What to watch in the Pac-10
September, 17, 2009
By ESPN.com staff | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
"Measuring Stick Saturday" is two days away. With two nonconference games on the road at Big Ten sites and two home games against ranked teams, the Pac-10 can make a statement that could reverberate in December when it's time to see which conference gets two BCS bowl teams. Or it could flop.
This week, what to watch is like Jeopardy. It's posed as a question.
- Can California win on the road? The Bears are riding a four-game road losing streak. Their lone road victory last year came at Washington State, which doesn't count. The last time they faced an early a.m. PDT start, such as they face Saturday at Minnesota, they sleepwalked through the first three quarters at Maryland. If Cal wants to take the next step and move up from a Top-25 program to a top-10 program, it must learn to consistently win on the road.
- Is Arizona a Top-25 team? A victory at Iowa and a 3-0 start would clearly demonstrate to the Pac-10 and the country that last year's eight-win season was just a start and that Arizona is a program on the rise. It also would make it hard to leave the Wildcats out of the nation's Top 25. Moreover, doing it with a sophomore quarterback, Matt Scott, making his first road start and without their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, would be even more impressive.
- Can Oregon State's rebuilt defense thwart Cincinnati's challenge? The Bearcats arrive in Corvallis with an offense that averages 571 yards and 59 points per game. The Beavers counter with just three returning starters on defense. Yikes. Of course, the Beavers only had three returning starters on defense last year and that unit pitched a shutout in the Sun Bowl. The big question here is can Oregon State's pass rush, muted in the first two games, get to Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike?
- Does Steve Sarkisian have secret knowledge that can trip the Trojans? Sarkisian has said all week that he won't over-analyze what he knows about USC's coaching staff and players based on his tenure as a Trojans assistant coach. It may not matter because talent wins most of the time and the Trojans have way better talent. But if Washington is going to keep this one close and even, perhaps, pull the upset, let there be no doubt that part of that will be Sark and defensive coordinator Nick Holt exploiting some area where they believe the Trojans are vulnerable.
- Is Washington State's season on the brink? The answer is yes. It's not just that SMU, which went 1-11 last year, is the Cougars' best chance for a win this year. It's that the program is presently in a fragile state. Paul Wulff inherited a huge rebuilding job, but fans feel like they are owed more than they are presently getting out of the program. If the Cougs get drubbed at home by the Mustangs' run-and-shoot, it will take a heck of a coaching job for Wulff to hold this together.
- Will Jeremiah Masoli and the Oregon offense break through? The Oregon offense improved substantially from Week 1 to Week 2, but it certainly wasn't vintage Ducks spread-option under Chip Kelly, and it certainly didn't approach the magic Masoli produced over the final three games last year. Utah probably can identify. While the Utes are 2-0, they haven't exactly been a finely tuned machine. They needed a big fourth quarter to beat San Jose State, and the defense gave up 221 yards rushing to Utah State.
- Will Stanford remember Toby Gerhart is a dominating RB? Gerhart only got six carries in the second half at Wake Forest, and that shouldn't sit well with the coaching staff. Enter San Jose State, which ranks 119th in the country in run defense. It's good that redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck gives the Cardinal a boost in the passing game, but Gerhart is the guy who sets the tone and grinds down foes. Give him the rock.
- Can UCLA maintain its focus and win with a backup quarterback? The Bruins are coming off a big win at Tennessee, but they followed up a big win over Tennessee last year with a 59-0 loss at BYU. What's more, the Bruins face Kansas State without quarterback Kevin Prince, who broke his jaw in the waning moments against the Vols. His likely replacement is true freshman Richard Brehaut. While true freshman QBs suddenly seem all the rage, most coaches get nervous seeing one breaking the huddle. Moreover, four players were suspended this week, including a cornerback who was only starting because the starter is hurt. In other words, the Bruins have a lot going on.
- Will Arizona State take Louisiana-Monroe lightly and get embarrassed? Louisiana-Monroe infamously beat Alabama in 2007 and inspired Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to compare the loss to Pearl Harbor. The Sun Devils should win this one comfortably, but only if they show up focused, intense and ready to play. If they need any reminders of what can happen when you don't do that against an underwhelming nonconference foe, they only need to look back a year ago at what happened when UNLV visited.
- If the Pac-10 rolls this week, will pundits notice? Know that if the Pac-10 flops this weekend in these marquee nonconference games, the gadflies will cackle and swarm. But in the event of a string of victories, it will be interesting to see how the polls react. If Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona all win, do they jump into the AP poll? And what about UCLA? Will such success lay the groundwork for a second BCS berth for an 11-1 or even 10-2 team? Don't expect a rolling thunder of a weekend and a sweep of these contests, but none of these tilts is out of reach. Which also means, of course, that all of them are losable.