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September 20, 2013

PAC 12 Rising

Step by step, the Pac-12 conference is taking long strides towards cultivating a more upbeat image nationally.

Winning, of course, helps immeasurably.

Last weekend, the Pac-12 registered three significant non-conference road victories when UCLA rallied past Nebraska in Lincoln, Washington upended Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago and Stanford journeyed 3,000 miles to beat Army at West Point.

In addition, Oregon trounced traditional SEC power Tennessee in Eugene, 59-14, and Arizona State slipped past Wisconsin in Tempe, 32-30, although the final seconds were marred by chaos and confusion, a bizarre ending that led to reprimands for the officiating crew.

The Pac-12 was 3-1 against the Big 10.

Even though the crazy and inexplicable conclusion to the Wisconsin-Arizona State game has grabbed the lion's share of attention over the past few days, nonetheless the Pac-12 justifiably enhanced its reputation around the country as a quality football league with national journalists singing the conference's praises.

"It's very obvious our conference is growing on a national level," Mike Riley said Wednesday during the Pac-12 weekly teleconference. "We've always felt real confident in who we are. I think (that's) through our new exposure with the Pac-12 networks and, frankly, just winning a lot of the interconference games lately. That's all been good for our reputation. But we've always been secure in how we felt about the quality of this league.

"I've been in it for a long time and I think the competition and level of play is at an all-time high."

California head coach Sonny Dykes grew up in Big 12 country (his father is legendary Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes) and coached at Kentucky for one season (1999) under Hal Mumme. Later, he coached at Texas Tech (2000-06) and Arizona (2007-09), where he was the offensive coordinator under Mike Stoops.

His tenure with the Wildcats in Tucson opened his eyes to quality football played in the Pac-12. Since returning to the conference following three years as the head coach at Louisiana Tech (2010-2012), Dyke contends the conference has only gotten better.

"At the time (I was in Arizona), I thought it was a very good league. I was surprised how deep the league was four years ago," Dykes said Wednesday. "The league has done nothing but significantly improve since then. Personally, I think it's as good of a league as there is. I'll probably get my house firebombed or whatever by saying that. But the league from top to bottom is as solid as anybody in the country."

Dykes favorably compared the coaching expertise in the Pac-12 to the SEC.

"The coaching in this league is very, very good. There are guys that are proven at the lot of different levels and have had success," Dykes said. "It's incredibly competitive. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the SEC when I was a G.A. in that league. People know what they're doing and they have some distinct methodology on how to get it done."

Undoubtedly, the Pac-12 plays as entertaining a brand of football as anywhere in the country. All 11 conference teams in action last week scored 32 or more points and averaged 41.3 points per game. Six of the 27 Division I (FBS) schools averaging better than 41.3 points through the first weeks of the season are from the Pac-12.

Led by quarterback Sean Mannion (73.1 completion percentage) and wide receiver Brandin Cooks (29 receptions), the Beavers have scored 130 points in three games. They needed five games last season to reach 130 points.

Eight Pac-12 quarterbacks rank among the top 16 in Division I in total offense led by Cal's Jared Goff (429.7 ypg). Mannion, named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after passing for a career high 443 yards at Utah, is second (404.0 ypg) and Oregon's Marcus Mariota (383.7 ypg) fourth. The top three quarterbacks in the country in passing yardage are Goff, Mannion and Colorado's Connor Wood.

"Offensively, it's as good as there is right now," Dykes said. "You have to score to keep up with everybody because they're all good on offense. That's probably what sets it apart. The defenses are better than the perception of them. But it's an offensive league right now. People are scoring points, so there will be points given up. But I don't think that's a reflection on the quality of defenses as it is on the quality offenses."

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian pointed to the fact five Pac-12 teams are ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll as a gauge of the conference's development, and voters in other regions of the country are beginning to pay attention to what's happening on the West Coast.

Washington is ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, their highest ranking since 2003.

"All those votes can't come from the West Coast," Sarkisian said. "They must be coming from somewhere around the country and deservedly so. We have teams playing at a high level."

One of the Pac-12's strengths, Sarkisian added, was the variety of offenses being run throughout the league, from the spread schemes at Oregon, California and Washington State to the more conventional pro-style attacks of Oregon State, Stanford and Southern Cal.

"Oregon has done their thing offensively for the last half decade, and then you go to the opposite extreme with what Stanford has done and their style of play," Sarkisian said. "There is a lot of variety in our conference. That's what makes us unique. There are a lot of good football teams and a lot of good coaches and players."

Was Oregon State's 51-48 overtime victory over Utah a precursor of things to come as teams progress deeper into conference play? Perhaps.

Both conference games played so far have been decided by three points. Pac-12 play begins in earnest on Sept. 28 with five matchups, so we'll find out exactly how much parity exists beginning then.

"Maybe our game with Utah is an indicator of what our (Pac-12) games in the league are going to be like all over the place," Riley said earlier this week. "It's going to be real interesting."

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