Pac-12: Rece Davis
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.
Up next: Oregon
"Nate Costa is our quarterback," Oregon coach Chip Kelly tells reporters on Aug. 23." "But Darron Thomas is going to play, too."
A reporter asks, "Are you concerned that..."
"No," says Kelly.
"I mean to say, might it become an issue that..."
"No," says Kelly.
Both Costa and Thomas play and play well in a 50-13 win over New Mexico. With LaMichael James on the sidelines serving a one-game suspension, Kenjon Barner rushes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
"Truth is, when our offense is rolling like that, getting a break isn't such a bad thing," Costa says.
James returns to score two touchdowns and run for 133 yards in a 35-17 win at Tennessee.
"I know from my 'How to talk like an SEC coach' class that we're supposed to act like no body plays good football outside the SEC," new Volunteers coach Derek Dooley says. "But, man, that is a really fast team. They could play with anybody in our league."
Three men in seersucker suits and panama hats seemingly appear from nowhere behind Dooley. They grab him by the shoulder and whisper in his ear.
"Er, just kidding," Dooley says. "Just ignore the Pac-10's consistent success against the SEC. Nothing to see there."
The Ducks whip Portland State and survive a sloppy performance against a rugged Arizona State defense. Stanford's Andrew Luck throws three TD passes at Oregon, but Thomas leads a nifty 80-yard drive for the winning score late in the fourth. The Ducks, now ranked fourth, improve to 7-0 after easy wins over Washington State and UCLA. They average 485 yards on offense and surrender just 287 yards on defense. Combined, Costa and Thomas average 254 yards passing and 88 yards rushing per game and their twin efforts lead the conference in passing efficiency.
"This is almost like USC's bowl game," Kirk Herstreit says from the ESPN "College GameDay" set in front of the Coliseum. "If the Trojans win this game, they have a good chance to go undefeated. That means they could even end up ranked No. 1 in Lane Kiffin's first season."
A Matt Barkley TD pass to Ronald Johnson gives USC a 28-24 lead with two minutes left. Costa and company take over at the Ducks 20. James takes a first-down screen for 20 yards. A reverse to Barner moves the Ducks into USC territory. On third and 10, Costa finds Jeff Maehl for a first down at the Trojans 28. Under pressure, Costa scrambles for a first down at the 7-yard line with 40 seconds left. After an incomplete pass, James rushes for five. The Ducks use their final time out with 17 seconds left. Costa dumps a pass to Barner, but he's knocked out of bounds at the 1.
On fourth down, USC stops Costa on a spread-option play. The Coliseum releases its pent-up, NCAA-sanctions-induced frustration.
"I think Chip Kelly is challenging the spot," Brent Musburger says through the din.
Touchdown. Oregon wins 31-28.
"The Ducks look like the best -- the most complete -- team we've seen this season," Chris Fowler says.
Oregon returns home triumphant and avoids a let-down against Washington after intercepting Jake Locker twice. At California, things go splat. Perhaps it's back-to-back emotional victories followed by a road trip to Berkeley with a bye week ahead. Whatever the excuse, the Ducks turn in a lethargic performance and a late comeback attempt falls short in a 28-24 loss. Oregon drops from No. 2 to No. 6 in the rankings.
The Ducks trounce No. 17 Arizona 38-20, which sets up another Civil War for the Roses at No. 9 Oregon State.
With two minutes left, Oregon trails 27-23 and faces a fourth-and-3 from the Beavers' 33-yard line. Kelly has no choice but to go for it. Costa drops back and, under pressure, shovels the ball to James, who breaks to his right toward the sideline. One yard. Two yards. But at the marker Stephen Paea grabs James from behind. A battle of wills ensues. And the 180-pound James drags the 300-pound Paea, perhaps the strongest player in college football, forward for the first down.
And then he slips away and high steps into the endzone for the win. Later, most folks agree it was the moment that won James the Heisman Trophy.
The Ducks, one of four teams with only one loss, finish behind Alabama and Ohio State in the BCS standings even though they are ranked No. 2 in both the final human polls.
"Coach Kelly, have you noticed that the folks who do the computer polls all wear seersucker suits and panama hats?" a reporter asks.
"Yes," says Kelly.
The Ducks bludgeon Boise State 42-14 in the Rose Bowl and split the national title with Ohio State.
