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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Pac-10 midseason review


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The Pac-10's 2009 campaign started with a face plant that would become an impressive launching point, so the story of the midseason is not to believe one week's results because the next's might change everything.

Oregon looked awful at Boise State, and that doesn't even include the postgame melee with LeGarrette Blount.

But the Ducks are now 5-1 and alone atop the conference at 3-0. They are ranked 11th in the BCS standings. They have a legitimate chance to unseat USC and end the Trojans' seven-year run of championships.

Speaking of USC, after it won 18-15 at Ohio State with true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, it seemed the Trojans were ready to again challenge for a national title -- even in a (nudge, nudge) rebuilding year.
 
 Nick Doan/Icon SMI
 Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers is averaging more than 116 yards rushing per game this season.


Then they lost at Washington, 16-13, which just the week before had ended a 15-game losing streak.

Yet, consider USC again: It's still in it, ranked No. 4 in the polls and seventh in the BCS standings.

Arizona flopped at Iowa and changed quarterbacks. Sounds ominous, huh?

But sophomore Nick Foles has been mostly brilliant, and if not for a pass bouncing off a receivers foot at Washington, the Wildcats would be ranked highly and in the mix with Oregon and USC.

Stanford made a run, then lost two conference games in a row. Its lack of team speed on defense is an obvious deficiency.

Oregon State -- déjà vu -- started slowly. But not as slowly as usual, needing only to muddle to a 2-2 start -- instead of 2-3 as it did the previous three seasons -- before bouncing back with two consecutive conference wins.

Arizona State unveiled a physical, athletic defense that ranks with the best in the nation. Now, if the offense can become merely adequate, then the Sun Devils might surge.

UCLA started fast. Then lost three in a row, showing it's a lot harder to win Pac-10 games than beat Tennessee, which the Bruins have done consecutive years.

Washington State? Hmm. Better. Tougher. But still outmanned. And those injuries! The Cougs deserve a break.

But it doesn't appear there will be many of those in the conference this year.

The nine-game round robin schedule has always put the Pac-10 at a perception disadvantage. No other conference writes in five additional losses every season by choice.

But, with this year's depth, it's possible that when the smoke clears on Dec. 5, there will be a lot of good teams bandaging wounds.

Offensive MVP: Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers leads the conference in touchdowns --13 -- and ranks second in rushing with 116.2 yards per game. He's also caught 38 passes -- second-most in the conference -- for 269 yards. He's scored six TDs during the Beavers' recent surge, including a four-score effort vs. Stanford in which he piled up 189 yards rushing on 33 carries.

Defensive MVP: UCLA's defensive tackle Brian Price leads the Pac-10 with 10.5 tackles for loss and has four sacks, tied for most among interior defensive linemen. Among conference defensive linemen, he probably demands the most special attention from opposing offensive coordinators.

Biggest surprise: Washington has gone from 0-12 to a legitimate threat to reach a bowl game. That's stunning improvement, particularly against one of the nation's toughest schedules. Start with a shocking victory over then-No. 3 USC -- Steve Sarkisian's and Nick Holt's former team -- and then consider that the 3-4 Huskies have lost only one game by double-digits (Stanford). They lost nine by 20 or more points in 2008.

Biggest disappointment: California went from No. 6 in the country to losing consecutive games by a 72-6 count, which of course left the Bears unranked. There's a lot of football left to be played, and Cal could rise again, but the Bears' chances of winning the Pac-10 are slim to none.

Best game: Washington's win over USC was the most meaningful, but Arizona's 43-38 win over Stanford was just nuts. And by nuts we mean entertaining, though I suspect Wildcats and Cardinal fans were at various times frustrated with their defenses, which combined to surrender 1,137 yards. Great play from two young QBs, Arizona's Foles and Stanford's Andrew Luck, who appear headed toward big things.

Best coach: Chip Kelly had one of the worst first games a new coach could have: The debacle at Boise State and the L'affaire de LeGarrette afterward. But Kelly rallied his team and it rolled off a five-game winning streak, which included wins over two ranked teams. Oh, by the way, during that winning streak the Ducks lost three starting defensive backs to injuries, and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was forced to sit out a game with a knee injury. Yet here the Ducks are: Ranked 11th and headed for a showdown with USC with, perhaps, the conference title at stake.