Pac-10 rides momentum past Big Ten

Editor's note: ESPN.com is asking its experts and SportsNation to predict which conference will be the best in 2007. Follow our bracket-style tournament throughout the week to see which teams our experts picked and to vote in the SportsNation polls.

Don't look out your window for snow. It really is August. But since the Rose Bowl no longer holds this debate on every Jan. 1, now is as good a time as any to discuss why the Pacific-10 Conference is better than the Big Ten.

If the topic concerned which league has been better this decade, the Big Ten might be a touchdown favorite. But in the year 2007, in this cyclical sport, the Pac-10 is on the rise, and the Big Ten is not.

Ohio State, which finished ahead of every team but Florida last season, must rebuild an offense and a defensive line. Michigan and Wisconsin may be just as good as last season, when they combined to win 23 games. But any argument supporting the Wolverines is overwhelmed by the second half of the 2007 Rose Bowl, when the USC passing game treated the Michigan defense as if it were a scout team.

I am willing to stipulate that Penn State, led by linebacker Dan Connor, will be tough again, and that Iowa will rebound from its side trip into So-So Land and be more like the meat-and-potato Hawkeyes who won 38 games from 2002-05. I'll even give the benefit of the doubt to Purdue and its 16 returning starters.

And still, I will argue that the Pac-10 will be better this year.

Take returning starters: The top five teams in the Pac-10 (USC, Oregon, Cal, Arizona State, UCLA) have 77. The top five in the Big Ten (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa) have 65. (Throw in Oregon State and Purdue and the numbers rise to 93 and 83).

The Big Ten has three coaches who have won national championships. The Pac-10 has two coaches -- Erickson and Pete Carroll of USC -- who have won at least a share of two national championships.

Even if you believe the Big Ten is equal to the Pac-10, or even slightly ahead, the Pac-10 gets major props for being the only one of the four major conferences with at least 10 teams that plays a complete round-robin. It may be unrealistic to expect the Big 10, much less the ACC, SEC and Big 12, to do as much. No matter -- the Pac-10 is the only league that asks its members to play nine conference games. That guarantees a degree of difficulty across the board that the other conferences choose not to match.

Yes, the rebuttal is swift. The Pacific-10 Conference is more lopsided than a second-grade clay sculpture. USC has won the last five conference championships. In fact, to find the last time a Pac-10 team so much as tied the Trojans in the standings, you have to go all the way back to, um, 2006.

California tied USC for the conference title last year with a 7-2 record. While the Trojans do dominate the Pac-10, they lost at both Oregon State and UCLA last season.
Oregon has won consistently for a decade. Arizona State has hired Dennis Erickson to improve its program, while Ty Willingham is quietly (he does everything quietly) rebuilding Washington. UCLA and Oregon State both have veteran teams that finished strong last season.

This argument can be advanced on Sept. 1, when Washington State plays at Wisconsin, or the following two Saturdays, when Oregon plays at Michigan and Ohio State travels to Washington, respectively.

We can always hope that when the New Year dawns, that the sun will rise in the east and the Pac-10 and Big Ten again will meet in the Rose Bowl. It's only happened in three of the last seven years. By the way, the Pac-10 is 3-0.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.