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October 26, 2007
No easy road to the Pac-10 title anymore
KING: Carroll, USC brace for test at Oregon
The comments originated in New Orleans and reverberated on the West Coast.
LSU coach Les Miles was speaking to a crowd dominated by fans of his team over the summer when he poked fun at USC's Pac-10 schedule. USC and LSU had spent the offseason as the teams being mentioned most frequently to play in the national-championship game.
"I can tell you this, they have a much easier road to travel," Miles said. "They're going to play some real knockdown drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford – some real juggernauts – and they're going to end up, it would be my guess, in some position so if they win a game or two, that they'll end up in the title (game). I would like that path for us."
Miles made those remarks to support his contention that the Southeastern Conference is the toughest league in college football, and it's hard to argue with that position. But his barbs at the Pac-10 may have been off the mark.
USC's supposedly easy path to a potential sixth consecutive conference title has included more potholes than anyone could have anticipated.
That Washington team Miles mocked gave USC quite a battle before falling 27-24. As for Stanford, it pulled off one of the greatest upsets in recent college football history with a 24-23 triumph that ended 41-point favorite USC's 35-game home winning streak.
Those two games reflect the balance of a conference that features three of the top 12 teams in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings: No. 4 Arizona State, No. 5 Oregon and No. 12 USC. No other conference has three teams in the top 12.
"It's the most competitive I've ever seen it," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "I don't want to say I told you so, but I said going in that our league is as good top to bottom as I ever remember it."
Riley's team shattered USC's aura of invincibility last season, when Oregon State's 33-31 victory ended the Trojans' 27-game Pac-10 winning streak. Five weeks later, UCLA stunned USC 13-9 to knock the Trojans out of national-title contention.
Now the Trojans find themselves tied for third in the conference standings behind Arizona State and UCLA. Oregon enters Saturday's showdown with USC as a three-point favorite, which marks the first time in six years that the Trojans have been underdogs in a Pac-10 game.
USC remains the most talented team in the Pac-10. A look at the annual recruiting rankings proves that much.
The Trojans have signed 22 five-star prospects in the past four years. The rest of the Pac-10 schools have combined to add only six five-star prospects (see chart) during that same time frame.
But the rest of the Pac-10 no longer is intimidated by the Trojans.
"We're not afraid of them. … We watched the film," Stanford linebacker Clinton Snyder said after the Cardinal's victory over USC. "We knew who they were. They were exactly who we thought they were when they came onto the field. We can compete with anyone out there."
USC undoubtedly has lost plenty of firepower. The Trojans had four first-round picks and eight second-round selections in the past three years; the rest of the Pac-10 produced four first-round picks and seven second-round choices.
But this isn't a simple case of USC falling back to the pack. The rest of the Pac-10 has improved to the point that it's catching up to the Trojans. California's early-season victory over Tennessee and Oregon's blowout win at Michigan underscore that progress.
"SC set a very high table a few years ago," Riley said. "If you want to compete, you have to rise up and do it. Otherwise, you get left behind. Now I see teams able to win every game on any given Saturday."
Quarterback Dennis Dixon's versatility and Stewart's running ability have given Oregon one of the nation's most explosive offenses. California has perhaps the nation's most electrifying player in Jackson, an outstanding receiver who has scored on six career punt returns. And the Pac-10 talent level doesn't slant heavily toward offense, as it has in the past. In fact, four Pac-10 programs (No. 3 USC, No. 14 Arizona State, No. 22 Oregon State and No. 26 UCLA) rank among the nation's top 26 teams in total defense. Only one Pac-10 school – No. 2 Oregon – is ranked among the top 26 in total offense.
The pass-rushing skills of Bruce Davis and the overall talents of an outstanding secondary have allowed UCLA to remain unbeaten in conference play. Linebacker Robert James and safety Troy Nolan have helped Arizona State emerge as one of the nation's biggest surprises under first-year coach Dennis Erickson.
