Pac-10 Finally Looking to Assert Dominance

It was on New Year's Day, some twenty-two years ago, that the Pac-10 seemed on the verge of becoming the nation's superpower conference in football. On that day, USC beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, UCLA nipped Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, and the Washington Huskies whipped Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

However, the Pac-10 never fulfilled its potential regarding top-to-bottom strength, considering the geographical vastness covered from Seattle to Tucson. While in the past 20 years there have been moments where USC, Arizona State, Washington or UCLA have dominated, it's been more a case of musical chairs, as opposed to everybody succeeding at once. Last year was the worst, in terms of the Pac-10 Conference suffering black eyes and a loss of national respect.

It started with California's season-opening flop at Tennessee and ended with Oregon's humiliation against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. There were many other pitiful examples in between. Even Pac-10 fans finally succumbed and began agreeing with the rest of the country, in beholding the strength of the Southeastern, Big 10 and Big 12 Conferences. A recent poll on MSNBC asked readers to select America's strongest college football conference. The results were not surprising, based on conventional wisdom and the nation's population balance tilting toward the eastern seaboard. The Big East led with 35% of the vote, followed by the SEC at 34%, the Big Ten at 11%, the Pac-10 at 8.3% and the Big 12 at 8%.

But in surveying the league's landscape two weeks into the 2007 season, the Pac-10 is emerging as possibly the best conference in the land. Something monstrous is seriously brewing here. The California Bears avenged their previous year's defeat by throttling Tennessee 45-31. The Bears' skill position players looked as swift and talented as Florida's. Then the Oregon Ducks were men among boys in their 39-7 trashing of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Quarterback Dennis Dixon is the real deal. The Arizona State Sun Devils, under the guidance of new coach Dennis Erickson, looked like Erickson's Miami teams of old-- both in the way they dominated Colorado 33-14, and in how they committed eight personal fouls. UCLA beat a strong BYU team 27-17, and looks to have possibly the strongest defense in the league. Washington State lit up the cupcakes of the WAC, in overwhelming San Diego State 45-17 at Seattle's Qwest Field. That's not to mention USC who was idle last week; they're preparing to travel east to Nebraska where they will shuck the Cornhuskers this Saturday night by at least two touchdowns.

And lest we forget our beloved Huskies. At the time of kickoff of the Boise State game, I was half-confident, and yet half-traumatized from the past few seasons. I had concerns of the Bronco offense hanging fifty points on our bend-and-sometimes-break Husky defense. I had nightmare visions of some cockamamie triple-reverse flea-flicker going 77 yards for a touchdown, with the Husky defensive back way out of position, as has happened often in recent years. However, my fears never materialized this past Saturday. Even as the Washington offense sputtered in the fourth quarter, I kept waiting for the Boise State rally that never came. When the clock showed 0:00, Husky players flocked around UW freshman quarterback Jake Locker, enthusiastically giving him hugs and high-fives. For the first time in ages, the Washington Huskies have a charismatic leader, and are 2-0 and looking for more.

As the Pac-10 looks down the road, the main out-of-conference clashes revolve around Washington-Ohio State, as well as both USC and UCLA taking on suddenly hapless Notre Dame. With the league now in the round-robin format, each team plays every other team in the conference. They will subsequently take turns beating each other up. It's conceivable that a conventionally great team could end the season with three losses. In any event, the next ten weeks should be the most enjoyable time to watch the Pac-10 in two decades.

But this newfound top-to-bottom conference strength will show itself most profoundly, when the Pac-10 enters into the holiday bowl season. A 6-0 conference bowl record-- combined with another national championship by USC-- would plant a giant flag of supremacy atop the summit of the college football world. All in due time, of course.
Derek Johnson can be reached at

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