State of the conference: Pac-10

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Folks, these are tough times. The economy is in the toilet. Gas prices are astronomical.

Reading world news can be depressing.

And perhaps worst of all, nine tenths of the Pac-10 feels no hope.

This group, from Tucson to Seattle to Eugene to Berkeley to Westwood, looks up and sees USC's Men of Troy standing above, smirking in their Cardinal & Gold Armani armor, which sports six gaudy, sequential badges of Pac-10 supremacy.

The feeling is that the Pac-10 is not about free trade and a free market of ideas -- or Rose Bowl berths. It's a totalitarian dictatorship of the West Coast, which languishes under the yoke of Pete "Caesar" Carroll and his cult-like following, who bow down to the infuriating mantra of "Win Forever."

Yes, these are tough times. Many see no hope, including the voters of the USA Today coaches' poll who seeded USC second in their preseason rankings almost as reflex, while dumping other conference contenders into the bottom half of the poll as mere afterthoughts.

Yet while many might see no peer in a handful of busts, I see something else.

Recall with me in your mind's eye, a grim but meaningful moment from the 2007 season that should give hope to all: Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon crumpling to the ground against Arizona, his knee shredded and useless.

That was a dark November day for Oregon, most certainly, but it's freighted with unexplored meaning.

If Dixon at that moment had jumped up, dusted himself off and headed back to the huddle, the world would be a much different place today.

Oregon, fresh off victories over those vaunted Trojans as well as Arizona State, would have gone on to play for the national title.

And the nattily attired Ducks would have hung 50 points on Ohio State and won the program's first national title. (Said Buckeyes linebacker James Laurinaitis after the blitzkrieg: "I haven't witnessed a butt-kicking like that since Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen took out my dad.").

It was one safely positioned knee ligament from happening.

Upon witnessing that breakthrough, the other eight Pac-10 teams would have -- after trying to figure out whether Oregon's ending USC's stranglehold was a good thing or would ultimately produce an unbearably painful side effect of making Ducks fans even more obnoxious -- would have shared a collective thought:

"Hey, we could do that, too!"

Pac-10: Your conference is not required to be USC and the Nine Dwarfs. There's no rule that says all aspirants to the Trojans throne must wilt by season's end.

That's you, Oregon, with your fancy-pants offense. You've already poked the Trojans. You've seen that they bleed just like any other collection of college athletes.

Sure, you've got to replace Dixon and tailback Jonathan Stewart and a couple of defensive tackles and receivers. But your offensive line is stout and your secondary flashy.

Word is this youngster, Nate Costa, is capable of duplicating Dixon's ball legerdemain with only minimal growing pains.

And what about you, Arizona State?

Most believe you've got the best chance to go nose-to-nose with USC this fall.

You Sun Devils have a veteran quarterback in Rudy Carpenter and are loaded at the skill positions. Your defense may not dominate, but it's got enough playmakers to keep opponents on their heels.

Oh, but you've got to block someone this year. Want change we can believe in? Don't give up 55 sacks again.

California and Oregon State? You guys have to some holes to fill, certainly. But both of you have once before forced USC to tap out during its recent run. Shouldn't your new uniforms ring in a new age?

Bears, you must prove last year's slide from second-ranked to utterly rank was simply a fluke. And, please, figure out who your quarterback is.

Beavers? The front-seven that dominated in 2007 is being rebuilt, but let those who doubt you fuel your motivation to make the next step as a program.

UCLA and Stanford? Both of you have once turned back the Trojans during their reign. Oh, and how you hate them.

Little is expected of either of you this season. But, then again, what was expected out of a 41-point underdog whose first-year coach trash-talked Pete Carroll during the preseason last year?

Washington State? You are rebuilding with a new coach, former Cougar Paul Wulff, but recall that as recently as 2002, you eclipsed the Trojans and earned the last Rose Bowl berth a member of the Nether Nine has tasted. (Smile for a moment and recall Drew Dunning sliding on his knees in jubilation at Martin Stadium).

Arizona and Washington? You both are two coaches away from beating USC, but the Trojans bested you a year ago by all of a combined 10 points.

Two words and a question mark: Why not?

Wildcats, you have a veteran, high-flying spread offense that might be able to outscore the Trojans.

And, Huskies, you have Jake Locker, who just about everybody expects magic from this fall.
An upset win over the Trojans is the sort of thing that saves an embattled coach's job, Mike Stoops and Tyrone Willingham.

The message comes down to this, you Maligned Nine of the Pac-10.

These are absolutely tough times. But don't despair. You can and should believe in change.

Not that we're picking anyone other than USC to win the conference or anything. That wouldn't be very smart, now would it?