Pac-12 gaining on SEC

Watch out, SEC. The Pac-12 is gaining on you.

In the race to be the strongest college football league in the country, the Pac-12 is emerging as the most serious threat to the Southeastern Conference’s dominance.

On Thursday night, the Pac-12 puts its power on display when No. 2 Oregon plays at No. 6 Stanford. Two national title contenders that first must sort out which team is best in the Pac-12 North before they can begin to think about snapping the SEC’s string of seven straight BCS championships.

The SEC has been touting itself as the toughest conference in college football for a while, and it’s hard to argue against its case of crystal football trophies, gaudy bowl record and the steady stream of players it sends to the NFL.

This season, the Pac-12 can at least make a decent argument that it’s close to the SEC.

The Sagarin computer ratings rank conferences by division. The SEC West, with No. 1 Alabama leading the way, is best. The next two are the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 South, followed closely by the SEC East.

And the Pac-12, under the leadership of Larry Scott, has just started tapping into its potential.

This is the second year of a 12-year, $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox that is helping to transform the conference.

“I think it’s kind of the perfect storm right now,” Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said.

More Pac-12 football games are on TV than ever before. Multimillion-dollar facilities upgrades at one stage or another can be found on just about every campus. The roster of coaches has more notable names – Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State – drawing heftier paychecks and playing an exciting brand of ball. Oregon brought fast-football to the Pac-12 and now much of the conference is trying to chase down the Ducks, with various forms of the no-huddle, spread offense.

For some Pac-12 schools, it’s as if the conference purchased a time machine after being stuck in the 1980s (maybe even the ’70s) for decades.

“The analogy of some schools going from 1975 to 2014 is accurate,” Moos said.

Schools that were once getting a few million in revenue from the conference are now in line for payouts of more than $20 million per year.

“Here we are out on the West Coast, now all of sudden we’re in people’s living rooms and sports bars,” Moos said. “Plus (the TV contract) provided the revenue for all of us to build the buildings that we’re doing to get ourselves up to par with the rest of the country in regards to recruiting.”

Recruiting, like real estate, is all about location. The SEC is the best conference because it’s located in the heart of the best recruiting territory. California is also fertile ground for football players and Pac-12 schools rarely have to butt heads with SEC schools on the recruiting trail out west.

Still, that might not be enough.

Rick Neuheisel coached and played in the conference and now works as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network.

“We’re a little bit behind the SEC, but what can’t be built, the geographic beauty of this side of the country, is something that money can’t buy,” Neuheisel said.

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