- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The preseason expectation for the Pac-10 was lots of quality depth, though probably no national title contender. It also looked to be loaded with exceptional quarterbacks with NFL futures ahead.
As we pause to take a measure at midseason, some of that proved true. Other aspects have not.
Yes, the Pac-10 is deep. It might be the nation's deepest conference. It has nine quality teams that can compete on a high level, and over the past few weeks team No. 10 -- woeful Washington State -- has shown clear signs of improvement. It doesn't appear there is any game on the conference schedule that qualifies as "easy" any longer.
But there also is, against expectation, an elite team: Oregon is No. 2 in the country and it looks capable of doing what few thought possible in the preseason -- running the table in the Pac-10. That, of course, won't be easy. But it's surprising that entertaining the possibility is now reasonable and relevant.
As for the quarterbacks, that's mostly held true. Stanford's Andrew Luck, Arizona's Nick Foles and USC's Matt Barkley each rank in the top-21 in the nation in passing efficiency. Each looks to have a future playing on Sundays. Moreover, a number of youngsters have stepped up, including Oregon's Darron Thomas, Washington State's Jeff Tuel and Oregon State's Ryan Katz. Arizona State's Steven Threet has put up big passing numbers -- though also too many interceptions -- and California's Kevin Riley has been mostly solid. UCLA's Kevin Prince, when healthy, has been proficient running a new pistol offense, though his passing has regressed.
Perhaps the most hyped of the group, however, Washington's Jake Locker, has underperformed. It's fair to say that three of his five games haven't been very good, including a career-worst performance against Nebraska.
Besides Oregon, we hit the midseason with Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State nationally ranked, though each has suffered a defeat, and in the Beavers case, two.
The Wildcats and Beavers look like the top potential obstacles for Oregon -- the Ducks already dispatched Stanford soundly -- but don't count out Cal, which plays host to the Ducks on Nov. 13.
Oregon State, slotted third in most preseason conference rankings, regained its mojo after winning at Arizona this past weekend. The Wildcats posted perhaps the best nonconference win with a victory against then-No. 9 Iowa.
Arizona State, Washington, UCLA and USC form a second tier. Each has had some good moments. And some bad. The scramble among these teams for bowl eligibility will be a big story in the season's second half, though obviously the Trojans can only play the spoiler as they are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.
Offensive MVP: LaMichael James leads the nation with 169.6 yards rushing per game. He's scored 10 total touchdowns, including nine rushing. He's a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. He's the speedy face of the nation's best offense.
Defensive MVP: UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers is the best defensive player in the conference -- and one of the best in the nation -- but the MVP is Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair, who leads the Pac-10 with 12 tackles for a loss. He also has three sacks and -- get this -- five passes defended.
Biggest surprise: This was going to be Arizona's defense until the Oregon State loss. Instead, it's Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, whose rapid growth running the Oregon spread-option offense has been a revelation and is the prime reason the Ducks are national title contenders. Someone else played quarterback for the Ducks last year but no one remembers his name anymore.
Biggest disappointment: USC built a reputation for outstanding defense under Pete Carroll. And Carroll was widely considered the nation's best recruiter -- the builder of an NFL factory line, in fact -- on the mean side of the ball. So when new coach Lane Kiffin arrived at USC with his dad, Monte Kiffin, one of the best defensive coordinators in NFL history, the widely held assumption was the Trojans would recover their mojo. Nope. They presently rank 100th in the nation in total defense, surrendering 428.7 yards per game.
Best game: While UCLA's blowout win at Texas was the most shocking result, Arizona's 34-27 win against then-No. 9 Iowa probably generated the most national respect. The Wildcats came out on fire then tried to hand the game back to the Hawkeyes with a flurry of mistakes. Only instead of wilting, the Wildcats asserted themselves and imposed their will on both sides of the ball, first driving for the winning touchdown and then slamming Iowa's chance for an equalizer with three consecutive sacks. It was a clear, decisive KO victory. The Wildcats showed that, sure, Pac-10 teams are fast, but they also can break your nose.
Best coach: After transforming Oregon's offense into a ridiculously potent and entertaining operation as its coordinator, Chip Kelly got the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in his first season as head coach. Neh. Now he's got the Ducks ranked No. 2 and in serious national title contention. And it benefits the Pac-10 to have a guy who's not afraid to be his colorful self even when the cameras are on. So: Show some respect, OK!