Pac-10 is good but also hurting itself
Looking around the country, it's increasingly clear that this is the season where we need a playoff. Not so much to crown a national champion, but to stay awake.
As for that quaint notion, which is supposed to distinguish college football from the NFL, that every week is a playoff?
Well, in the SEC, as if there isn't a big enough chasm between Florida and Alabama and the rest of the conference, the referees seem intent on pulling up the rope bridges whenever the gap narrows. Ohio State, glutton for punishment, appears headed back to another BCS bowl, this time the Rose, in what is apparently a tribute to the Buffalo Bills of the early '90s. The injury to Sam Bradford has cost Colt McCoy his foil, and Texas any worthy challenger in the Big XII.
The question of just how good Boise State is won't be answered by anyone in the WAC.
As it turns out, there is at least one place where the term "On Any Given Sunday'' applies to Saturday. Surprisingly enough, it's the Pac-10, which for most of the decade has been USC and Everyone Else.
You won't find any national championship contenders here — the No. 11 Trojans are the highest ranked team. But you might find the best conference, top to near bottom, in the country. Three of the six BCS computers rate the Pac-10 as the toughest conference, and that's just on the outside looking in.
Try playing in it. As it stands, there are still five teams with an honest shot at the Rose Bowl.
Oregon and Arizona, who play next week, can go to Pasadena by winning out, but that is no easy proposition. Sitting one game back are Oregon State, Stanford and USC. Oregon still has the usually fast-closing Oregon State, and Arizona still has USC, which on Saturday plays Stanford. A three-way tie, which hasn't happened since 2000, is possible. A four-way tie is plausible.
UCLA, which just won its first Pac-10 game last week, won at Tennessee and also beat Kansas State, which is leading the Big XII North. Washington, which sits just above UCLA in eighth place, has beaten USC and Arizona. Woeful Washington State is the only free pass.
"There's no room for error," said USC coach Pete Carroll, who added the conference is the best it's been in his nine seasons. "The margins have really narrowed, so you have to really be on your game."
It's not unlike the NFL, where week in and week out, teams have to play near their best to win. And so, at least three former NFL coaches, Carroll, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Oregon State coach Mike Riley, probably feel at home.
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But not everybody does.
Arizona coach Mike Stoops took a question about the conference's competitiveness and turned it into a plea for the league to cut back to eight games, something the league's coaches discussed last spring.
"Nine conference games doesn't do anybody any favors,'' Stoops said. "When you're playing an extra conference game, just do the math — half the teams are going to have another loss.''
The concern is that it could cost the Pac-10 a second spot in a BCS bowl — a distinct possibility if Oregon and USC were to win out — and a $4.5 million payday.
"We'll see as it all shakes out if it does hurt us,'' said Cal coach Jeff Tedford. "But I would hope people would understand and appreciate the conference for what it is.''
That should not be a problem considering the Pac-10's solid non-conference resume. Of its nine losses, four are to teams ranked in the BCS top 10 (Cincinnati, Boise State, LSU and Iowa).
Still, Tedford knows better than anyone that concerns about the Pac-10 getting short shrift are quite real. In 2004, the Bears, whose only loss was by six points to eventual national champion USC, were ranked No. 4 in polls. But Texas, with some politicking by Coach Mack Brown, leapfrogged the Bears and were chosen to play Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
The next season, Oregon had the same thing happen. The Ducks also had a legitimate beef about being snubbed for the national title game at the Rose Bowl in 2001 — losing out to Nebraska, which had been blitzed by Colorado in the Big XII championship game.
But none of those instances had anything to do with the schedule. They all occurred when the Pac-10 did play only eight conference games. In fact, if Oregon had gotten a chance to play — and beat — an 8-4 Washington team in 2001, it might have been enough to boost it past Nebraska. Or if the Ducks had been able to play — and beat — a 9-2 UCLA team in 2005, they might have improved their case enough to play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Ohio State.
Therein lies the beauty of the conference this season. It's less about hypotheticals than it is about the games themselves. Who'd have thought that Stanford, with its rampaging tailback Toby Gerhart and the best freshman quarterback in the conference — that's Andrew Luck, not Matt Barkley — would be playing a suddenly vulnerable USC team with so much at stake?
The last time Stanford traveled to the Coliseum, it was as a 41-point underdog. This time it will be playing for something else.
"This is put up or shut up time for Stanford football,'' said Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh, that in and of itself a sign of the times.