A week after winning the quarterback competition with Nate Costa, Darron Thomas posts an uneven performance in an easy win over New Mexico. The sophomore clearly has skills both as a runner and passer, but he fumbles once and frequently tries to force the ball through tight coverage, though only one pass ends up picked off.
Those issues are even more glaring at Tennessee, where a crowd of 105,000 seems to be distracting the young QB. The Ducks trail 10-7 at halftime, and coach Chip Kelly makes a switch, inserting the senior Costa.
Costa isn't spectacular, but he doesn't make mistakes and he leads two second-half scoring drives as the Ducks escape 21-17. The Ducks improve to 4-0 with wins over Portland State and Arizona State.
But the ninth-ranked Ducks yield three TD passes to Stanford's Andrew Luck in a 30-24 home loss. After needing overtime to slip improving Washington State, and a fourth-quarter comeback to survive a challenge from UCLA, USC pounds the Ducks 35-20, knocking them out of the national rankings.
Then hated rival Washington comes to town.
Locker, who ranks just ahead of Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers in most Heisman Trophy polls, is asked if he's aware of how Oregon fans constantly tweak him as all hype and no substance.
"No, I've never heard that," Locker replies. "I love Oregon fans. A lot of fans in the Pac-10 are obnoxious. But Oregon fans are gracious and mellow. Like Michigan fans."
Locker rushes for 205 yards and two TDs and passes for 310 yards and two scores as the Huskies roll over the Ducks 41-17, ending a six-game losing streak in the series.
"Wow," says Rece Davis back in the ESPN studios. "If Jake Locker isn't atop your Heisman Trophy contender list, I don't know what you're thinking. Who would have thought that Autzen Stadium would provide him such an accommodating stage to record a signature performance."
Oregon bounces back with a win at California and beats Arizona in overtime.
The Ducks find themselves in the unusual role of spoiler when they visit Oregon State for the annual Civil War. The Beavers must win in order to go to their first Rose Bowl since 1965.
Rodgers, who ranks just behind Locker in most Heisman Trophy polls, is asked if he's aware of how Oregon fans constantly tweak him and say he isn't as good as LaMichael James.
"No, I've never heard that," Rodgers replies. "I love Oregon fans. A lot of fans in the Pac-10 are obnoxious. But Oregon fans are gracious and mellow. Like Michigan fans."
Rodgers rushes for 225 yards and three touchdowns and catches 10 passes for 107 yards and a TD as the Beavers roll over the Ducks 44-14.
Wow," says Davis back in the ESPN studios. "Seems like Oregon is the team to play to make a Heisman Trophy statement."
Locker wins the Heisman. Rodgers finishes second and announces he's coming back for his senior season.
A 31-24 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl earns Washington a 10-3 finish and a final No. 9 ranking. The Beavers beat Iowa 28-24 in the Rose Bowl and finish 11-2 and ranked fourth.
Oregon loses the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah and finishes 8-5.
Phil Knight converts to Buddhism, gives his fortune to the United Way and moves to Tibet. Chip Kelly goes with him.
Tyrone Willingham comes out of retirement to become the Ducks head coach.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.
Up next: Stanford
Hard to say when it really started. "It" being the notion that Stanford was a national title contender. And a team to be feared.
The blowout win over Sacramento State didn't exactly reverberate with the college football nation. Nor did three running backs combining for 225 yards and doing their best Toby Gerhart imitation at UCLA earn top billing on SportsCenter.
A 24-3 win over Wake Forest pushes the Cardinal to 14th in the nation. A 31-17 win at Notre Dame lands them just outside the top-10. Still, things were mostly quiet outside the Farm.
"Things are mostly quiet here," says coach Jim Harbaugh. "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. That's what Stanford football is about. Not noise."
Oh, but there are whispers.
"What about the Stanford Cardinal?" Kirk Herbstreit asks on College GameDay. "Their quarterback may end up the No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft. They may have the best offensive line in the nation. They're averaging over 200 yards rushing per game, despite the departure of Toby Gerhart. And, finally, they've got a defense to match."
Replies Chris Fowler, "Let's see what they do at No. 5 Oregon."
What they do is Luck throws for three touchdowns and the Cardinal rolls up 485 yards of offense in a 31-24 win.
The Cardinal climbs to No. 7 in the national polls. Yet some are still not sold.
