Posted by Jerry Hinnen
The Midseason Report separates the contenders from the pretenders in each conference race, and in the Pac-10, that means cleanly separating its top half from its bottom half ... and wondering if anyone can catch Oregon. Here's what's happened so far and what might happen down the stretch.
1. Oregon (6-0, 3-0) - Jeremiwho Masoli? The Ducks missed the memo that the offseason dismissal of their starting quarterback spelled the end of any national title hopes, blazing to six straight wins by an average margin of 38 points. That’s been good enough to make them the consensus No. 1 team in the polls entering the second half of the season, and for Chip Kelly to confirm (again) that no one has a better offensive mind or more talent for coaching dual-threat quarterbacks. First-year starter Darron Thomas has racked up more than 1,400 total yards in leading the Ducks to the current No. 1 ranking in total offense. But even Thomas can go overlooked next to tailback and Heisman candidate LaMichael James , the nation’s No. 1 rusher at 170 yards per-game. The Duck onslaught has overwhelmed every team unlucky enough to face it so far, including previously undefeated Stanford , who gave up 49 points in the final three quarters and lost by three full scores at Autzen. Don’t pencil the Ducks in for a national title bout just yet, though; they were outgained by 226 yards in their only serious road test to date, at Arizona State , and still have to visit three dangerous teams in USC , Cal , and Oregon State . Where the Pac-10 title is concerned, however, it’ll be a shocker if it winds up anywhere but Eugene.
2. Stanford (5-1, 2-1) - Not many coaches can claim to have done a better job over the past few seasons than Kelly, but Jim Harbaugh might be one of them. His stunning reclamation project in Palo Alto has only picked up speed in 2010 as behind potential No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck (1,538 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 65.7 completion percentage), the Cardinal haven’t missed a beat without departed Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. UCLA was embarrassed 35-0, Notre Dame bludgeoned 37-14. and USC out-shot 37-35. The 73rd-ranked rush defense could stand to find more consistency, but with Arizona and Oregon State both coming to Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal could nonetheless be favored in their final six games. 10 or even 11 wins are within reach ... though with Oregon holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, it'll take some major help to reach Pasadena.
3. Arizona (5-1, 2-1) - The Pac-10 has the Wildcats to thank for the conference’s most impressive non-league win to-date, the wire-to-wire 34-27 win over otherwise-undefeated No. 13 Iowa . But Arizona hasn’t been nearly as impressive in conference play, escaping Cal 10-9 on a last-minute touchdown, losing at home to Oregon State 29-27, and sleepwalking past hapless Washington State 24-7. Quarterback Nick Foles has been outstanding, completing better than 75 percent of his passes and averaging 267 yards a game. But now Foles is due to miss three weeks with a knee injury, and the ‘Cats haven’t been able to get key senior running back Nic Grigsby (340 yards this season) on track. With road trips to Stanford and Oregon still to come, Mike Stoops will have to recapture the magic of the Iowa game in a hurry to keep the Wildcats a factor in the Pac-10 race.
4. Oregon State (3-3, 2-1) - Give the Beavers this: no one in the country has played a more difficult schedule. There’s no shame in losing competitive games on the road at top-5 outfits like TCU and Boise State, and not a whole lot in being a two-point conversion away from a thrilling win at Washington . But there’s not that much respect in being only .500, either, even with a big road win at Arizona. And with James Rodgers out for the season, it’s worth asking if the Beavers have enough offensive firepower to hang with anyone in their brutal USC-Stanford-Oregon closing stretch. Still, Mike Riley 's teams usually improve as the season progresses, and quarterback Ryan Katz has shown flashes of brilliance (most notably in the 390 yard upset in Tucson). The Beavers will still have their say in how the Pac-10 ultimately plays out. They always do.
5. USC (5-2, 2-2) - Maybe we should include Washington in this space. After all, the Huskies both beat the Trojans at the Coliseum and stand a half-game ahead of USC in the Pac-10 standings. But it’s hard to take a team that’s lost to a flatly terrible BYU squad and Arizona State (at home!) all that seriously. The Trojans, on the other hand, are two field goals -- one Washington’s, one Stanford’s, both on the final play of the game -- away from being undefeated. And the way Matt Barkley is throwing the ball these days (742 yards, 8 touchdowns, no interceptions the last two weeks) and freshman Robert Woods is catching it (19 receptions, 340 yards, 5 touchdowns those same two weeks), it’s safe to call Lane Kiffin ’s team the one in the Pac-10 that no one would want to play. Just ask Cal. Then again: how dangerous can the Trojans really be if Monte Kiffin ’s 90th-ranked defense doesn’t stop allowing the occasional 500-yard game? USC could upset Oregon in L.A. and enter the final week of the season in contention for a championship, or they could be mathematically eliminated in another two weeks. Anything is possible here.
Prediction: Sorry, Ducks fans: the guess here is that Oregon won't become the first Pac-10 team other than USC to advance to the BCS championship game. Even the best offenses can have off-games on the road, and that defense -- which was gouged for 600 yards in Tempe and another 518 against Stanford -- isn't going to be able to take up the slack. Whether at Los Angeles, Berkeley, or Corvallis, Oregon is due to trip up somewhere.
But they won't trip up twice, which means that they'll still be able to settle for a second straight Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl berth. Stanford will crack double-digit wins, but it won't be enough, and perhaps maybe not even enough to push the race into the season's final week.
Everyone else? Three conference losses at the minimum, though USC will end the season with a ton of momentum and the consensus honor of being the league's third-best team.