Oregon and its stylish offense put Tennessee away early, extinguishing any hopes of a poll-shaking upset with eight consecutive touchdown drives in an impressive – yet unsurprising – 59-14 Week 3 win against new coach Butch Jones and the Volunteers. What seemed pedestrian for Oregon was, for Tennessee, an historic loss: The 45-point defeat marked the program's worst loss since 1910, when the Volunteers lost by 48 points to Mississippi State.
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The Pac-12 exited the first month of the 2013 season as the only conference in the FBS with two teams – No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford – ranked among the top five of the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. Another three Pac-12 teams fit in the top 25, giving the conference the second-most ranked teams of any league in the FBS, behind only the SEC.
Oregon's near-flawless win against a blueblood SEC program serves as a microcosm of the Pac-12's recent growth: With speed, schemes, a willingness to embrace the unorthodox and a newfound financial stability, the league's successful present is bolstered by the vast potential of its future.
But old perceptions die hard. Although the Pac-12 has four undefeated teams despite playing the toughest non-conference slate of any automatic-qualifying league – Pac-12 non-conference competition combined to win 66.1% of their games in September, with the league notching a 6-3 record against the ACC, Big Ten and SEC – the conference continues to battle the idea that the nation's best brand of football is limited to the Southeast.
"I learned a long time ago that when people have their mind set on something I don't waste time on trying to convince them otherwise," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "But there's going to be a section of the country, they don't care what we do out here, they're just not going to believe that our football is as good as other people's football. So I don't really care. I do think for the people that watch it and pay attention to it, we don't have to convince them because they'll see with their own eyes.
"We've got a very, very difficult conference, and it's obvious. It's hard. It's hard every single week. And I don't think you can say that about all the conferences. People see that and can respect that, that's great. If they don't, that's fine too. We just want to keep winning football games."
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The non-conference matchup marked the latest incarnation of a brewing bicoastal rivalry between the Southeastern Conference, the presumptive leader among Football Bowl Subdivision leagues, and the Pac-12, which has made its own case for national supremacy with a stable of undefeated teams and Bowl Championship Series contenders.
If the Pac-12 is in a better place today, with five ranked teams and as many as 10 teams eventually bowl eligible, the league's room for continued growth gives it long-term positioning as the stiffest challenge the SEC has faced during its record-breaking stint atop the FBS.
"I think we're definitely up there fighting for No. 1, there's no doubt in my mind," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. "I think it's impressive what's going on top to bottom."
Several coaches agree: This year's Pac-12, with its top-heavy championship contenders and overall depth, could be the best in league history.
"I think this conference is the best it's ever been," said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who has spent time at three different Pac-12 stops since 2001. "I've been in this conference for a long time, and top to bottom the talent, the skill on special teams of virtually team in this conference is a lot better than it's been. I think we're getting a lot bigger, stronger, faster up front on both sides of the ball."
Said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose has coached in the Pac-12 in all but three seasons since 1993: "I think we're just seeing the beginning of this. There's going to be a lot of competition week to week, I believe. I see it as the best ever and growing that way. Because I look around at those teams that maybe have been down that won't be for long."
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Behind the scenes, the Pac-12's ascendance comes as a result of its increased financial strength. The conference ranked fifth among the six AQ conferences in terms of media rights as recently as the 2010-11 season. License-right agreements signed with ESPN and Fox in 2011 and that began in 2012 are expected to generate up to $30 million per school per year for the 12-year duration of the deals. "It's fair to say that no one's bringing in the sort of media revenue as we are right now," conference commissioner Larry Scott said in July.
"I think there has been a lot of change on a number of fronts, really," Pac-12 deputy commissioner Kevin Weiberg said. "The conference has done a good job of repositioning and rebranding a little bit, and we were successful in negotiating new television agreements that have expanded exposure and certainly added some revenue. Big increase in that area."
Increasing revenue is behind two major changes seen nearly throughout the conference: Pac-12 universities now have the financial wherewithal to upgrade facilities, a major asset in recruiting and in developing fan support, and the ability to pay out the sort of contracts needed to reel in some of the nation's top coaches – nine of the 12 programs have made a coaching change since 2011.
Houston Nutt, a CBS Sports college football analyst who coached at Arkansas and Mississippi from 1998-2011, sees the growth of Oregon and Stanford as indicative of the Pac-12's strides as a conference during the last three or four years.
"I think they've gone to another level," Nutt said of the Pac-12. "As I watch the games, I know there's just been a tremendous jump the last three, four years. When I see how physical Stanford is, how fast Oregon is on offense. Washington's coming. As you see that you say, athlete-wise and athleticism, they've come on."
When it comes to 2013, it's not just about the Pac-12's depth, said Steve Sarkisian, coach of No. 18 Washington, but its "high quality" depth – the sort of top-to-bottom competition that can lift an entire conference, as the SEC's recent run suggests.
"The depth of the conference is better than it's ever been," Sarkisian said. "I think it speaks volumes to the commitment that the universities are making toward the football programs, whether it be bringing in quality coaches and upgrading facilities. Obviously, a new TV deal has helped that."
In recruiting, the league's growing level of coast-to-coast visibility indicates to prospects the Pac-12's "commitment to being the best," MacIntyre said. "Not just the best on the West but being the best in the whole country. I think they're seeing that now and starting to understand that."
Television revenue also helped Utah, one of the Pac-12's recent additions, upgrade "tired, old, not up to par" facilities, coach Kyle Whittingham said. Likewise at Colorado, where the university has started a $170 million building campaign. Washington recently reopened Husky Stadium after a multiple-year renovation; rival Washington State is completing a facility upgrade coach Mike Leach calls "long overdue."
"It's a really solid foundation, and there's no question the funding helps," Weiberg said. "You always have to be a little bit careful with this, because as you well know, it can be pretty cyclical – every year can look a little different. I do think that the conference is in a much better place than it was because of the investments that have been made and the sort of guaranteed revenue returns that are going to be there over the next decade."
Paul Myerberg, a national college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.
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