Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wrapping up the Pac-10 regular season
By Ted Miller
It was a strange, unpredictable and exciting year for the Pac-10.
All of those terms, however, can't hide the fact that the conference didn't produce a second BCS team for the seventh consecutive year. And didn't deserve one -- five teams finished 8-4 behind 10-2 Oregon.
On the plus said, the Pac-10, which finished 21-9 in nonconference games (.700), earned a widespread reputation among pundits as the nation's deepest conference, and perhaps its best, top-to-bottom. Nine teams received votes at some point this season in the AP poll and seven were ranked at some point. Seven teams won six or more games and earned bowl eligibility.
Stanford running back Toby Gerhart is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Five teams were ranked in the final BCS standings, more than any other conference.
That's dandy. But did we mention the lack of a second BCS bowl team? That costs the conference $4.5 million each year it happens.
For comparison's sake, the Big Ten has lost six consecutive BCS bowl games, but it's had two BCS bowl teams six of the past seven years. Do the math.
While the conference's nine-game round-robin schedule certainly hurts the effort to get two BCS bowl teams, the conference also deserves its share of the blame for not coming up big in a number of marquee nonconference games.
Oregon State lost to Cincinnati; Oregon lost to Boise State; Arizona lost to Iowa; Washington lost to LSU; Arizona State lost to Georgia; Stanford lost to Wake Forest.
Sure, no other conference played teams ranked No. 3, 6, 10 and 12 in the final BCS standings, but a couple of wins certainly would have helped the cause.
Beyond the national issues, the internal churn within the conference standings was particularly noteworthy. For the first time in seven years, USC didn't at least share the conference championship and earn a berth in a BCS bowl game. Moreover, there was real mystery who would win the conference title until the final week of the season.
While the teams at the top scrambled, the Trojans, the preseason favorites, took a shocking tumble to fifth place.
Gerhart turned in the best season of any offensive player in the nation. He finished second in the nation with 145 yards per game and first with 26 rushing touchdowns. The first-team All-Academic pick even passed for a TD. All that earned him an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
Defensive MVP -- UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price.
Price led the conference with 22.5 tackles for a loss, a number that ranked third in the nation. No one else in the conference had more than 14.5 TFL. He also had seven sacks and forced two fumbles. All that despite frequently fighting through double-teams.
James, a redshirt freshman, ranked second in the Pac-10 and eighth in the nation with 123 yards rushing per game. His 1,476 yards set a new conference freshman rushing record. He also scored 14 touchdowns and ranked first in the conference with 6.87 yards per carry. James led the country with 20 runs of at least 20 yards.
Coach of the year -- Oregon's Chip Kelly.
It's impressive that Kelly led Oregon to a Pac-10 championship and its first Rose Bowl since the 1994 season in his first season as head coach. But everyone knows it was more than that. The performance at Boise State in the season-opener was abysmal. And LeGarrette Blount's behavior afterwards was even worse. But Kelly kept his locker room together, and the Ducks won 10 of their final 11 games. Not a single person in the country thought that would happen on Sept. 3.
Biggest surprise -- Arizona.
The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the preseason media poll. The Pac-10 blog, an unabashed Wildcats believer, only picked them fifth. But they are headed to the Holiday Bowl, which makes them first among the three teams that tied for second in the conference. Once embattled coach Mike Stoops led the Wildcats to an 8-4 finish, despite losing their quarterback, top receiver and dominant left tackle from 2008, and then seeing their All-American tight end, Rob Gronkowski, go down to injury in the preseason.
Biggest disappointment -- USC.
USC's dynasty wasn't going to last forever, but the general thought is a rival would seize the title in a tight race, not that the Trojans would go belly-up. An early loss at Washington was surprising, but it fit USC's previous M.O., -- a stumble vs. Pac-10 underdog followed by reassertion of dominance. Then came a 27-point loss at Oregon. And, two weeks later, Stanford gleefully ran up the score in a 55-21 win. Completing the deluge, Arizona handed the Trojans their second loss in the Coliseum, 21-17, in the season-finale. The Trojans, once ranked fourth in the nation, now have a date with Boston College in the Emerald Bowl as the Pac-10's No. 5 team.
Game of the year: Oregon 44, Arizona 41 2 OT
Speaking of Arizona, this double-overtime defeat at home ended up costing the Wildcats the Rose Bowl. But both teams played so well and with such energy in this back-and-forth affair, it was more about Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli willing his team to victory. This might not just have been the best Pac-10 game of the year, it might have been the best period.