Third in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.
Up next: UCLA
Rick Neuheisel's critics might have called it "smug," but his reaction after UCLA's much-maligned "pistol" offense rolled up 450 yards in a 42-17 win at Kansas State more accurately should be termed "vindicated." Might even have been a bit of relief there.
"It took us a lot of hard work to get here," he says after the Bruins impressive road win. "But it will take us even more to get where we want to go."
Solid wins over Stanford and Houston mean the Bruins carry a No. 19 ranking to No. 3 Texas on Sept. 25.
"We aren't afraid of them," Bruins linebacker Akeem Ayers says before the game. "It's not like UCLA hasn't won at Texas before." Ayers refers to the 66-3 stomping the Bruins delivered the Longhorns during their last visit to Austin in 1997.
Of course, Texas isn't the same in the Mack Brown Era as it was during John Mackovic's ill-fated tenure. Still, the Bruins don't yield until a Kevin Prince pass is intercepted in the endzone in the waning moments. Texas holds on 20-17, despite four Bruins sacks of QB Garrett Gilbert.
"Ten [Ayers] and 56 [end Datone Jones] -- those guys can really run," Gilbert says afterwards. "Seemed like they were in my face all day."
After dispatching Washington State, it's made clear, however, that the Bruins haven't arrived. Four turnovers sinks them at California, and Oregon surprises the Bruins by going to the air, with Ducks QB Nate Costa throwing for 320 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-24 win.
The Bruins beat Arizona when kicker Kai Forbath drills a 55-yard field goal with 30 seconds left, but lose in double-overtime to Oregon State. The visit to Washington feels like a must-win, and the good news for everyone is it has nothing to do with Neuheisel's controversial tenure as the Huskies coach. Both teams are trying to fight into the top-half of the conference.
Huskies QB Jake Locker puts on quite a show. Only, on this evening, he's not as good as Prince, who runs for two scores and throws for three others as the Bruins win a shootout, 45-42.
A win at Arizona State then sets up the annual showdown with city rival USC. The stakes? Well, if the Bruins prevail, they earn a Holiday Bowl berth. And if USC wins? It goes undefeated and likely is voted No. 1 in the AP poll, despite NCAA sanctions that prevent it from playing in the postseason.
"It's clear we are the best team in the nation," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin says before the game. "Just look at the numbers. We've won every game by double-digits playing in the best conference in the country. Heck, even UCLA can almost win at Texas and the Longhorns look like they are going to play for the BCS title."
Kiffin uses finger quotes when he says, "BCS."
The Bruins win 21-3, holding Kiffin's offense to 215 total yards. "I'm not going to talk about [Kiffin]," Neuheisel says after the game. "This is about us, not them. This is about building classy hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. We don't care about the other guys. Just as long as they pay rent when they land on our squares."
The NCAA rejects USC's appeal of sanctions.
Who's idea was this freaking "pistol" offense anyway?
That is the general feeling among UCLA fans after a lackluster 13-10 win at Kansas State, with Akeem Ayers 38-yard fumble return giving the Bruins their only touchdown.
Even the defense looks bad in a 30-17 loss to Stanford. The Bruins get their feet back under them -- after reverting back to a more pro-style scheme -- and outlast Houston and QB Case Keenum 33-30, but the Bruins' multiple issues are laid bare in a 35-10 embarrassment at Texas.
The offensive line can't protect Kevin Prince. It can't open holes. And the defense is good but not dominant.
A win over Washington State only preludes a desperate five-game losing streak -- Cal, Oregon, Arizona, Oregon State and Washington. Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow bench Prince in favor of Richard Brehaut for the trip to Arizona State.
"The offensive struggles aren't Kevin's fault," Neuheisel says. "But we need something to change. We want to see what Richard can do."
Brehaut does just enough to lead the Bruins to a win over Arizona State, but few fans are happy with the state of the program as it limps toward its annual showdown with USC, which is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the AP poll.
It further doesn't help the Bruins mood that the week is dominated by talk of how USC coach Lane Kiffin and QB Matt Barkley had, in late July, together plugged the BP oil spill in the Gulf, earning a commendation from the president.
"It wasn't that big of a deal," Kiffin says. "We were on the beach and Matt said he wanted to swim out there and take a look. So we did. I just happened to have an old Tennessee football helmet with me, and Matt said we might be able to plug it with that. Not that I needed the helmet anymore. Hey, it worked. But you have to understand: That's what we do. We're USC Trojans."
USC wins 45-3. After two irrelevant teams play for the BCS title, the president and congress jointly decree that -- just like in 2003 -- anyone who says "BCS national champion" is required to use finger quotes.
In the spring, the NCAA apologizes to USC and gives it all of its scholarships back.