What about the meaty middle?

September, 27, 2010
9/27/10
5:07
PM ET
The Pac-10 has four unbeaten teams. And it has five with two defeats.

Our topic today is the five, and we're going to lump the Trojans in with them because Arizona, Oregon and Stanford are far more distinguished in their unbeaten-ness -- no offense USC.

Four games into the season, the Wildcats, Ducks and Cardinal comprise the top-third. After them? It's the Pac-10 meat. It looks to be of a fairly high quality, but we really don't know yet. And it's certainly difficult to project a pecking order with confidence.

Consider:
  • USC's early-season schedule has been so bad that coach Lane Kiffin has called it a "preseason." The Trojans have looked good at times on both sides of the ball. And they've also looked bad.
  • Arizona State is 0-2 vs. FBS teams. But it played highly competitive games with No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 5 Oregon. The Sun Devils were picked ninth in the conference in the preseason. It's now hard to imagine that's where they'll end up.
  • California looked so good in its first two games it got ranked. Then it was rank at Nevada. It bounced back with a strong performance at Arizona, but couldn't hold on at the end. There's some negative momentum, but we're not putting a "sell" rating on the Bears just yet.
  • Oregon State is 1-2, but it lost to teams presently ranked in the top-five. Still, the Beavers, picked third in the preseason poll, didn't look particularly good while losing (as, say, ASU did vs. Wisconsin and Oregon). On the other hand, no team in the nation is more adept at bouncing back after a slow start.
  • UCLA looked terrible at 0-2. But, now at 2-2, the Bruins look good enough for a national ranking. How many other teams have beaten both a top-10 (Texas) and top-25 (Houston) foe? Still, Bruins fans probably would like to see the passing game perk up a bit.
  • Washington was humiliated by Nebraska, but the worse loss might be the opener at BYU, which is now 1-3. Still, the reason many were high on the Huskies in the preseason -- lots of returning starters surrounding QB Jake Locker -- remains in place.

You could make a reasonable argument for any of these six finishing in the top half of the Pac-10. You could do the same for the bottom half. Yes, even USC, considering the potential emotional volatility of the Trojans with no postseason possibilities due to NCAA sanctions. What happens if they lose a couple of games? Do they pack it in?

And how will all this meat eventually stack up? Will two or three of these teams win eight or nine games while a couple of others lose eight or nine? Or will they become a bunch of 6-6, 7-5 squads? Will the conference end up looking deep and distinguished -- as it does now -- or will the rugged conference schedule end up creating the sort of parity that looks like mediocrity to outsiders?

We'll get a pretty good idea of things over the next two weekends.

While the national eyes will be on Stanford's visit to Oregon on Saturday, Washington's visit to USC and Arizona State's trip to Oregon State will be revealing.

If the Huskies beat the Trojans for a second consecutive year -- they haven't won on the road since Nov. 3, 2007 -- then the despondency of the Nebraska loss will mostly go away, particularly if Locker puts up big numbers. And USC will be exposed. A Trojans win, however, won't be as noteworthy because that's the expected outcome, unless it's a blowout. Then USC would climb in the polls and the Huskies would be taken off the list of teams likely to earn bowl berths.

As for the Sun Devils in Corvallis, it seems like the winner will be headed for the top-half of the Pac-10, the loser the bottom half. Sure, the Beavers have bounced back from 2-3 starts in three of the past four years, but they've never been 1-3. And losing at home to the Sun Devils before visiting Arizona and Washington wouldn't bode well.

The game doesn't feel as critical for ASU, though it would almost certainly make the Oct. 9 visit to Washington a must-win for bowl hopes. And we could also question how the Sun Devils might handle three consecutive defeats.

Speaking of Oct. 9, it feels like a "separation Saturday." Besides ASU-Washington and OSU at Arizona, UCLA visits California and Stanford plays host to USC.

A UCLA win at Cal would confirm the Bruins' arrival. And would probably confirm the Bears as a bottom-half team. The reverse might indicate that both teams are destined for wild swings of fortune throughout the season.

Will Stanford-USC, already a grudge match, be a battle of unbeatens? If so, a Stanford victory likely would announce it as a national title contender. And a USC win? The notion of the Trojans winning the AP national title might get broached.

Just saying.

The Pac-10 distinguished itself during nonconference play, going 10-4 vs. other BCS conferences and 15-9 overall vs. FBS foes (USC-Notre Dame will be played on Nov. 27). That depth many talked about in the preseason? It's been confirmed.

And that depth means a lot of teams look good enough to climb the heights of the Pac-10. But that also means teams that flashed potential will end up in the depths, wondering what might have been.

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