"You've got talent everywhere," UCLA senior defensive tackle Kevin Brown said. "The talent's spread out, so anyone can win."
USC players have noticed the same thing.
"It's definitely evened out since I've been here," USC senior defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. "I wouldn't say teams would roll over (for) us, but for a while, some teams had a lot better athletes than others. But I think over the years, the playing field has been equaled. There are a lot of good players on all the teams in the Pac-10."
USC's recent track record supports Jackson's theory.
Two years ago, the Trojans won each of their Pac-10 games by double-digit margins while struggling to win nonconference battles with Notre Dame and Fresno State before losing to Texas in the national championship game. Since then, USC has faced its toughest tests within its conference.
The Trojans have lost to three Pac-10 teams since the start of the 2006 season while winning each of their six nonconference games against BCS foes by at least two touchdowns.
"We have by far our most difficult games in conference," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "For the last few years, out of conference we've really handled our games well, with good margins of victory and all that. In conference, it just doesn't happen. I think the familiarity just seems to have brought us closer together."
USC's dynasty followed an era of remarkable balance. Seven different schools represented the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl from the 1994-2000 seasons. Erickson coached Oregon State from 1999-2002 and returned to the Pac-10 this season with USC in the midst of the greatest dynasty in the conference's history. He insists the Pac-10 has more overall strength now.
"There are a lot more teams that can play at a high level," said Erickson, who also coached at Washington State from 1987-88. "As I've said many times, anybody can beat anybody, which has been proven every week in the Pac-10 this year. There are so many teams that have talent.
"If you're not ready to play or you make mistakes or you turn the ball over, then you're going to get beat. When I was in it before, that wasn't the case."
The rest of the nation hasn't quite caught on to Erickson's way of thinking. Consider the case of California, which was undefeated before losing back-to-back conference games against Oregon State and UCLA. California since has plummeted to 21st in the BCS standings, behind four SEC teams that also have two losses (No. 11 Florida, No. 14 Kentucky, No. 16 South Carolina and No. 18 Georgia). Auburn – an SEC team with three losses – is only one spot behind the Golden Bears.
When SEC teams beat up on one another the way they have this season, it generally is viewed as a testament to the conference's balance. For whatever reason, the Pac-10 isn't always seen in the same way, no matter how often its coaches and players mention how strong the league is from top to bottom.
"Every game is tough in the Pac-10," Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter said, "and every team is good.'
Of course, USC's Pac-10 rivals also haven't done themselves any favors by failing to seize the moment when they had the nation's attention.
California was poised to become the top-ranked team in the nation until it lost at home to Oregon State. Oregon probably would be ranked first in the BCS standings if it hadn't committed four turnovers in the final 12 minutes of a 31-24 loss to California. And plenty of questions still surround the two other top challengers to USC's throne. Arizona State has faced only one team (Oregon State) with a winning record. Pac-10 skeptics wonder how good the conference can be when UCLA is tied for first despite losing non-conference games to Utah and Notre Dame by a combined 52 points.
The complaints about the Pac-10 could grow louder if USC manages to capture at least a share of the title for a sixth consecutive season. If nobody else can win the conference in a season when injuries have ravaged USC's offensive line and forced the Trojans to use a backup quarterback, you have to wonder if it's going to happen in the near future.
We'll know in the next five weeks whether USC wins its sixth conference championship in a row. The Trojans travel to Oregon this weekend and play host to Oregon State the following week. They then have back-to-back road games with California and Arizona State before returning home for a regular-season finale with UCLA.
The nation's eyes are upon the Pac-10 once again. If the teams respond the way Oregon did against Cal or the way Cal did against Oregon State, the skepticism surrounding the conference will continue. But if the teams step up the way they did in September – when Cal whipped Tennessee and Oregon knocked out Michigan in consecutive weeks – we finally might have a Pac-10 team other than USC playing in a BCS game.
Who knows? Maybe one of those teams will get a chance to face LSU and show Miles how far the Pac-10 has come.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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