"I'm still not sold," says Lou Holtz. "Let's see what they do against Southern Cal."
What they do is stink up the joint. For three quarters. But Luck completes 10 of 12 passes for 148 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter, including a 28-yard seeing-eye bullet that finds Ryan Whalen for the winning score with 15 seconds left.
"That's two unbeaten, top-10 teams in two weekends," Rece Davis says to Holtz. "Are you sold?"
"Yep," says Holtz.
After a bye week, Stanford easily dispatches Washington State. It then heads to Washington. Scouts from every NFL team are on hand to watch Luck's showdown with Jake Locker. Luck and Locker each account for three TDs apiece, but the Huskies get the ball last, and that proves the difference. Stanford suffers its first defeat. When Oregon wins at USC that night, it looks like the Cardinal and the Ducks will engage in a race to the Rose Bowl finish.
After wins over Arizona and Arizona State, the fifth-ranked Cardinal heads to Berkeley for the Big Game, with California eagerly embracing the role of spoiler. Stanford leads 28-14 in the third, but a pair of TD passes from Kevin Riley ties the count with two minutes left. Then Jeff Tedford shocks everyone in the stadium with an on-side kick. The Bears recover. Riley expertly leads his offense to the Stanford 10-yard line, and Giorgio Tavecchio lines up for the chip-shot winner.
Stanford blocks the kick. Chris Owusu picks up the ball and runs it the other way for the game-winning score. "D'oh," is the one-word column on California Golden Blogs that night.
After beating Oregon State 28-24, Stanford finishes fourth in the BCS standings. It's consolation prize is the Rose Bowl opposite No. 3 Ohio State, which is one of three unbeaten teams. The mighty Buckeyes, Rose Bowl champs the year before and ranked No. 1 in both human polls, aren't happy they got computered out of the national title game.
"We're going to make a statement," says quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Before taking the field, Harbaugh gathers his team.
"From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered," he says. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."
Whispers Whalen to center Chase Beeler, "Is it Saint Crispin's Day?" Replies Beeler, "Forget the Rose Bowl. We're at Agincourt!"
Stanford wins 21-17, securing its first Rose Bowl victory since 1971 after stopping the Buckeyes on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
The 12-1 Cardinal finishes ranked No. 2 behind Alabama. Harbaugh announces he's signed a lifetime contract.
"Yes, I'm coming back," Luck tells reporters a week later. "We have unfinished business."
A switch to a 3-4 defense evidently isn't the answer for Stanford's defensive woes. That's made clear when UCLA and quarterback Kevin Prince roll up 468 yards in a 35-30 win.
Despite beating Wake Forest and Notre Dame, it becomes clear that Stanford has to score a lot of points to win. Its defense still lacks top-end athleticism, which is abundantly evident during a 45-30 loss at Oregon. Moreover, a backfield-by-committee approach does not a Toby Gerhart make.
That puts pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck to make plays downfield against defenses scheming to stop him. USC does just that in a 31-20 win, sacking Luck five times.
Washington State doesn't have the talent to follow the plan. Luck out-duels Washington's Jake Locker in Husky Stadium and leads a comeback win over Arizona. But, in the first quarter at Arizona State, Luck feels a tweak in his hamstring as he tries to elude Vontaze Burfict. With Luck out, the Sun Devils record the upset.
A Big Game in Berkeley without Luck is not a good thing for Stanford. California rolls 38-17. Luck again isn't available for the finale vs. Oregon State, and the Beavers drop the Cardinal to 6-6 on the year.
Luck returns to lead the Cardinal to a victory over Temple in the Eagle Bank Bowl, but it's hardly a day of celebration when Harbaugh announces he's headed to Michigan.
That's big news over at Rose Bowl practices for both California and Ohio State.
A week after Cal's victory, Luck announces he's entering the NFL draft.
"I'm sure the program will do great things during the second tenure of Walt Harris," Luck says.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.
Up next: Washington
Certainly Washington quarterback Jake Locker answers the bell at BYU after a summer of coast-to-coast publicity that perhaps pushed to the precipice of proper decorum, but the more interesting story is the quarterback who found himself contemplating Provo's beautiful Wasatch Mountains from a supine position most of the day.
"All I saw was purple," says BYU's true freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, who hails from the Seattle area. "I mean, I know they were in their road white jerseys and everything, but after the sixth or ninth hit, things started to get fairly dark out there for me."
