Pac-12: best case worst case
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Tenth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: USC
Decades hence, the old timers will say the ball flew 100 yards. And that a bald eagle raced beside it for an instant, grinning with approval.
The truth is Matt Barkley's first pass as USC's quarterback only traveled 55 yards in the air. Receiver Damian Williams took it the remaining 25 for a touchdown in the Trojans season-opener against San Jose State.
"I'm pumped," USC coach Pete Carroll tells reporters.
"Wait!" he bellows as they head into the locker room. "I always say that. I say that about a tuna sandwich. Gary, what is another way for me to say 'I'm pumped'?"
"Aflame?" offers L.A. Times USC beat reporter Gary Klein. "Feverish. Blissful. Ecstatic. Perhaps tickled pink?"
Barkley, the true freshman phenom, and a defense that looked almost the equal of the 2008 unit, one of the best in college football history, roll over Ohio State in Columbus, again transforming a marquee interconference showdown into a yawner by halftime, the 40-10 final making it clear that the Trojans are contenders to win a third national title under Carroll.
"I'm tickled pink," Carroll says.
Carroll keeps his starters in well into the fourth quarter in a 40-7 win over Washington and former Trojans assistant Steve Sarkisian, but he yanks them in the third in a 55-9 win over Washington State.
That sets up the showdown in Berkeley: No. 2 USC vs. No. 4 California. ESPN's GameDay is on the scene.
Barkley throws an interception on the Trojans' first possession, which Syd'Quan Thompson returns 33 yards for a touchdown.
Thereafter, things get quiet in Strawberry Canyon. The Trojans speedy defense yields a long touchdown run to Jahvid Best, but it otherwise shuts down the Bears, while Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight and Curtis McNeal combine for 210 yards rushing. Barkley bounces back from the early pick to compete 19 of passes for 215 yards and a touchdown as USC rolls 28-14.
"Can Notre Dame handle the mighty Trojans?" ESPN's Rece Davis asks Mark May and Lou Holtz.
"No," May replies.
"What! I'm picking an Irish upset," Holtz counters.
USC beats Notre Dame 44-0.
Oregon State heads to the Coliseum the next weekend. Suffice it to say, the Trojans weren't asleep on the bus ride to the stadium this time.
USC rolls 42-17. Barkley throws three touchdown passes.
"Is Matt Barkley a Heisman Trophy candidate?" ESPN GameDay host Chris Fowler asks.
"Maybe," replies Kirk Herbstreit.
No. 10 Oregon puts a scare into the Trojans, with Ducks coach Chip Kelly outflanking Carroll's defense a number of times, but USC prevails 38-28.
The Trojans look uninspired during lackluster wins over Arizona State and Stanford, and more than a handful of pundits wonder whether they are headed for a fall against resurgent UCLA, which has broken into the Top 25 with five consecutive victories.
USC, however, leaves little doubt, taking a 21-0 lead in the first half and coasting home 35-14.
After a 30-20 win over Arizona, the unbeaten No. 2 ranked Trojans are on a collision course with top-ranked unbeaten Florida.
"It's the matchup everyone wants to see," Fowler says. "Florida vs. USC, Tim Tebow vs. Matt Barkley. SEC vs. Pac-10. Pete Carroll vs. Urban Meyer. It's beautiful."
"Are you sure it's the matchup the SEC wants, though?" Herbstreit counters with a troubled look. "This is a rebuilding USC squad with a true freshman quarterback and eight new starters on defense. The Gators are being touted as the best team in SEC history. Yet Las Vegas lists the Trojans as a 3-point favorite. Why is that?"
The line grows to five by Jan. 6.
USC covers with a 28-17 win, sacking two-time Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow four times. Barkley throws two touchdown passes and immediately becomes the front-runner for the 2010 Heisman.
The Trojans win their third national title under Carroll.
The NCAA announces the following week that it finds USC's football program blameless in the Reggie Bush investigation. Curiously, it ends the press release with a, "Fight ON!" though only Bruins Nation thinks that's a big deal.
Says Carroll, "I'm tickled pink."
