Looks good on paper, but Pac-10 midseason arrives with thud

Four Pac-10 teams are ranked among the top 14, more than any other conference. So why does the midseason report arrive with a dull thud rather than an earth-shattering kaboom?

Because, on the heels of USC's choke job against Stanford in the Coliseum, the overall ledger feels like an underachievement. Because it seems less likely than it did a week ago that the conference will play its way into two BCS bowl games, the ultimate badge of honor in college football.

Four ranked teams? Based on talent and experience, it should be six.

While California's push into the national title fray, Oregon's bounce back from a late-season implosion in 2006 and Arizona State's surge to a 6-0 start are feathers in the conference's cap, it's also fair to say that three other teams join USC under the flop header: UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona.

That troika, each chock full of returning starters, put its worst step forward in nonconference games, which evoke either validation or ridicule from a national audience divided by regional affections.

So while California stomped on Tennessee, Oregon eviscerated Michigan and USC made Nebraska look like a I-AA team, those red-letter victories were cheapened when UCLA went belly-up against Utah and woeful Notre Dame, Oregon State was buried at Cincinnati and Arizona melted down against BYU and New Mexico.

Next to the Trojans' face plant, UCLA's tumble is the worst.

With 20 starters back from a team that upset USC a year ago, the Bruins billed themselves as national title contenders in the preseason. But injury woes at quarterback -- a redshirt freshman walk-on took most of the snaps against Notre Dame -- have resulted in an inconsistent, often bumbling offense supported by a surprisingly pedestrian defense.

Early last year, Oregon State fans were clamoring for Sean Canfield to replace Matt Moore at quarterback. Now Canfield, a touted sophomore, is hearing the catcalls. He's hurled more interceptions -- 13 -- than any other Division I-A quarterback. Despite 10 returning starters on offense, the Beavers lead the nation with 23 turnovers.

For a change, Arizona isn't having quarterback problems. But everything else has gone wrong, and that's caused Mike Stoops to join UCLA's Karl Dorrell and Washington State's Bill Doba on the coaching hot seat.

Doba's charges played an inspired homecoming game against Arizona State last weekend but still came up short, 23-20. It was a surprisingly stout defensive effort, but the Cougars are still giving up 34 points a game, too much for quarterback Alex Brink & Co. to make up.

Westward across the state, Washington surged early behind sensational redshirt freshman quarterback Jake Locker. It beat Syracuse and Boise State and led Ohio State 7-3 at halftime. But since then, little has gone right, even if the Huskies were the first to reveal how vulnerable and out of sync USC was.

Then Stanford made it stick, though don't expect the Cardinal to start a winning run. In their previous three conference games, they were outscored 141-51. Still, beating USC will buoy the program under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

Oh, those Trojans! How can that much talent look so awful? Easy. They aren't playing smart, disciplined football. They're last in the Pac-10 in penalty yards and are minus-seven in turnovers.

Yet, strangely, they aren't out of the national title hunt, and the irony is the schedule that LSU coach Les Miles mocked during the preseason could be their savior.

With games ahead at No. 9 Oregon, No. 2 Cal and No. 14 Arizona State, their schedule is the toughest of the other one-loss teams. If the Trojans win out, and only one -- or no -- unbeaten team remains, odds are good they'd weasel their way into the BCS title game.

Of course, after watching their terrible performances against Washington and Stanford, such a scenario doesn't appear particularly realistic.

Biggest Surprise
The biggest surprise -- at least in a positive sense -- is that California is ranked No. 2, its highest perch since Pappy Waldorf's Golden Bears were No. 1 in 1951. That said, it's not terribly shocking that Cal is unbeaten, so its lofty ranking is largely a function of the profusion of top-10 upsets.

Nonetheless, the Bears are trying to make the hardest transition: from top-15 program to elite, national title contender. They probably need to win a few more games before anyone takes them seriously as a championship threat, and their October is fairly robust: Oregon State, at UCLA and at Arizona State.

And, of course, that's all prelude to what remains the Pac-10 game of the year: USC at Cal on Nov. 10.

The Bears own an elite, balanced offense that will be able to score on just about anybody. But they will have to shore up their injury-riddled defense if they are truly eyeballing the biggest prize.

Biggest Disappointment
There are plenty of candidates, from twice-humiliated UCLA to complete flop Arizona, but it's hard to get past the Trojans, even if they still cling to a top-10 ranking.

While there has been a surfeit of national whining the past few years over USC's exalted status, particularly from our SEC friends, no one with an iota of intelligence actually doubted the Trojans' phenomenal talent. Just check out any NFL team's draft board.

But what distinguished coach Pete Carroll's teams from 2002 to 2005 was their focus, discipline and consistent intensity, not to mention creative schemes.

Much of that has been missing -- or, at least, inconsistently present -- for going on two seasons.

Sure, it's hindsight, but we should have seen the implosion coming, though probably not against outmanned Stanford. This program has been coasting and is now 9-3 over its past 12 games. That's good nearly everywhere else, but not up to USC's recent standards.

So that leaves us with a monumental question: Is the Trojan Dynasty starting to crumble? We shall see.

Midseason MVP
This was not an easy pick.

If Oregon had beaten Cal, Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon, the conference's highest-rated passer, would have earned the salute. But he tossed his first two picks of the season in that 31-24 defeat.

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti seemed to say as much when asked whom he'd tap. Fortunately, Bellotti is one of the few coaches in the country who genuinely tries to honestly answer every question put to him.

So we're going with his choice: Cal tailback Justin Forsett, who has been the most consistent performer for one of the nation's best offenses.

Forsett doesn't lead the conference in rushing -- his 117 yards per game is nearly eight fewer than Oregon's Jonathan Stewart -- but he's No. 1 in scoring (10.8 points per game) and touchdowns (nine). Last we checked, scoring is important in the Pac-10.

Midseason Coach of the Year
This is an easy pick: California coach Jeff Tedford. Tedford has led the Bears to a pair of red-letter victories and national title contention.

First, Cal took vengeance for a humiliating defeat suffered at Tennessee to start the 2006 season with a satisfying thrashing of the Vols in Berkeley, a victory that spread grins across the West Coast, from Tempe to Seattle.

Then, the Bears went into Oregon's fearsome Autzen Stadium and played smart, opportunistic football and escaped with a nail-biting win that wasn't decided until the game's final moments.

Tedford's not only the leading candidate for Pac-10 coach of the year, he's in the race for the national award.

Bowl Bound
USC, California, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State

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