Pac-10 changing its reputation on field

"I really believe this is a strong-man conference,’’ said the coach of a top-10 team with a Heisman Trophy candidate and national championship aspirations.

And that would be:

a) Nick Saban, whose defense likes to wear down quarterbacks, the latest example being Ryan Mallet?

b) Bob Stoops, who once won a national championship without his defense allowing a point?

c) Jim Tressel, who would rather hand his quarterback keys to his car than to his offense?

d) Urban Meyer, who, if Trey Burton really is Tim Tebow Lite, seems to prefer quarterbacks who run — and throw — like tailbacks.

Actually, it was none of the above. The coach making that proclamation was Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback who resides amongst the pass-happy, allergic-to-defense lightweights in the Pac-10.

Or at least used to.

The Pac-10 logo is not the only thing getting a makeover these days. So, too, is the conference’s reputation on the football field.

As the season hits the quarter pole, four unbeaten Pac-10 teams are ranked, and the lowest amongst them is No. 18 USC, which no longer gets special treatment from voters. The Trojans were dropped in the rankings after winning each of their first three games.

The Pac-10, while far from perfect, has looked good enough to provide this possibility: on a weekend when Florida plays at Alabama, and Texas and Oklahoma face off in Dallas, the best game in the country — and the one with the most BCS implications — might just be No. 9 Stanford at No. 4 Oregon.

The game, originally slated to kickoff after 8 p.m. local time, was moved up three hours and will be broadcast in prime time to most of the country on ABC. It’s the type of exposure Commissioner Larry Scott had in mind when he took the conference’s coaches and top players on a publicity tour to New York City and ESPN’s headquarters in Connecticut.

The main reason for that trip was to build the conference’s profile in advance of the TV contract negotiations that begin next year. The Pac-10’s current deal lags far behind those of the SEC, the Big Ten and even the ACC.

The SEC has built its standing as the best football conference by winning the last four national championship games and doing well in other bowl games. But with few exceptions, SEC schools rarely schedule anything other than exhibition games at home for out-of-conference games.

Alabama has at least beaten Penn State. But how good, really, is No. 7 Florida, which has played the other Miami (Ohio) and South Florida? Or No. 10 Auburn, which beat Clemson in overtime at home, but also beat Arkansas State and has Louisiana-Monroe and Chattanooga left. The same could be said for No. 6 Nebraska, which throttled Washington on the road — one of the few Pac-10 blemishes — but also has played Western Kentucky, Idaho and South Dakota State.

If the Pac-10 has reshaped its image, it has earned it. Arizona has beaten then-No. 9 Iowa at home, UCLA punished then-No. 6 Texas on the road, Oregon won big at Tennessee and Stanford beat up on Notre Dame in South Bend. Arizona State lost at No. 8 Wisconsin on a blocked extra point, and Oregon State lost competitive games to No. 4 TCU and No. 3 Boise State away from home.

"It’s one thing to win a game and get the ball to bounce your way a couple times,’’ USC coach Lane Kiffin said of UCLA’s win over Texas, in which the Bruins rushed for 264 yards and passed the ball just eight times. "But statistically what it shows is that they physically dominated.’’

It was the type of showing — against a marquee opponent — that for most of the last decade could be counted on by USC, but few others in the Pac-10.

That the Trojans, who have looked like a work in progress against an almost SEC-like schedule (Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State), are under the radar does not seem to bother Kiffin, whose team is banned from bowl games because of the NCAA violations tied to former star Reggie Bush.

"We’re perfectly fine with that,’’ Kiffin said. "We got plenty of attention in the offseason.’’

Right now, Oregon and Stanford look to be the head of the class, but are not without faults. Oregon’s defense, always its Achilles’ heel, was shredded last week by Arizona State. Stanford’s defense is tough, physical and improved, but we’ll see what its quickness deficit is against LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Co.

And though the winner will jump to the head of the Pac-10 race and into the thick of the national championship picture, it is worth noting that a Pac-10 team has not gone unbeaten in conference play since USC did in 2005 — victories that no longer exist thanks to the Bush scandal.

A year ago, six teams won at least eight games, and with two weeks left in the regular season there was the possibility of a six-way tie for first. This season promises to be more of the same.

"The depth of the conference has never been greater than right now,’’ Arizona coach Mike Stoops said, who is in his seventh season. "It’s going to come down to survival.’’

If not of the fittest, then perhaps of the strongest.