LOS ANGELES — When Gary Andersen left Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin for Oregon State and the Pac-12 last December, the veteran coach made a move that would have been unthinkable — or at least a bit illogical — just a few seasons ago.
Andersen knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing.
It's not because the Big Ten is declining, he said. The Pac-12 is on the rise, and it just might be the peak of college football this fall.
"I absolutely have felt a huge swing in the last two years, and that's me being in the Midwest for two years, that the Pac-12 has gained a ton of respect nationally," said Andersen, the league's only new coach this year. "The Pac-12 has gotten better and better and better."
Indeed, the West Coast's premier conference is stacked with elite talent in wealthy programs committed to contending for national championships as it celebrates the 100-year anniversary of its official formation this fall.
Andersen couldn't resist the chance to move back out West, even though he'll have to compete with the archrival Oregon Ducks, who reached the national title game last season behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.
But almost nobody gets an easy ride these days in the Pac-12, which has a wealth of amazing players and no clear-cut title favorite. While comparisons among leagues are inexact at best, every coach is publicly confident the Pac-12 is the equal of the SEC and anybody else.
"A lot of the talent that's been out West that maybe had left the western part of the country, going somewhere else, is now staying out here," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We're one of them, but the other schools in our division and in our league are doing it. So I think the Pac-12 South is probably going to be better this year than it's ever been. The Pac-12 will be better than it's ever been, and I think it's going to stay that way into the future."
Some things to watch in the Pac-12 this season:
FEAR THE SOUTH: The Pac-12 South might be the most loaded division in college football, with Southern California, UCLA, Arizona State, Utah and defending champion Arizona all harboring title contention hopes and College Football Playoff dreams. USC is favored in its first year free of NCAA sanctions, but the Trojans must contend with the crosstown Bruins, who have beaten them three straight times, along with two loaded rivals from the Grand Canyon State and the Utes, who have 18 returning starters.
AFTER MARIOTA: Oregon has its usual stacked roster, but a big hole in the middle after falling short in the title game against Ohio State. Coach Mark Helfrich wants his Ducks to "simultaneously learn from and flush the end of (last season)." Mariota's successor could be Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams, but he can't officially join the team until later this week. The Ducks have work to do, but they've handled it before.
SO MUCH SPEED: The Pac-12 has a reputation for high-octane, trailblazing offensive football, and that's likely to continue this year. The biggest difference between this league and the rest, according to coaches, is the speed. This season's top burners include USC two-way star Adoree Jackson, Stanford receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims, Cal running back Khalfani Muhammad, Oregon receiver Devon Allen and Arizona receiver Tyrell Johnson. "This league has what we like to call juice," Andersen said. "It is fast. There are a lot of guys that make one mistake, and you're going to pay the price quickly."
NEW CHAMP?: For all of its parity and league-wide growth, the Pac-12 has had only two champions since 2008. Oregon won its fourth title in six years last fall, ending the two-year reign of Stanford, which slipped to 8-5 last season. USC hasn't won the league since Pete Carroll's penultimate season, while half of the conference's 12 schools haven't even shared the title in the 21st century.
LEACH'S TIME?: Mike Leach has won 12 games in his first three seasons at Washington State, and some observers see little reason to expect a breakthrough this fall on the Palouse. Yet the famously unconventional coach is increasingly confident about the future after the school opened its 75,000-square-foot Cougar Football Complex in June. Leach's charisma and smarts make him an important national figure, but he's eager to back up that reputation.
Predicted order of finish:
NORTH — Oregon, Stanford, Cal, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State
SOUTH — USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona, Utah, Colorado