Pac-10 beginning to respond to USC's dominance
Besides USC, the Pac-10 hasn't been taken seriously in a long time, but college football is a cyclical animal. If there's a conference answer to what's next, it's the Pac-10, writes Ivan Maisel.
Get ready for a guffaw, you self-righteous defenders of the Big Ten Conference. Time to reposition that chip on your shoulder, you myopic denizens of the SEC. If there's a conference that is the answer to what's next, it is the Pac-10.
That comes from, as Google maps would define me, a member of the Eastern media. As the term alumnus defines me, I am a Pac-10 guy, too, if Stanford still is considered a member of the league in good standing. But my argument will stand the test of bias. Once the discussion gets past which team has the nicest stadium, no one making the case for Pac-10 football can use Stanford.
The supposition here is not that the Pac-10 will replace the SEC as the best conference. If you have the national champion and most of the top 10 in the recently concluded recruiting season, then you are entrenched, no matter how much you complain about the lack of respect you get from the networks, the rest of the country or all the ships at sea.
There has been USC and, nationally speaking, not much else. The Trojans' credentials on the field since the 2002 season have been beyond reproach. USC has begun the last four Decembers, and three of the last four Januarys, in the national championship conversation.
The Trojans will begin next fall at No. 1, as they did in 2004 and 2005. They will begin next fall at No. 1 because they return 18 starters, including 10 on defense, from a team that finished last season 11-2 and No. 4 in the nation.
The two losses? Conference losses. USC lost at Oregon State and at UCLA. It might feel like the Trojans last lost two Pac-10 games in one season during the Hoover Administration. In fact, it had been since 2001. The Pac-10 certainly made USC work harder than did a bunch of Jan. 1 bowl teams from out of the conference. Arkansas, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Michigan barely made the Trojans smudge their unis.
You can make the case that USC's inexperience caught up with it in 2006, especially in the 13-9 loss at UCLA on Dec. 2. The Trojans played as if they didn't understand what it meant to play a big rival. But another way to look at it is that the rest of the league is beginning to respond to USC's dominance.
The Beavers not only won 10 games last season, but they also have most of that team returning. Oregon State loses only 13 seniors, and only eight of them played much. UCLA has 21 returning starters from the team that stunned USC.
California has won 10 games in two of the last three seasons, finished by humiliating Texas A&M 45-10 in the Holiday Bowl, and has 14 returning starters. Mike Stoops has brought Arizona from the bottom of the league to the middle in three seasons, and the Wildcats lose only four starters from a 6-6 team.
Even Stanford has hope after five dismal seasons with the hiring of Jim Harbaugh, a successful I-AA coach. The Cardinal has been an embarrassment since Ty Willingham left after the 2001 season. Willingham is now building Washington into a respectable team again.
The league has strong coaches. Its teams are getting better, a claim that, among the major conferences, only the Big East can make.
The Big Ten slipped considerably this season, no matter how many indignant letters commissioner Jim Delany posts on the league Web site. Delany not-very-subtly suggested that the SEC won the recruiting season because his members can't take the academic risks that the Southern schools do. Even if Delany is right, he came off sounding whiny.
The ACC slipped, too, and commissioner John Swofford kept his mouth shut. The Big 12 continues to look for signs of life in its North Division. The Big East has returned to respectability and then some, but three teams do not a conference make.
In short, it says here that the Pac-10 has become the best of the rest. Opposing arguments will be entertained. The best thing about it? None of us can be proven wrong for seven months.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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