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