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OHIO STATE surely came away with a healthy respect for Pac-10 football after being whipped by USC last Saturday, but the Buckeyes only saw the $100 bill on top of the Pac-10's stack. The rest of the country saw that there are nothing but singles underneath. At least, that's the way it seems after last weekend, which, with the notable exception of the top-ranked Trojans' 35--3 victory, was an abysmal one for the conference.
The Pac-10 was the loser in seven of its other nine games against a mostly unimposing group of opponents, including an 0--4 mark against teams from the Mountain West Conference. "It was a nightmare," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. He was referring to his 15th-ranked Sun Devils' stunning 23--20 overtime defeat by UNLV, which had lost 30 of its previous 37 games, but he could have been describing the overall performance of the conference.
There were blowouts, such as UCLA's 59--0 humiliation at BYU, the Bruins' worst loss in 79 years. And there were nail-biters, such as Arizona's 36--28 loss at New Mexico, which went down to the Wildcats' final possession. Pac-10 teams lost early: No. 23 California's 35--27 defeat at Maryland began at noon EST, which felt like 9 a.m. to the Bears' body clocks. And they lost late: Arizona State's game ended at 1:15 a.m. EST, after most college football fans had gone to bed, which meant they missed UNLV freshman Phillip Payne's leaping one-handed touchdown grab to tie the game with 18 seconds left and the blocked field goal try in overtime by Malo Taumua that sealed the Rebels' win.
Even the Pac-10's two victories among those nine games did little to help its reputation. Oregon State's 45--7 win over Hawaii would have been more impressive a year ago, before quarterback Colt Brennan and coach June Jones left campus; and 16th-ranked Oregon, a seven-point favorite over Purdue, fell behind 20--3 and escaped with a 32--26 double-overtime victory only after the Boilermakers' Chris Summers missed a 44-yard field goal on the last play of regulation.
Last week's conference results make the road to the BCS title game look awfully smooth for the Trojans. It's hard to imagine how USC, which has only one nonconference opponent remaining (Notre Dame), could stumble in the Pac-10, not after the teams presumed to be its main threats—Arizona State, Oregon and Cal—looked so vulnerable. Of course, the Trojans should know better than to take the rest of the Pac-10 for granted, particularly after the shocking 24--23 upset that Stanford handed them last year, but the bottom of the conference doesn't seem likely to hit the lottery again this year.
Understandably, the rest of the Pac-10 is in no hurry to start thinking about dealing with USC, except for its next opponent, Oregon State, which plays the Trojans in Corvallis on Sept. 25. Oregon coach Mike Bellotti was more interested in finding the positives in the Ducks' comeback in 90° heat at Purdue. "It was a great test for us," said Bellotti. "Not just with it being a tough-weather game, but with the ability we showed to come back from the hole we put ourselves in."
That deficit was nothing compared to the apparent gap between USC and its Pac-10 brethren. They may be in the same conference as the Trojans, but they don't appear to be in the same league.