During the press conference following Arizona State’s victory over San Diego State last week, quarterback Rudy Carpenter made a statement that Pac-10 football supporters hope is prophetic.
“It’s for real now,” Carpenter said in regard to conference play starting in earnest on Saturday.
The implication was that the Sun Devils need to raise their level of play because the games now count in the league standings. Each Pac-10 team has the same philosophy, which means the race for the title figures to be cutthroat.
“The conference is as good as ever, maybe better than ever,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “You look at the teams on the bottom end, and they are catching up to the rest and becoming contenders.”
If the first three weeks of the year are any indication, the Pac-10 is already performing at a collective high level. It has three schools in the top 13 in the rankings and more impressive wins than any other conference, leading to conclusions from some pundits that the Pac-10 could be, at the moment, the best league in the country.
Southern California — winner of five straight conference championships and national titles in 2003 and ’04 — is ranked first in the nation. California is ninth, and Oregon 13th.
In Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings, the Pac-10 is the No. 1 conference under a statistical model in which more weight is given to the middle teams in each league. When teams are evaluated equally, the SEC has a slight edge.
“The conference has been amazing, it really has,” ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. “I figured it would be good, but not this good. … There are a lot of good teams. USC has proven it is probably ahead of everyone else, but anybody can beat anybody. It’s going to be an interesting league (race), to say the least.”
If the best conference is currently on the West Coast, that would throw a major change in college football geography that has long concentrated on most of the former Confederacy.
The best college football anywhere but the SEC? Heresy, it is said.
That sentiment was echoed by Louisiana State coach Les Miles in the summer, when he stood before a crowd of Tigers fans and boosters and claimed that his team’s route to the Bowl Championship Series title game would be more strenuous than Southern California’s.
“They’re going to play some knockdown, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley and Stanford — some real juggernauts,” Miles said. “And they’re going to end up, it would be my guess, in some position so if they win a game or two, they’ll be in the (title game). I’d like to have a path like that.”
Miles and SEC supporters had reason to chuckle at the proceedings in Salt Lake City last week, when a UCLA squad some tapped for a BCS berth was drilled, 44-6, by a Utah squad missing its starting quarterback and running back. That is easily the biggest stain on the conference’s resume this season.
Pac-10 proponents counter with the fact that, in the last five years, USC has played four SEC opponents — Auburn twice and Arkansas twice — and won by a combined 167-48. Pac-10 schools have played SEC teams 15 times in this decade, winning nine.
The biggest tests for the Trojans during their amazing five-year run have been in the Pac-10, as four of their last five losses since the middle of the 2002 season have been to league foes.
“We know how hard our conference is,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “Our most difficult games are (in the Pac-10) because of familiarity, and there’s more continuity in our conference. We had only one coaching change (actually two; Erickson replaced Dirk Koetter at ASU and Jim Harbaugh took over for Walt Harris at Stanford) since last season.
“It’s very difficult each week because of that. I’ve shown our players how many games in the fourth quarter that are so close, and we have to fight every week to get what we want.”
The Trojans’ dominance has shadowed the rest of the Pac-10, but this year, other programs have made statement victories. USC’s win at Nebraska and Oregon routing Michigan in Ann Arbor were most impressive, but most important from an image standpoint was California’s victory over Tennessee.
“That game last year (when the Golden Bears played at Tennessee and were blown out) contributed to a lot of people’s perception of the Pac-10,” Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. “It will do so this year, but more positively.”
The Pac-10 achieved that goal during the first three weeks of the season. Now, determining a league champion is the most important business.
“Now we have to prove we are as good a conference as the others by the end of the year,” UCLA coach Karl Dorrell said. “We are off to strong start, and we need a good finish in the bowl season.”
As conference play kicks into high gear around the nation, a look at where the six Bowl Championship Series leagues stand. Usually a quality win for one team should not be a bad loss for the other, but three games are an exception.
Louisiana State’s win over Virginia Tech was a big downer for a Hokies team hoping to make a major statement. South Florida is a good team but has no business winning at Auburn. Michigan was a mess when beaten by Oregon, but how many teams have won by more than four touchdowns in Ann Arbor?
ACC Ranked schools: Boston College (No. 14 Associated Press/No. 12 USA Today); Clemson (No. 15/No. 14); Virginia Tech (No. 17/No. 17) Sagarin conference rank: 6 Nonconference record: 16-8 Quality wins: None Bad losses: Sept. 1 — Wyoming 23, Virginia 3; Sept. 8 — East Carolina 34, North Carolina 31; LSU 48, Virginia Tech 7 Outlook: Poised to become a superpower conference when it expanded to 12 teams for the 2005 season, the ACC has been a dreadful disappointment. Boston College is being hailed as an up-and-coming team, but how good are the Eagles, who have yet to play an out-of-conference team? A major preseason publication had the ACC tapped as the fourth-best conference in the country, one spot ahead of the Pac-10. We’ll likely never know what the editors were drinking.
