PAC-12 ready to challenge SEC for college football dominance

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By EVAN BUDROVICH
College Contributor Network

In a year filled with wide-spread conference realignment, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott stayed true to his 12-team formula; giving the Pac-12 conference the distinct honor of actually having the exact number of teams that matches its namesake.

The Pac-12 has taken massive steps since their last national champion (USC in 2005), starting this season by slotting six teams in the preseason top-25, along with seven quarterbacks named to the Manning National Watch List – which, by the way, Matt Leinart won as the inaugural recipient during that 2005 campaign.

The self-proclaimed "Conference of Champions" has retooled its philosophy in football by focusing on delivering viable programs capable of not only winning, but boasting impressive resumes for the playoff selection committee.

Whether that be through big-time meetings like UCLA-Texas, USC-Alabama, Oregon-Michigan State and Oregon State-Ohio State (the list goes on and on, really) the Big-10 created "Little of the Sisters of the Poor" phenomenon certainly does not take place out west.

Say what you want about the lack of national exposure for the fledgling Pac-12 Networks, but the increased dough being poured into these programs has created financial flexibility.

This season, unlike many others in years past, the strength of the conference could actually lead to its downfall come selection time. Led by the ever-impressive assortment of quarterbacks up and down the West Coast, the Pac-12 has built real staying power.

Conference powers Stanford and Oregon will battle in the North division, an all-too familiar battle up in Eugene that will ultimately decide who heads to Santa Clara -- arguably the perfect geographical and cultural hub for the championship game.

The Cardinal is battling an identity crisis with an assortment of scat backs, but mobile quarterback Kevin Hogan perfectly fits the mold for a ground-and-pound attack. Hogan seems a bit like a fraternity bro, someone you want leading your group when the going gets tough, but can also improvise and keep his cool as the pressure mounts.

Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota leads another explosive Oregon Ducks' attack that systematically picked apart a stout Michigan State defense for 46 points. Following a shaky finish to last season, Mariota has acquired plenty of national spotlight as the Hawaiian poster child finishes his career with a senior swan song leading Mark Helfrich's Oregon Ducks squad inside the top-four rankings.

Oregon State possesses the best pure passer in the conference in senior Sean Mannion, who will have to follow up a 37-touchdown campaign without leading target Brandin Cooks.

And, speaking of passing, let's not forget Mike Leach's program that lives and dies by the arm of Connor Halliday, who has attempted 113 passes in his first two games. Halliday is the perfect Madden player, someone who can sling the football all over the gridiron and is never afraid of firing into tight windows -- even as fans cringe during the moment.

Led by first-year head coach Chris Petersen, Washington has some of the best defensive athletes in the conference. Quarterback play will remain an open competition until someone can securely lock the job, but the rest of the pieces are strongly in place. But let's face it, when you build the luxurious Husky Stadium (seriously, that Union Bay view) the desired quarterback recruits with immense arm strength will eventually show up.

Much the same can be said about Cal, centered around the bevy of pass-catching weapons benefiting from the arm of sophomore Jared Goff.

Goff, the former Elite 11 prodigy, battled through a freshman campaign filled with injuries to his top teammates but he's responded, passing for seven touchdowns to just one interception in his first two games this season.

Down South, the sudden media darlings of UCLA, the defending champion Arizona State Sun Devils and USC (who already beat Stanford) will essentially cripple each other for the final spot.

Brett Hundley, the leading sleeper pick for the Heisman Trophy (take that as you will this early in the season) has the playmaking ability to compensate for a weaker offensive line. Not only can he sling the football down field, Hundley has exemplified his light, jovial nature as the new Westwood Campus Enforcer.

Across town, Cody Kessler has the glitz and glamor of running the Steve Sarkisian up-tempo offense and continues to thrive because he just does not turn over the football. The Bakersfield native emerged from last year's Lane Kiffin fiasco in confident fashion, leading his team to a 9-2 mark since the coach's departure to Alabama.

Taylor Kelly dominated with both his arm and legs, directing a fast-paced Sun Devils attack past both USC and UCLA into an 8-1 stretch in conference play. The scariest part for opposing defenses? Kelly actually had a down year statistically (by his standards), completing 62 percent of his passes and accounting for 37 total touchdowns.

Utah is one of the toughest teams to beat at home, just ask Stanford from last season. If you ever wanted a quarterback to showcase on your "come to Utah campus video" the poised, confident Travis Wilson is certainly your guy.

Arizona continues to pump up the offensive firepower and is led by record-setting freshman quarterback Anu Solomon -- making the Wildcats a surprisingly tough match up. What makes them special is that they don't necessarily need a great quarterback, just someone who can evade pressure, make plays outside the pocket and can filter ALL THE SPEED that coach Rich Rodriguez sends out for the wild BEARDOWN student section.

While the Colorado Buffaloes have struggled mightily on the football side of things in this conference, sophomore captain Sefo Liufau has developed into a solid signal caller that may never match the numbers of Kordell Stewart, but he still holds his own.

Basically this self-proclaimed but relatively undervalued (at least in football) "Conference of Champions" will test itself to the limit, both in and out of the conference and makes for an exciting three-month stretch before the first-ever college football playoff.

If fans should take anything from the often unpredictable opening weeks of the season, it would be that the play of Pac-12 quarterbacks will take this conference from SEC step-sister to bonafide national championship contender.


Evan Budrovich is a senior at the University of Southern California. He has a passion for the 49ers, Dodgers baseball and all things USC athletics. Follow him on Twitter: @evanbud
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