2010 Pac-10 review

If someone found a crystal ball in the preseason and, after giving it a good peering, had announced that one Pac-10 team would play for the national title and another would play in the Discover Orange Bowl, it's likely that Pac-10 administrators and athletic directors would have broken out into a celebratory dance thinking of the extra revenue, not to mention the prestige, the conference would gain.

So it's a good thing that didn't happen because that would have been hard on the eyes.

Oregon will play Auburn in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10. Stanford will play Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl on Jan. 3. Not only have teams other than USC risen to the elite level, but the Pac-10 has produced two BCS bowl teams for the first time since 2002.

Of course, some sourpusses will point out that the conference only produced four bowl teams. First, it's five, really, only USC is ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. And five bowl-eligible teams in a 10-team league that plays nine conference games and doesn't load its schedules with nonconference patsies isn't terrible.

Could be better. But not terrible.

The Pac-10 finished the regular season ranked No. 2 behind the SEC in the Sagarin Ratings. Pac-10 teams played the seven toughest schedules in the nation, as well as Nos. 10 and 11. Oregon's schedule ranked 20th, the lowest in the conference, in large part because the Ducks lucked out by not having to play themselves.

The Pac-10 went 10-5 versus other BCS conferences.

Further, the Pac-10 is sending two finalists to the Heisman Trophy ceremony: Oregon running back LaMichael James and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. No other conference is doing that.

Still, the conference didn't post any marquee nonconference victories. Wins over Iowa and Texas lost a lot of value as both teams struggled as the season went on. Winning at Tennessee isn't as impressive as it was a decade ago. Arizona State lost by a point at Wisconsin. The conference lost three games to elite non-AQ teams: TCU, Boise State and Nevada. Nebraska stomped on Washington.

Quarterbacks were all the talk in the preseason, but the results were mixed there, too. Luck, obviously, lived up to and even beyond expectations. Washington's Jake Locker fell well short. Oregon's Darron Thomas came from no where to earn second-team All-Pac-10 honors. USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles had good, but not great seasons.

Luck could come back next fall, but he's likely going to be the No. 1 overall pick in this spring's NFL draft. Thomas, Barkley and Foles will return, though, again giving the conference a good foundation at the position (It's possible that Foles, too, could opt to enter the NFL draft).

As far as where the conference ranks as it heads into the postseason, the bowl season should be telling. It would be particularly meaningful for Oregon to end the SEC's run of national titles at four. Stanford is expected to beat ACC champ Virginia Tech, so losing would inspire plenty of wisecracks.

Arizona and Washington are both significant underdogs against Big 12 foes in the Valero Alamo Bowl -- where the Wildcats play No. 14 Oklahoma State -- and the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl -- where the Huskies face No. 18 Nebraska, which bludgeoned them 56-21 on Sept. 18.

A 2-2 bowl season would be respectable. 3-1 would be worth crowing about. But anything worse, and it could be a long offseason for Pac-10 fans who enjoy trash talking other conferences.

Offensive MVPs: Call me a wuss for refusing to decide between Luck and James, but I'm not going to. Hey, they're both Heisman Trophy finalists. Luck passed for 3,051 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions, completing 70 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 438 yards and three touchdowns. James led the nation with 152.9 yards rushing per game and 21 touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 169 yards and a TD.

Defensive MVP: This was a tough call, but Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea is the guy who causes the most problems for opposing offenses and consistently receives praise from opposing offensive linemen. After a slow start, Paea led the Beavers with 10 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had 42 total tackles -- despite constant double-teams -- and four forced fumbles.

Newcomer of the year: USC true freshman Robert Woods made big plays as receiver and a kick returner. As a receiver, caught 64 passes for 786 yards and six touchdowns. As a return man, he averaged 25.6 yards on 38 returns -- a school record -- including one for a 97-yard touchdown. He ranks second in the Pac- 10, and 27th nationally, with 139.8 all-purpose yards.

Coach of the year: Folks asked what Oregon coach Chip Kelly would do for an encore after he led the Ducks to a Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl his first season. Well, how about going undefeated and earning a berth in the national title game? His Ducks were the first team to go undefeated in the nine-game conference schedule. He also got a nice reward for his extraordinary success.

Biggest surprise: While more than a few folks thought Stanford would be good, and even might improve on last year's 8-5 finish, no one saw 11-1 and a No. 4 ranking coming. That's a tribute to coach Jim Harbaugh, who built a program from the ground up. While he's widely praised as an offensive innovator and outstanding motivator, Harbaugh's best move might have been hiring Vic Fangio last offseason to coordinate the defense. The improvement on that side of the ball is the reason the Cardinal became elite.

Biggest disappointment: Oregon State was ranked in the preseason and was expected to contend at the top of the conference, but the Beavers are staying home during the postseason for the first time since 2005. While a rugged schedule didn't help, and a knee injury to receiver James Rodgers on Oct. 9 was a major blow, the biggest issue was poor play on both lines. Further, the Beavers would have finished 6-6 if they had managed to not lose at home to Washington State, which ended the Cougars 16-game conference losing streak.

Game of the year: Stanford's 37-35 win over USC had just about everything. It had a pregame plot line: USC wanted revenge -- "What's your deal?" -- for Harbaugh running the score up the year before in a 55-21 Cardinal win in the Coliseum. It had two future NFL quarterbacks at the the top of the game: Luck passed for 285 yards and three TDs and Matt Barkley passed for 390 yards and three TDs. Neither threw an interception. It had Stanford's potential goats -- kicker Nate Whitaker, who missed a PAT, and running back Stepfan Taylor, whose fumble set up the Trojans' late, go-ahead TD -- find redemption on the final drive. Taylor's 21-yard run set up Whitaker's game-winning, 30-yard field goal on the final play.