Sunday, September 20, 2009

2009 Pac-10 season: Week 3 in Review

Here's what we learned:
Washington is back
Watching Husky fans flood the field after their monumental 16-13 win over USC was like watching a POW emerge from years of captivity. Rarely have I felt like a single game changed the course of a team and a program, but I believe I witnessed that Saturday in Seattle. Whether it was Chris Polk driving Trojan defenders back as he struggled for extra yards, or the Husky defense flying around the ball, pushing around the best offensive line in the country, or Jake Locker making big plays on third down, it's clear something has changed at Washington.

And that's a good thing. The Husky football program has a long, proud history with some of the best fans in college football. And while Duck and Cougar fans may have been happy with the Huskies in the conference cellar the last five years, the truth is that the conference is better when Washington is winning (and easier to hate). Steve Sarkisian has given the program a heart transplant, and it shows. He will be the toast of the town for the next week, but if he can keep this going and take the Dawgs to a bowl game, they will have to erect a statue of him outside Husky stadium.

The Pac-10 is surging
The Conference of Champions made a statement Saturday going 6-2 in non-conference games for the third straight week. Cal fended off a challenge from a game Minnesota team. Oregon ended the nation's longest winning streak by beating Utah. Led by ex-starter Kevin Craft, a thin UCLA team extended their record to 3-0 by defeating the Wildcats of Kansas State. Even the lowly Cougars look improved after gutting out a nice overtime win against the previously 2-0 SMU Mustangs.

As I said in my conference preview, most of the the Pac-10 is winning, not with a wide open air-offensive, but with solid defense and grinding out yards on the ground. This shift in philosophy is interesting given that the other two major competitive conferences, the Big-12 and to a lesser degree the SEC, emphasize spread offenses that toss the football all over the field. I think it's fair to say that like Tiger Woods in golf or Roger Federer in tennis, USC's greatness has raised the level of the competition. That's not to say USC will cease to be the class of the conference, but I don't expect the Trojans to continue to dominate they way the have for the last six years.

USC is not USC
For the last two years, I have enthusiastically (and correctly) picked USC to win the conference. But this year, I have tried in vain to convince those people drinking the USC Kool-Aid that the Trojans string of conference championships will come to an end. As I said before, even a team as brimming with talent as USC cannot lose both coordinators, their best corner to suspension, a host of players including their best receiver to injury, replace nearly all of their defense and expect to win the conference with a freshman quarterback. It took a once in a generation quarterback like Matt Leinart to claim the conference crown as a sophomore (on a better team).

For those willing to look past the hype, the Men of Troy didn't look that great beating a good-for-the-Big-10 Ohio State team. In fairness to USC, they were without their all-American safety Taylor Mays and starting quarterback Matt Barkley Saturday, but getting them back will not change the fact that this USC team is not as good as previous ones, and is surrounded by better teams than before.

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