GIVEN THEIR PROXIMITY TO MAJOR GEOGRAPHICAL FAULT LINES, maybe the teams of the Pac-10 should be grateful that the earthquake going through the conference is only figurative. But make no mistake: The rumblings are seismic, and they are almost certain to leave the league looking very different from the one we have known, on and off the field. ¶ The moment that shook the football foundation of the Pac-10—and with the expansion of the conference, that name seems headed for mothballs—may have occurred last November, when Stanford went on the road to the Los Angeles Coliseum and thrashed once-mighty USC 55-21. The whipping was so thorough that some Trojans players and coaches thought Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh ran up the score, going for a two-point conversion after Stanford's seventh (that's right, seventh) touchdown.
Yet that debate obscured a far more important point: that a perennial also-ran like the Cardinal was even in position to toy with Troy. It served notice that the Trojans were no longer the clear class of the conference. Everything was up for grabs. You could feel the tectonic plates shifting.
A series of major aftershocks followed. USC finished tied for fifth, ending the school's run of seven straight conference titles, and settled for an Emerald Bowl appearance. Coach Pete Carroll resigned and headed back to the NFL to coach the Seahawks, replaced at USC by the largely unproven—albeit well-traveled—Lane Kiffin, who will try to help the program survive heavy NCAA sanctions stemming in part from Reggie Bush's years on campus. The penalties include a reduction of scholarships and a two-year ban from postseason play.
For the first time in years, the Trojans aren't the prohibitive favorites to win the Pac-10. The question entering the season is not so much whether the other elite teams in the league can keep up with USC, but the other way around. It's Oregon that's aiming to repeat as the conference champion, not the Trojans. It's Washington that has the quarterback (Jake Locker) who's making NFL scouts salivate, not the Trojans. It's UCLA that has the charismatic, media-savvy coach (Rick Neuheisel), not the Trojans. There is a feeling across the league that the king is, if not dead, at least seriously wounded, and for the first time in years, the throne is really there for the taking.
But the potential upheaval in the standings is but a minor tremor compared to the larger and longer-term shake-up coming to the Pac-10. Amid the expansion fever that swept across the college football landscape in the spring and the summer, the conference added two teams, Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West. The expansion to a dozen teams could be lucrative. It makes the conference eligible to hold a league championship game—under NCAA rules, a league must have a minimum of 12 teams split into two divisions in order to stage such a matchup—which could bring the league $10 million to $12 million per year in television rights, sponsorships and ticket sales. While realignment won't take place until 2011 at the earliest, the news of the expansion (as well as the feeling that even more Pac-10 growth may be on the way) added to the sense that the conference is on the verge of a new era.
"I think it's a great move for the overall health of the league," says Neuheisel, a former Colorado head coach. He believes a title game would increase the Pac-10's chances of sending a team to the BCS championship game. "Any team that goes through league play and then wins the league title game would have a great résumé," he says.
The two additions may also help the conference's identity. The Pac-10 has long been perceived in some quarters as a league with a soft underbelly—emphasis on soft. When USC is down, the entire league is often considered to be a minor player on the national stage, a perception that was reinforced last year when Pac-10 teams went 2-5 in bowl games. But it's not just that kind of nonconference record that hurts the league's reputation, it's the way they often lose: by being manhandled.
"You definitely hear that criticism, that the Pac-10 is soft, that it's a league where you see a lot of points but not as much toughness," says former Cal running back Jahvid Best, a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in April. "The only way that's going to change is to see Pac-10 teams beating more of those SEC teams, those Big Ten teams. There are plenty of physical teams, physical players, in the Pac-10. They just have to prove it more."
They will have the chance to do so this season, especially early on, when Oregon visits Tennessee, UCLA goes to Texas, Arizona hosts Iowa, and Washington faces Nebraska at home. Those September games will have a great deal to do with whether the Pac-10 is considered on equal footing with conferences like the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten, not to mention how the results will affect the computer data that contributes to BCS rankings.
Proving and re-proving itself as a football league won't be as much of an issue once the reinforcements arrive from Colorado and Utah, but for now the members of the for-a-little-while-longer Pac-10 are intent on making the league more competitive, and ready for the challenge when it does expand.