Here's a thing that happened last Thursday afternoon that you probably didn't notice, if you were busy watching a billion in cash slip through your fingers: A high-school quarterback named Josh Rosen verbally committed to play football at UCLA. This wasn't exactly a surprise, since Rosen is from Southern California and the Bruins had the inside track all along, even after Rosen chose to swing through Ann Arbor for a late visit a few weeks back.
It's possible that this signing doesn't portend anything; it's possible Rosen, the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2015, won't pan out in college, and it's possible that Jim Mora, the UCLA coach, will jump back to the NFL before Rosen does (or does not) pan out. Maybe it's just a case of a SoCal kid choosing a SoCal school, because that's what dudes tend to do in those parts; it's not easy to leave behind abundant sunshine and fish tacos. But Rosen's signing did come on the heels of another development earlier this year, which is that Ricky Town, by most accounts the No. 2-rated quarterback in the class of 2015, pulled his commitment to Alabama and committed to USC.
It should be noted that Town is also from Southern California and USC's program was not exactly a model of steady leadership when Town made his initial commitment to Alabama. (It should also be noted that Lane Kiffin was involved, on both ends.) But these two commitments were still enough to get me thinking. These two commitments -- along with the fact that several other Southern recruits opted for a West Coast lifestyle -- made me start to wonder if it's actually humanly possible that, in some vague dystopian future, the Pac-12 might play better football than the Southeastern Conference.
I realize that at this very moment, it still seems idiotic to even suggest such a thing. It seems both reflexively contrarian and vaguely sacreligious. On a pure emotional level, there is no comparison: In the South, college football is the lifeblood of the region; in the West, college football is often a diversion from an otherwise idyllic Saturday afternoon of clogging freeways, hugging redwood trees and dodging hungry bears. The contrast of cultures is undeniable, and will remain undeniable for the foreseeable future, and it will most likely remain that way forever and ever, amen (bless you, Mr. Finebaum).
But, in a way, this is what the Pac-12 has going for it: It is not burdened by the weight of expectation. It is not going to have its progressivism strangled by talk-radio callers; its alumni are open to new ideas. It has programs that are waiting to be defined (or redefined) for the modern age. ("The analogy of some [Pac-12] schools going from 1975 to 2014 is accurate," Washington State athletic director Bills Moos said recently.) It is the closest thing major college football has to a frontier league, a place where experimentation is welcomed. The SEC is still a better conference; but the Pac-12 might now be the most interesting conference in the country.
Think about it: In the state of Washington alone, there are now two coaches in place who have essentially revolutionized offensive football over the past 10 seasons. I can't imagine a time when the Washington-Washington State rivalry has been so potentially compelling. (In the state of Arizona, you could argue the same thing; merely between those four coaches -- Mike Leach, Chris Petersen, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham -- you could compile a pretty bitching oral history of the sport's modern offensive revolution.)
At Oregon State, Mike Riley perpetually overachieves, notably on offense, with some of the least-talented personnel in the league; and Oregon, post-Chip Kelly, is still its multi-colored, multi-dimensional, opulent self. UCLA has a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and now (potentially) another one coming in next season; USC under Steve Sarkisian is probably in the best position to recapture its glitz since Pete Carroll left. Utah is never terrible and always potentially a surprise, and Colorado may be (very slowly) re-engineering a program that fell further than just about any I can think of over the past couple of decades. Cal, under Sonny Dykes, is blatantly attempting to outgun everyone, and Stanford is the perpetual (and necessary) defensive wrench in the machine, the control group against which offensive experiments can be measured.
I'd say there are at least 10 Pac-12 teams that are potentially capable of accomplishing something fascinating next season. (New Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, formerly the defensive coordinator at Stanford, recently told ESPN he thought the SEC was better at the top, but that the Pac-12 was better from top to bottom; I don't think this is true, but it could be soon.) The conference has established its own television network, which means a continued revenue stream, which means updated facilities, which means more competitive recruiting. While the South produces a greater volume of talent per capita (and is also benefiting from an expanding population), California has traditionally been the country's richest incubator of quarterbacks.
It's possible that none of this matters in the end. And maybe it shouldn't: We probably make too much of reflexive regionalism in an age when games are televised from coast to coast. Still, it's possible that the way a region feels about college football, the way it emotionally embraces the sport, matters more than any of the things I've mentioned above. It's possible the SEC will always be the best football conference in the country because people care more about football in the South than they care about almost anything anywhere else. But it's worth noting that bizarre and offbeat and occasional revolutionary ideas are being incubated out West (particularly in the vicinity of Pac-12 Networks headquarters in San Francisco) -- coaches are literally becoming robots, writing books about Apache warriors and openly mocking the conservatism of their Southern counterparts. I'm still not entirely sure what it means, but the ideas are enough to capture my attention.