Big East Ranked schools: Louisville (No. 18 Associated Press/No. 19 USA Today); Rutgers (No. 11/No. 11); South Florida (No. 23/No. 24); West Virginia (No. 5/No. 5) Sagarin conference rank: 3 Nonconference record: 18-5 Quality wins: Sept. 6 — Cincinnati 34, Oregon State 3; Sept. 8 — South Florida 26, Auburn 23 Bad losses: None Outlook: Believed to be headed to mid-major status after Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and Boston College defected to the ACC, this league is sticking its tongue out at the naysayers. Louisville has lost some luster after a loss at Kentucky, but West Virginia, Rutgers and South Florida are still carrying the banner of the Big East, which could get two schools in the BCS. Syracuse appears to be the league’s only truly awful team.
Big Ten Ranked schools: Ohio State (No. 8 Associated Press/No. 9 USA Today); Penn State (No. 10/No. 10); Wisconsin (No. 9/No. 7) Sagarin conference rank: 5 Nonconference record: 26-7 Quality wins: None Bad losses: Sept. 1 — Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32; Bowling Green 32, Minnesota 31; Sept. 8 — Oregon 39, Michigan 7; Sept. 15 — Florida Atlantic 42, Minnesota 39; Duke 20, Northwestern 14; Iowa State 15, Iowa 13 Outlook: This vaunted league was exposed during the 2006-07 bowl season, with elite programs Ohio State and Michigan getting drilled in BCS games. The Big Ten’s image has been further tarnished this year, as no conference has as many embarrassing defeats. Ohio State’s win at Washington is the only notable nonconference victory, and Wisconsin has been pushed by Nevada-Las Vegas and The Citadel, for crying out loud.
Big 12 Ranked schools: Missouri (No. 25 Associated Press/No. 25 USA Today); Nebraska (No. 24/ No. 22); Oklahoma (No. 4/No. 4); Texas (No. 7/ No. 6); Texas A&M (No. 20/No. 16) Sagarin conference rank: 4 Nonconference record: 27-9 Quality win: Sept. 8 — Oklahoma 51, Miami (Fla.) 13 Bad loss: Sept. 14 — Troy 41, Oklahoma State 23 Outlook: Here’s a conference that gets more national adulation than it probably deserves. The Big 12 had a streak of 17 consecutive losses against ranked, nonleague teams that was snapped on Sept. 8, when Texas topped Texas Christian (a non-BCS conference school). The North division has been awful the last three seasons. In the South, Oklahoma looks to be a legit national title contender, but Texas (Arkansas State and Central Florida) and Texas A&M have had upset scares.
Pac-10 Ranked schools: California (No. 6 Associated Press/No. 8 USA Today); Oregon (No. 13/No. 13); Southern California (No. 1/ No. 1) Sagarin conference rank: 1 Nonconference record: 20-6 Quality wins: Sept. 1 — California 45, Tennessee 31; Sept. 8 — Oregon 39, Michigan 7; Washington 24, Boise State 10; Saturday — USC 49, Nebraska 31 Bad losses: Sept. 6 — Cincinnati 34, Oregon State 3; Saturday — Utah 44, UCLA 6; New Mexico 29, Arizona 27 Outlook: The detractors had reason to pounce after UCLA’s awful performance at Utah, but no other conference has collectively played as well this year. Eight teams own winning records, and seven of them — Washington State is the exception — have beaten at least one program with a good reputation. For years, the Pac-10 has insisted that it is not USC and the nine dwarfs, and this might be the year that the rest of the nation acknowledges it, too.
SEC Ranked schools: Alabama (No. 16 Associated Press/No. 20 USA Today); Florida (No. 3/No. 3); Georgia (No. 22/No. 21); Kentucky (No. 21/ No. 23); LSU (No. 2/No. 2); South Carolina (No. 12/No. 14) Sagarin conference rank: 2 Nonconference record: 20-3 Quality wins: Sept. 8 — LSU 48, Virginia Tech 7; Saturday — Kentucky 40, Louisville 34 Bad losses: Sept. 8 — South Florida 26, Auburn 23 Outlook: Of the four unquestioned national championship contenders at this point in the season, the SEC boasts two of them, LSU and Florida. The league’s reputation has enabled South Carolina and Alabama to get current rankings that are likely inflated. From fan interest to stadium atmosphere to NFL prospects, the SEC sets the pace for the rest of the country. But level of play from top to bottom? So far this year, the Pac-10 is at least the SEC’s equal.
This report includes information collected from other media sources.