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Ground Rule
AUSTIN MURPHY
September 24, 2007
With reenergized tailback Stafon Johnson showing the way, No. 1 USC ran all over Nebraska, boosting the Pac-10's claim that it's as tough as the SEC
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September 24, 2007

Ground Rule

With reenergized tailback Stafon Johnson showing the way, No. 1 USC ran all over Nebraska, boosting the Pac-10's claim that it's as tough as the SEC

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Why?

"Because you can't really make a statement pass blocking. You make a statement running the ball, pushing guys out of the way."

SPEAKING OF statements, USC made an emphatic one on behalf of its conference. As the window closes (for the most part) on interconference play, it's time for final arguments in one of this sport's perennial bar-stool debates: Which conference is strongest? While that question remained open going into last weekend, a series of outrageous events in Lexington, Ky., swung the balance in favor of the SEC. With a last-minute, 57-yard touchdown pass from Andre Woodson to Steve Johnson, Kentucky knocked off ninth-ranked Louisville 40--34. That victory spoke to the depth of the SEC, which, come Sunday, had six teams in the AP's Top 25 poll.

The contentiousness of the Whose Conference Is Strongest debate was ratcheted up over the summer by LSU coach Les Miles, whose intemperate remarks to a booster club quickly made their way onto the Internet and around the college football world. Speaking of the Trojans, Miles said dismissively, "They're going to play real knock-down-drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford—some real juggernauts... I would like that path for us."

As the season got under way, it became clear that the Pac-10, long derided as a confederacy of finesse offenses and meringue defenses, was nothing of the sort.

Ask Derek Dooley, now in his first year as coach of Louisiana Tech, a 42--12 loser to Cal on Saturday. The son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, Derek grew up on the sideline at Bulldogs games. After walking on at Virginia as a wideout, he spent five years as an assistant at LSU under Nick Saban.

"When you grow up in the South and coach in the SEC," says Dooley, you are steeped in "a culture of physical play, of toughness. You also have a perception of the kind of football that's played on the West Coast." It's no surprise, then, that before he began watching tape of Cal last week, Dooley had a preconceived notion of Pac-10 football. How long did it take him to open his mind?

"I watched three plays, and I thought, I'm seeing what I grew up with," recalls Dooley. "These guys are physical, they force you to defend the run, then hit you with the long pass—the plays you see on SportsCenter."

The 42 points the Bears scored on Dooley's Bulldogs were three fewer than Cal hung on visiting Tennessee on the first Saturday of the season. With Miles's remarks as a subplot—and with a plane circling the stadium pregame, pulling a banner that read, SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS—the Bears outran and outhit the 15th-ranked Vols in a 45-31 victory.

If out-of-conference foes want to think that "we play a soft brand of football," says Bears linebacker Zack Follett, "let 'em think it. Texas A&M thought that, and we outhit them, snap to whistle" in a 45--10 domination in the Holiday Bowl last December.

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