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Week 4: What we learned in the Pac-10

9/21/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

What did the Pac-10 learn? Some more hard lessons.

  • Just grin and bear it Pac-10 fans: One of the admirable qualities Pac-10 adherents mostly display in the endless debate about the relative strength of the conference vs. others is a respect for facts -- stats and head-to-head matchups and the reality that no other team in the nation approaches USC over the totality of the Pete Carroll era. So it is with great regret that those reasonable folks must now realize that the conference will be sitting out the discussion this year. And be prepared for a fair amount of sand to be kicked into the conference's face by pundits and message board fanatics for the remainder of the regular season. The only real hope for some redemption is the bowl season.

  • QB issues? Oregon should be as concerned about its defense: Boise State's redshirt freshman QB Kellen Moore and four new starting offensive linemen -- the reason we repeatedly (doh!) gave Oregon a significant advantage over the Broncos -- made Autzen Stadium their living room. Moore, making his first road start, completed 24 of 36 for 386 yards with three TDs and just one INT and he was sacked just twice. Sure, the Ducks' offense sputtered for three quarters until true freshman, No. 5 quarterback Darron Thomas took off his redshirt and led a spirited comeback with three TD passes. But the Ducks, as a team previously eyeballing the nation's top 10, should sometimes be able to win because of their defense.

  • UCLA rates with Washington and Washington State at the bottom of the Pac-10: The Bruins' shocking, season-opening defeat of Tennessee was a nice moment to ring the bell on the beginning of the Rick Neuheisel era, but the victory didn't include one critical prize: better players. BYU exposed the Bruins 59-0, and Arizona's workmanlike 31-10 victory in the Rose Bowl demonstrated that the Tennessee game was closer to a fluke than the BYU mess. The Bruins managed 196 total yards against the Wildcats and their solid defense scored their only TD. That defense gives UCLA perhaps a slight edge over fellow conference bottom-feeders Washington and Washington State, but the Huskies are better on offense and the Bruins must play in Pullman on Nov. 15, when it tends to be a bit chillier than LA.

  • The battle for No. 2 is wide open: While it won't be a competition waged under the national spotlight -- there's almost zero chance that a Pac-10 team other than the conference champion (USC) will play in a BCS bowl game -- it's anyone's guess who will finish No. 2 behind the Trojans. Oregon looked like the frontrunner, but it's obviously having trouble keeping its quarterbacks healthy and suddenly looks vulnerable on defense. Arizona State can't run the ball. California looks solid, but it's hard to ignore the first three quarters at Maryland that suggest a tendency to lack focus. And if you're looking for a dark horse, Arizona at present owns more positive momentum than any of those three, which kind of shows you where things stand in the conference considering the Wildcats a week ago went belly-up at New Mexico.

  • Expect plenty of USC backlash over the next 11 or so weeks: USC likely will face an all-out assault from SEC and Big 12 fans over the remainder of the season in a bid to influence pollsters to drop the top-ranked Trojans due to the weakness of the Pac-10. For example, if a Big 12 and SEC champ finish undefeated like USC, should the Trojans get a pass? Or what if Georgia or Florida win the SEC with one defeat but three or four victories over top 15 teams: should they still get left out of the national title game behind an unbeaten but untested USC? One national writer told me before the ASU-Georgia game that USC doesn't need to worry because the Trojans look so dynamic, but a few close Pac-10 games could diminish that dynamism.