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Posted: Wednesday September 16, 2009 12:26PM; Updated: Wednesday September 16, 2009 1:17PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

Pac-10 on the rise, Tressel under fire, Barkley impresses, more mail

Story Highlights

After two weeks of play, the Pac-10 has been the most impressive conference

Some Ohio State fans are calling for Jim Tressel's head after the latest big loss

More on Matt Barkley, voter psyche, Tennessee and Mike "I'm a Man" Gundy

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UCLA's win over Tennessee in Knoxville gave the Pac-10 another impressive out-of-conference victory.
UCLA's win over Tennessee in Knoxville gave the Pac-10 another impressive out-of-conference victory.
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Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
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We begin with this...

Stewart, will this conference boasting thing ever go away? Saturday, all three of Michigan's biggest rivals (Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame) lost in wonderfully excruciating fashion, and I couldn't even fully enjoy it. Please make it stop.
-- Tim, Covington, Ky.

I wish I could, but it would be like a lone guy with a hose trying to put out a forest fire.

There's one obvious reason fans' obsession with conference supremacy continues to rage stronger every year: the BCS. Last year, Florida, Oklahoma and USC all finished the regular season as one-loss conference champions, but the Gators and Sooners played for the national title over the Trojans. Why? Because voters felt the SEC and Big 12 were stronger than the Pac-10.

A year later, however, that perception may be about to change.

The Pac-10 had some big out-of-conference wins last weekend (USC over Ohio State, UCLA over Tennessee, Oregon over Purdue). This weekend there are even more notable matchups slated (Oregon State vs. Cincinnati, Arizona vs. Iowa, Cal vs. Minnesota and Oregon vs. Utah). How many more of these games does the Pac-10 need to win to be considered on par with the Big 12 and SEC?
-- Dave, Sparks, Nev.

Both last year and early this season, I've observed that when it comes to public perception, individual teams get credit for big wins, but conferences take the rap for bad losses.

When Alabama beat Virginia Tech on opening weekend, the general reaction was that the Tide look like they'll be a BCS contender again; however, the Hokies' loss, coupled with Virginia losing to William and Mary, Duke losing to Richmond and Wake losing to Baylor meant the ACC must stink. When Oklahoma State beat Georgia, the Cowboys were hailed as "legit;" when they lost to Houston -- on the same weekend Kansas State lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and Colorado lost to Toledo -- the Big 12 suddenly became "overrated."

This is precisely what happened to the Pac-10 last year. On the same weekend USC got feted for thrashing Ohio State, Arizona lost to New Mexico, Arizona State lost to UNLV, Cal lost to Maryland, Stanford lost to TCU, UCLA lost 59-0 to BYU and Washington lost 55-14 to Oklahoma. Any credibility the conference might have hoped for effectively evaporated that weekend, and the Trojans' impressive win was essentially forgotten as soon as they lost to Oregon State (which itself had already gotten blitzed by Penn State).

Looking at the first two weeks of this season, however, I would contend no conference has performed better than the Pac-10. The league boasts the best record (6-2) so far against the five other BCS leagues and the Mountain West and has largely avoided bad losses (with the exception of Oregon's poor showing at Boise State). If the league can pull off a couple more wins this weekend -- like Oregon State against Cincinnati or Arizona (which previously shut down Central Michigan) at Iowa -- it's going to be pretty tough for anyone from the SEC, Big 12 or elsewhere to argue with that record.

But of course, should Pac-10 teams lose more games than they win, or should UCLA (against Kansas State) or Stanford (against San Jose State), suffer a bad loss, it's easy to predict the reaction. The Pac-10 stinks. USC doesn't play anyone. Which is why, at the end of the day, the one surefire way for a conference to preserve its reputation is to schedule Troy and Charleston Southern.

Stewart: Last week, I sent an e-mail questioning your sanity for hyping USC's freshman quarterback Matt Barkley after just one game. Then I saw him lead the game-winning drive against Ohio State. You were right, I was wrong. He is the real deal.
-- Phil R., Portland, Ore.

Stewart: Why so much praise for Matt Barkley? Did the sportswriters even watch the USC-OSU game? I realize he was behind center for the winning drive, but 1) most of the credit for that drive should go to Joe McKnight and 2) for the game, Barkley was 15-of-31 passing for 195 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. What did I miss?
-- B. Jones, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

First of all, I don't think I've ever received such a barrage of outrage over such an innocuous column as I did for my Barkley piece last week. Note to self: If you choose to invoke the name of Joe Montana, be prepared to face the consequences. That said, I wasn't on some mission to prop up Barkley "after just one game." Truth be told, I didn't even see the San Jose State game. Barkley became a story the day Pete Carroll named him a true-freshman starter.

When considering some of the guys who came before Barkley, it becomes clear the kid must be something special to have earned that distinction. John David Booty graduated high school a year early largely because USC thought he had the chance to start right away, but wound up waiting three years for his turn. Mark Sanchez, the same guy who just made a sizzling NFL debut, also waited three years. Carroll has two similarly tenured quarterbacks at his disposal now, but Barkley simply blew him away. When I saw Barkley for myself that day in practice, I understood why. Physically, he's already developed far beyond his years, but as I noted in that column, his demeanor and composure stood out even more.

But he is still a freshman, and USC clearly intends to lean on its running game for now. For 53 minutes, Ohio State did a great job taking away the Trojans' running game and putting pressure on the young quarterback, and yes, Barkley struggled at times. As for the game-winning drive, I did notice a lot of over-the-top columns after the game that made it seem like Barkley marched USC down the field Elway-style when in fact he completed three passes (two of them short throws). The more impressive thing to me is that despite 105,000 screaming fans, a very frustrating night offensively and a sack to start the drive, his demeanor, from all accounts, never changed. A typical freshman could have very easily melted down under those circumstances.

So, call it "overhyping" if you'd like, but I've been around a lot of college quarterbacks, including a lot of very timid freshmen and sophomores, and Barkley carries himself more like a junior or senior. He's got a swagger to him, and coaches want that in a starting quarterback.

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