Beneath surface stability, Pac-12 has issues on and off field

Huard: Pac-12 lacks major stability and exposure (2:15)

The College Football Live crew breaks down why the Pac-12 is no longer the second best conference and why bigger, more-exposed conferences like the SEC and Big Ten will remain dominant. (2:15)

Just one of the 27 FBS head coaching changes came from the Pac-12, a list that included 13 Power 5 programs, and USC's Clay Helton has been the Trojans' acting head coach for three months. That suggests stability, or at least as much stability as a Power 5 conference can have from one season to the next.

That suggestion is wrong.

Head coaching stability is just a superficial perception, because the conference is roiling beneath the surface. We might be on the cusp of significant philosophical and schematic changes. And the doomsayers out there might wonder if the Pac-12 is headed for a downturn.

Personnel will be the biggest question in 2016. Seven teams are replacing their starting quarterbacks from 2015 and there's a decided lack of star power coming back at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. In fact, the overall returning defensive talent is underwhelming, particularly along the front seven.

The good news is only 15 Pac-12 underclassmen are among the 100 or so who opted to enter the NFL draft early. The bad news is only four or five could end up as first-round selections. As for the future, with just two weeks until signing day, no Pac-12 team currently ranks among the top 13 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings. It's no consolation, either, that a Recruiting Nation poll of juniors at the Under Armour All-America Game and Future 50 event included zero -- zero -- votes for the Pac-12 as the nation's best football conference.

As for scheme, much will be different within the Pac-12 next fall as eight teams made changes at their coordinator spots, with USC and Oregon changing both their offensive and defensive leadership. While many of the changes featured in-house promotions or the hiring of familiar faces, a few will reverse course philosophically. Most notable is Oregon switching from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 under new coordinator Brady Hoke, but even in-house promotions often include significant change.

Consider this comment from UCLA coach Jim Mora -- in a news release, no less -- on the promotion of Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator and the hiring of Marques Tuiasosopo (quarterbacks/passing game coordinator) and Rip Scherer (tight ends).

“As we continue to evolve as a program and tailor our philosophies and schemes to the strengths of our players, what you will see is a multifaceted offense incorporating tight ends and fullbacks into our schemes,” Mora said. “Our objective is to be a big, strong and physical offensive unit that has flexibility of personnel groupings."

Tight ends? Fullbacks? Holy Stanford, what the heck is going on in Westwood?

In 2008, California under Jeff Tedford became the first conference team to switch to a 3-4 base defense with coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who's now bringing his "52" evolution back to USC. This past season, only Cal and Utah ran (mostly) pure 4-3 defenses, though some, such as Arizona State, used hybrid looks that leaned more toward an even front. The idea was a 3-4 got more speed on the field at linebacker, which helped against up-tempo, spread offenses. A reason less enthusiastically noted was a dearth of A-list defensive tackles on the West Coast.

Is the 3-4 trend beginning to reverse course?

Some of the coordinator changes led with a "congratulations." Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (Memphis), Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost (Central Florida) and Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake (BYU) became head coaches. UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone bolted for Texas A&M for three years of guaranteed money. Utah defensive coordinator John Pease retired after a single season after coming out of retirement to step in for Sitake.

Other changes weren't celebrations. Rich Rodriguez cleaned house with his defensive staff, painful moves that including cutting ties with coordinator Jeff Casteel and line coach Bill Kirelawich. Oregon's Mark Helfrich demoted longtime Ducks assistant Don Pellum back to linebackers coach after two seasons at coordinator.

Norvell, Mazzone, Frost, Sitake and Casteel were five of the top six paid assistants in the Pac-12 last year -- UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ranked third -- and it's notable that, other than the Hoke, none of the new coordinators are likely to be among the 50 highest paid assistant coaches in the country.

We're all for giving young coaches opportunities, for loyalty to existing staff and for not giving in to the sport's wage inflation, but the lack of "celebrity" hires should at least raise an eyebrow. This also leads into a potential issue the Pac-12 might face in the coming decade. While conference commissioner Larry Scott and company were widely celebrated for signing a 12-year, $3 billion television contract with ESPN and Fox five years ago -- the most valuable for any conference in college sports at the time -- those figures are so 2011.

SEC and Big Ten revenue distributions are eclipsing the Pac-12 and the gap is likely to grow. The Big Ten will soon renegotiate its first-tier rights agreement with ESPN, and the SEC just reported $527.4 million in total revenue for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2015, which is up an extraordinary 60 percent from a year ago, according to USA Today.

There's no obvious way for the Pac-12 to increase revenue in the short term -- other than finally sign a deal with DirectTV -- and there doesn't seem to be much momentum inside the posh Pac-12 offices in the most expensive city in the United States to do the nutty thing and, you know, cut expenses so the 12 universities could get more money.

Just thinking out loud here, but anyone wonder how many millions the Pac-12 could save by moving the Pac-12 Networks and the conference's home office to, say, Salt Lake City, which is more centrally located and and has a better airport? Moving the headquarters also might inspire a winnowing of the executive-level, big-paycheck bloat that university administrators are beginning to notice now that the euphoria of the rights deal fades.

Just thinking out loud.

Back to the field, and the good news in the first iteration of Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2016 included six Pac-12 teams. The bad news is only No. 8 Stanford ranked among the top 14. The strong sentiment among prognosticators is that the conference might again be outside looking in during the College Football Playoff.

From 2010 through 2014, even with USC down because of NCAA sanctions, the Pac-12 generally distinguished itself and seemingly gained ground in the "Best Football Conference Outside of the SEC" debate. Some even wondered if the Pac-12 threatened the SEC.

That won't be a storyline in 2016. And perhaps for a good while.