It'll take more time for the Pac-10 to shake out

What we know about the Pac-10 at midseason is that we don't really know much just yet.

We don't know if USC matches past Trojan vintages and therefore is a prime national title contender, whether they are presently ranked Nos. 2 or 3 or 23.

Sure, they ventured to Arkansas and feasted on piggy, but the Razorbacks certainly aren't an elite SEC team like, say, Auburn.


We also don't know what to make of California, which threw up on itself at Tennessee but still may be one of the nation's best teams -- see a dominant five-game stretch capped last weekend with a 45-24 manhandling of a good Oregon squad.

And how 'bout those Ducks? They look like a solid No. 3 right now, though they're practically unbeatable at home, particularly when they get a helping hand -- blind eye? -- from the referees. Just ask Oklahoma fans ... if you've got at least 63 hours free to listen to them yap.

That troika appears the class of the conference, but we'll have to wait until consecutive mid-November weekends -- the Nov. 11 and Nov. 18 to be exact -- when Oregon and California visit USC to figure out how everything will shake out.

Here's the one thing we do know. Winless Stanford is freaking terrible. Its scoring differential is 24.1 points per game, and that includes a boost from a one-point loss to redoubtable San Jose State.

The Cardinal were pretty stinky before they suffered epidemic injuries. Now they measure success by covering a 31-point spread this past weekend at Notre Dame.

Arizona and Oregon State are a notch above the Cardinal but are disappointments. Both looked like bowl teams in the preseason, and their fans are turning grouchy.

Arizona may own the nation's worst offense. The Beavers looked like they had the worst defense when they were sliced and diced 42-14 at Boise State.

Arizona State is reeling after consecutive blowout defeats to California and Oregon, and the Sun Devils likely will make it three in a row at USC on Saturday.

Then there's Washington, UCLA and Washington State smack in the middle, though the Huskies own the edge among the three due to an impressive comeback victory over the Bruins. Each appears bowl-bound, but pushing into the elite will take some work against tough schedules.

UCLA heads to Oregon on Saturday, the first of four nationally ranked opponents remaining on the Bruins' schedule, including three over the next four weeks.

Washington, fresh off of giving the Trojans severe indigestion at home, face daunting trips to California and Oregon before a season finale at Washington State, where things get pretty nippy in mid-November. The Cougars still must contend with Oregon and Cal, though both are coming to Pullman.

So what else is new for the nation's No. 1 football conference, according to the Sagarin Ratings? A lot more defense and a little less offense.

Last year, no Pac-10 team surrendered less than 357 yards per game. This year, seven do. In 2005, no team gave up fewer than 21 points per game and five gave up more than 30. This year, four teams give up 21 or fewer points per game, while just one surrenders more than 30.

Biggest Surprise
Nearly every pundit dumped Washington into the basement of their Pac-10 preseason projections. Some even suggested there were no more than one or two wins on the schedule. But coach Tyrone Willingham has transformed the Huskies, who are 5-3 since an embarrassing 2-18 stretch, into a confident, disciplined team.

The key has been the emergence of dual-threat quarterback Isaiah Stanback and a surprisingly stout defense.

Willingham inspired smirks when he practically guaranteed a bowl berth in August. Now, media folks and skeptical fans are huffing and puffing, trying to catch a seat on the bandwagon.

Biggest Disappointment
Arizona State welcomed back 17 starters overall, including 10 from an offense that averaged 37 points and 519 yards per game. The Sun Devils looked set to challenge for the top-third of the conference.

But coach Dirk Koetter took a gamble when he tapped sophomore Rudy Carpenter over senior Sam Keller as his starting quarterback, a reversal from his original decision, one that sent Keller packing for Nebraska.

Koetter went all in, and it looks as though he was holding a pair of deuces while conference teams call his bluff.

Carpenter, who led the nation in passing efficiency after replacing Keller last year, is presently completing just 54 percent of his passes and has hurled nine interceptions, most by far in the Pac-10.

After this weekend's tilt at USC, the remaining schedule is forgiving, so the Sun Devils should rally for a bowl game. If that doesn't happen, Koetter's seat could get hot, despite an offseason contract extension.

Midseason MVP
Things started terribly for California quarterback Nate Longshore at Tennessee, but since then he's been brilliant.

Longshore, a sophomore who missed nearly all of last season with a broken leg, is ninth in the nation and first in the conference in passing efficiency. He has tossed 17 touchdown passes, third most in the country, and completed 65 percent of his passes with just five interceptions. The Bears are averaging 40 points per game.

Midseason Coach of the Year
He may not be Mr. Excitement, but Willingham appears well on his way to making the Notre Dame debacle a distant memory. If his brilliant job with the Huskies continues in its present trajectory, he could become a candidate for his second national coach of the year honor.

Bowl Bound
USC, California, Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Washington State and Arizona State

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.