When USC coach Pete Carroll tapped true freshman Matt Barkley as the Trojans' starter on Aug. 29, it wasn't much of a surprise. The only problem was Aaron Corp, who missed two weeks of practice with a knee injury, was far more consistent over the final week of practice.
When Barkley throws two beautiful touchdown passes in the Trojans' opening win over San Jose State, the decision appears sound. But it seems less so when he also tosses two interceptions.
A week later in the Horseshoe, Barkley comes apart, the apparently unflappable young man looking out of sorts amid the cacophony of 103,000 fans.
Corp comes off the bench in the third quarter to rally the Trojans, but Ohio State prevails 28-24.
Corp gets the start the following weekend at Washington, but the Trojans play without inspiration. It appears that Steve Sarkisian will get the best of his mentor and notch a monumental upset until Joe McKnight takes a fourth-quarter screen pass 58 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
No. 4 California then jolts the Trojans 40-17, handing Carroll his worst loss as USC coach.
USC bounces back with a 44-0 victory at Notre Dame and appears to be finding its rhythm at quarterback with Aaron Corp. Corp throws for two touchdowns in a win over Oregon State and is impressive for three quarters at Oregon.
But, with a 30-17 win safely in hand, Corp reinjures his knee.
Barkley takes over and is at times brilliant and other times clueless during victories over Arizona State and Stanford.
Corp returns for the UCLA game, but Bruins defensive tackle Brian Price knocks him out in the first quarter with a vicious sack. UCLA cornerback Alterraun Verner runs back two Barkley interceptions for touchdowns as the Bruins roll to a 30-24 victory.
With a Holiday Bowl berth on the line against Arizona, Barkley connects with Damian Williams for a game-winning touchdown with just 10 seconds left.
"We're pumped to play in the Holiday Bowl," Carroll says.
The Trojans whip Nebraska 45-17.
On Jan. 14, the NCAA ends its previously endless investigation into improper benefits provided by would-be sports agents to Reggie Bush. It finds USC lacked institutional contro
l and the football program is placed on probation for five years, loses 21 scholarships and receives a two-year postseason ban.
"I'm not pumped," Carroll says. "This will make it harder to win forever."
He then bolts for the NFL, becoming the Oakland Raiders' head coach.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Ninth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: California
Last year, California running back Jahvid Best blew a technicolor pizza on national television at Maryland. This year, he made the Terrapins nauseous.
In a tour de force performance that announced his Heisman Trophy candidacy like a bolt of lightning, Best rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 105 yards and a score -- most of which came on a 58-yard touchdown off a screen -- in a 44-10 victory.
Best produced touchdown runs of 55 and 68 yards but sat out the second half of a blowout victory over Eastern Washington.
The Bears overcame a shaky start at Minnesota and rolled in the second half for a 30-17 win.
That set up a marquee showdown for the No. 8 Bears at No. 5 Oregon with ESPN's College GameDay on location in Eugene.
Lee Corso donned the Duckhead. Kirk Herbstreit tapped the Bears.
"It's fair to say the winner of this game will send a player to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony," Chris Fowler said about Best and Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
The Bears led 17-10 at the half, a 76-yard run from Best being the difference.
With 3:05 left, the Bears led 24-20. From the Oregon 47, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley did a play-action fake to Best and launched a bomb.
But Ducks safety T.J. Ward didn't bite on the fake, and he out-leapt Marvin Jones for the interception.
Masoli drove the Ducks to Cal's 32, but faced a fourth-and-8 with 0:55 remaining.
Masoli set up to pass, but Bears end Cameron Jordan was on him. Masoli stiff-armed Jordan, and started to backpedal. Jordan was joined by Mike Mohamed in pursuit of Masoli, who reversed the field and started directing receivers downfield.
There was room to run. Masoli tucked and made a break, but just short of the line of scrimmage, he stopped and lobbed the ball into the corner of the endzone.
Tight end Ed Dickson leapt, but the ball was tipped away by safety Brett Johnson.
And onto the turf.
Autzen went silent.
"California might be the best team in the nation," Herbstreit said after the game.
"See you next week in Berkeley," Fowler concluded.
No. 2 USC vs. No. 4 California. Big. Perhaps the biggest game in Cal history.
