Schedule gets much tougher for Pac-10
One of new Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott's top priorities has been to raise the profile of the conference, to regain some of the respect that's been lagging the past few years. He even took the league's coaches on a look-at-us trip to New York.
Hoopla gets attention. Wins on the field, particularly against big-name programs, hold it.
So, after a first couple of weeks of playing mostly pushovers, the Pac-10 gets a conference-wide test. Four ranked opponents, just one easy game on the schedule - this is the kind of weekend that keeps coaches up at night.
''That's what you live for as a coach,'' said Greg Brown, Arizona's co-defensive coordinator. ''Usually, when you go to sleep at night, you're tossing and turning, thinking about things. Most coaches, you wake up and you've got a piece of paper beside the bed, you jot down a few notes and some mornings you wake up and there's 10 things scattered.''
The Pac-10's first two weeks weren't a particularly precise gauge for how the conference stacks up against the nation's other top conferences.
Oregon State did open with a loss against TCU, Washington State started with a loss at Oklahoma State and Oregon pulled out an impressive win at Tennessee last week. Other than that, the Pac-10's early schedule has been filled with FCS teams and other smaller-school opponents.
That changes in a hurry this week.
Other than No. 5 Oregon's game against FCS program Portland State, the Pac-10 is packed with tough games this weekend, including three against teams in the top 11 and nine versus schools from BCS conferences.
This how-we-stack-up weekend starts Friday with California's trip to Reno, Nev., against tough-to-figure-out Nevada.
''They're all big, but this one seems to be setting up where we've got some premier matchups,'' said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose team faces No. 8 Nebraska at Husky Stadium on Saturday. ''I hope we all do well.''
The marquee game this weekend is between two Top-25 teams: No. 9 Iowa at No. 24 Arizona.
The Wildcats opened the season by beating up on Toledo and The Citadel by a combined score of 93-8. The Hawkeyes present an entirely different challenge.
Massive up front on both lines, Iowa has a control-the-clock offense and a punishing defense that will be an exponential leap in talent from what Arizona has seen so far.
Players and coaches always try to prepare for every opponent the same, but it's hard not to get a little more juiced for a game like this.
''This obviously is a different game than what we played a week ago, two weeks ago,'' Wildcats coach Mike Stoops said. ''They've (the players) practiced a little bit faster, paid a little bit closer attention.''
Practices will likely be up-tempo across the West Coast with this week's slate.
No. 18 Southern California played shoddy defense in a win over Hawaii, then followed that with a less-than-stellar offensive performance in a penalty-filled squeaker over Virginia. Next up is Minnesota, a perennial Big Ten power that's going to be playing angry after losing to FCS program South Dakota last week.
No. 25 Oregon State has a not-so-easy game against Louisville before facing off with third-ranked Boise State next week, while Washington State looks to avoid its 12th loss in 13 games at SMU.
Stanford, coming off a lopsided win over UCLA, can't let up with 2-0 Wake Forest coming to town after freshman Tanner Price helped lead the Demon Deacons to a wild win over Duke a week ago.
UCLA doesn't catch a break coming off losses to Kansas State and the 19th-ranked Cardinal, facing Houston.
Even with Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Case Keenum questionable after suffering a mild concussion against UTEP, the 23rd-ranked Cougars aren't exactly what the Bruins want to see after struggling defensively the first two weeks and Texas next on the schedule.
''They have an offense that makes the scoreboard light up like a slot machine,'' UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Arizona State faces the biggest talent shift.
The Sun Devils beat up on Portland State in the opener and had some uneasy moments in beating Northern Arizona, another FCS school, on Saturday. Next up is Arizona State's first chance to see where it really stands: a road game against No. 11 Wisconsin and running back John Clay.
And it doesn't get any easier after that, with games against Oregon, Oregon State and Washington on the schedule next.
''As we get into this part of our schedule coming up, there is no mercy. None whatsoever,'' Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.
The other coaches around the conference know just how he feels.