Pac-10 becoming three-headed monster worthy of our respect
Oregon is national-title contender, but Arizona and Stanford could challenge Ducks
If Mark Dantonio's heart attack doesn't put football in perspective, nothing will
Texas may be odd man out in three-way Big 12 race that's impossible to handicap
In case you've only seen the scores (72-0, 48-13, 69-0) from his team's season-opening blitzkriegs, Oregon coach Chip Kelly wants to assure you he hasn't been piling on opponents like New Mexico and Portland State.
"We're playing everyone on our roster on both sides of the ball," Kelly said Sunday.
Indeed, a look at the box score shows that nine different Ducks carried the ball Saturday. Seven of them had a gain of at least nine yards, including star LaMichael James, who carried 14 times for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of their nine touchdown drives lasted less than two minutes. That's just silly-good execution.
"I told our team that the mark of a great team is when you're supposed to beat a team, you beat a team," said Kelly. "You don't let people hang around. They've played hard no matter who we're playing."
We knew the defending Pac-10 champion Ducks were going to be good. That's why they're ranked fifth in the country. Their biggest question mark was sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas, who quieted most doubts when he walked into 100,000-plus seat Neyland Stadium in his second career start and engineered a blowout of Tennessee.
The real question -- and the one that's been hovering ever since the Pac-10's cross-country media blitz this summer -- was the strength of the rest of the conference. Fortunately, the Pac-10 plays enough early showcase games to get a decent read on most teams, and the early results are in. USC? Not what it used to be. Washington? Fraud. Cal? Ditto. Washington State? Don't even go there.
Two teams, however, have emerged as legitimate threats to the Ducks: Arizona and Stanford. Not coincidentally for a league long defined by its quarterbacks, the Wildcats and Cardinal boast two of the best we've seen this year.
On dueling channels Saturday night, you could watch Arizona's 79-percent passer, Nick Foles, lead a last-minute touchdown drive to knock off ninth-ranked Iowa, 34-27, or Stanford's Andrew Luck -- whom coach Jim Harbaugh declared "the best quarterback in the country" last year while Luck was still just a redshirt freshman -- shred Wake Forest for four passing touchdowns and a 52-yard rushing score in a 68-24 rout.
On paper, the Wildcats and Cardinal entered the season as just two of several similarly bunched teams that seemed like they could go one direction or the other. Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have used the Oregon measuring stick.
"I know how good Arizona and Stanford are because we face them," said Kelly. "We had one [conference] loss last year, and it was to Stanford. We beat Arizona in double overtime. I've been a huge Nick Foles fan since he took over last year, and I think Andrew Luck IS the best quarterback in the country -- not because Jim Harbaugh said that, but since he threw [two] touchdowns on us last year."
The Ducks open conference play this week at Arizona State (which itself sent a bit of a message with its near-miss at Wisconsin on Saturday), and anyone who's watched them play likely considers them a national-title threat. But Oregon's fortunes may be closely tied to those of the Wildcats, Cardinal and the rest of the Pac-10.
For all of commissioner Larry Scott's rebranding efforts, the Pac-10 still carries a mixed reputation nationally. Two years ago, one of Pete Carroll's most dominant USC teams was essentially locked out of title contention by fellow one-loss teams from the SEC (Florida) and Big 12 (Oklahoma). As of now, the Ducks are waiting their turn behind Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State and TCU, with Big 12 teams Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska capable of jumping ahead of them. Meanwhile, the next-highest Pac-10 team, Arizona, sits 14th in both polls.
Sometimes, the Pac-10's rigorous nonconference schedule can be its own worst enemy. Arizona's win over top 10 foe Iowa was arguably the most significant nonconference feat of any team to date, but it was essentially canceled out by Washington's meltdown against Nebraska the same day. USC's latest uninspiring win Saturday at Minnesota doesn't raise anyone's confidence, either.
The Pac-10 has more victories over BCS-conference foes (eight) than any other league, but it also has more FBS losses (eight) than the SEC (two), Big 12 (four) or Big Ten (five). More opportunities await this weekend, when Oregon State visits No. 3 Boise State and Stanford visits Notre Dame, both on national television.
Meanwhile, Oregon and Arizona (vs. Cal) begin their nine-game conference slates this weekend. Obviously, either could blow it at any moment (Mike Stoops' team sure as heck tried against the Hawkeyes), but perhaps the most telling -- and surprising -- stat to consider is this: In addition to boasting offensive stars like James, Thomas, Foles and Luck, their teams currently rank No. 1 (Oregon), No. 3 (Arizona) and No. 6 (Stanford) nationally in total defense.
That may be the biggest reason to start taking the West Coasters seriously.
At 11:49 p.m. Saturday night, Mark Dantonio was the happiest coach in America, grinning for the ABC cameras while accepting congratulations for a triumphant fake field-goal call in overtime against Notre Dame that capped arguably the biggest win of his Michigan State tenure. Roughly 45 minutes later, he was being whisked to a nearby hospital to undergo an angioplasty to open a clogged blood vessel leading to his heart.
If that doesn't put football in perspective, I don't know what will.
Thankfully, the procedure was successful. "Coach Dantonio is resting comfortably ... and is expected to make a full recovery," Dr. Chris D'Haem, who performed the procedure, said Sunday. Dantonio's heart attack will presumably spark another round of columns about the stresses of a head coach's job, a la Urban Meyer last winter, but the truth is not even a trained medical professional could explain why this happened to Dantonio (or, fatally, to former Northwestern coach Randy Walker four years ago) while other more high-strung or less healthy coaches manage to avoid incident.
Hopefully, Dantonio will not rush back to the sideline. Michigan State has the makings of a very good team on its hands (running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Von Bell are both averaging more than 100 yards), but Dantonio's staff has been together since their arrival four years ago. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who will be taking over Dantonio's duties temporarily, first worked alongside Dantonio in the late '80s on Jim Tressel's staff at Youngstown State and rejoined him six years ago at Cincinnati. He'll be OK until Dantonio returns.
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