"People have contemplated the origin and evolution of the universe since before the time of Aristotle," said George Smoot, Cal physics professor and Nobel Prize winner. "Very recently, the era of speculation has given way to a time of science. The advance of knowledge and of scientific ingenuity means that at long last, we can actually test our theories. But no body will be testing anything Saturday because the Bears are going to stomp 'SC. Go Bears! Whoooo! How 'bout another margarita!"
One piece of good news that emerged from the day as a sidebar was that Memorial Stadium, awaiting a major seismic retrofitting, proved it could withstand a minor earthquake.
We know that because the rumble inside Strawberry Canyon probably could have be heard across the Bay in San Francisco when Best went 75 yards for a touchdown on the Bears first possession, having outraced Trojans safety Taylor Mays the final 35 yards.
On the biggest stage, Best and Riley and an inspired defense pushed the Trojans around in a 40-17 victory, the worst loss of the Pete Carroll era.
Cal rose to No. 2 in the rankings. Texas coach Mack Brown complained. According to an ESPN.com poll, 78 percent of the college football nation believed he should quit whining.
"It's the matchup everyone wants to see," Fowler says. "Florida vs. Cal, Tim Tebow vs. Jahvid Best. SEC vs. Pac-10. It's freaking beautiful."
The Bears rolled through their next seven games by an average of 24 points. The offense ranked third in the nation with 41 points per game, the defense fifth with 13 ppg.
On a technicality, however, Cal didn't play in its first Rose Bowl since 1959.
"While disappointed we're not playing in the Rose Bowl, it is some consolation to play for the national title in the Rose Bowl Stadium against a fine team like Florida," Cal coach Jeff Tedford sighs.
Best, already called the best player in the nation by Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, won the Heisman.
During a pre-BCS title game press conference, a reporter asked Best whether he won the Heisman because folks were tired of hearing and reading about Tebow.
"I hope not," Best says. "Because that would mean people are really stupid. Tim Tebow is the greatest college football player in history. And he's a great person. And I use the term 'great' in its true sense, not as a casual compliment. Why would people get tired of hearing about a guy who does so much good? A guy who remains humble despite all the accolades? I don't care if you don't subscribe to his religion. I don't care if you don't like Florida. I certainly don't like Florida this week. But the idea that people are tired of hearing about such an outstanding person bothers me and it should bother you. It's the worst type of cynicism."
Florida nipped Cal 43-42 in triple-overtime when Gators linebacker Brandon Spikes tipped away a Riley pass on a 2-point conversion.
California opened 2-0 with wins over Maryland and Eastern Washington, but a team that wanted to contend for championships had to win on the road.
And Cal still didn't prove that it can, which became clear when the Bears fell at Minnesota, 28-24, the program's fifth consecutive road defeat.
That, of course, didn't bode well for a visit to Oregon. This time the Bears were sharp to start, but Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli led a fourth-quarter rally and the Ducks prevailed, 27-24.
A home loss the following weekend to USC left a season that started with such promise on the brink of disaster. Coach Jeff Tedford announced he was benching quarterback Kevin Riley in favor of Brock Mansion.
While the passing offense continued to struggle, running back Jahvid Best and a tough defense led the Bears on a five-game winning streak.
But Best hurt his shoulder in the overtime win over Arizona, meaning he missed the Big Game vs. Stanford.
Stanford improved to 9-3 and earned a berth in the Holiday Bow
Cal slipped Washington in the season-finale and headed to the Sun Bowl.
The Bears whipped Notre Dame 38-10.
The following day, Best, Jordan, Mohamed and cornerback Darian Hagan announced they will forgo their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft a year early.
And Tedford was named the Oakland Raiders head coach.
Cal hired John Mackovic.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Eighth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: Oregon
Just because Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is a chill dude doesn't mean he can't hold a grudge.
That became abundantly clear when he took a spread option keeper and smashed his shoulder into the chin of Boise State safety Jeron Johnson. It appeared that Masoli, who was knocked out of last year's upset loss to the Broncos on what some described as a cheap shot, had no interest in juking Johnson, who left the game with a broken jaw.
Call it revenge on the blue turf, but Boise State is no match for the enraged Ducks, who roll up 574 yards of offense in a 56-28 win.
