Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
There were four big stories in the Pac-10 this year.
- Oregon State's surprising run for the Rose Bowl, which ended in a tough loss at home to rival Oregon.
- USC's struggle and ultimate failure to get back into the national title picture. The Trojans, widely viewed as the nation's most talented team, however, were done in by a schedule that didn't allow them to rise to the top among the other one-loss teams.
- Washington and Washington State's season-long toilet spin toward each other so one or the other could earn the title of Nation's Worst BCS Team. The Huskies triumphed in that battle for ignominy, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory in a comeback loss in the Apple Cup. That's a big reason why Tyrone Willingham was pushed aside and USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is taking over the program.
- And, finally, the general perception of Pac-10 weakness, most often illustrated by the Pac-10's 1-6 record against the Mountain West Conference, which formed the foundation of a lackluster 14-19 nonconference record.
The top-four teams in the Pac-10, however, went 1-1 vs. the MWC, the loss being the Beavers' down-to-the-wire, 27-21 defeat at No. 6 Utah, one of four nonconference foes playing in BCS bowl games.
Four nonconference foes -- Oklahoma, Penn State and Ohio State being the other three -- playing in BCS bowl games? Anyone else do that? Nope.
The Pac-10's 2-8 record in nonconference games against the top-18 doesn't compare favorably to other conferences because no other conference even approaches that level of difficulty.
Of course, if the Pac-10 were to post a successful run through the bowl season, it would make it a lot easier to argue that the perception of Pac-10 weakness is almost entirely a creation of scheduling -- and likewise, perhaps, the perception of strength among other conferences.
Four of five bowl opponents are nationally ranked. It's not inconceivable that when the final polls are released, four Pac-10 teams will be ranked.
Not too shabby.
If the perception of a down year in the Pac-10 was about more than scheduling, however, then the next explanation has to be the decline in quarterback play.
Only one conference quarterback, USC's Mark Sanchez, ranked in the top 20 in the nation in pass efficiency. The most productive passing offense, Oregon State, ranked just 25th in the country (253.7 yards per game).
Only Arizona had no quarterback issues this season. Six teams started more than one quarterback. Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Washington State lost their starting quarterbacks to season-ending injuries. The Ducks, Bruins and Cougars were forced to hand the ball to the No. 3 or deeper guy on their depth chart.
It was a season of tumult filled with undistinguished moments, but a successful bowl season could transform the down vibe heading into 2009.
|Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images|
|True freshman Jacquizz Rodgers racked up 1,253 yards and 11 TDs.|
Offensive MVP: Running back Jacquizz Rodgers was THE difference-maker for Oregon State. He was the central figure in the dramatic upset over USC with 186 yards rushing, and his absence felt critical in the Beavers' Civil War defeat. Sure, Cal's Jahvid Best passed him for the Pac-10 rushing title with 311 yards in the win over Washington, but Rodgers' 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns is a special yield for any player, even more so a 5-foot-7 true freshman.
Defensive MVP: USC linebacker Rey Maualuga won't blow you away with numbers -- he ranked 13th in the conference with 73 tackles. But this is what Maualuga is: The best defensive player on the best defense in the nation. And he'll likely be the first Pac-10 player drafted in this spring's NFL draft. That's good enough for us.
Newcomer of the year: At midseason, this was Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, whose conference-leading 16 touchdowns merit honorable mention here. But Oregon wouldn't have finished second in the Pac-10 and earned a Holiday Bowl berth without the rapid maturation of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli, a sophomore and first-year juco transfer, finished ranked fourth in the conference in passing efficiency -- with a 12:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- and ranked 10th in yards rushing per game (55.6) with seven touchdowns. Moreover, Masoli didn't let home-fan frustration get into his head as he did his best work in the two critical wins that concluded the season.
Coach of the year: Most -- who, me? -- during the preseason projected Oregon State would finish in the middle of the conference. So, even though the Beavers' Rose Bowl run fell short due to an offensive blitzkrieg from rival Oregon, no other team exceeded expectations as much as the Beavers. That means more credit needs to be given to coach Mike Riley. Just because a coach is open, genuine and friendly doesn't mean he doesn't know a thing or two about coaching. Moreover, Riley might have assembled the best group of assistant coaches in the Pac-10.
Biggest surprise: It wasn't surprising just that Stanford nearly earned a bowl berth when in the preseason most projected the Cardinal in the bottom third of the conference. It was the way Stanford played under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Cardinal featured the Pac-10's most physical running attack, with a gritty offensive line paving the way for 230-pound tailback Toby Gerhart. The Cardinal's 200 yards rushing per game didn't come from spread misdirection. It came from running right at opposing defenses, led by tough-guy center Alex Fletcher. Moreover, Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football, built a reputation for playing dirty. Cheap shots shouldn't be amusing, but it's hard not to smile just a little that the conference's biggest rogue hitter, linebacker Pat Maynor, is also an economics major and a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Academy of Finance and Future Business Leaders of America.
Biggest disappointment: Arizona State went from No. 15 in the nation in the preseason to 5-7 and sitting out the bowl season. That's what happens when a team suffers through a six-game losing streak, the program's worst run since the Great Depression, which began with an embarrassing home loss to UNLV in overtime. A year after looking like a budding annual Pac-10 contender under new coach Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils ended up the state's second-best program when Arizona ended three years of frustration in their rivalry with a 31-10 win in the Territorial Cup. Many thought that quarterback Rudy Carpenter and his solid array of supporting skill players could overcome an obviously deficient offensive line. They couldn't. And, truth be told, Carpenter and said touted supporting cast didn't live up to their advance billing.
Game of the year: No game changed the complexion of the season -- in national terms -- like then-top-ranked USC losing 27-21 at Oregon State. USC, fresh off of demolishing a good Ohio State team 35-3, was generally considered the nation's most talented team, and even at the end of the season, most folks -- including Las Vegas oddsmakers -- would pick the Trojans to win over any other opponent. But with the widespread, if wildly exaggerated, perception of a weak Pac-10, the Trojans were scheduled out of the national title game because of the perceived strength of the SEC and Big 12. In other words, if Oregon State, a 25 1/2-point underdog, hadn't dominated the Trojans for a half and then showed guts fighting off a second-half comeback, odds are that USC would be claiming its third national title of the Pete Carroll era in the BCS title game instead of facing Penn State in the Rose Bowl. And recalling Rodgers slicing through the Trojans defense for 186 yards sounds even more shocking today because none of the Trojans' 11 other opponents approached that level of success.