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The mission was simple: Just proclaim this to be the best year of Pac-12 football in history, and take off early to hit a bucket of balls.

After all, the conference seems to have everything this year — national-title contenders, at least one front-and-center Heisman hopeful in Marcus Mariota, and depth.

“The Pac-12 has become a meat-grinder,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, “just like the SEC.”

More so, even? This week,’s Stewart Mandel said flatly, “The Pac-12 is the nation’s strongest league this season.”

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They probably would debate that in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Columbia, Mo., but if it’s in the discussion, I’d assume that makes it the best season yet for the conference.

Not so fast, chump. That’s what I found after poring over rankings, bowl results, NFL drafts, nonconference records and schedules. (Don’t try this at home; your eyeballs could fall out.)

The take-away: They’ve played some pretty good football before in the Pac-12/10.

I think the Pac-12, with an unmatched mark of 30-6 in nonconference play, is in the hunt in 2013 to be eligible for its best showing ever, partly because the depth is nasty. My assessment of what it’s chasing:

1. 1982. Go ahead, try to beat ’82. The league finished with four top-15 teams (UCLA No. 5, ASU 6, Washington 7 and USC at 15), the only time the Pac-12 has done that. It went 3-0 in bowls, including the Rose and Fiesta. Arizona and Stanford, which didn’t even go to bowl games, won at No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 13 Ohio State. The regular-season ended with a flourish on California’s fabled five-lateral “Play” against Stanford. And then in the 1983 NFL draft, No. 1 choice John Elway led a parade of 20 Pac-10 picks in the first three rounds, the most I’ve found in league history.

2. 1997. Four ranked teams, topped by No. 5 UCLA and No. 9 WSU, a 5-1 bowl record and a 28-8 nonleague mark, second-best in modern times. The 1998 draft had 14 Pac-10 picks among the first 64, and three Cougars (Ryan Leaf, Leon Bender and Dorian Boose) went in the first three rounds, as did five Huskies (Jerome Pathon, Tony Parrish, Cam Cleeland, Olin Kreutz, Rashaan Shehee).

3. 2007. Four ranked teams led by No. 3 USC, and one that wasn’t, Cal, opened with a win over No. 15 Tennessee. Oregon won 39-7 at Michigan, which finished No. 18 (this was the year Dennis Dixon’s knee injury took away Oregon’s good shot at a title-game berth). It went 4-2 in bowls and had six first-round picks in the ’08 draft.

Honorable mention:

1984. You could argue this to be the best year, simply on the basis of its superb performance in high-end bowls — Washington (which finished No. 2) beat Oklahoma in the Orange, USC (No. 10) topped Ohio State in the Rose and UCLA (No. 9) nipped Miami in the Fiesta. There were some flaws — one-sided losses by a 9-3 UCLA team to Nebraska, 42-3, and USC’s 23-3 defeat at home to unranked LSU.

1986. In a balanced year, 5-1-1 won the league (ASU, which prevailed in the Rose Bowl), and 5-3 tied for fourth, fifth and sixth. Washington opened with a 40-7 win over Ohio State, which finished No. 7. But the Pac-10 petered out a bit, going 3-3 in bowls, one of them the Sun, where a 28-6 loss to Alabama convinced Don James the Huskies needed more speed.

2002. Eight of 10 teams had winning records behind a daunting array of quarterbacks (Carson Palmer, Jason Gesser, Kyle Boller, Andrew Walter, Cody Pickett), and in the ’03 NFL draft eight Pac-10 players were picked in the first round. But the bowl season was a 2-5 dud, four of the losses in double digits.

In pre-Pac-10 days (before 1978), there were several instances of three teams ranked in the final top 20, but rarely the depth of later years — like 2013, where the fifth-place teams in each division have a blowout win over Boise State (Washington) and an upset of Stanford (Utah).

Tough thing to measure, depth. But that’s the element that gives the league a shot at chasing down 1982.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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