Three-way race as the Pac-10 hits the stretch
The winner may still have to deal with Arizona as a topsy-turvy season on the West Coast unfolds.
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats have joined the 10th-ranked Ducks and No. 4 Trojans in The Associated Press Top 25. They're the only three teams that command their own destiny in the conference race.
"Our conference is as tough right now, as I'm seeing it, as I've ever seen," USC coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference. "It is a very, very tough conference this year. The team that makes it through it on top is going to be really good."
Carroll is biased. But he's not alone in his assessment midway through the season.
Respect for the Pac-10 is coming from an unlikely place - the Bowl Championship Series computers. The BCS has not always been kind to the Pac-10, but two of its six computers - the Sagarin Football Ratings and Anderson & Hester - rank the conference ahead of the Southeastern, which tops the other ratings.
The long-held perception that the Pac-10 is USC and the 9 Dwarves apparently is fading.
Oregon (6-1, 4-0 Pac-10), USC (6-1, 3-1) and Arizona (5-2, 3-1) have thrust themselves into contention against demanding schedules. The NCAA ranks Arizona's cumulative schedule - past and future opponents - third in the nation, while Oregon's is ninth and USC's is 26th.
Oregon's loss came at Boise State, which remains unbeaten and has climbed to No. 6.
Arizona's first loss came at Iowa, which is also unbeaten and is ranked seventh. The Wildcats also absorbed a fluke defeat at Washington when a pass bounced off receiver Delashaun Dean's shoe, was intercepted and returned for the decisive touchdown.
USC had a head-scratching loss at Washington but has bolstered its national image with road wins over Ohio State and Notre Dame, both ranked at kickoff.
"I'm hopeful we're getting some increased appreciation for the schedule our teams play," commissioner Larry Scott said in a telephone interview this week.
The question is whether the new respect and appreciation will translate into an at-large berth on Dec. 6, when BCS bowl pairings are announced.
The Pac-10 has a history of frustration with the BCS, especially when it comes to drawing the second berth that would bolster the league's postseason revenues. The Pac-10 has had only two at-large teams in the BCS' 11-year history.
The BCS's arcane ranking formula has cost the Pac-10. Geography is also a factor, because the Orange and Sugar Bowls are unlikely destinations for West Coast teams.
But that may be changing. Orange Bowl representatives showed up in Tucson for the UCLA-Arizona game last weekend, even though the Wildcats are a long shot to spend the holidays in Miami.
If the Wildcats win out, they'll play in their first Rose Bowl game. If they lose a third game, it's doubtful that they'd be ranked in the top 14 in the final standings and be eligible for an at-large BCS berth. Arizona is 20th this week.
"They would be attractive as a team that hasn't gone for a while," Orange Bowl spokesman Larry Wahl said. "They've shown in basketball that they have a very strong fan base."
Arizona coach Mike Stoops seemed surprised when he spotted the orange-jacketed reps from Miami at his postgame news conference.
"I think we're earning more and more respect as we're going through the season," he said.
Arizona still has a lot of work to do before it can make postseason reservations. Ditto for Oregon and USC.
The Wildcats finish the season at California, against Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC - a combined 21-7.
The Ducks visit Tucson on Nov. 21. Two years ago, they watched their national title hopes evaporate when quarterback Dennis Dixon got hurt in a 34-24 Thursday night loss in Arizona Stadium.
USC has the most forgiving stretch run - a trip to Arizona State followed by a three-game homestand against Stanford, UCLA and Arizona.
As a rookie commissioner, Scott is resisting the temptation to look too far down the road and project possible bowl destinations for the Pac-10's top teams.
"Talking to some of our bowl partners, it seems like, especially the way this season has unfolded, you predict at your own peril," Scott said. "It seems a little premature for me to start."
But Scott has tried to spread the word about the Pac-10's resurgence, and he'll make that a priority as the season winds down.
"I think in our own classy way, we're going to start talking a little bit more about the success and the strength and not just assume people see it." Scott said.
Classy? Does that mean the Pac-10 will be sending cases of Napa Valley wine to BCS bowl reps?
Scott chuckled at the suggestion.
"The way of the world is that we want to make it known," he said.