LOS ANGELES ? Hours before the Pac-10's meet-and-greet with reporters and broadcasters at the conference media day in Los Angeles, 10 of the league's top players held a meeting of their own.
At a hotel pool near Los Angeles International Airport, the representative for each Pac-10 school took advantage of a rare opportunity for opponents to have a heart-to-heart.
The message ? enough is enough.
"People in other conferences look at the Pac-10 conference as a finesse conference and not a smash-mouth conference," Arizona wide receiver Syndric Steptoe said. "We talked about the direction we're trying to take the Pac-10 as a whole unit, not just individual teams."
Overcoming stereotypes and East Coast bias hasn't been difficult for Southern California, home to three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners and two of the last three national champions.
But the perceived slights for the other nine teams spilled into bowl season the last two years when a Pac-10 team has been the odd man out of the BCS. Oregon last year and California in 2004 missed out on a second Bowl Championship Series bid for the conference.
The result has been banishment to the pre-New Year's Holiday Bowl, but the Ducks and Bears did little to sway opinion ? each lost to fourth-place Big 12 opponents.
"It's always a bad feeling, but we feel like we can't control those things," California cornerback Daymeion Hughes said. "We just want to play the games that they put in front of us. But you do feel a little heartbroken at the end of the year that you didn't achieve your goals."
The push for outside approval will start outside of the conference. The Pac-10 posted a 26-10 non-conference record last year (including bowl games). But that was padded by a 19-3 record against non-BCS and Division I-AA opponents.
A front-runner to unseat USC at the top of the conference, California will go to Tennessee's Neyland Stadium on Sept. 2 in one of four road games against the SEC. Also that day, USC will face Arkansas and Washington State will face Auburn. A week later, conference upstart Arizona will visit LSU.
The Rivals Five
Key non-conference matchups for the Pac-10
Sept. 2: California at Tennessee Both teams will find out in a hurry where they stand in Cal's first trip to the SEC since 1987. Cal looks to crack the national picture while the Volunteers will find out if last year's 5-6 record was an aberration.
Sept. 9: Arizona at LSU Arizona is a team on the rise. But are the Wildcats rising fast enough to beat LSU in Baton Rouge in the second week of the season? Quarterback Willie Tuitama will make his sixth start in front of the most hostile crowd yet.
Sept. 16: Oklahoma at Oregon Oregon has a chance at revenge for the Holiday Bowl, a game the Sooners won 17-14. Also working in favor of Oregon: Autzen Stadium and the absence of Sooners starting quarterback Rhett Bomar.
Oct. 21: UCLA at Notre Dame UCLA's defense will need to improve from last season's performance (34.2 points per game). Otherwise, the Bruins' first game against the Irish since 1964 could get ugly.
Nov. 2: Notre Dame at Southern California The late-season matchup between the Irish and the Trojans could have national championship implications. After last year's finish, college football fans should watch this game even if it doesn't affect the title race.
Beyond games against the SEC, three Pac-10 teams will again take a shot at Notre Dame. Southern California and Stanford will have their annual games against Notre Dame, but so will UCLA. Oregon and Washington will also have a chance at Big 12 power Oklahoma.
"We were talking about how we all want to win our out of conference games," Washington quarterback Isaiah Stanback said. "The Pac-10 conference doesn't get a lot of respect. If we win those games, the Pac-10 conference will get a lot of respect. We support everyone's team out of conference."
Inside the conference, the other nine teams will try to close the gap on USC, which won its league games by an average of 29.25 points. If the Trojans hope to do so again, they will have to find replacements for Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
Even though USC appears ready to reload with blue-chip recruits, the rest of the Pac-10 is sensing opportunity.
California, the last conference team to beat USC, its own Heisman contender in running back Marshawn Lynch. Arizona State and Oregon are in position to overtake USC as the conference's top offense if both schools sort out their quarterback situations.
Even the league's non-bowl teams have reason for hope.
Arizona (3-8) is ready to reach the postseason after returning 16 starters from a team that lost five games by seven or fewer points. Washington State (4-7) one-upped the Wildcats by losing four games by a field goal. Five-win teams Stanford and Oregon State, who both return veteran quarterbacks, also had a couple of close calls last year with two losses each coming by three or fewer points.
Sitting by a pool in Los Angeles, a player from each school agreed ? a few points and a few wins here and there can go a long way to changing perceptions.
"We've got to get it rolling," Oregon center Enoka Lucas said. "Each team we play we have to prove it to them like, 'Don't look down on us.' When we play outside of the league, we need to prove we belong."