NCF Nation: Chirs Polk

Pac-12 midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
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The good news at midseason is the Pac-12 has two top-10 teams -- Stanford and Oregon -- and a couple of other programs that are -- or look like -- Top-25 teams.

The bad news is the conference was pretty rotten during the nonconference schedule, which means the national perception has taken some heavy blows.

While the Pac-12 is 12-10 against all FBS nonconference foes, it went 4-7 against other automatic qualifying conferences. And the only win of note was Arizona State beating Missouri, which is now 2-3. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State all took double-digit whippings.

The biggest blow, however, was Oregon falling in the opener to LSU. No shame in that; LSU is a national-title contender. But the Ducks thought they were, too. And seeing another A-list defense -- particularly one from the SEC -- control the Oregon offense damages the perception of the Ducks and the conference they've won the previous two seasons.

The conference's image of great offenses/great QBs with questionable defenses held true. Six Pac-12 passers rank among the nation's top 25 in passing efficiency, while just one team -- Stanford -- ranks in the top 25 in the nation in both total and scoring defense.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesLaMichael James is averaging 9 yards per carry so far this season.
The QBs and offenses, in general, have been pretty fun to watch, though. Everyone knew about Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley, Arizona's Nick Foles and Oregon's Darron Thomas. But some newbies made big impacts, such as Arizona State's Brock Osweiler and Washington's Keith Price. Washington State lost starter Jeff Tuel in the season opener, but Marshall Lobbestael came off the bench and led the Cougars to three wins, ranking 17th in the nation in passing efficiency while doing so.

It's not just QBs. Running backs -- particularly Oregon's LaMichael James and Washington's Chris Polk -- and receivers -- USC's Robert Woods, Washington State's Marquess Wilson and California's Keenan Allen -- also have stood out.

As for the big picture, there haven't been too many surprises. Oregon and Stanford in the North Division still look like the class of the conference, and they appear to be headed toward a red-letter matchup on Nov. 12 in Palo Alto. Arizona State has surged in the South Division, which looks fairly weak after the Sun Devils and USC, which is ineligible to play in the Pac-12 championship game due to NCAA sanctions.

Some preseason hot seats -- UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Washington State's Paul Wulff -- are still warm. And some we didn't see coming -- Arizona's Mike Stoops -- are heating up.

So the second-half questions will be about what the top and bottom will end up looking like. Will Stanford or Oregon play itself into national-title contention? And might the conference again get two BCS bowl berths? And, at the bottom, which teams will be looking for new head coaches at season's end?

Offensive MVP: Oregon RB LaMichael James

James started slowly in the LSU game, but has been lights out since then. He leads the nation in rushing with 170.4 yards per game , with an eye-popping 8.97 yards per run and eight TDs. He's eclipsed 200 yards in his last three games.

He also, by the way, has caught 11 passes for 159 yards and a TD, leads the nation in all-purpose yards and is tied for second in punt returns.

He dislocated his elbow, however, in the win last Thursday over California, making his second-half prospects questionable.

Defensive MVP: Stanford LB Chase Thomas

Stanford is the only Pac-12 team ranked in the top 25 in the nation in total and scoring defense, and Thomas has been the Cardinal's best defender.

Thomas leads the conference in sacks (five) and ranks second in tackles for a loss (seven) and forced fumbles (three). He also has 20 tackles overall.

Biggest surprise: Washington

Truth be told, there aren't any big surprises in the Pac-12. Most thought the Huskies would be competitive in the North Division, battling for the No. 3 spot behind Oregon and Stanford.

But that perception was based on Polk and what looked like a potentially stout defense. The Huskies are 4-1 because of Price -- his 17 TD passes is tied for second-most in the nation -- Polk and a high-scoring offense and a defense that took three weeks to join the part.

The Huskies haven't started 4-1 since 2006.

Biggest disappointment: Arizona

The Wildcats had big questions in the preseason, most particularly five new starters on the offensive line and a questionable defense. But the feeling was that Foles and an outstanding corps of receivers would be able to outscore a lot of foes.

And, really, Stoops wouldn't ever have a terrible defense, right?

Well, the Wildcats, now 1-5 after losing to previously winless Oregon State, do have a terrible defense, one of the worst in the country, and Foles isn't getting much help on offense.

That bottom line: A 10-game losing streak against FBS opponents and a hot seat for Stoops that few anticipated during the preseason.

Best game: California 36, Colorado 33 (OT)

The nonconference game that was a conference game -- but wasn't -- was a barnburner featuring four lead changes and a lot of passing and just one turnover. It wasn't over until Cal receiver Keenan Allen hauled in a 5-yard touchdown pass in overtime from his half-brother, Zach Maynard. It was Maynard's fourth TD pass.

In a losing effort, Paul Richardson caught 11 passes for a school-record 284 yards and two TDs to help Colorado rally from a 10-point deficit in the second half. Buffs QB Tyler Hansen threw for a team-record 474 yards passing with three TDs.

Colorado forced overtime with a 22-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in regulation after a 16-play, 70-yard drive that took 6:40 off the clock and required three third down conversions.

Best coach: Dennis Erickson, Arizona State

He entered the season on the hot seat. Some said he was mailing it in after a long career. Instead, he's turned in one of the better coaching performances of his career. Erickson has taken a team ravaged by injuries to the top of the Pac-12 South Division and a No. 18 national ranking.

He's helped develop a QB, Osweiler, into a potent passer and charismatic leader, and he's got a defense missing a bevy of inured starters playing better than any other the conference, other than Stanford.

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