NCF Nation: Cam Nelson
So pack the Birkenstocks.
No. 1 and seven through 10 stay the same and USC again mans the middle -- still feels odd typing that -- but there was lots of movement in the top half.
By the way, welcome back Cal.
1. Oregon: The Ducks have won with flash. And they've won with grit. They'll need both to beat Oregon State on Dec. 3 and earn the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1994 season.
2. Oregon State: You again! The Beavers are like the Tortoise in Aesop's Fables. While the Hares hop about and make a lot of noise, the Tortoise just does its thing, slow, steady and relentless. The Beavers need only beat the Ducks to earn their first Rose Bowl berth since 1965.
3. California: In 2007, the Bears fell apart when they fell off their lofty perch. In 2009, the Bears showed character after their fall. An optimist might cogitate over that and conclude that this disappointing season could be a springboard to, perhaps, the "next step."
4. Stanford: Was "hubris" Stanford's undoing in the Big Game, as coach Jim Harbaugh worried about last week? A good way to feel better, Cardinal, is to take out frustrations on a limping Notre Dame team that -- oh my -- struggles against the run.
5. USC: By not playing, USC had a good week. With Stanford's loss, the Trojans now seem primed to earn a Holiday Bowl berth. That is, if they can beat UCLA and Arizona.
6. Arizona: This will be a season of what-might-have-beens for the Wildcats. Two losses due on unusual deflections. Another in double overtime. And toss in a fourth in which they used the wrong starting quarterback (at Iowa). I'm pretty hard-boiled about things, but watching stricken senior safety Cam Nelson fight to maintain his composure -- successfully, by the way -- during postgame interviews Saturday night stood as a reminder about how much these games mean to these guys. The Wildcats' resolve will be tested over the next two weeks on the road at Arizona State and at USC.
7. UCLA: After five consecutive conference losses, the Bruins have won three in a row and are now bowl eligible. Things are much happier in Westwood these days.
8. Arizona State: The loss at UCLA insured the Sun Devils will suffer consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1946-47. A win over rival Arizona on Saturday might partially salve those wounds. A loss will make for a loooong offseason.
9. Washington: The Huskies are coming off a bye. Want to know how to ruin many of the positives from Steve Sarkisian's first season? Lose the Apple Cup at home to woeful, injury-riddled Washington State.
10. Washington State: Want to know how to spin a miserable season forward in a positive way? Post an Apple Cup victory in Husky Stadium.
Little game of Pac-10 Jeopardy: This nationally ranked team controls its own conference destiny and it never rains in its home stadium.
|Chris Morrison/US PRESSWIRE|
|Even with a tough upcoming schedule, coach Mike Stoops believes Arizona's best football is ahead.|
Who is Arizona?
No, really. Who is Arizona?
The Wildcats, ranked 18th in the BCS standings, are 5-2 overall and, at 3-1 in conference play, are alone in second place in the standings. If not for an odd and controversial deflection at Washington, the Wildcats would be sniffing the top 10.
Yet few folks seem to know much about them.
They rank No. 1 in the Pac-10 and 14th in the nation in total offense (455 yards per game) and third in the conference in total defense (315 ypg). They are balanced on offense -- 12 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns -- and they do a good job of stopping the run, ranking 17th in the nation (101.3 ypg).
Yet the buzz around the program -- outside of Tucson, at least -- is only a light hum.
"That's all the time. We're always laying low," said Wildcats senior safety Cam Nelson, who knows personally about being underrated.
"We don't get much credit, which doesn't bother us. We don't need anybody to know us. We like being a no-name team that's going to sneak up and make a big run."
Nelson sounds more resigned than perturbed. As for that big run, don't disregard the notion. The schedule ahead is brutal (perhaps the toughest in the nation) but nothing worth achieving is ever easy to obtain.
Arizona should know. It has been waiting a long time for a Rose Bowl berth. Like, er, forever.
We must pause now and acknowledge what Wildcats coach Mike Stoops has been relentlessly telling his team for the past two weeks (Arizona had a bye last week): Do not overlook Washington State, which comes to town on Saturday.
"Our guys are smart enough to understand ... anybody can beat anybody if you give them the opportunity," Stoops said.
But, outside of the locker room, we are free to consider this slate of four games: at California, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC.
Is it far-fetched to imagine the Wildcats running that gauntlet unscathed? Absolutely. But not impossible.
Arizona whipped Cal 42-27 last year. It's won two of three from Oregon. It beat the rival Sun Devils 31-10 last year. USC only beat the Wildcats 17-10 in 2008, and these Trojans don't appear as salty as those.
Moreover, the Wildcats have reached this point -- on the cusp of consecutive bowl berths for the first time since 1997-98 -- despite major injury issues.
They lost their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, before the season began with a back injury. They've played their last four games without their best pass-rusher, end Brooks Reed. Two of their top three running backs, starter Nic Grigsby and No. 3 Greg Nwoko, likely will miss the Washington State game with shoulder injuries, while No. 2 Keola Antolin is still nursing a sprained ankle. The offensive line has been down one or two starters much of the season.
Said Stoops, "I think our best football is still in front of us. It's going to need to be."
