The Pac-12 may be better than ever this season. Half the conference was ranked in the Top 25 of the USA Today Coaches Poll. Some are calling the Pac-12 South the best division in the country. A Pac-12 player won the last Heisman Trophy and numerous players in the conference can be found on this year’s Heisman watch lists.

Accolades and accomplishments aside, an undeniable gap remains in the respect and attention the Pac-12 receives as it enters its centennial season. Studies placed the conference last out of the five power conferences in television ratings last season. Despite reaching last season’s title game, Oregon is picked fifth in the Coaches Poll, projected to miss the College Football Playoff behind a pair of Big-12 teams (Baylor and TCU) and an Alabama team that lost in the Sugar Bowl.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott acknowledged the gap, but believes it is shrinking.

“I think we’re getting there,” Scott said at his press conference opening Pac-12 Media Days.

“This is not something that’s going to happen overnight, and it’s something you have to earn constantly,” he said. “But I definitely see us making a lot of progress and there is a much greater recognition and respect being shown nationally to the Pac-12.”

Scott noted ESPN’s ranking of the Pac-12 as the top football conference in the country and said better broadcast distribution is a key to improving the conference’s recognition.

“I think our new television agreements, we’re now three years into it, have gone a long way to making sure the whole country can see every single one of our games, which wasn’t the case before,” Scott sad. “So between our partners at ESPN, FOX, and the Pac-12 Networks, every football game is telecast.

Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy last season, and the Pac-12 led the country in AP All-Americans, both awards determined by subjective vote. “So all those subjective measures that those of us out West have worried about and complained about, you’re starting to see a shift,” Scott said.

The conference was represented in the first College Football National Championship game last season, but Oregon was routed by Ohio State, 42-20. The conference hasn’t won a national championship since USC in 2004, and that title was stripped due to NCAA sanctions. USC shares the controversial 2003 title with LSU, and the next most recent title for the conference is Washington’s in 1991, an honor they also share with Miami. In the intervening years, every other power conference has at least three national championships.

Does the conference need a win on the biggest stage to earn the respect it feels it deserves?

“I don’t think so,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “I think you err when you try to prove too much. The people that know, and particularly the people that I’ve talked to, whether they’re on the playoff committee, people at the NCAA, people in the media that actually watch all the games, we were voted as the most difficult conference nationally last year from top to bottom.”

The Pac-12 has the ideal setting to stamp itself as the country’s deepest conference with the College Football Playoff National Championship game in its backyard. Glendale will host the game on Jan. 11.

Pac-12 coaches are less concerned about how they’re perceived nationally than about battling through a conference they see as incredibly tough.

“This year is going to be crazier than last year,” Shaw said “This year in our conference it’s going to be insane because everyone is so good and talented. You’re going to lose a game to a really good football team. Somebody’s going to say you shouldn’t have lost to them. Three weeks later, that team’s going to be to be in the top 15, top 10. That is the way this conference is going to be. I won’t be shocked if this is the year we have a conference championship with a team in there that has two losses.”

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez agreed.

“There are always some arguments about which league is the best, which division is the best, and that’s good for debate,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t worry about it. Hell, I’m trying to get a first down in a first game. I don’t think when you line up middle of the fourth quarter and it’s hot and you’ve played 200 plays already and the guy’s worried about crossing the line.

“But I think if you look at the non-conference results and you look at the bowl results, I think the conference as a whole stands pretty good,” he said.

If a shift is, in fact, occurring, a small part of it includes the arrival of a coach from one of those more-heralded conferences. Oregon State coach Gary Andersen left the Big Ten’s Wisconsin for Corvallis.

Andersen said one thing setting the Pac-12 apart is the style of play

“This league has what we like to call ‘juice’,” Andersen said. “It is fast, and you make one mistake, you’re going to pay the price quickly. On the defensive side it’s the same way. There’s elite pass rushers who are very fast and quick, there’s linebackers who can run and can make up for a lot of problems. It’s hard to solve with a pen in your hand but genetics just take over to make for some special players.”

Andersen noticed a shift from halfway across the country.

“I have felt a huge swing in the last two years, and that’s me being in the Midwest for those two years, that the Pac-12 is getting a ton of respect nationally,” Andersen said. “And it’s not that there’s another league that’s taken a step back or isn’t as good – I don’t believe that – I just believe that the Pac-12 has gotten better and better and better.”

UCLA junior linebacker Deon Hollins was a four-star recruit out of Houston, and chose UCLA over numerous opportunities, including offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas and Texas A&M.

Coaching was a big part of his decision, but academics played a role, too.

“The NFL coaching experience our coaches possessed, there was no other substitute in the country,” Hollins said. “Those guys were going to offer the best knowledge, football-wise, that I was going to get. But the other side was knowledge-wise academically. UCLA, I feel was a high institution that I could take anywhere and it would speak volumes. I’m from Texas, and usually in Texas people say an A&M degree carries a lot of weight, but even a UCLA degree down there, you know it’s high. High standards.”

This article is courtesy of Cronkite News (Arizona State University).

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