"Guess our offensive line is going to be OK," Ducks coach Chip Kelly quips afterwards.
The Ducks don't let up, breaking the 50-point barrier in wins over Purdue and Utah. Masoli's newfound proficiency of as a passer starts to generate Heisman Trophy buzz.
"I always knew he could be a proficient passer," Kelly said. "It's not newfound."
[A Pac-10 blogger notes to himself that it's eerie that Kelly seems to be participating in a fantasy post about the Ducks].
"Why is it eerie?" Kelly asks.
[Voices ... in ... my... head. Quiet!].
Oregon ascends to No. 5 in the national rankings, and a visit from No. 8 California brings ESPN's College GameDay to Eugene.
Lee Corso dons the Duckhead. Kirk Herbstreit taps the Bears.
"It's fair to say the winner of this game will send a player to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony," Chris Fowler says about Masoli and Cal's Jahvid Best.
Cal's defense is a different animal. It bottles up Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount. The Bears lead 17-10 at the half, a 76-yard run from Best being the difference.
With 3:05 left, the Bears lead 24-20. From the Oregon 47, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley does a play-action fake to Best and launches a bomb.
But Ducks safety T.J. Ward doesn't bite on the fake, and he outleaps Marvin Jones for the interception.
Masoli takes over at the Oregon 5-yard line. He connects with Jamere Holland for 15 yards. He finds Ed Dickson for 26. He scrambles for 18. A screen to Blount goes for 12 to the Cal 34.
But Jeff Maehl can't haul in a tough ball over the middle, Blount drops a short pass in the flat and a scramble nets only two yards.
It's fourth and 8 with 0:55 left. Masoli sets up to pass, but Bears end Cameron Jordan is on him. Masoli stiff arms Jordan, and starts to backpedal. Jordan is joined by Mike Mohamed in pursuit of Masoli, who reverses field and starts directing receivers downfield.
There's room to run. Masoli tucks and makes a break, but just short of the line of scrimmage, he stops and lobs the ball into the corner of the endzone.
Dickson leaps, but the ball is tipped away by safety Brett Johnson.
And into the hands of Rory Cavaille. Touchdown.
"Oregon might be the best team in the nation," Herbstreit says after the game.
The Ducks roll through Washington State, UCLA and Washington.
No. 2 USC heads to town to take on the No. 3 Ducks. It's billed as the biggest game in Autzen Stadium history. GameDay comes back to Eugene. It's impossible to get a seat at Beppe & Gianni's Trattoria.
But this is not the Ducks day. The Trojans have the offense to match and their defense is fast enough to keep up with the Ducks. USC wins 38-28.
"We should have won this game," Kelly said. "Why didn't we win this game?"
[Must ignore him... how does he do that? We knew he was a control freak but this is a little much.]
Predictions of a hangover prove overstated. The Ducks roll through their final four games, including a 40-28 win over Oregon State.
With USC playing Florida for the national title, it appears Oregon will head to the Rose Bowl to face Ohio State. But by some complicated BCS machinations that everyone agrees would make your head explode if they were explained, the Ducks head south to play Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Masoli finishes third in the Heisman Trophy race.
"Neh," he says. "No big deal. I ate at Le Bernardin and hung out with Thomas Pynchon and the the Kings of Leon. That was cool."
Oregon, which has thrived on balance much of the year, throws only four passes but rushes for 388 yards against the Bulldogs in a 48-21 victory.
After USC beats Florida in the BCS title game, Oregon finishes No. 2 in both polls.
Boise State doesn't lose on the blue turf, and the Broncos season-opening 38-35 victory over Oregon becomes the foundation of an unbeaten season and another BCS bowl berth.
The Ducks rebuilt offensive line plays fairly well, but it surrenders three sacks. The defense, however, is clearly a work in progress, with Boise quarterback Kellen Moore throwing three touchdown passes and the Broncos rushing for 190 yards.
Oregon whips Purdue and outlasts Utah, but quarterback Jeremiah Masoli suffers a concussion in the fourth quarter.
Nate Costa is the surprised starter the following week against California, but he goes down in the second quarter. With a thumb injury.
