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A MACHIAVELLIAN STATE OF THE PAC TEN

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Consider this the second in a series of "Prove It" posts re: undefeated teams facing their biggest tests to date this weekend, after Wednesday's look at Ohio State. More on Boston College later today.
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This doesn't seem particularly likely, with the ghost of Pete Rozelle wandering in for random yanks on the strings governing this season, but if you want to get reallly cutthroat about it, probably the worst thing that could happen for the Pac Ten this weekend is a win by Cal over Arizona State.

This has nothing to do with Arizona State or Cal being a better or worse team - they are too closely matched for that tired abstraction, which could be smoked on any given play - and everything to do with money and prestige: already rocked by a power vacuum after Southern Cal's loss to Stanford, and with either Oregon or USC guaranteed to also bite the dust Saturday against the other, the conference may not be able to afford losing the unbeaten Sun Devils to the mire of parity.


Lead the way, el presidente. Let the spirit of Plummer possess you.
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As I see it, the conference really wants one result above all else: an at-large BCS berth in addition to its automatic, a reward it hasn't been extended since 2002 and has been specifically, controversially denied twice in three years, with snubs against 10-1 Cal in 2004 and 10-1 Oregon in 2005. With three teams currently in the top twelve of the BCS standings, more than any other league, the status quo is decidedly in its favor. Along the same lines, it also wants to avoid another potential reality, which could undermine that stability: an unranked team that lost by 38 to a Mountain West school and at home to singularly awful Notre Dame suddenly finding itself in sole possession of first place.

Now, UCLA being UCLA, there is no guarantee it gets out of Pullman, Washington, Saturday with its perfect conference record intact. There's also no guarantee the same Bruins won't be forgiven their out-of-conference sins if they somehow close the regular season with a championship-securing run over ASU, Oregon and, for the second year in a row, USC. But imagine that scenario from the skeptical, infamously detached gaze of the alleged East/South/Midwest bias: UCLA is the best team in the conference? The team that completely collapsed and fell out of the rankings for good after a 44-6 loss at Utah, the week before the Utes were shut out by UNLV? (they would probably ask this) That served as fodder for the only remotely positive segment of the Irish's schedule? (they would definitely ask this) And there's supposed to be another team out there good enough to come inside the velvet rope? I wish to stress again that UCLA, even at 6-2 and 4-0 in-conference, is currently unranked.


It's not that America doesn't want you, UCLA. It's just that it thinks you kind of suck.
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The best thing that has happened to the Pac Ten this season is the demise of USC as a near-automatic overlord and the emergence of Arizona State, Oregon and Cal as potential, worthy successors to the Trojans' throne (as opposed to the perceived unowrthiness of any team in the great morass of the ACC now that Florida State's reign has ended), at the same time SC is trying desperately to hang on to it with the mythical championship almost assuredly out of the picture, which has created a lot of momentum for the league. There is significantly less momentum now as Cal has fallen from that picture in consecutive weeks, resigned to snipe on as a spoiler in pursuit of a Holiday Bowl berth, but the remaining Big Three still have enough juice and inertia to propel the good times forward: if the Devils, Ducks and Trojans win all of their remaining nine games against the rest of the conference, there is guaranteed to be a one and a two-loss team to choose

This is not all about that end game, though. If Arizona State lets Cal off the mat Saturday, there's still a chance for some kind of attractive hierarchy to emerge over the last month of the season, but the momentum - the hook - is gone. A Devil loss would leave ASU, already being measured in skeptics' targets (it's seventh in both the latest mainstream polls, behind four one-loss teams, including West Virginia, despite a good assessment from the computers), spiraling into the teens along with the USC-Oregon loser, leaving only the winner of that game in the top ten and, barring an unlikely baring of teeth by Washington State, UCLA alone at the top of the standings. At which point the vague sensibilities of the voting public might see fit to stop caring, if they ever did.

This is a shame, because what the Pac Ten really has over the next month is a five-team, nine-game round robin that concentrates its biggest games over just a few weeks - Cal at Arizona State, USC at Oregon, Arizona State at Oregon, USC at Cal, Arizona State at UCLA, Oregon at UCLA, USC at Arizona State, Oregon at UCLA and USC at UCLA make up the most fascinating championship derby in any conference at the end of the year, but not all outcomes are necessarily equal. If it matters at all (I'm supposing of course that it does), the BCS tends to reward hierarchy and dominance, consistent displays of strength, not banged-up survivors of parity and attrition. The Pac Ten's had parity for years, and we are unimpressed. Give us a heavyweight fight!