A season-ending look at the Pac-10

If an abundance of mediocrity indicates overall strength, then the Pac-10 was a strong conference this season -- perhaps the strongest, top-to-bottom, by that measure. Eight teams ended up bowl-eligible and nine owned five or more victories, with only five of those wins coming against I-AA foes.

But college football isn't about equality or sharing the wealth. It's about excellence, and judging a conference comes down to how many -- and where -- teams are nationally ranked.

So 2006 was, really, a major disappointment on the West Coast.

• USC blew a chance to play for its third national title in four years when it lost to rival UCLA on the season's final weekend. Toss in a loss at Oregon State on Oct. 28, and it's fair to say that the Trojans provided the nation the season's two biggest upset defeats.

• California failed to meet high expectations -- read: a top-10 foil for USC. It was drubbed at Tennessee to open the season, then choked at Arizona the weekend before visiting USC. And Cal didn't give the Trojans much of a challenge during a 23-9 defeat.

• Oregon started 4-0, including a controversial "victory" over Oklahoma, soared in the rankings and appeared capable of challenging for the conference crown. Then quarterback Dennis Dixon lost his confidence, and the Ducks mostly imploded, going 3-5 down the stretch, including a three-game losing streak to end the season.

• Arizona State underachieved and Stanford stunk, so coaches Dirk Koetter and Walt Harris were fired.

• Washington, Washington State and Arizona each produced moments that hinted at oncoming returns to respectability. They also reverted to their bumbling ways, particularly the Huskies, who started 4-1 but went 1-6 over the second half of the season, including a humiliating home defeat to dreadful Stanford.

• USC finished the regular season ranked eighth in the final Associated Press poll. The Pac-10's only other ranked teams were No. 20 California and No. 24 Oregon State.

That's not much to celebrate.

USC is headed to the Rose Bowl for an attractive matchup with Michigan, which doesn't sound so bad -- at least if you bracket off how close the Trojans were to further enhancing one of the great runs in college football history.

That run isn't over, by the way. And therein lies the overriding consolation prize for the conference.

In 2007, the Pac-10 might be as strong as it's been in decades. And USC won't be the only contender, though it may well start as the preseason No. 1.

• Seven teams welcome back their starting quarterback (not Oregon State, Washington and Stanford). Experience at quarterback is critical for any team, but particularly in the pass-happy Pac-10.

• The top 15 rushers are all scheduled to return (though Cal junior Marshawn Lynch figures to enter the NFL draft).

• Only three of the top 10 receivers are seniors (though USC junior Dwayne Jarrett figures to enter the NFL draft).

• USC and UCLA, the top two defenses in 2006, both lose only one starter for those units.

• UCLA presently starts just three seniors; Arizona also three; USC just four.

• USC, California, Oregon and UCLA should be ranked in the 2007 preseason poll. Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State will receive votes.

• If Lynch and Jarrett don't return, USC quarterback John David Booty, Oregon tailback Jonathan Stewart, Cal quarterback Nate Longshore and Cal receiver wide receiver DeSean Jackson will be leading Heisman Trophy candidates.

So 2006's disappointment might be merely a prelude to riches in 2007.

Most Valuable Player

Running back Marshawn Lynch, Cal

Lynch didn't become the Heisman Trophy candidate he was touted as during the preseason, but he led the conference in rushing (1,245 yards) and all-purpose yards (1,657). He scored 13 touchdowns (nine rushing) and averaged 6.1 yards per carry. He piled up those numbers while battling a pair of sprained ankles, so his toughness deserves a tip of the cap as much as his talent.

And it was hilarious when he drove that golf cart onto the field after the Bears nipped Washington.

Coach of the Year

Mike Riley, Oregon State

This was Pete Carroll in a landslide before his Trojans face-planted against UCLA. After losing an NFL roster worth of talent following the 2005 season, Carroll had his team back in the national title hunt, which felt like a major achievement.

But the final analysis is this: USC blew up twice against inferior opponents. So, being the contrarians that we are, we're tapping Oregon State's Mike Riley, whose Beavers ended the Trojans' 27-game Pac-10 winning streak.

Oregon State, remember, embarrassed itself the second week of the season with a 42-14 loss at Boise State on ESPN. The Beavers, particularly on defense, looked utterly clueless -- and poorly prepared. But Riley rallied his players to seven wins over their final eight games. They have a chance to finish 10-4 if they beat Missouri in the Sun Bowl.

Newcomer of the Year

DeSean Jackson, Cal

Jackson, who led the Bears in receiving last season as a true freshman, has spectacular speed and athleticism -- comparisons to Reggie Bush don't evoke sarcastic snickers -- making him the conference's most dangerous player during his sophomore campaign.

He led the nation in punt returns, averaging 18.2 yards per return with four touchdowns. He also caught 54 passes for 979 yards and nine touchdowns.

Biggest Surprise

Coaches canned

The biggest surprise isn't a team. It's that two coaches -- who both appeared fairly secure during the preseason -- were canned. It didn't matter that Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter received a contract extension after the 2005 season. Or that Stanford wasn't supposed to be like every other win-at-all-costs programs; it still unceremoniously dumped Walt Harris after just two seasons.

Two! When did The Farm become Tuscaloosa West?

Biggest Disappointment

Arizona State

Arizona State welcomed back 17 starters from a 7-5 team but nonetheless regressed. Things got off to a bad start when Koetter reversed after just 48 hours his preseason decision to name senior Sam Keller the starting quarterback, and then handed the job to sophomore Rudy Carpenter. Keller transferred to Nebraska, and Carpenter never displayed the form that caught Koetter's fancy.

All Pac-10 Team
QB - John David Booty, Jr., USC
TB - Marshawn Lynch, Jr., Cal
TB - Yvenson Bernard, Jr., Oregon State
WR - DeSean Jackson, So., California
WR - Dwayne Jarrett Jr., USC
TE - Zach Miller, Jr., Arizona State
OL - Ryan Kalil, Sr., USC
OL - Sam Baker, Jr., USC
OL - Enoka Lucas, Sr., Oregon
OL - Jeremy Perry, So., Oregon State
OL - Alex Mack, So., California
K - Justin Medlock, Sr., UCLA

DE - Bruce Davis, Jr., UCLA
DE - Justin Hickman, Sr., UCLA
DT - Sedrick Ellis, Jr., USC
DT - Brandon Mebane, Sr., California
LB - Keith Rivers, Jr., USC
LB - Desmond Bishop, Sr., California
LB - Rey Maualuga, So., USC
CB - Daymeion Hughes, Sr., California
CB - Antoine Cason, Jr., Arizona
S - J.D. Nelson, Sr., Oregon
S - C.J. Wallace, Sr., Washington
P - Nick Folk, Jr., Arizona

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