Utah football: Pac-12 is closing in on the SEC
Two unbeaten teams and a deep talent pool put conference in the conversation
Published: October 17, 2013 10:13AM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:36PM
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Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion passes during the first half of their NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

UCLA throttled Nebraska. Oregon ran through Tennessee. Washington crushed Boise State. And Arizona State outlasted Wisconsin, if controversially.

Those are four pretty good examples of what the Pac-12 has gone out and accomplished as a conference over the first half of the season.

You may not think the Ducks beating a mediocre Volunteers team is anything to get excited about, but Tennessee turned around a few weeks later and nearly took down Georgia — one of the glamour teams of the Southeastern Conference. The Badgers have dominated the Big Ten (save a close loss at Ohio State) and the Broncos appear to be returning to form after their wobbly start.

For years, college football’s power has been concentrated in the SEC, and everyone else has been scrambling to catch up. You can’t argue with the results: the conference has won seven consecutive BCS championships. Yes, SEC has a record eight teams ranked in this week’s Associated Press poll. And yes, Alabama is the best team in the country until proven otherwise.

But another story has begun to develop this season. The Pac-12 has entered the conversation.

“We’re right there with the best leagues in the country,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said this week. “Everyone knew how good a league it was coming in, and it’s proven to be everything we’ve expected. There are no off weeks in the conference,”

With two unbeaten teams (Oregon, UCLA), a one-loss powerhouse (Stanford) and a long bench (Arizona State, Washington, USC, Oregon State and Utah), the Pac-12, may in fact, be the deepest conference in the country.

“The SEC’s top three (Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU) are still better than anyone else’s,” said Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated’s national college football writer. “But the Pac-12 from top to bottom is stronger this year than the SEC or anyone else. Look at the stretch Stanford is in with Washington, Utah, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon. No SEC team has to face anything that grueling.”

It’s that kind of gauntlet that may push a Pac-12 team into the BCS title game for the first time since 2010, when Oregon narrowly lost to Cam Newton and Auburn.

The Crimson Tide and the Ducks are clearly the two best teams in the country as the season approaches the midway point.

More than that, the Heisman Trophy race seems to be shaping up as a two-man battle between Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M — another SEC/Pac-12 battle.

The league has four ranked teams — No. 2 Oregon, No. 9 UCLA, No. 13 Stanford and No. 20 Washington. But Utah is receiving votes after upsetting the Cardinal last Saturday. Oregon State is 5-1. Arizona State looks good enough to crack the polls soon and USC played well in its first game since the firing of Lane Kiffin. Nobody has ever said that the Trojans don’t have talent.

That kind of strength in the middle of the league is defining the Pac-12 this season. Not only is it a top-heavy conference. But it’s a conference that has teams in the next tier capable of beating the teams at the top. The Utes’ victory over Stanford is the best example of that.

“It’s a battle every single week, and that makes us unique,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “When I came into the league I thought it was pretty good. It’s gotten so much better since then. There are some great coaches in the league, and there are teams at every level that can compete. There’s so much talent, and it’s a league where anyone can beat everyone else. It’s grueling, but it’s fun. I think it’s the best conference in the country.”

The best leagues are defined by style of play. The Big Ten runs the ball. The SEC is starting to spread things out offensively, but is still known mostly for how physical it is.

The Pac-12 offers up a little bit of everything.

Oregon and Arizona State run two of the fastest offenses in the nation. UCLA and USC boast pro-style attacks normally seen in the NFL. Stanford beats you up in the trenches. Mike Leach is in Year 2 of implementing his Air Raid offense at Washington State and Sonny Dykes has brought his fast-break offense to Cal.

The Pac-12 also is benefitting from having a dominant team. The conference suffered a setback last year when Stanford took Oregon down late in the season. But the Ducks will be favored to win the rest of their games this time around. If they can do that, the Pac-12 will finally have another representative in the BCS title game, and two teams in BCS games overall.

If that’s the case, is Oregon good enough to stop the SEC from winning an eighth consecutive national championship? These next two months could at least partially answer that question.

“Somebody has to close that final game out and win before we can talk about overtaking the SEC,” Ducks Mark Helfrich said. “But when you watch the Pac-12 for the last 10 years, I think the conference is the best it’s ever been from top to bottom. There are a bunch of great athletes in every phase that are bigger, faster and stronger.

tjones@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tjonessltrib

Top 25 Pac-12 teams

No. 2 Oregon

No. 9 UCLA

No. 13 Stanford

No. 20 Washington

Big non-Pac-12 wins

• UCLA 41, Nebraska 21

• Washington 38, Boise State 6

• Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30

• Oregon 59, Tenn. 14