First & 20: Pac-12 can make statement playing SEC

The Sports Xchange

August 29, 2016 at 11:40 pm.

Adoree' Jackson (2) is one of several talented playmakers on the USC roster. Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Adoree’ Jackson (2) is one of several talented playmakers on the USC roster. Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

College football opens with a flourish, with four matchups of ranked teams and fresh fodder for one of the loudest conference debates.

OK, we get it. The SEC is the nation’s best league, having produced the national champion in eight of the past 10 seasons, but teams on the West Coast have had their hands in the air, jumping up and down, screaming, “Hey, look at us!”

This weekend, the Pac-12 gets its chance to get noticed.

No. 20 USC plays top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas, while No. 16 UCLA travels to Texas A&M to face the athletic Aggies and a crowd in excess of 100,000.

These are rare treats. The Pac-12 and SEC have met only 28 times in the past 18 seasons, and they aren’t contracted to meet in any bowl game.

In the past, Pac-12 coaches have derided the SEC’s non-conference scheduling and unwillingness to go a more arduous nine-game conference schedule. The SEC often counters that the best teams in other conferences would be no better than middle-of-the-road outfits in the SEC.

Mostly, it’s all been rhetoric that hasn’t been able to be tested on the field.

But here is what we do know: The Pac-12 has been undervalued.

The SEC is 15-13 vs. the Pac-12 in the past 18 seasons, but — gambling alert — the guys from the Pac-12 have a 16-9-3 edge against the betting point spread in those games. In other words, the Pac-12 has exceeded its perception.

What the Pac-12 really needs, though, are a couple of upsets that will give the league a easier case for entry into the four-team College Football Playoff.

Alabama is hard to beat anytime, anywhere, but especially in season-opening neutral-site games. The Tide has beaten Michigan, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Wisconsin by an average of 36-16 in such cases in the past four years.

This is Alabama’s first game against a Pac-12 team since it beat visiting UCLA 20-17 in 2001.

Texas A&M routed Arizona State 38-17 last year in Arlington, the only Pac-12 vs. SEC meeting in the past two seasons.

Now, we get two in one day. No more talk. It’s prove-it time for the Pac-12.

5 unranked teams to watch

1. Washington State — Quarterback Luke Falk and wide receiver Gabe Marks rank among the best pass-catch combos in the country for a team that won nine games last season but still can’t find much preseason love in the Pac-12 North.

2. San Diego State — The Aztecs won each of their Mountain West games last season by at least two touchdowns and return the league’s Offensive Player of the Year (running back Donnel Pumphrey), the Defensive Player of the Year (cornerback Damontae Kazee) and the Special Teams Player of the Year (Rashaad Penny). This team has undefeated potential.

3. Arkansas — A young defense is coming of age, and the Hogs get Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU at home. These tough, physical guys will nab an upset or two.

4. Pittsburgh — Head coach Pat Narduzzi knows defense, and his run-first offense should thrive behind NFL-caliber left tackle Adam Bisnowaty and left guard Dorian Johnson, and a deep stable of running backs. That includes all-star running back James Conner, coming back from a knee injury and cancer.

5. Nebraska — The Cornhuskers need just a little push after losing six games last season by one score, finishing 6-7 in coach Mike Riley’s debut in Lincoln. A Sept. 17 home game vs. Oregon will be telling.

5 coaches on the hot seat

1. Charlie Strong, Texas — Strong, who is 11-14 in two seasons at Texas, has been patiently putting in a solid foundation. But this is a win-now world, and it might take eight or nine victories this season for Strong to get enough time to finish his renovation.

2. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M — The Aggies have gone just 11-13 in the SEC since taking the league by storm with a 6-2 conference mark and Heisman Trophy-winning Johnny Manziel. The off-field stuff has been messy, too.

3. Les Miles, LSU — Miles somehow held off the marauders at his castle door last season and enters 2016 with a team capable of winning it all. That’s good. Not beating Alabama since 2011? That’s not good, keeping plenty of heat on the Mad Hatter.

