USC the class of the Pac-10 -- barely
Pac-10 fans may not want to look here for answers, and they surely don't want us to tout their team as the next big thing.
Being lauded in this space has been the kiss of death. The so-called Sports Illustrated cover jinks has had nothing on us.
Washington State lost its only game at Notre Dame after being featured. Oregon and Washington's fortunes fell flat following positive reviews. Last week's cover team, UCLA, darn near lost at woeful Arizona.
If you're feeling too smart for your own good, write about the Pac-10. It can be humbling, though we take some pride in our consistent bombs hurled at former Arizona coach John Mackovic until he was wisely booted five games into the season.
But, then again, the Pac-10 is always hard to predict.
Not that prognosticators are always wrong. USC was the preseason front runner, and it still appears to be the class of the conference. Of course, a lack of focus at California provided the Trojans a tough lesson about taking any weekends off.
Things haven't gone so well for the other two favorites, Washington and Arizona State.
Washington looked like it was putting it all together in the first half against UCLA, dominating every phase of the game. Then the second half happened, and 39 consecutive points later, the Huskies had lost 46-16. Last weekend, Washington looked to be in complete disarray while losing to Nevada, 28-17.
The Sun Devils were stomped in three consecutive games before bouncing back with a blowout victory over Oregon. Perhaps they've found their rhythm; or perhaps Oregon is just that bad, momentous victory over Michigan notwithstanding.
Oregon State has very quietly made a move after falling out of the picture early in the season following a defeat at Fresno State. Quarterback Derek Anderson is playing much better, while the defense and tailback Steven Jackson have been outstanding.
The jury is still out on California and UCLA. Those young teams could go either way. Arizona, which is playing much better under interim coach Mike Hankwitz, and Stanford don't play this year, which is too bad. If they did, we could crown a clear ninth-place team in the conference.
While it will take some work for the Pac-10 to push into the national title hunt, two one-loss teams, USC and Washington State, now inhabit the Top-10, which is much better than the preseason, when none were there.
The Pac-10 has gone 23-14 in nonconference play with three games remaining (USC and Stanford play Notre Dame, while Arizona State is at North Carolina this weekend). Eight of those defeats came against ranked foes, and seven were on the road. Only the Big 12, at 3-1, has a winning record against the conference.
The good news is the front runners will see each other over the coming weeks. USC, Washington State and Oregon State play each other down the stretch.
Of course, if things hold true, some nuttiness remains -- maybe there will be a three-way tie and the conference will have to resolve the situation with its arcane tie-breaking procedure. We probably won't know the Rose Bowl representative until Dec. 6, when Oregon State visits USC.
It was understandable that few though much of Washington State's chances this year. Heck, the Cougars lost coach Mike Price, quarterback Jason Gesser, defensive tackle Rien Long and cornerback Marcus Trufant.
But coach Bill Doba has struck the right note with his team; quarterback Matt Kegel has made his myriad critics look silly; and the Cougars defense has been opportunistic without any stars. It now looks like the visit to USC on Nov. 1 will be the Pac-10 game of the year.
Washington was supposed to ride the pass-catch combination of quarterback Cody Pickett and receiver Reggie Williams to a Rose Bowl berth, despite the controversial firing of Rick Neuheisel during the offseason. But things haven't gone according to plan.
The running game and defense have improved, but the Huskies haven't been able to put it together. The defeat at Ohio State to open the season was embarrassing, but it didn't compare to 39 unanswered second-half points at UCLA or the galling home defeat to Nevada. Fans are wondering if their team is spiraling into a long-term decline.
Oregon State tailback Steven Jackson has become a top Heisman Trophy candidate while leading the Beavers into the national rankings. He ranks second in the nation with 146 yards rushing per game and second in total offense per game (180 yards). He has the size to run over defenders and the speed to escape them.
The folksy, good-natured Bill Doba was practically unknown outside of Pullman when he took over for Price. But he has united his players and gotten the most out of his talent. After blowing a big lead at Notre Dame, Washington State could have suffered a hangover. Instead, it immediately bounced back by pounding Colorado on the road and hasn't slowed down since.
Considering how nutty the Pac-10 is every year, it's always a crapshoot to project ahead. At least one front runner will stumble badly, while one team apparently in the dumps will re-emerge. Nonetheless, USC, Washington State and Oregon State have played like the conference's best teams and potential Rose Bowl participants. UCLA also looks like a bowl team, while Arizona State and California could produce a late-season surge for a winning record.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.