The good news is that Reed appears set to play Saturday, and Nelson believes the return of one of the best ends in the Pac-10 will have a big impact for a unit that has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.
"It will help a whole lot," Nelson said. "Brooks' intensity on the field, the way he plays and carries himself, you'll see a big change in the defense. D'Aundre Reed has stepped in and done a good job, but there's no substitution for Brooks on the field. He plays reckless, hard. He's fast every play, trying to cause a turnover. Once we get him back, things will be a whole lot different. There will be more pressure, which will make it easier on the back end for us."
Speaking of back ends: Nelson has no problem talking about the rigorous back end of the schedule and what it's going to take to win-out. That doesn't, however, mean he's overlooking Washington State.
"Regardless of their record, they are still a Pac-10 team," he said. "Every week is a challenge."
But if Arizona is up to that challenge from now until Dec. 5 at USC, it may accomplish something it's never done before.
What is earn a Rose Bowl berth?
|Washington quarterback Jake Locker and Arizona's quarterback Nick Foles are both looking to make statements this Saturday.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Washington, like many teams, has a "24-hour rule," which means every victory or defeat is left in the past as the team turns its entire focus onto the next opponent.
Ah, but sometimes rules are made to be broken, just as Huskies quarterback Jake Locker refused to talk to reporters after the controversial 37-30 overtime defeat at Notre Dame for the first time in his career.
"I didn't feel like I was in the best emotional state to answer questions," Locker said.
Locker wasn't so much sad. Think of a stronger word for angry and then apply it. Locker and the Huskies were unhappy with the officiating. And they were unhappy about blowing myriad opportunities to take control of the game.
"Jake was stressed out," running back Chris Polk said. "He didn't say anything to anybody. It really took a toll on him. But he's OK now."
He needs to be. The Arizona team coming to Husky Stadium on Saturday is better than the Fighting Irish, particularly on defense.
And this game has some heft to it. The Huskies have lost two in a row since upsetting USC and are facing the prospect of 2009 becoming a close-but-no-cigar season.
Arizona, which is coming off a bye week, can make a statement against the Huskies in the Pac-10 race that might earn the Wildcats a national ranking.
Wildcats safety Cam Nelson wouldn't say the Huskies got jobbed by the officials at Notre Dame, but his admiration for Locker is clear -- and not just because of how quickly Locker became an adept passer after many had pigeonholed him as a running back playing quarterback.
"Funny story: My sophomore year I knocked myself out of the game hitting Jake," Nelson said. "I was kind of looking forward to a rematch with him."
He's more likely to face it in pass coverage. Locker, once a 235-pound bull of a runner, is presently the conference's leading passer with 257 yards per game. His seven touchdown passes is tied for the conference lead. Meanwhile, he's only rushed for 107 yards.
"I think he's as good a player as there is in college football," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said.
Stoops and Nelson also are happy with their quarterback, Nick Foles, who made an impressive debut at Oregon State in the Wildcats 37-32 victory. Foles leads the conference in passing efficiency and has hurled five touchdown passes with no interceptions.
Nelson said the poise Foles showed making his first start in a hostile environment didn't surprise him.
"We knew he was going to make good passes and smart decisions," Nelson said. "It was just everyone else who didn't know about Nick who doubted him."
Foles' giving the Wildcats a passing attack they didn't have in the first three games will take pressure off Nelson and the defense and should bolster an already strong running game. The bye week also appears to have helped the offense, which should get back running backs Nic Grigsby (shoulder) and Keola Antolin (ankle) as well as two starting offensive linemen who are recovering from concussions.
Foles will face a test at rejuvenated -- read: loud -- Husky Stadium, which can make things tough on a young quarterback. Nelson and the Wildcats defense also will face a Washington offense that has picked up its rushing attack with Polk now ranking sixth in the conference with 90 yards per game.
Polk has two touchdowns this year. Check that. His second TD was overruled in the replay booth at Notre Dame.
While their fans are still grumbling -- and not without justification -- the Huskies need to get over their experience at Notre Dame.
"We're over it," Polk said. "We know we should have won and they know we should have won. I'm at peace with it. Everyone in the nation knows and we know and they know. But there's nothing we can do."
Other than look ahead to a matchup in Husky Stadium that could have significant ramifications in the Pac-10 race.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
It's never easy to put a preseason all-conference list together. Should you project forward or look back? How do you choose between three A-list cornerbacks or leave off a couple of deserving defensive ends?
Perhaps this list will be much different by mid-December.
QB Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon
RB Jahvid Best, California
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State
WR Damian Williams, USC
WR James Rodgers, Oregon State
TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona
C Kristofer O'Dowd, USC
OG Jeff Byers, USC
OG Colin Baxter, Arizona
OT Charles Brown, USC
OT Shawn Lauvao, Arizona State
K Kai Forbath, UCLA
DE Will Tukuafu, Oregon
DT Brian Price, UCLA
DT Stephen Paea, Oregon State
DE Dexter Davis, Arizona State
LB Keaton Kristick, Oregon State
LB Reggie Carter, UCLA
LB Mike Nixon, Arizona State
CB Walter Thurmond, Oregon
CB Syd'Quan Thompson, California
FS Taylor Mays, USC
SS Cam Nelson, Arizona
P Bryan Anger, California