Darron Thomas comes off the bench and plays well, but the Bears roll 40-24 on 173 yards and two touchdowns from Jahvid Best.
The Ducks whip Washington State and UCLA, Masoli returning to action against the Bruins.
Then they head to Husky Stadium. The Ducks have owned rival Washington of late, winning five in a row in the series.
Huskies quarterback Jake Locker passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns and rushes for 98 yards another score, but the key play comes when it seems like Oregon is driving late for the victory.
From the Huskies 8-yard line, Masoli throws the ball to his left into the flat toward the endzone pylon, but Washington cornerback Quinton Richardson snags the ball and sprints down the sideline.
"Quinton Richardson's gonna score!" screams Huskies play-by-play man Bob Rondeau.
Huskies win 31-20.
Richardson's 97-yard interception return for a game-clinching touchdown becomes known as "The Pick," and it will be played repeatedly in Husky Stadium whenever Oregon visits in the future.
The Ducks seem lethargic while losing 35-17 to USC, but they bounce back with wins over Stanford, Arizona State and, in double-overtime, at Arizona.
The stakes in the Civil War are mostly pride. Oregon State appears headed to the Holiday Bowl in any event, while Oregon could end up in the Sun Bowl with a victory.
Yet the Beavers clearly have revenge on their minds for the disaster of 2008. They pound the Ducks defense with Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed for 159 yards and three scores, and Masoli and company never find their rhythm in a 35-20 defeat.
Oregon then beats Boston College in the Emerald Bowl and finishes 8-5.
Three days later, Nike files for bankruptcy.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
R.I.P. John Hughes
- Arizona gets up early; Arizona State goes to bed late. The Wildcats are happy campers.
- California running back Jahvid Best is profiled by USA Today. And who's going to be Best's lead blocker?
- What are the big issues as Oregon begins camp? The Ducks optimism will be tested.
- Oregon State might not want to sleep on its visit to UNLV.
- How close is UCLA to making the next step in the Pac-10? Previewing the Bruins D-line.
- USC questions? There are probably more answers on hand for the Trojans. But there always are some newcomers worth watching.
- Previewing Washington's linebackers. These guys are better than many folks might think.
- Bud Withers tells the story of former Washington State defensive end Cory Mackay's fight to recover from a serious back injury caused by an automobile accident.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Fifth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: Stanford
While one explanation for Toby Gerhart's 235 yards rushing in Stanford's season-opening 30-10 victory at Washington State was the Cougars' poor defense, it also was abundantly clear that any discussion of the Pac-10's or the nation's top running backs needed to include the 230-pound bull.
Of course, a bigger test for whether the Cardinal and, particularly, redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, came the next weekend at Wake Forest.
Just three plays into the game, however, things turned ugly. Stanford fullback Owen Marecic engaged in a heated argument and shoving match with Wake noseguard Boo Robinson. Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh demanded an explanation.
"Robinson started jawing at me about the superiority of supply-side economics and all of this crud about Adam Smith's invisible hand and I just couldn't allow that intellectually and morally bankrupt position to be promulgated in this setting without a strong response," Marecic said.
"Did you mention our present economic malaise is due in large part to the greed that often emerges in the absence of regulation?" Harbaugh replied.
"Yep, and I got him good when I said Ayn Rand was a stylistic failure," Marecic grinned. "Everyone knows those Wake guys love Rand."
Stanford, dominance established intellectually, then won the game 30-27, Luck throwing for two touchdowns and Gerhart scoring another.
Wins over San Jose State, Washington and UCLA followed, the 33-24 win over the Bruins being witnessed by 52,000 fans at sold-out Stanford Stadium.
When the No. 18 Cardinal visited No. 14 Oregon State, Stanford was playing its biggest game since its unlikely run to the Rose Bowl after the 1999 season. After Gerhart outdueled Jacquizz Rodgers, scoring the winning touchdown with a fourth-down dive from the Beavers' 1-yard line, ESPN's Mark May called Gerhart a "legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate."
Of course, there are no weeks off in the Pac-10. Stanford figured that out during a 21-17 loss at Arizona.
The Cardinal bounced back with a 35-24 victory over Arizona State, but Oregon's offensive firepower proved too much in a 44-31 Ducks win.
