With USC losing last week and the rest of the Pac-10 faltering in non-conference play, the Pac-10 has never been so difficult to predict. With the playing field as level as ever, the conference appears to be up for grabs.
I think we can safely eliminate Washington State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington from the Pac-10 champion discussion, leaving Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State and USC as the teams capable of winning the conference in 2008.
Between those six teams, the race is wide open. None of these teams have shown enough dominance to be a consensus favorite, but despite their early-season blunders still have solid talent. Let's examine each team:
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What's to like: The options quarterback Willie Tuitama has.
Mike Thomas leads the Pac-10 in receptions and receiving yards this season after making First Team All Pac-10 in 2007. The return of Rob Gronkowski is huge. Receivers Delashaun Dean and Terrell Turner can contribute well in addition to Nicolas Grigsby, who is a dangerous weapon out on the flats.
What's not to like: This is not familiar territory for Mike Stoops and his players.
Cal and Arizona State have split the conference title with USC in the past two years, and Oregon finished second in the conference in 2005. Arizona may be used to winning against elite teams in past years, but it has never had such a realistic shot finishing at winning the conference. The Wildcats need to be able to handle the pressure of being one of the conference's best because they aren't going to be able to sneak up on top teams anymore.
What's to like: Rudy Carpenter.
The conference traditionally known for quarterbacks isn't quite so this year, but Rudy Carpenter is the most decorated of the Pac-10's starting hurlers. He leads the conference in passing yards (1,183), completion percentage (69.1%), yards per attempt (9.6) and has a quarterback rating of 165.43. Wow, think what would happen if he had an offensive line.
What's not to like: Arizona State can't win the big game.
Remember how good the Sun Devils were last year? Remember how they could only win the games they were supposed to? I'm not going to count Arizona State's win over #21 Cal last year because it was in the middle of the Bears' meltdown, which means Arizona State's last win over a ranked opponent was its victory over #12 Iowa on Sept. 18, 2004. Since then, Arizona State has gone 0-13 and been outscored 504-264 overall in games against ranked opponents. That's getting beat by an average of over 18 points per game, Ouch!
What's to like: Cal's running game.
Most people don't know this, but Cal has had the most rushing yards in the Pac-10 over the past six years. Credit the work of assistant offensive coordinator/ offensive line coach Jim Michalczik for the offensive line offering Cal's backs great lanes through the years. Then there is Jahvid Best, whose 100-meter dash time in high school was 10.31 seconds and already has two touchdown runs of 80 yards or more. Also, redshirt freshman Shane Vereen is a danger; the media has named the two "lightning and lightning." Don't let either of these guys get out into open space.
What's not to like: Cal's receiving core.
Cal lost its top four receivers from last year, and the new receiving group is showing growing pains. Cal's best receiver is LaReylle Cunningham, and while he leads the team with 157 receiving yards, he ranks 19th in the conference with less than half the yards of Mike Thomas. If this team continues to rely on its running game then it will be in big trouble when it gets shut down on the ground, as it did against Maryland.
What's to like: Oregon plays great late in the game.
Oregon has been outscored 48-12 before halftime against Purdue and Boise State; however, it has responded each game, outscoring both opponents 52-19 in the second half. While the Ducks' second half dominance does not serve as any kind of excuse for them sleep-walking the first 30 minutes of each game, being able to come from behind (especially how far they have been down by) is always a tremendous asset for a team to have. This is especially useful during a season where the Ducks play USC, Arizona State, and Cal all on the road…
What's not to like: The Ducks play USC, Arizona State, and Cal all on the road.
They say Autzen is the toughest place to play in the Pac-10. Too bad Oregon doesn't get that advantage against the upper half of the conference this year. Oregon must travel to the Coliseum in Los Angeles, Berkeley's Memorial Stadium (now tree-sitter-free!), and Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. That's a pretty tough slate, especially considering that the Ducks haven't won in Berkeley since 2001 (the year before Jeff Tedford arrived and Cal finished 1-11) nor beaten USC in L.A. since 2000.
If you have read my Pac-10 recaps each week, you have noticed that I have had a huge crush on Stroughter since his week one performance against Stanford. He hasn't had nearly the same success since his monster game against Stanford but he is still a big-time threat every time he steps on the field. As for Rodgers, he had to earn every one of his 186 yards against USC.
What's not to like: Oregon State's run defense.
Maybe it was just a slow start on the road, but Oregon State surrendered over 200 yards on the ground in its losses to Stanford and Penn State. While it did manage to shut down USC's multiple running threats, I am still not sold. The dangerous running teams in the conference are biggest thing standing in the way of Oregon State.
What's to like: USC has the best talent in the county, let alone the Pac-10.
Not only does USC have the most talent in its starting line-up, it serious depth of talent as well. Most of its reserves would be starters on any other Pac-10 roster. It isn't even debatable, USC has by far the most talented team in the conference.
What's not to like: The Pac-10 has figured out how to beat the Trojans.
One thing that has Pac-10 critics scratching their heads is the fact that Pac-10 teams are the only ones that have been able to beat USC. USC has continually dominated other conferences in regular season and bowl games. The last out of conference team to beat USC in the regular season was Kansas State in 2002. Since then, USC has gone 22-0 against non-conference opponents and nearly all of those victories were lopsided. In the same time period, the Trojans have dropped six conference games.
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