The Huskies ostensibly suspect defense sacks Heaps five times and harasses him throughout the day. Ends Kalani Aldrich and Everette Thompson, who sat out spring practices with worrisome injuries, both take down Heaps twice.
"It was a most illuminating performance," Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt says. "I told the lads to never give in. Never give in! Never; never; never; never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."
Reporters are baffled as to why Holt suddenly sounds like Winston Churchill, but then Locker comes out for his interview and distracts them.
After easily dispatching Syracuse, Nebraska pays a visit to an overflowing Husky Stadium. With ESPN's "College GameDay" on campus, it's billed as a showdown between Locker and the Cornhuskers top-ranked defense. What it becomes is an electric moment when all observers witness the realization of extraordinary potential.
In a tour de force performance, Locker completes 26 of 32 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns and rushes for 93 yards and two touchdowns as the Huskies stun No. 7 Nebraska 31-24.
"Well," says ESPN's Chris Fowler afterward. "Guess the Locker skeptics will hush now."
The rejuvenated Husky nation comes back down to earth after a 35-27 loss at USC, but the Huskies bounce back to beat Arizona State and then announce themselves as Pac-10 contenders with a victory over Oregon State.
Still, while Locker is clearly ready for prime time, the Huskies remain a program clawing its way back into the national picture. An overtime loss at Arizona and a home loss to Stanford -- Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck and Locker each account for three TDs apiece in a duel of future NFL first-round picks -- knock the Huskies out of the national rankings. A visit to unbeaten and third-ranked Oregon doesn't look promising. The Ducks last lost to the Huskies in 2003 in the once-heated rivalry.
"Wow," says Rece Davis back in the ESPN studios after Washington rolls over the Ducks 41-17. "If Jake Locker isn't atop your Heisman Trophy contender list, I don't know what you're thinking. Who would have thought that Autzen Stadium would provide him such an accommodating stage to record a signature performance."
That victory becomes the first of a four-game winning streak, as Washington completes its return to national prominence.
Locker becomes the 76th Heisman Trophy winner and the first from Washington. A 31-24 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl earns the Huskies a 10-3 finish and a final No. 9 ranking.
The school announces that Bill Gates has agreed to fund a $450 million renovation of Husky Stadium.
"He told me he now wants to be to Washington what Phil Knight is to Oregon," Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward tells reporters. "Only he's got a lot more money than Phil Knight."
There are ankle sprains and there are "high" ankle sprains and then there are catastrophic ankle sprains.
The latter is what Locker suffers while diving into the end zone in the third quarter at BYU. The Cougars and Heaps come back from a 10-point deficit to earn the win.
"We hope Jake will be back soon," says coach Steve Sarkisian, "but he obviously has a future in this game, and we're not going to rush him."
With redshirt freshman Keith Price replacing Locker, the Washington offense does just enough to beat Syracuse, but gets dominated by Nebraska and USC. A 14-10 win over Arizona State provides some hope, particularly when rumors spread that Locker will be ready for Oregon State's visit the following weekend. But Locker aggravates his ankle while doing some light running, and the Huskies lose their next four, including a 51-10 loss at unbeaten Oregon.
"Embarrassing," says linebacker Mason Foster.
It's announced that Locker is done for the season.
The Huskies miss a late field goal and lose 21-20 at California, and they limp into the Apple Cup hoping to salvage some pride during a lost season. In Pullman, it's zero degrees and there's three feet of snow on the ground when the Huskies walk out for the opening kickoff.
Neither team can score a TD, and Washington leads 9-3 late. But an errant shotgun snap in the fourth quarter gets by Price and is recovered at the 1-yard line by Cougars defensive end Travis Long. On fourth down, Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel runs a naked boot and runs into Foster. The ball gets away. It rolls into the end zone. The Cougars recover for a touchdown, and the PAT gives them a 10-9 lead with two minutes left.
Price drives the Huskies to the WSU 10-yard line. But the snap for the potential game-winning field goal goes over the holder's head.
Cougars win. They finish 5-7. Washington is 3-9.
"We're heard a lot during the summer about Washington being back in the Pac-10 hunt," Long says afterward. "Well, they took our place in the cellar and we've got everyone coming back next year. So you tell me which program is on the rise?"
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.