A 42-17 loss at USC seemed to take the starch out of the now-unranked Cardinal, but they had little time to mourn with No. 5 California entering the Big Game with a shot at its first Rose Bowl since 1959.
In the second overtime, needing a field goal to tie, Harbaugh calls a flea flicker, and Luck finds Richard Sherman, who is uncovered, for the game-winner.
Palo Alto goes insane as only Palo Alto can.
After bludgeoning Notre Dame 41-10, Stanford accepts an invitation to the Sun Bowl, where the Cardinal slip by Pittsburgh 3-0 to win a 10th game and finish ranked 14th.
Stanford overcame a pair of interceptions from redshirt freshman Andrew Luck, jittery in his first start, to beat Washington State 28-24, but the next weekend at Wake Forest the wheels came off shortly after running back Toby Gerhart suffered a high ankle sprain.
Luck's first pick was returned for a touchdown, and the offense could never get in sync against a rebuilding Demon Deacons defense. Tavita Pritchard came off the bench in the third quarter, but his two touchdowns passes weren't enough to rally the Cardinal.
Luck started again and played better in a win over San Jose State, but he got off to a slow start against Washington and again yielded to Pritchard, who led the Cardinal to a 24-20 win over the Huskies.
Pritchard was named the new starter. "We don't have a quarterback controversy," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We have two good quarterbacks, but Tavita is our starter."
After Pritchard throws five interceptions in losses to UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona, Luck takes over again.
"We don't have a quarterback controversy," Harbaugh said. "We have two good quarterbacks, but Tavita, er, Andrew is our starter. I'm getting tired of this question."
Gerhart returns to the lineup and rushes for 110 yards, and Luck doesn't throw a pick in the Cardinal's 24-20 win over Arizona State, but the Stanford offense doesn't have the firepower to matchup with Oregon and USC.
Not to mention California, as the No. 2 Bears and Heisman Trophy front-runner Jahvid Best roll in the Big Game 44-10. Best, already called the nation's best player by Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, rushes for 205 yards, giving him 2,000 for the season.
Two weeks later, a 45-7 win over Washington earns Cal a spot opposite Florida in the BCS national title game.
"While disappointed we're not playing in the Rose Bowl, it is some consolation to play for the national title in the Rose Bowl Stadium," Cal coach Jeff Tedford says.
Notre Dame blasts Stanford 33-10.
Harbaugh becomes the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator. Stanford rehires Walt Harris.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Fourth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: UCLA
UCLA beat Tennessee in 2008 despite four first-half interceptions. When redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince produces a clean sheet in the return trip to Knoxville, the game becomes a rout, the Bruins rolling 35-14, the same score as their opening victory over San Diego State.
The result renders new Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin speechless. Literally. He just stands at the podium during his postgame news conference and stares wordlessly into space.
The Bruins then shut out Kansas State in the Rose Bowl, 28-0, and slip Stanford 20-17, the defense, led by linebacker Reggie Carter, defensive tackle Brian Price and cornerback Alterraun Verner proving to be among the nation's best.
UCLA jumps into the national rankings, but the schedule's degree of difficulty increases. Prince turns in his first poor performance in a 30-21 loss to Oregon, an interception return for a touchdown from Walter Thurmond III turning the game in the third quarter.
California then hands UCLA a second consecutive defeat, with Jahvid Best becoming the first running back to eclipse 100 yards against the Bruins' defense.
UCLA bounces back with a 24-20 victory at Arizona, Prince leading a game-winning, 68-yard touchdown drive with less than a minute to play, but it can't win two in a row on the road, falling 28-24 at Oregon State.
The Bruins sweep the Washington schools and then return to the national rankings with a victory over Arizona State.
That sets up a showdown with No. 2 USC, which is undefeated and on the cusp of earning a berth in the BCS title game opposite top-ranked Florida.
"It's the matchup everyone wants to see," says Kirk Herbstreit during ESPN's GameDay, which is on site outside the Coliseum.
Lee Corso puts on the Trojan helmet.
But Price knocks USC quarterback Aaron Corp out of the game in the first quarter with a vicious sack, and Verner returns two Matt Barkley interceptions for touchdowns as the Bruins roll to a 30-24 win.
