Five Pac-12 teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press poll. The Pac-12/10/8 has never had five teams ranked in the final AP poll, though that would change if new members Colorado and Utah were included in the tabulation.
What that means is the preseason perception of the Pac-12 is strong heading into the 2013 season, perhaps as strong as it has been in a while. The last time as many as four conference teams were ranked in the preseason AP poll was 2006.
Depth? Eight conference teams received votes. National title contenders? Oregon is ranked third and Stanford fourth.
Last year, the general consensus was the SEC was the best conference, and the Pac-12 and Big 12 were candidates for No. 2. This fall, more than a few folks are projecting the Pac-12 as a contender for best conference, though dethroning the SEC, which had six teams in the top 12 of the preseason poll, is as much about ending a streak of seven consecutive national titles as overall strength.
However one views the strength of various conferences, there obviously is a perception that the Pac-12 is on the uptick in 2013.
There are season-specific reasons for this. For one, a lot of starters are coming back, particularly among the better teams.
Pac-12 teams average 16.3 returning starters. The average over the past decade was 14.9. Those 2013 numbers are particularly good at the top. The conference's top seven teams from a preseason perspective -- Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State and Washington -- average 16.5 returning starters. For the sake of comparison, the SEC's top six teams (Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina) average 12.3 returning starters.
They say defense wins championships, so it's good that an average of 7.4 defensive starters are back. They also say the game is won in the trenches. Only one conference team, Utah, doesn't welcome back at least three starters on its offensive line. Seven teams welcome back four starters, compared to just two (Arizona and USC) a year ago.
Further, of those top seven teams, six welcome back their starting quarterbacks. Among that group, only USC is replacing its 2012 starter.
Arizona is replacing its starting quarterback, Matt Scott, but it nonetheless was among the teams getting votes in the AP poll. Second-year coach Rich Rodriguez said he thinks the conference has more than five Top-25 teams, and he thinks there's a paper trail behind the conference's improving perception.
"The Pac-12 is deeper now and will be deeper in the next 10 or 15 years than it ever has been," he said. "And that's just because of the money being put into it. You're talking about more money, more facilities and more revenue than any school in our league has ever had. And that's not going backwards."
He then added with a laugh, "I wish it wasn't that way. I wish it was just us. But everybody is kind of moving up."
How much more money are Pac-12 teams taking in? Well, according to the conference's tax filings for 2011-12, the most recent available fiscal year, revenues jumped 58 percent over the previous year to $175.5 million. And that doesn't include the $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and FOX, which started last season and will pay members an average of $20.8 million over the next 12 years.
That money is paying for facilities upgrades across the conference. In fact, every conference team has -- or is planning to -- significantly upgraded facilities, whether that's stadiums, weight rooms or football buildings.
California last year completed the most expensive facility upgrades in college sports history -- total cost of $474 million -- and immediately went from having some of the worst facilities in AQ conference football to having some of the best. Oregon's new football building has been a national sensation, while the renovation of Husky Stadium will put it on the short list of best college football venues. Arizona, USC and Utah have recently opened fancy new football buildings, while Arizona State's stadium remodel plan is, well, out of this world looking.
These facilities, the conventional wisdom goes, will make Pac-12 programs more competitive in recruiting and will provide state-of-the-art support for the athletes already on hand. The Pac-12 has been playing catch-up in the college football arms race, and now it seems it has caught up.
Of course, the Pac-12 continues to have a self-imposed challenge that the SEC, Big Ten and ACC don't face: a nine-game conference schedule. If the Pac-12 played eight conference games, there would be six fewer losses scattered throughout the conference every year, and that would bolster national perception. It particularly would boost perceptions of depth, as more 6-6 teams would be 7-5 and 8-4 teams would be 9-3.
For many Pac-12 coaches, quality depth has been a major factor preventing the conference from playing for more national titles.
"What I like to say about our conference is it's tough every single week," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You don't have a group at the top and a group at the bottom. You're going to play tough games every single week."
It appears that might be even more true in 2013, at least if preseason polls are to be believed.
But there is a singularly most convincing way for the Pac-12 to distinguish itself in front of the nation this season: Win the final BCS National Championship before the four-team playoff begins in 2014.