Pac-12 Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

(Published in the San Francisco Chronicle)

For a couple of years now, the Pac-12 has been agitating to dethrone the SEC as the self-proclaimed “toughest conference in college football.” After Week 1 of the 2015 college football season, the Pac-12 proved that, uh, it might not even be the toughest conference west of the Rocky Mountains.

Five Pac-12 teams lost their openers, the most ghastly being Washington State at home to FCS Portland State. Two Pac-12 teams fell to Mountain West opponents (Washington to Boise State, Colorado to Hawaii). Stanford looked lifeless in its Brain Bowl loss to Northwestern. And in the one game against the mighty SEC on a national stage, Arizona State was crushed after a late surge by Texas A&M.

Even Oregon, now the prohibitive favorite to win the suddenly milquetoast Pac-12 North, didn’t exactly look like world beaters, giving up 42 points at home against FCS Eastern Washington, whose quarterback (Vernon Adams) the Ducks stole as a graduate transfer.

So what does that leave us? For one, Cal fans might be feeling giddy. Against the grossly overmatched Grambling, the Golden Bears scored more points (73) this weekend than any other team except Ole Miss (76), Based on what we saw in Week 1, the Bears now have a legitimate chance of opening the season 5-0. If they can do that, they might just emerge as a potential foil for Oregon in the Pac-12 North.

The Pac-12 South looks headed toward a showdown between its two L.A. behemoths. USC’s Cody Kessler played like a Heisman frontrunner, tossing four TDs in a rout of Arkansas State. But the revelation is UCLA’s freshman QB Josh Rosen, who made a smashing debut in the Bruins’ dismantling of Virginia (and more on “Chosen Rosen” later).

Big Ten Also Lays Big Egg

Fresh off Ohio State’s national championship season, the Big Ten happily shed its reputation as a has-been conference and once again was ready to strut. But then the opening weekend of 2015 provided a rude awakening.

For the first time in history, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State all lost their respective openers in the same season. Jim Harbaugh’s much-hyped debut for his alma mater was spoiled by Utah. Mike Riley lost his own opening act as Huskers coach on BYU’s Hail Mary pass.

But the most galling defeat of the week belonged to Penn State, which lost to Temple for the first time since Pearl Harbor Day. The Nittany Lions had gone unbeaten against their hapless in-state neighbor 39 straight times since October 1941, but they were simply overwhelmed Saturday against an outfit coached by Matt Rhule, a former Penn State linebacker.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg, considered by many as the top prospect in next year’s NFL Draft, was sacked 10 times by Temple, including on the final two plays of the 27-10 rout that his coach James Franklin finally cried uncle.

The Big Ten faced five Power 5 opponents (we’re counting BYU) in the opening weekend and lost four, with only Northwestern’s win over Stanford preventing a shutout. Minnesota and Wisconsin fell to TCU and Alabama, teams ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. But Indiana only survived FCS Southern Illinois when the Salukis failed on a 2-point conversion attempt at the end of the game.

But SEC Doesn’t Totally Get a Pass

Yes, the SEC did look good, as only lowly Vanderbilt lost its opener while the conference won all four matchups against Power 5 opponents. But if you look under the hood, you’ll find the SEC’s secret ingredient for success.

The SEC’s powerhouses never stray too far away from home. At most, they’ll venture to “neutral sites” that serve as virtual home games, such as Texas A&M’s encounter with Arizona State in Houston. Only one SEC team played a road game in the opener – Mississippi State at Southern Miss.

Whereas four Pac-12 teams went on the road and six Big Ten teams did the same in the opening weekend, the SEC will play all of three true road games against non-conference opponents in the entire month of September.

Game of the Week

BYU 33, Nebraska 28: The Cougars handed the Huskers their first opening-game loss since 1985 when 22-year-old freshman Tanner Mangum’s Hail Mary pass found receiver Mitch Mathews in the end zone as time expired. Despite seven Nebraska defenders in the area, Mathews managed to corral the ball and fell on top of the goal line for the winning score.

Mangum, who only joined the team three months ago after serving his Mormon mission, was pressed into service when starter Taysom Hill once again came down with a season-ending injury during the game. Mangum managed to reprise what Jim McMahon did 35 years ago in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, when his Hail Mary found the hands of Clay Brown in the end zone, giving BYU a 46-45 victory over SMU and putting the program on the map (a.k.a. two Catholics helping the Mormons beat the Methodists).

Player of the Week

Josh Rosen, UCLA: The Bruins’ highly touted true freshman quarterback was as sensational as advertised, and then some, in a 34-16 drubbing of Virginia at the Rose Bowl. Rosen, a 5-star recruit out of St. John Bosco (a Jewish kid with a Quaker mother playing for a Catholic school), completed 28 of 35 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

UCLA has a loaded team that returned every starter but quarterback on offense. Looks like even without Brett Hundley, Jim Mora’s team is in good hands.

Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThePlayoffGuru.

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