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Pac Ten Auditing: Crystal Ball, Revisited

Past USC at the top and Stanford and Washington at the bottom, the Pac Ten has been the toughest conference to predict top-to-bottom since the Trojans' five-year reign began in 2003 - there is no difference year-to-year between Arizona State, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA, in particular, which all have conference records slightly above .500, have won at least four league games every year (and at least six more than once) and attended at least four bowl games over the last five seasons. They have finished in spots 2-6 without fail, never demonstrating much separation and never seriously challenging USC's hold on the top spot - even the last two seasons, when Cal and Arizona State, respectively, nominally tied SC for the championship, the "co-champ" was convincingly dispatched by the Trojans head-to-head. This would probably seem less unique to the Pac Ten if its second place team/co-champ didn't have to slum it against a Big 12 also-ran in a December game every year while its peers in other conferences are playing on New Year's Day, emphasizing the lazy perception that "They're all playing during Bowl Week, they're all mediocre" but it remains a barely distinguishable herd.

From the preseason consensus of 18 publications at Stassen.com, from most underrated to most overrated:

Pac Ten Preseason Consensus vs. Eventual Reality
Preseason Actual Finish +/- Rightest Wrongest
Arizona State 6th T-1st (7-2) + 5 Three 4th Place Picks Three 7th Place Picks
Stanford 10th T-7th (3-6) + 3 SureFire, SCS (9th) Sixteen 10th Place Picks
Oregon State 4th 3rd (6-3) + 1 Three 3rd Place Picks Five 6th Place Picks
Oregon 5th T-4th (5-4) + 1 Four 4th Place Picks SportsForm (8th)
Wash. State 8th T-7th (3-6) + 1 Three 7th Place Picks Four 9th Place Picks
Arizona 7th 6th (4-5) - Lindys, SCS (6th) SportsForm, BlueRibbon (3rd)
Southern Cal 1st T-1st (7-2) - Unanimous None
Washington 9th 10th (2-7) -1 SureFire Scouting (10th) College Football News (6th)
UCLA T-2nd T-4th (5-4) -2 Six 3rd/5th Place Picks Blue Ribbon (6th)
California T-2nd T-7th (3-6) -5 Phil Steele (5th) Nine 2nd Place Picks

The above-the-fold story of the year - all the way through the year-end media campaign to reinstate it - was USC's lack of the expected domination, born of injuries, etc., but nevertheless wrecking mythical championship assumptions and boggling minds everywhere with the completely un-predictable loss to the Cardinal. Even in my own Pac Ten preview, when I wrote, "No team anywhere has ever, or ever will be, `unbeatable,'" I could have been convinced if it had crossed my mind to add "Except when it plays Stanford," a team I joked was ideal for "a feature that revolved around a team of lovable but hopeless misfits," and that actually played out the absurdity for one night in (naturally) Hollywood. Nationally, the ripples from that game alone turned into cascading tidal waves, but within the conference, form ultimately held: USC won its fifth straight championship, and all was well with the prognosticenti, after all. Not so the Trojans' co-champs, which no outlet saw finishing higher than fourth place, and which many guessed would land in the bottom half of the standings. So Pac Ten Surprise of the Year -  for the whole year - goes to the Sun Devils.


Why, Phil Knight? Why has thine cleats forsaken Dennis Dixon's ACL?
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Like the title it shared with USC, though, that's probably only because karma swung a lead pipe for the disfigured children of sweatshops everywhere at the knees of Nike-backed Oregon, which was well on its way to the conference championship and possibly the BCS championship before Dennis Dixon went down at Arizona and the Ducks' season went flying around the room like a rapidly deflating balloon. Both in its success and failure, Oregon was an against-the-grain pick I actually got right before the season, when I said UO could rebound to double-digit wins and finish second in the conference if it could keep its stars 100 percent:
The offensive skill talent here rivals anyone's, including SC's, and if Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart can stay upright and in the lineup for more than a couple games at a time, Oregon should be really feared. Dixon's health and performance was a defining variable in winning and losing last year...
[...]
...if Dixon is inconsistent again, or the defense struggles, recent history says trips to Arizona and Washington and the like are up for grabs, and this pick is null and void.

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It's not his fault, but "blowing out your knee for the last third of the season" falls under the heading of "inconsistent," and the subsequent losses to Arizona (check), UCLA and Oregon State were all "voided" in a way through the prism of Dixon's absence.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum:

...we're back to the Tedford Touch with Nate Longshore and the inevitable optimism accompanying his and [DeSean] Jackson's return.
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At least everybody got Cal wrong, along with its preseason companion in the second place slot, UCLA, in both cases because of some combination of a) sketchy defense and b) injured starting quarterbacks. The Bruins couldn't find anyone competent to stand in the pocket when Ben Olson and Patrick Cowen each went down in the first half of the year, one after the other, then re-entered the lineup later on and went down again, both of them; Longshore actually broke his ankle in the big, potentially season-defining win at Oregon, but played the rest of the year anyway - terribly! Big Nate returned after Kevin Riley's boneheaded finish in the loss to Oregon State to throw eleven interceptions in the last six regular season games, five of them (all but a three-point win over Washington State) Cal losses. Including, yes, to Stanford, probably a bigger win for Jim Harbaugh's program going forward, in terms of pure momentum and competitive standing with the league as a whole through the offseason, than even the SC upset.

In fact, if Scott Olin Schmitt is right, maybe all Pac Ten projections should be null and void:

Were it not for all the other wackiness in College Football this season, the collapses of California and Oregon Football would be among this year's major story lines. As both teams were poised to take over the number-one ranking in the country, their quarterbacks suffered injuries which sent their seasons on a downward spiral.
[...]
...quarterback injuries have defined the Pac Ten season in 2007. Karl Dorrell most likely lost his job because his two quarterbacks--Ben Olson and Pat Cowan--were injured for most of the season, and John David Booty's broken middle finger led him to throw four interceptions in the second half against Stanford, costing the Trojans a bid in the BCS title game.

Perhaps the secret to Arizona State's miraculous turnaround in 2007 was that Rudy Carpenter stayed healthy all year.
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Ditto Sean Canfield at Oregon State, the other team at the front of the peloton. When there's such little else separating the middle-of-the-pack teams, every little bit helps.