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Strutting Its Stuff

FOOTBALL '01

After Repairing Image Last Year, Pacific 10 Sets Sights on National Title Game

August 26, 2001|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pacific 10 Conference has a confident look this fall, a swagger that comes from winning three major bowl games and finishing last season with three teams in the top 10.

"A great season for us," conference Commissioner Tom Hansen says. "Historic."

It's enough to make fans forget that only two years ago this was a conference in doubt, its teams losing a slew of nationally televised games, the collective embarrassment stretching from Seattle to Los Angeles.

"There was a lot of youth and a lot of other reasons for the woes of a couple of years ago," says Chris Fowler, ESPN's college football host and a poll voter. "Nobody really thought the Pac-10 was going to stay down forever."

It's not only football that has recaptured the attention of the college cognoscenti. The Pac-10 placed three teams in the Elite Eight of the men's basketball tournament in March, marking only the second time a conference has produced so many top-ranked football and basketball teams in a single academic year.

Now, does all of this translate into a little more respect, especially from the East Coast?

Does Oregon State get more credit for defeating Arizona? Does UCLA rise in the rankings with a victory at Stanford?

Maybe. The three teams that finished in the top 10 last season--Oregon, Oregon State and Washington--return to the top 20 this fall, joined by UCLA at No. 17. It helps that the two Oregon teams were historically doormats.

"There is a perception of great depth this year," Fowler said. "People expect UCLA to bounce back and definitely USC will jump up in there. The Arizona schools have talent."

The conference is attracting even more attention because of Heisman Trophy talk swirling around Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton and Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington. And, come January, the Rose Bowl will play host to its first bowl championship series national championship game.

If a Pac-10 team gets into that game by being ranked No. 1 or No. 2, the conference might pull off a repeat of last season, putting its second-place team into the BCS' Fiesta Bowl.

The scenario was mentioned a time or two at the recent Pac-10 media day. But January is a long way off and even a beaming Hansen acknowledged that "now we go again and [last season] is nothing but history."

The Pac-10 revival makes it less likely that any team will survive the regular season unbeaten.

Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson calls the parity "unbelievable." Stanford Coach Tyrone Willingham, whose team is expected to run in the middle of the pack, likened it to auto racing. The Cardinal, he said, plans to draft off the leaders.

"There are a lot of good teams in the conference and we're hoping to let some of those teams pull us along," he said. "Hopefully, when the race is done we can finish near the front."

Pac-10 coaches also hope the polls will be understanding.

"Shoot, teams are really loaded," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "I can't imagine we're not getting the highest consideration."

1. OREGON

Coach: Mike Bellotti, seventh season.

2000 record: 10-2, 7-1.

Case for: Is quarterback Joey Harrington truly Heisman Trophy material, as suggested by Oregon's preseason promotional blitz? It might not matter because he has a veteran offensive line and a top-notch receiver in Keenan Howry. Tailback Maurice Morris will get some help if Tennessee transfer Onterrio Smith survives preseason disciplinary problems. And the Ducks don't play Washington.

Case against: Defense is the question mark for the Ducks, who have only four starters returning, fewest in the Pac-10 on that side of the ball. They also must restock what was a solid kicking game.

If all goes right: Oregon starts fast and Harrington gains confidence, not to mention Heisman votes, through November. A Dec. 1 victory over highly ranked Oregon State could put the Ducks in the national championship game at the Rose Bowl.

2. OREGON STATE

Coach: Dennis Erickson, third season.

2000 record: 11-1, 7-1.

Case for: The heart of the offense returns with quarterback Jonathan Smith and tailback Ken Simonton, who is looking for a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. Better yet, the season starts with Fresno State and two opponents off the dessert tray--New Mexico State and Montana State. Most of the tough Pac-10 games are at home.

Case against: Speedy receivers made this team dangerous in 2000 but the core of that group--Robert Prescott, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson--has departed. Oregon State also must replace six starters on a defense that led the conference last season.

If all goes right: The Beavers show their stuff against UCLA and Washington, then show the pollsters they are for real by winning the nationally televised showdown at Oregon.

3. WASHINGTON

Coach: Rick Neuheisel, third season.

2000 record: 11-1, 7-1.

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