4. Mark Stoops, Kentucky — The school has poured about $165 million into renovations and new football facilities, so Stoops has to somehow begin to repay that investment with any kind of bowl game in his fourth season.

5. Darrell Hazell, Purdue — He’s gone 6-30 in four years, saved, perhaps, by only a contract buyout that won’t be as hefty after this season.

5 transfer QBs to watch

1. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M — The former almost-star at Oklahoma lost his job to Baker Mayfield last year but is heaven-sent as a graduate transfer to A&M, which lost promising Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray after last season.

2. Kenny Hill, TCU — Hill, another former Texas A&M quarterback, was a leading Heisman candidate early in the 2014 season before falling out of favor. He has to fill the big shoes of Trevone Boykin, but he’s dynamic enough to do it and help put the Frogs back in contention for the College Football Playoff.

3. Dakota Prukop, Oregon — For the second year in a row, the Ducks are entrusting a graduate transfer from the FCS level; this time it’s Prukop from Montana State. He is surrounded by elite skill and will need to stay healthier than Vernon Adams Jr. (Eastern Washington) did last year. Prukop’s backup is a true freshman.

4. Luke Del Rio, Florida — The son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio won the Gators’ starting gig after stops at Alabama and Oregon State. If he falters, Purdue grad transfer Austin Appleby is the next man up.

5. Davis Webb, California — We’ve already seen Webb in action, passing for 441 yards in a 51-31 over Hawaii in Australia. Going from Texas Tech’s “Air Raid” to Cal’s “Bear Raid” passing attack is nearly seamless, and Webb should post huge numbers, as did his predecessor, No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jared Goff.

5 top games

1. No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC) — Nick Saban enters game week without having announced a starting quarterback, but the key matchup will be Alabama’s offensive line vs. USC’s new-look defensive front.

2. No. 11 Ole Miss at No. 4 Florida State (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) — The Rebels are hoping the quarterback edge (Chad Kelly vs. redshirt freshman Deondre Francois) makes the difference against the otherwise loaded Seminoles.

3. No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) — Which of four QBs will make the difference? The Irish will use DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire; the Longhorns will counter with Tyrone Swoops and promising freshman Shane Buechele.

4. No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 15 Houston (Saturday, noon ET, ABC) — The Sooners have to stop Houston dual-threat Greg Ward Jr. He and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson were only quarterbacks last season to pass for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000.

5. No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) — Worth watching just to see Aggies’ defensive end Myles Garrett chase UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.

5 bonus games: No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin (Green Bay, Wis.); No. 22 North Carolina vs. No. 18 Georgia (Atlanta); No. 2 Clemson at Auburn; BYU vs. Arizona (Glendale, Ariz.); Kansas State at Stanford. Film Room Review analyst Rob Rang picks his five must-see players for Week 1. Listing includes position, school, year, height, weight and 40-time.

1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M, Jr., 6-5, 262, 4.74
Garrett enters the 2016 season as the easy favorite to be the first non-quarterback selected in the 2017 draft. The former consensus five-star recruit has been a terror over two seasons in the SEC, answering his breakout freshman season (53 tackles, including 14 for loss and 11 sacks) with an even better one last year (59/19.5/12.5).

2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU, Jr., 6-1, 230, 4.45
The most exciting talent at the position since Adrian Peterson was dazzling at Oklahoma. Catch him while you can.

3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson, Jr., 6-2, 210, 4.64
Watson is the clear-cut top quarterback prospect, a dazzling dual-threat similar to former Oregon star Marcus Mariota. Watson generates a lot of excitement with his feet. Scouts are more intrigued with his accuracy as a passer.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford, Jr., 6-0, 202, 4.48
With his easy agility, instant acceleration and soft hands, McCaffrey is a weapon of mass destruction as a runner, receiver and returner, warranting comparison to another former Pac-12 star, Reggie Bush.

5. Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama, Sr., 6-1, 240, 4.72
Reggie Ragland was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season but Foster is unquestionably the more explosive athlete, showing ridiculous closing speed and an utter disregard for his own safety or that of his opponents.