The Bruins then blow out Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.
"Anyone want to play Monopoly?" Pac-10 Coach of the Year Rick Neuheisel asks.
It's not easy being a redshirt freshman quarterback in any event, but UCLA's Kevin Prince clearly wasn't ready for 110,000 fans in Knoxville. Tennessee sacks Prince four times and intercepts him twice in a 28-10 thrashing.
A Bruins offense that could be charitably described as anemic in 2008, doesn't look much better in 2009, even when UCLA improves to 2-1 with a 17-14 victory over Kansas State.
While the Bruins' defense is again solid, it wears down late at Stanford, with Toby Gerhart grinding out 115 yards on 26 carries in a 21-17 Cardinal victory, the first of five consecutive UCLA defeats.
Midway through that run, Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow bench Prince in favor last year's starter, Kevin Craft. When that doesn't work -- Craft is no less interception-prone than the previous year -- they take the redshirt off true freshman Richard Brehaut, who nearly leads the Bruins to an upset win at Oregon State.
With Brehaut starting, the Bruins sweep the Washington schools and then slip Arizona State at home, leaving them one win short of bowl eligibility.
That sets up a showdown with No. 2 USC, which is undefeated and on the cusp of earning a berth in the BCS title game opposite top-ranked Florida.
"It's the matchup everyone wants to see," says Kirk Herbstreit during ESPN's GameDay, which is on the Florida campus before the Gators and Florida State play.
Lee Corso puts on the Trojan helmet. "But this one will be closer than the experts think," he says.
It's not. USC rolls 38-10.
The NCAA announces the following Monday that it finds USC's football program blameless in the Reggie Bush investigation. Curiously, it ends the press release with a, "Fight ON!" though only Bruins Nation thinks that's a big deal.
The Trojans dust Florida, winning their third national title under Pete Carroll, and sign the nation's No. 1 recruiting class on Feb. 3.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Second in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: Washington
No one could recall a losing effort receiving a standing ovation at Husky Stadium, but that's exactly what happened just moments after Washington quarterback Jake Locker's fourth-down toss into the end zone was knocked away by LSU safety Chad Jones.
"If that's a team coming off an 0-12 season," Tigers coach Les Miles said. "Well ... I'm impressed. That Locker is a heck of a player."
Locker, in his debut running a pro-style offense, completed 21 of 28 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns in the Huskies' 24-20 defeat.
The Huskies' 15-game losing streak then ended with an exclamation point a week later after a 48-10 win over Idaho. The Huskies' defense can't handle USC's dominating offensive line the following weekend in a 40-21 loss, but an upset victory at Stanford gives the program its first conference win since 2007.
Washington, brimming with new-found confidence, then blows a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at Notre Dame. "This team is still learning to win," first-year coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Lesson learned during an upset win over Arizona. And forgotten after a poor effort at Arizona State.
Still, 72,000-plus packed Husky Stadium when No. 12 Oregon came to Seattle the following weekend. The Ducks had pounded the Huskies of late in what formerly was the Pac-10's most bitter rivalry, winning five in a row by a decisive margin.
But the Ducks, coming off a bye week, start slowly, allowing the crowd to whip itself into a froth. That froth bubbles over when Erik Folk boots a 54-yard field goal with 3 seconds remaining, giving the Huskies a 38-37 victory.
On his way down to the field afterwards, a Pac-10 blogger breaks his tailbone when the concrete stadium steps crumble beneath him. Loyal blog readers Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos express mutual chagrin in a statement and offer $350 million for a stadium renovation.
The Huskies then split a pair of road games, beating the UCLA Rick Neuheisels but losing at Oregon State.
A 45-35 triumph in the Apple Cup gives the Huskies a sixth victory, earning them bowl eligibility. A blowout loss to No. 2 California and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Jahvid Best is softened by an invitation to the Poinsettia Bowl, where the Huskies beat Utah 31-24, completing one of the biggest turnarounds in FBS history.
The Steve Sarkisian Era begins with a thud when LSU pummels physically overmatched Washington, 38-10. Locker rushes for 88 yards, but he only completes 10 of 24 passes with two interceptions. He doesn't seem comfortable managing the Huskies' new pro-style offense.
