Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Who Rules the Pac-10?

ed note: reprinted with permission from Brian Kamenetzkey of SportsHubLA.

By Brian Kamenetzky of SportsHubLA.com

I don’t claim to be a college football sage. It’s been a while since I picked a national champion. Nor, unlike some people I know, do I spend hours on my cell phone trying to place offshore wagers on the Northern Illinois-Western Michigan game. But I’m not ignorant, either. So I’ll give myself a break for not being prepared in September to ask myself the question that now looms large in October:

Which L.A. school will finish higher in the Pac-10?

Yes, I’m aware that UCLA entered the season as the 14th ranked team in the country, but SC was supposed to be a pigskin juggernaut. Team of the Century, Waltz-through-the-Pac-10-then-get-promoted-to-the-NFC-West good.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Despite their 38-0 whup up on Notre Dame Saturday afternoon, sandwiching in a loss to Stanford between two near-misses against conference cellar dwellers Washington and Arizona has added some serious tarnish to the previously lustrous Trojans. Even USC’s marquee win- 49-31 over Nebraska on Sept. 15- has been diminished by the Cornhuskers’ Hammer-esque fall from grace.

UCLA, meanwhile, scuttled any national buzz they might have been able to generate with a horrible loss to Utah and an injury induced, but equally catastrophic, loss at the Rose Bowl to the Golden Domers.

Still, despite getting trumped by Pete Carroll’s boys in Q factor and general program sexiness, with their 30-21 win over Cal this weekend, UCLA moved to 4-0 in the Pac-10. USC? Just behind the Bruins at 3-1. Nothing the Men of Troy can’t overcome, right? After all, their win in South Bend pushed them to ninth in the national polls while UCLA, despite that unblemished conference mark and win over Cal, are scratching out whatever love they can in AlsoRecievingVotesVille.

Not so fast.

Like the BCS computers, who only bumped the Trojans from 14th to 12th despite a host of high ranked teams losing this weekend, I don’t put much stock in USC’s win over Notre Dame. By every statistical measurement, the Fighting Irish blow. Now, after considerable chaff, the Trojans get the wheat of their schedule. Oregon next week on the road. Then Oregon State at home, before traveling to (suddenly not so intimidating but still dangerous) Cal on November 10th and Arizona State- that’s seventh ranked, fourth in the BCS, undefeated Arizona State to you and me- on the 24th.

Then, of course, they finish with UCLA at home.

UCLA still has Oregon and Arizona State on the docket, except they’ll host both at the Rose Bowl. As for remaining roadies that require anything more than a bus ride, the Bruins have next weekend’s visit to wretched Washington State and pretty damn bad Arizona on November 3rd. Not a road paved with cupcakes, but it’s an easier one than the Trojans have to walk. And they’ve already beaten Mountain West-leading BYU and Cal, which is more by way of quality wins than USC can present. (Of course, the Bruins have the aforementioned non-quality losses, too, but as the song says, let’s accentuate the positive.)

So how does it end?

There’s no way the Trojans run the table, which they’ll need to do to preserve any national title hopes. This team simply isn’t that good. The defense may be second in the Pac-10 behind ASU, but they’ve let Washington and Stanford, two of the conference’s least powerful teams, score right about at their averages (27.0 and 24.1 respectively). What happens Saturday in Eugene when they face Dennis Dixon and the 46.6 ppg Ducks? I don’t think the Trojan defense can hold them down long enough to bail out an offense still struggling to pass the ball effectively and avoid turnovers.

Only if USC can exploit their soft-ish run D (143 ypg) do they have a chance. I don’t see it happening. Trojans fall to 3-2 in conference. From there, I think they split Cal and Arizona State on the road. That leaves them with three losses heading into their game against the Bruins.

UCLA, meanwhile, dodged one of the four big scheduling bullets aimed at them by beating Cal. Assuming they can take care of Washington State and Arizona on the road (something no Bruins fan will do until the games are safely in the win column), they’d need to pick up one win against ASU, Oregon, or SC to finish ahead of the Trojans. I realize that it’s never a good idea to bet on team that can beat SC then lose to Florida State in the Emerald Bowl, as UCLA did last year, but assuming the Bruins can keep a quarterback healthy (Patrick Cowan? Ben Olson? I’d rather have the former, I’ll take the latter over what’s behind them both) I think they can do it.

Maybe it’s the lover of underdogs inside me (certainly Karl Dorrell qualifies), or that when I was younger I always loved UCLA’s uniforms. Maybe it’s a dislike of a CFB ranking system that often rewards teams for how writers and coaches think they’ll play in late August rather than how well they actually play on the field. Really, it comes down to the fact that USC hasn’t played nearly as well as everyone expected coming into the season. Their flaws are real, and can be exploited. Their schedule is brutal. People can continue to wait for the G.O.A.T. Squad to show up, but I think seven games in USC has shown their hand. They are who they are.

And who they are is a team that will finish behind UCLA in the Pac-10.

Brian Kamenetzky hosts the Lakers Blog and Blue Notes: A Dodgers Blog for the LA Times.com. He’s a contributing writer to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Write him at bk@sportshubla.com