Watch out SEC, the Pac-12 is gaining on you.
In the race to be the strongest college football league in the country, the Pac-12 is emerging as the most serious threat to the Southeastern Conference's dominance.
On Thursday night, the Pac-12 puts its power on display when No. 2 Oregon plays at No. 6 Stanford. Two national title contenders that first must sort out which team is best in the Pac-12 North before they can begin to think about snapping the SEC's string of seven straight BCS championships.
The SEC has been touting itself as the toughest conference in college football for a while, and it's hard to argue against its case of crystal football trophies, gaudy bowl record and the steady stream of players it sends to the NFL.
This season, the Pac-12 can at least make a decent argument that it's close to the SEC.
The Sagarin computer ratings rank conferences by division. The SEC West, with No. 1 Alabama leading the way, is best. The next two are the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 South, followed closely by the SEC East.
And the Pac-12, under the leadership of Larry Scott, has just started tapping into its potential.
This is the second year of a 12-year, $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox that is helping to transform the conference.
"I think it's kind of the perfect storm right now," Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said.
More Pac-12 football games are on TV than ever before. Multimillion dollar facilities upgrades at one stage or another can be found on just about every campus. The roster of coaches has more notable names — Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State — drawing heftier paychecks and playing an exciting brand of ball. Oregon brought fast-football to the Pac-12 and now much of the conference is trying to chase down the Ducks, with various forms of the no-huddle, spread offense.
For some Pac-12 schools, it's as if the conference purchased a time machine after being stuck in the 1980s (maybe even the '70s) for decades.
"The analogy of some schools going from 1975 to 2014 is accurate," Moos said.
Schools that were once getting a few million in revenue from the conference are now in line for payouts of more than $20 million per year.
"Here we are out on the West Coast, now all of sudden we're in people's living rooms and sports bars," Moos said. "Plus (the TV contract) provided the revenue for all of us to build the buildings that we're doing to get ourselves up to par with the rest of the country in regards to recruiting."
Recruiting, like real estate, is all about location. The SEC is the best conference because it's located in the heart of the best recruiting territory. California is also fertile ground for football players and Pac-12 schools rarely have to butt heads with SEC schools on the recruiting trail out west.
Still, that might not be enough.
Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said for a Pac-12 team to break the SEC's hold on the national championship, it must be able to recruit beyond the conference's footprint.
Southern California has always been able to do that. Oregon and Stanford have expanded their reaches as they have grown into national powers. The Ducks have established in pipeline into Texas, where they found their top two receivers (Josh Huff and Bralon Addison). Stanford's best wideout (Ty Montgomery) is also from Texas. Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan is from Virginia.
Farrell said the top Atlantic Coast Conference teams (Florida State, Miami and Clemson) are the program's best suited to consistently stand toe-to-toe with the SEC's best, but the rest of the ACC can't stack up. The Pac-12 is a better bet to match the SEC's quality depth, Farrell said, if its schools can combine improved facilities and better coaches with more aggressive recruiting.
"I see five-star kids out on the West Coast that have, like, eight (scholarship) offers. If they lived in Florida they'd have 40 offers," Farrell said. "These new coaches are more aggressive but not aggressive enough."
But, he added, "The lure of the West Coast is definitely enticing to kids."
Rick Neuheisel coached and played in the conference and now works as an analyst for the Pac-12 network. He said the Pac-12 can't match the SEC's king-football culture and the sheer volume of passionate fans, but now that it's getting up to speed in exposure and facilities it can capitalize on some of its natural resources.
"We're a little bit behind the SEC, but what can't be built, the geographic beauty of this side of the country, is something that money can't buy," he said.
— Pittsburgh star Aaron Donald has been the most productive defensive tackle in country. Coming off a huge game against Georgia Tech, Donald now leads the nation in tackles for loss with 2.44 per game. He's also fourth in the nation with nine sacks and is the active career leader with 27.5.
— Houston (7-1) is having a huge turnaround season under second-year coach Tony Levine, led by a freshman quarterback (John O'Korn), a star receiver who bailed on a verbal commitment to Notre Dame on signing day 2012 (Deontay Greenberry) and the nation's best turnover margin, by far (plus-2.50). The Cougars play No. 19 UCF Saturday night with first place in the American Athletic Conference on the line.
— November in the Midwest means the return of weekday #MACtion, as it's known on Twitter. The Mid-American Conference begins dishing a steady diet of midweek games on Tuesday with Ohio visiting Buffalo in a key East Division game. The Bulls are a game ahead of the Bobcats in first place.
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron can re-enter the Heisman Trophy discussion with a big game against No. 10 LSU on Saturday night, but he'll need to be extraordinary over the last month of the season to truly get back in the hunt.
McCarron and the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide have fallen off the radar while pummeling overmatched foes in October. The senior quarterback was great against Texas A&M back in September, and is having another excellent season (ninth in passer rating at 166.61) but can't match to the spectacular skills and gaudy stats of other top Heisman contenders such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Florida State's Jameis Winston and A&M's Johnny Manziel.
UNDER-THE-RADAR GAME OF THE WEEK
Nebraska is playing at Michigan and nobody outside the fans of those two teams seems to care, which speaks volumes about the quality of play in the Big Ten this season. The Wolverines are coming off a humbling loss against Michigan State and Nebraska needed a last-play miracle touchdown to beat Northwestern last week. The Spartans should root for Michigan, if they can. A second Big Ten loss by Nebraska could allow Michigan State to cruise to a Legends Division title.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP