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MIDSEASON META: THE PAC TEN AT THE TURN

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The Fall of Troy, Continued: Three Pac Ten teams are ranked ahead of USC in at least two the mainstream polls this week, including the BCS, which - as I hinted at last week - I think suggests a major sea change underway in the conference and national pecking order. The last time any Pac Ten team was ranked ahead of USC was late 2002, just before #3 Washington State lost in overtime to Washington on the same day the seventh-ranked, on-the-rise Trojans blasted UCLA 52-21, and it's been however many dozens of consecutive weeks before the last two since any other conference team has been considered anywhere near SC's class by the voters. Cal came close in 2004, but moved no higher than fourth in a season SoCal was a coast-to-coast number one. Before this year, during a four-year span in which USC never left the top ten, the rest of the conference spent a total of seven weeks there, five by Washington State in 2003 and three by UCLA in 2005. Neither entered the top five at any point nor finished in the top ten.

So the fact that Arizona State, Oregon and Cal are apparently intent on injecting some juice into the first real, to-the-wire conference championship race the Pac Ten has had in a good five years is invigorating. Don't forget UCLA, either, which remains tied with ASU and ahead of USC, Cal and Oregon with a 3-0 league record, out-of-conference slips and diminished caché notwithstanding. Over the next six weeks, that adds up to the following schedule:


Ignore the jerseys. Remember the nightmare combination of talent. We'll be coming back to it.
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Oct. 20: Cal at UCLA
Oct. 27: Cal at Arizona State
Oct. 27: Southern Cal at Oregon
Nov. 3: Arizona State at Oregon
Nov. 10: Southern Cal at Cal
Nov. 10: Arizona State at UCLA
Nov. 22 Arizona State at Southern Cal
Nov. 24: Oregon at UCLA
Dec. 1: UCLA at Southern Cal
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If the Bruins are worthy of their record - and Phil Steele thinks UCLA will upset Cal Saturday - then that's nine games in six weeks with possibly direct impact on the conference championship, five of them involving teams currently ranked in the top fifteen. I suspect any conference would take that right now.

The simplest number.: Way, way back in June, I made the following note about Oregon State:

Oregon State is 14-2 the last two years when it falls on the right side of the turnover fence, or even just straddles it, and 1-8 when it doesn't. Extrapolating strictly from personnel, one of the responsible factors in last season's rise - vastly improved pass rush - figures to be a force in OSU's favor again. The other, competent quarterbacking, is an unanswerable void.
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The Beavers actually managed to win their opener against Utah, which could not move the ball a foot after starting quarterback Brian Johnson went down, despite a minus-two turnover margin. In OSU's three losses since? It's minus-eleven: -5 at Cincinnati, -4 at Arizona State, -2 against UCLA. Average margin of defeat: 23 points. The pass rush remained hellacious, getting to quarterbacks 10 times in those three games, but the "unanswerable void" was worse than that title could suggest, lobbing up a stunning 13 picks. At 2-3 (one of the wins was over Idaho State), Oregon State had the worst turnover margin in the country.

Oddsmakers who recognized that OSU also outgained both Cincinnati and Arizona State by significant margins in the process of losing by grisly finals might have made some money last week: the Beavers were outgained by 139 yards in nearly their worst offensive game of the season at Cal, yet won with a plus-two turnover margin, finally echoing the takeaway-based success that served them so well in the tightwire run to ten wins last year.

Last week's upset was very reminiscent of OSU's win over #2 USC in '06, which sparked five wins in the final six. This team can only hit that plateau if it wins out through a bowl game, which is probably not reasonable with USC and Oregon ahead on the road, but if it only hangs on to the ball, it should be favored to reach eight.


How's that spread working out, Willie?
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Men of their word, team of its talent. Arizona threw fewer passes for fewer yards in 2006 than any team in the conference except Stanford, andfor fewer yards per attempt and per completion than even the Cardinal, contributing dramatically to the heat of Mike Stoops' seat this offseason and the subsequent luring of Cap'n Leach protege/first mate Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech with the promise of jazzing up the moribund offense with the spread. It's nothing like what Dykes' old mates are doing back in Lubbock, but, true to their word, the Wildcats have already launched 313 passes, more than any other team in the conference, against a league-low 181 runs, and sit just three yards back of Washington State for the lead in passing yards per game (296, about 120 yards better than `06 with hardly any loss in the already pathetic running game). The offense only topped 250 yards through the air once in `06, a mark it's already hit four times this year. This has helped the record, currently 2-5 and 1-3 in-conference, not one bit.

The Wildcats are currently scoring more than they did last year, by nearly a full ten points per game, but are also giving up better than a touchdown more than in `06. This is due at least as much to turnovers as defensive regression, as the defense's numbers are consistent with last year's. But it's also the result of a faster pace and longer games (due to the offense and the clock changes), and Willie Tuitama proving that more passing is not better passing: through seven games, he's doubled his sophomore touchdown total, but he's also thrown more interceptions (7) than he did all of last year (6) - though, to be fair, he only played seven full games in `06 because of injury, so the jump in picks is less dramatic. If the last two games are any indication, though, it's still a long season ahead: Tuitama has had big days against Northern Arizona, New Mexico and the 117th-ranked pass efficiency defense of Washington State, tossing up 13 touchdowns to just two interceptions and averaging 358 yards in those games; against the feistier Ds of Cal, Oregon State and USC, though, the yards drop by about 100 yards, to 255 (this despite a 309-yard game in the loss to Cal, via Tuitama's barely believable 61 attempts), and the TD:INT falls to 1:5. The record, more importantly, falls to 0-3, meaning the end of a nearly decade-long bowl drought will come only if the `Cats can win their next two (against beatable Stanford and Washington) and then upset either UCLA, Oregon or Arizona State in November.

Losing four straight will do that to ya: Jake Locker doesn't deserve too much heat, considering the schedule and the fact that he's like, halfway into his redshirt freshman season, but the early hype from Washington's 2-0 start has collapsed quickly as it becomes more clear every week that Locker doesn't have the passing game down yet. Again, we're talking Ohio State, at UCLA, USC, at Arizona State in consecutive weeks, as brutal a stretch as any team will see this or any year, but Locker's completion percentage has dipped below 50 percent, his interceptions have risen (seven in the last four, to six touchdowns - four in the loss to UCLA alone) as his rushing numbers drop (50 and 48 yards on a load of carries the last two weeks after hitting at least 80 in each of his first four) and he's currently the lowest-rated passer in the conference. The kid has plenty of time and talent to improve - and a new coaching staff, in all likelihood - but the early hyperbole has been dramatically grounded when the opposing defense isn't Syracuse.

On the other hand... The chip-on-his-shoulder quarterback who has not slowed down: Dennis Dixon. The most overlooked candidate for the Trophy Which Shall Not Be Named threw two picks in an otherwise brilliant performance in the last-second loss to Cal and has been virtually perfect in every other case: 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions, the fourth-highest completion percentage and third-highest passer rating in the country as the leader of its most versatile, killer offense, one that is incredibly averaging 266 yards per game rushing and passing right now. The offense of nightmares. Averge margin of victory in five wins: 28.8 points, against teams with a combined record of 16-16. If Cameron Colvin holds on to that ball at the goal line, his team is sitting at number one right now (sitting ducks, of course, the way this season works, but still). Cal has to lose again, but Oregon is my narrow favorite to win the conference until I'm proven spectacularly wrong, again.