Now that the Trojans have finished off the appetizer portion of their schedule, the real fun begins. And by real fun, I mean real challenges.
Technically, USC opened Pac-10 play last week, but that was against Washington State — so for convenience, let’s just say conference play starts next week.
Have you seen the other eight teams that make up the Trojans’ Pac-10 competition? If you’re watching or reading ESPN, where there’s the Southeastern Conference and then everybody else, you probably don’t hear much about these West Coast teams.
But if this column doesn’t fill you in about the potency of the Pac-10, I’m guessing you will find out on your own soon enough.
At the top are the two teams who unsurprisingly gave USC its two most embarrassing losses last season.
No. 4 Oregon has put up more points than anybody else in the nation. Those who thought the Ducks’ highlight-reel offense would skip a beat without quarterback Jeremiah Masoli are eating their words. These guys still can still light up the scoreboard.
Darron Thomas has done just fine as quarterback, making the Ducks the most feared offense in the conference. They’ve blasted defenses for 231 points in four games, giving up just 44.
Next comes No. 9 Stanford, which cracked the top 10 for the first time this season and is as highly ranked at this point in the season as it has ever been. Quarterback Andrew Luck has lived up to the hype so far, outplaying just about everybody signal-caller in the Pac-10.
Stanford blanked UCLA 35-0, then went to South Bend and pounded the Irish 37-14. Coach Jim Harbaugh has the Cardinals playing staunch defense to complement Luck and the passing attack.
With Oregon and Stanford clearly the teams to beat, how the rest of the league lines up is anybody’s guess.
As far as the rankings go, next up is No. 14 Arizona, another team that got the best of USC last season.
The Wildcats’ signature 34-27 win came against Iowa when the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 9. Arizona almost had a letdown last week against California but eked out a 10-9 victory.
In what has become a Pac-10 trend, another young and talented quarterback, Nick Foles, leads the Wildcats. Foles has completed almost 75 percent of his passes en route to a 4-0 record.
Oregon State is the best unranked Pac-10 team, mostly because of its nonconference schedule that involved games against the two best non-BCS schools in the nation — No. 3 Boise State and No. 5 Texas Christian University. The Beavers lost 30-21 to TCU in a neutral site game that was more like a home game for the Horned Frogs — it was played in Arlington, Texas — then had to go on the road to play Boise State, where they fell 37-24.
Oregon State played both schools tough, so despite its 1-2 record, my guess is few Pac-10 teams are looking forward to visiting Corvallis this season (I’m looking at you, USC).
Arizona State is no slouch either, just a PAT away from going to overtime with No. 11 Wisconsin. The Sun Devils also made Oregon look mortal last week in a 42-31 loss.
Washington has underachieved so far based on preseason expectations, which were probably a little too high to begin with. But they still have quarterback Jake Locker. Despite nonconference losses to Brigham Young University and Nebraska, expect coach Steve Sarkisian to fare much better against familiar Pac-10 schools.
UCLA would have been lumped right there with Washington State at the beginning of this column had it not pulled off a stunning (and dominant) 34-12 win against then-No. 7 Texas.
The Bruins seem like they finally know how to pull the trigger on their pistol offense. After starting 0-2, it looked like another one of those years for the boys in Westwood, but the wins against Houston and Texas changed everything.
Then there’s Cal, which looked like it might join the Cougars at the dregs of the conference before playing Arizona tough last Saturday.
From here on out, there is no game in which the Trojans can just pencil in a victory and mail in a half-hearted performance. Starting with Washington this week at the Coliseum, every Saturday will be a fight.
Even an unsanctioned USC would struggle to make ends meet in this league. The conference is just that good this year.
Obviously, this trend didn’t come from out of the blue. USC lost four games last year against conference foes and has slipped up against weaker Pac-10 teams consistently for the previous three seasons.
In such a deep conference, anybody really could beat anybody, and you probably wouldn’t be that surprised. So the message for USC is simple.
“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: 9/28/10: A previous version of this story listed Nate Costa, not Darron Thomas, as the starting quarterback for the Oregon Ducks. This entry has been changed to reflect the change.