Ducks out to prove Pac-10's about more than USC

Oregon's Mike Bellotti isn't like most football coaches. He's not afraid to tell you what he thinks.

So, yes, he admits awareness of the present college football pecking order. He knows the Pac-10's up-and-down reputation has been drubbed by a series of embarrassing nonconference defeats. He knows that three conference teams trying to prove the Pac-10 is about more than USC were spanked by a combined count of 120-35 at SEC venues and that Oregon State and Stanford were humiliated by Boise State and San Jose State, respectively.

His 18th-ranked Ducks play host to No. 15 Oklahoma on Saturday, and he knows what that means: The conference measuring stick is out again, and folks on the West Coast, even many of Oregon's rivals, are hoping it doesn't swat the Pac-10 on the rear once more.

"It's a very obvious conclusion to reach," Bellotti said. "In intersectional competition, when you play against [the Big 12], I think you compare. You say, OK, the Pac-10 versus Big 12, if the Big 12 wins more of those games head-to-head, then they're a better league. If the Pac-10 wins, then we're a better league … Certainly, the fans will look at it that way."

Oklahoma, which dispatched Washington this past weekend 37-20, is one of four Big 12 underdogs squaring off with Pac-10 favorites this weekend. Arizona State is expected to roll at reeling Colorado, while Nebraska figures to be outmanned at USC and Washington State should take care of Baylor.

The Ducks-Sooners showdown is the most meaningful. Although it's early in the season, this game will determine, at least in terms of national perception, whether the Pac-10 boasts a second elite team or consists of the Trojans and nine empty jerseys.

Oklahoma has beaten Oregon two years in a row. In 2004, the Sooners rolled 31-7 in Norman. In last season's Holiday Bowl, they upset Oregon 17-14.

The Ducks need to hold serve at home, thereby propping up the quibble that the Pac-10's face-plants are caused in part by its teams' playing on the road.

"It's in our house now," quarterback Dennis Dixon said.

The second major story line is the tailbacks. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and Oregon's Jonathan Stewart share the same No. 28 jersey and are largely mirror images of each other: big, bruising, fast and ridiculously gifted.

"It's going to be a great matchup," Dixon said. "But Adrian Peterson has been doing it for a while."

Duly noted. Peterson has been touted for his production, Stewart for his promise. Stewart was riddled by injuries his freshman season and sat out most of the Ducks' 31-24 victory at Fresno State this past weekend, his lone run covering 3 yards for a touchdown.

Bellotti said Stewart's bum ankle is better -- he was full-speed during Monday's practice -- so this becomes an opportunity for the sophomore to introduce himself to the rest of the country.

The outlook isn't as good for Jackie Bates, the Ducks' best cover cornerback. He broke his leg against Fresno, and defensive coaches are reviewing an array of secondary permutations to fend off a surprisingly solid Oklahoma passing attack led by Paul Thompson. Thompson, whose numbers are roughly equal to Dixon's, converted back from receiver to quarterback after Rhett Bomar was booted from the team.

Like Thompson, the Ducks defense has been surprising. It lost five players who earned All-Conference honors in 2005 -- including the No. 12 NFL draft pick, tackle Haloti Ngata -- yet has yielded an average of just 17 points per game against good Stanford and Fresno State offenses -- although the Bulldogs did rush for 206 yards.

Of course, the perception is the Pac-10 is soft and doesn't play defense. When asked whether that theory made him bristle, Bellotti admitted that, yes, he was bristling.

"I think any coach would bristle at that; certainly, players don't want to be labeled as soft," he said.

Frustrated frissons or not, the perception endures because the Pac-10, particularly California, failed to walk the walk at walking time this month. The Ducks did the same in the Holiday Bowl, losing to the Sooners after grousing about not earning a berth in a BCS bowl game.

"I feel we earned their respect," linebacker Brent Haberly said. "But you don't really get that until you get that W."

That W means a lot. The Pac-10 sure could use it.

But Bellotti also pointed out that it's not all about conference pride. His aspirations are high for his program, one that has finished ranked in the top 12 of the final Associated Press poll in three of the past six seasons, including a No. 2 finish in 2001.

"If you have aspirations to play for a national championship, every game counts, and certainly games against other top-20 teams are the ones by which you gauge yourself," he said.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.