For a long time, the Pac-12 (and previously the Pac-10) was at best a two-team race. It would be USC and Cal. USC and Oregon. Oregon and Stanford. The hierarchy hasn't changed all that much, leaving the middle a bit muddled in determining its overall destiny.
Now it's looking as if things are opening up for the first time in a long time.
With Stanford being toppled by USC, the Cardinal finally proved they couldn't win with just toughness if they couldn't bring the points along with it.
With Oregon running back-and-forth with Washington State and now getting shocked by Arizona, the Ducks no longer look like the high-flying machine that terrorized the conference for a half-decade.
With UCLA struggling in the majority of their games, and USC hot-and-cold depending on whether they're at home, and with Washington State and Cal and Colorado showing fight, and everyone in the middle worrying about getting squeezed out or whether they can move up...
Parity reigns in the Pac-12.
We probably haven't had a season like this since 2007, when USC, Oregon, Cal, Arizona State all for a time seemed to have decent eyes on the conference crown. Recent years have had flashes thanks to the emergence of two divisions, but everyone felt pretty confident that the winner of Stanford-Oregon would win the conference, and that's how it went every year.
The Pac-12 has never felt more even. With facilities now upgraded and new coaches settling into their systems, it's starting to feel like a conference where anyone can beat anyone else.
- Rich Rodriguez is in Year 3 in Arizona. He's now beaten the Ducks two years in a row, and twice he's done it with both sides of the football stepping up. Jeff Casteel gives Arizona that added edge that Rich-Rod really lacked at Michigan, and it showed up tonight in their win over Oregon.
- Todd Graham is also in Year 3 in Arizona State. Although the Sun Devils are looking like they might take a step back this year, the Sun Devils seem pretty confident in piling up yardage and hopefully points along with it.
- Mike Leach is in Year 3 in Washington State. The Cougars defense has actually shown they can stop opponents, and the Air Raid is still a bit schizophrenic. But Leach is making the most of the Wulff recruiting drain before Leach's recruits can step in and take control. Washington State is at least providing a bit of balance to both sides and looks like they're stabilizing the ship.
- Jim Mora is in Year 3 in UCLA. The Bruins aren't always pretty and they're hardly your idea of a Pac-12 juggernaut, but they have won nine to ten games in his first two seasons and seem well on pace to do it again in his third. They are a formidable unit.
- Sonny Dykes is in Year 2 in Cal. The Bears still don't have much of a defensive presence, but they at least resemble a football team again. And they can score, boy can they score. The Bears have one of the best scoring offenses in America, and have made positive strides from last year's debacle.
- Mike MacIntyre is in Year 2 in Colorado. The Buffs are far from being a complete football team, but they are also showing fight much like Cal, and will not be an easy for any win for any team not watching carefully.
- Chris Petersen is in Year 1 in Washington. It's too early to tell, but once Petersen is settled in in Seattle, he figures to be about as game as any of the coaches out there.
- Steve Sarkisian is in Year 1 in USC. The Trojans are definitely out of the Lane Kiffin derptitude, although it's unclear where that trajectory lies. Will he be good enough to restore the prestige of Heritage Hall?
- David Shaw is in Year 3 at Stanford. He has certainly proven to be a good game manager, a good recruiter, and found the right assistants to team up with. But his playcalling undermines all of that, leaving the Cardinal surprisingly vulnerable.
- Mark Helfrich is in Year 2 in Oregon. And it's starting to look as if he's going to have a lot of work living up to Chip Kelly's legacy. He will also have to deal with the departure of Nick Aliotti, as the Oregon defense has taken numerous steps back.
- Kyle Whittingham has been at Utah a long time. And his M.O. remains the same--he'll offer up tough, physical teams that can land a few upsets. Ditto Mike Riley at Oregon State.
So much is on the table with these coaches. They have their good qualities and their bad. But there is no Pete Carroll or Jim Harbaugh or Chip Kelly towering over their peers. Everyone has their flaws and so much is unknown. It might not lead to the immediately elite football that the SEC enjoys, but it does make the conference more compelling, and that'll bear dividends over the upcoming seasons.
For now, this 2014 season looks to be as unpredictable as 2007, and no one knows who the last team standing will be. There's a lot at stake, and no dominant team seems to be in play as in previous seasons. Anyone can be killed.