The Huskies end their 15-game losing streak with a win over hapless Idaho the following weekend, but they promptly begin another streak with four consecutive defeats to USC, Stanford, Notre Dame and Arizona.
An upset win at Arizona State insures the Huskies won't go winless in the conference, but a blowout defeat at home to Oregon and road losses at UCLA and Oregon State leave Washington reeling.
Still, an Apple Cup win over Washington State would mean the Huskies avoided finishing last in the conference for a third consecutive season.
But five turnovers doom the Huskies, who lose their fifth Apple Cup in the past six seasons.
The season mercifully ends with a blowout loss to California in front of just 50,000 fans at Husky Stadium. Two wins are much better than zero, but it falls well short of the expectations of a frustrated fan base.
And quarterback Nick Montana decommits.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
First in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up first: Washington State
It wasn't long ago that losing by 10 points at home to Stanford would have been a terrible outcome for Washington State, but a 30-20 opening defeat to the fast-rising, experienced Cardinal provided grounds for Cougars optimism as the 2009 season began.
For one, Stanford beat the Cougars 58-0 a year ago.
Second, the game was in doubt until the fourth quarter, when a surprisingly stout WSU defense finally let Stanford tailback Toby Gerhart find some cracks.
That optimism was further validated when the Cougars improved to 2-1 with victories over Hawaii and SMU. Andy Mattingly and Louis Bland led a rejuvenated pass rush, and four interceptions, two from safety Xavier Hicks, stymied a pair of pass-happy offenses.
Decisive losses at USC and Oregon reminded the Cougars that there was still a gap between them and the top of the conference, but an upset of Arizona State evened the record at 3-3. Quarterback Marshall Lobbestael shocked a tough Sun Devils defense with a pair of touchdown passes, while running backs James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy combined for 195 yards rushing, 50 more than Georgia had in its surprisingly tight win over ASU a few weeks before.
The Cougars couldn't keep up with Jahvid Best in Berkeley, but the Paul Wulff Era took a decisive uptick with a nationally televised upset of No. 15 Notre Dame in San Antonio. Cougars fans painted the Riverwalk crimson while pointing out they'd won the game and the party.
A late touchdown left the Cougars frustrated at Arizona, and bowl hopes were doused by consecutive home defeats to UCLA and Oregon State.
The Cougars then traveled across the state to Seattle, with the 5-6 Huskies knowing a single win would transform their program from 0-12 in '08 to bowl eligible a season later.
But a 45-yard field goal from Nico Grasu in the waning moments gave the Cougars their fifth Apple Cup victory in six seasons.
"We are not satisfied with 5-7 by any stretch," Wulff said. "But we can build on this."
It wasn't just the score. Opening with a 38-3 home loss to Stanford was significantly closer -- at least mathematically -- than the 58-0 blanking Washington State suffered on the Farm a year before.
No, it was 254 yards rushing from Toby Gerhart, a total that eclipsed the Cougars entire offensive output. A year after owning the nation's worst run defense, it appeared that little had improved and that the Cougars weren't physically ready for Pac-10 play.
Or WAC or Conference USA play either after Hawaii and SMU ran the Cougars ragged. The specter of a winless season begins to hover over the program, and athletic director Jim Sterk is forced to give coach Paul Wulff a dreaded "vote of confidence."
It becomes clear as the losses pile up that things are going to have to get worse in Pullman before they begin to get better. A handful of injuries make things even harder for a young team that is thin at just about every position.
The Cougars play better in November, almost upsetting UCLA at home and playing a competitive game for a half with Oregon State.
But they are winless heading into the Apple Cup to face a Husky program that is hungry for revenge and that also is showing signs of life under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, particularly on the recruiting trail.
So a 42-17 loss is particularly galling. Not only does it leave the Cougars winless, but it also sends the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2002 and inspires Jake Heaps to switch his commitment from BYU to Washington.
2:00 PM ET Hawaii Colorado 3:30 PM ET Utah Michigan 6:00 PM ET Georgia State Washington 10:00 PM ET California Arizona 10:30 PM ET 2 Oregon Washington State 10:30 PM ET San Diego State Oregon State