- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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As we turn the page on the first half of the 2013 season, the big takeaway is this: The Pac-12 still has a viable national championship contender in Oregon and at least one viable BCS at-large team. An undefeated Oregon team obviously advances to the national championship game. A one-loss Oregon, Stanford and/or UCLA would all be prime candidates for an at-large bid (we'll know more after UCLA plays both of those teams).
Either way, the Pac-12 clearly distinguished itself as one of the top two leagues in college football with a 29-5 mark against out of conference competition. And a strong argument can be made that, top to bottom, it is on par if not superior to the SEC.
The Pac-12 is deep, which, as we’ve learned the last couple of weeks, is its blessing and its curse.
The blessing is Oregon stayed highly visible through the first half of the season, even though it hadn’t played a ranked team until Saturday’s win at Washington. But the way the Ducks have won, by starting the year with five games of scoring 55 points or more, and the way they were able to squash most naysayers with dominant performance after dominant performance speaks to the sheer impressiveness of what Oregon has accomplished so far. A Heisman front runner also helps.
Plus, ASU and UCLA picked up critical wins over Wisconsin and Nebraska, and Washington topped Boise State. Those were all marquee wins that bolstered the conference’s national perception. Washington has dropped two games but remains in the top 25 because voters are recognizing the quality of competition in the Pac-12.
The curse is Washington plays in the Pac-12 North, in which wins are hard to come by. The curse is that a four-win Washington State team would have a much better shot at going bowling if the Pac-12 played an eight-game conference schedule. The curse is Stanford ran into a surging Utah team that finally had its “hello Pac-12” moment. Stanford didn't lose that game. Utah won it. And the Utes aren't going to make things easy in the South. Just as Washington State isn’t going to make things easy in the North. They led the Beavers late into the third quarter on Saturday night.
Now UCLA, Stanford, Oregon, ASU, Washington UCLA, Utah and Oregon State are all going to cannibalize one another throughout the course of a vicious conference schedule. UCLA has back-to-back trips to Stanford and Oregon. Washington has to go to ASU. Utah is on the road for four of its next six games. ASU must try to clinch the South in Pasadena. UCLA has to try to clinch the South at the Coliseum. That’s right, don’t rule out USC just yet.
Or maybe we see Stanford do what it did last year -- drop a game on the road after a failed goal-line push (starting to sound familiar?) and then close strong in the last mile. Then again, Stanford could conceivably drop its next two to UCLA and Oregon State and then beat Oregon. That would almost seem apropos for this wacky conference. Almost.
If we learned anything these first seven weeks, it’s that the Pac-12 has changed the perception of how it’s viewed around the country. It started the year with five teams in the top 25. A total of seven have been in and out of the rankings. It has four in this week -- all four in the top 20 -- two in the top 10 and one, at No. 2, receiving first-place votes. Three other teams have been in and out of the rankings -- USC, Oregon State and ASU -- and the Beavers, Sun Devils and Utes are receiving votes.
And as the conference continues gorging itself, it’s only going to get more interesting from here on out.
Offensive MVP: You can make a case for a few guys, but Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota gets the nod because not only has he accounted for 25 touchdowns, but he’s responsible for zero turnovers. All he has done in the first half of the season is be dominant, help his team without hurting them, and garnered legitimate Heisman buzz.
Defensive MVP: Tough call here between UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Stanford’s Trent Murphy. Barr leads the conference with by two more tackles for loss than anyone else, despite playing fewer games. Murphy has more sacks and a freakishly athletic pick-six. We’re giving the nod to Barr, who has more total tackles, has forced three fumbles and recovered two.
Biggest surprise: Utah’s win over Stanford certainly qualifies. As does Washington State’s win over USC in Week 2. Both of those teams sit at four wins, and that Nov. 23 date between the Utes and Cougs in Pullman could have bowl implications for both teams who were home for the holidays last year.
Biggest disappointment: While things might be looking up in Troy, the way the quarterback situation was handled followed by the dismissal of head coach Lane Kiffin was disappointing. The Trojans had bought enough good will to start the year in the top 25, but that faded quickly. Now they are searching for someone who can restore the brand.
Newcomer of the year: Coin toss between the unbelievably versatile Myles Jack of UCLA -- who has future first-rounder written all over him -- and Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam. We’re a Gilliam lean simply because of the sheer volume of his production. The true freshman leads the conference with an average of 10.6 tackles per game, is second in the league in solo stops (35) and has 53 tackles and a couple of sacks on the year.
Best coach: It’s hard to overlook the job Mark Helfrich has done with Oregon. And if we’re talking strictly on the field, he gets the vote. But we’re tipping our cap to Jim Mora for keeping his team together through a tragedy that would rock any program. He has been an emotional beacon for his players and the university and shepherded them through an extremely difficult time. All the while staying perfect on the season, a distant second to the job he has done off the field.
Best game: There has been plenty of drama, but halfway through the season we’re sticking with Oregon State’s overtime win at Utah in Week 3. Travis Wilson engineered an outstanding second-half comeback, and the Utes eventually erased a 27-10 deficit and turned it into a 38-37 lead. Late touchdowns from both teams forced overtime in the conference’s most thrilling game to date.
5dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell