have been left behind.

It's as if Scott remodeled a Mom-and-Pop diner into a gourmet restaurant without changing the menu. The football served up in Scott's Pac-12 has been two-star: Oregon and Stanford. USC's probation last year forced the inaugural Pac-12 championship game to showcase a 6-6 UCLA team. The Bruins may have been mediocre, but they were also the official Pac-12 South champs.

Two weeks into the 2012 season, the menu may have been spruced up to match its surroundings. UCLA and Arizona, both under the direction of new coaches, have upset ranked teams. The league's four newcomers -- UCLA's Jim L. Mora, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State's Todd Graham and Washington State's Mike Leach -- are a combined 7-1.

It's not just the teams with new coaches that are shaking things up. Oregon State, led by Mike Riley, now in his 12th season in Corvallis and the dean of Pac-12 coaches, stunned No. 13 Wisconsin 10-7 last week. But that's old hat for the Beavers, who have upset a ranked opponent in eight of nine seasons dating to 2004.

The victories by UCLA over No. 16 Nebraska and by Arizona over No. 18 Oklahoma State not only boosted both teams into this week's AP poll -- UCLA is No. 22; Arizona is No. 24 -- but provided credibility to a league that needed it.

Mora is happy the spotlight is shining on the Bruins. It's the astonishment that seemingly accompanies it that he doesn't like.

The high level of play "has got to become the norm," Mora said. "It's got to become something that people don't talk about. It just becomes normal for us. That's our goal, to get to the point to where it doesn't surprise people when we play well."

Rodriguez didn't profess surprise at his team's success, either -- at least within earshot of his team. But before the Wildcats played the Cowboys, who finished 12-1 last year and an eyelash from the BCS Championship Game, he warned his wife, Rita.

"I told her, 'This might not be pretty. It could be ugly,'" Rodriguez said. "But the players never sensed that. We talked all week about, 'Hey, we're going to have some tough moments, some adversity. I don't want to see you hanging your head. I want you to have good body language. I want you to keep battling back. We'll see what happens.'"

The four new coaches were expected to breathe life into the league. All are veterans with a track record of success. But no one predicted such early-season success. It creates a positive impression, even if one stipulates that two weeks do not a full transformation make.

"You gain the confidence of your players," Mora said. "You get a little more buy-in. That's never a bad thing."

I have great respect for the level of competitiveness of the SEC. But there are a lot of really good football players here on the West Coast. If we can keep those kids out here, I think the Pac-12 can compete with anybody.

--UCLA's Jim L. Mora

Both offenses are barely through Chapter 1 of their offensive playbooks. Mora is spoon-feeding an offense to five first- or second-year freshmen starters, including three linemen and redshirt quarterback Brett Hundley. That makes all the more impressive the achievements of senior tailback Johnathan Franklin, who leads the nation in rushing with 431 yards and three touchdowns after a pair of 200-yard games.

Hundley's passing efficiency rating of 167.81 through two games is ahead of the school record (166.01) set by Cade McNown in 1997. It's also an about-face for a program that hasn't had a quarterback with a rating above 135.34 in seven years. That number, posted by previous starter Kevin Prince a season ago, is about as six-win as it gets.

Rodriguez, in his previous four stops as a collegiate head coach, never won more than three games in his first season. After Michigan fired him following a disappointing three-year tenure in January 2011, he spent the year visiting other coaches, working as a college football analyst for CBS College Sports Network, and revamping the way he would install his offense the next time he got a coaching job. He cut down his initial playbook by a third.

"We have fewer plays but more options within those plays, if that makes any sense," Rodriguez said. "We try to put more on fewer people. In other words, we'll put more [emphasis] on quarterback play than before but less on the O-line and some of the other positions."

That is working at Arizona because Rodriguez has fifth-year senior quarterback Matt Scott, who lost the starting job to Nick Foles in 2009. Scott redshirted last season, and the Wildcats are fortunate that he did. His ability to run and throw makes him ideal to handle the load that Rodriguez has placed on his shoulders.

[+] EnlargeScott
AP Photo/Wily LowArizona quarterback Matt Scott's ability to run and throw makes him ideal to handle the load that new coach Rich Rodriguez has placed on his shoulders.
"After the first couple of [spring] practices," Rodriguez said, "we knew this guy could make all the throws. Anything we want in the passing game, we can do, whether it's deep balls, intermediates, quick game or whatever."

The "whatever" includes the ability to pull the ball down and run with it.

"I've always said our quarterback has to be like a point guard who can shoot the 3," Rodriguez said. "We want him sometimes to distribute, sometimes he keeps it himself. He's always making decisions."

Rodriguez, like Mora, doesn't care to draw broad conclusions after two weeks. He and his staff have left many of their starters in for more than 80 plays in each of the first two games, and he knows that policy won't survive the course of a 12-game season.

But he is upbeat about his team, and about the Pac-12 overall.

"I think our league is in a pretty good spot," Rodriguez said. "There are some pretty good teams, and with the commitment to facilities and the TV money coming in, our league is going to be stronger in the next few years than it's ever been."

Mora grew up in the Pac-8; his dad, Jim E. Mora, coached at Stanford and Washington. Mora played in the Pac-10 for Washington in the mid-1980s. Now he's coaching in the Pac-12.

"I'm proud you can look at the rankings and see that Southern Cal and Oregon are both in the top five," Mora said. "I think it's great. I know that statement right there will be really hard for Husky fans to swallow and for UCLA fans to swallow. You despise Oregon football if you're a Husky football fan. UCLA fans despise USC. But if you look at the entirety of the league, what it means to our conference, it's a good thing. It's a great thing."

Mora coached eight NFL seasons in New Orleans and Atlanta, smack in the center of the SEC footprint.

"I understand the SEC and the level of competitiveness of that conference and I have great respect for it," Mora said. "But I think there are a lot of really good football players out here on the West Coast. If we can keep those kids out here playing, I think this conference can compete with anybody."

That is Scott's intention. And the very early returns of 2012 indicate the league is on the right track to pull it off.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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