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Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Six Pac-10 statement games

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Most preseason rankings of the BCS conferences will dump the Pac-10 into fourth or fifth place. Even the Pac-10 blog did that a month ago.

How does the Pac-10 improve its position in this highly subjective pecking order? That's easy: 1. Win big nonconference games; 2. Earn two BCS bowl berths and win 'em both; 3. Or, failing that, just do well during the bowl season.

Obviously, we'll have plenty of time to look at the bowls. But let's start with the regular-season nonconference game. Here are six that could improve the Pac-10's national perception.

(Oh, and by the way, you are correct in guessing that no other BCS conference in the nation plays five top-11 teams in its nonconference schedule).

Oregon State vs. TCU, Sept. 4: TCU welcomes back 18 starters from a team that went 12-1 in 2009, losing the Fiesta Bowl to Boise State. The Horned Frogs figure to be ranked in the preseason top 10, perhaps even the top five. Further, the game will be played in Cowboys Stadium, meaning it will seem like even more of a home game for TCU than if it were played at TCU (Amon G. Carter Stadium only seats 44,000). The Beavers, meanwhile, are notoriously slow starters -- see at least two losses each September since 2004. Moreover, they will be breaking in a new quarterback -- sophomore Ryan Katz -- on the road. Still, this is a veteran Oregon State team, and the Rodgers brothers will stress the Horned Frogs defense. An upset is not inconceivable, and it certainly would start the Pac-10's 2010 campaign on a high note.

Oregon at Tennessee, Sept. 11: Oregon should -- needs to -- win this game. The Ducks are more talented and more experienced. The Volunteers are rebuilding. But style points matter. Sure, winning is winning, even more so when a team is on the road, particularly when it's crossing multiple time zones. But if the Oregon spread-option attack runs over, around and through an SEC defense, while shutting down an SEC "offense" (we use the term loosely), and wins big, it will send a statement, not the least of which is that this team can thrive without quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. And, of course, the Pac-10's decade-long pattern of success against the SEC then would continue for another season.

Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18: One gets the feeling that the Wildcats didn't earn Iowa's respect during a 27-17 loss last year. The Wildcats' offense was listless -- you might recall this is the game when quarterback Nick Foles came off the bench to take over the starting job -- and the defense was mostly mediocre. Heading into the fall, Arizona has significant questions on defense, while the Hawkeyes figure to rank in the top 15. Most of their fans are penciling this one in as a victory. But the Wildcats are a different team at home playing in front of the 'Zona Zoo. It figures to be a toasty evening, and if Foles and the offense get hot, it could be a chance for an upset.

Arizona State at Wisconsin, Sept. 18: Wisconsin might be the top challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten this year. It welcomes back 18 starters, including 10 on offense. Typically, the Badgers' offense is described as "physical," which might be construed as a code word for "plodding." No longer. They are, yes, physical, but now there are some athletes surrounding quarterback Scott Tolzien, most particularly running back John Clay. This will be a great test for an Arizona State defense that believes it will rank among the nation's best. Of course, the Sun Devils will have to score to win. For an upset to happen, a rejiggered offense and new starting QB will have to step up.

Nebraska at Washington, Sept. 18: The Cornhuskers are another team that likely will be ranked in the preseason top 10. Most have already penciled them into the final Big 12 championship game opposite Texas or Oklahoma. They welcome back 18 starters, including eight from what could be the nation's best defense. If the Huskies manage to start 2-0, this could be a red-letter game for the program as well as for quarterback Jake Locker's Heisman hopes. Husky Stadium was once a fearsome place to play. Might Huskies fans, won over by coach Steve Sarkisian, be regaining their mojo? Some of us old timers remember a highly rated Miami team swaggering into Seattle in 2000 and getting manhandled by the Huskies, who went on to finish 11-1 and win the Rose Bowl.

UCLA at Texas, Sept. 25: Fair to say the Bruins' chances at Texas are remote. The Longhorns, a certain top-five team, played for the national title last season and are looking to do so again in 2010. UCLA is taking baby steps forward under Rick Neuheisel, but the Bruins' offense is a huge question mark. Of course, an unheralded UCLA squad did once before play at Texas, and in 1997 the Bruins walked away 66-3 winners over the No. 11 Longhorns. (The following year Texas redeemed itself by only losing 49-31 to the Bruins in the Rose Bowl). Still, what seems most important here is for UCLA to put on a competitive show. That could provide some confidence heading into the meat of the Pac-10 schedule.