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Inside College Football

Time for Pac-9 to make a stand

August 30, 2007|Chris Dufresne | ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Ready. . . set. . .

Hold it, are we sure they're ready?

In 1999, the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats opened what was supposed to a banner Pacific 10 Conference season with a 41-7 loss at Penn State.

Three openers ago, Oregon State traveled to treacherous Baton Rouge, La., and played the Louisiana State Tigers off their paws and had the game won until they didn't, losing, 21-20, in overtime.

Last year's opening weekend featured California getting stage fright at Tennessee and poisoning the Pac-10's national reputation even though Cal ended up winning 10 games and its first share of a conference title since 1975.

"We were in the 12th game of the season and people were still asking, 'What happened that first game?' " Cal quarterback Nate Longshore said this summer. "It was like, 'Didn't I answer this question last week?' It stuck with us all year and sticks with us now."

Oregon State kicks off the Pac-10 season tonight with a crucial -- aren't they all? -- nonconference matchup against Utah in Corvallis, Ore.

Oregon State also won 10 games last year, defeated eventual Rose Bowl champion USC, and rallied furiously to eclipse Missouri in the Sun Bowl.

Yet, as they sometimes say in the Pac-10, "If the Stanford Tree fell in the forest, would anybody hear it?"

The road to perception-busting starts now.

"Besides the fact our own teams want to win games and that's the focus, there are periphery ramifications of these early preseason games," Oregon State Coach Mike Riley conceded this week. "People always seem to refer back to them."

What about USC?

Forget USC. People who bag on the Pac-10 consider the Trojans to be in a league of their own.

It's as if USC, for tax purposes, just keeps a P.O. box in Walnut Creek.

Tom Hansen, the conference's commissioner, says this is unfair.

"It truly does bother you," he said last month in response to Louisiana State Coach Les Miles' saying USC had a relative cakewalk to the national title game.

Is the Pac-10 being unfairly judged?

It's a mixed bag.

The conference has sent seven schools to major bowls since the Bowl Championship Series was formed in 1998, and USC was the last school in following UCLA, Stanford, Washington, Oregon State, Oregon and Washington State.

The Pac-10 is 7-4 overall in BCS games.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is 1-8.

Why isn't Miles directing his criticisms toward possibly having to play a BCS game against a champion from the easy-road ACC?

For one, that ACC team might be Virginia Tech, and the Hokies are headed to Baton Rouge for an important nonconference matchup Sept. 8.

The Pac-9 (excluding USC) has also had its share of blown saves.

There are many important games this year on the conference's round-robin, but just as big are games outside the league.

Football folks expect USC to take care of business against Idaho, Nebraska and Notre Dame. It's up to "and the rest" on Gilligan's Island to flag down a rescue ship.

"It's a reality that's there," Riley said.

The Pac-9 needs to get busy tonight, starting in Corvallis, and then Friday, when much-improved-we-think Washington plays at Syracuse.

It would be a bonus if the Pac-9 had a head of Anchor Steam on Saturday evening when Cal plays host to Tennessee in a critical pay-back chance.

What do people remember about last year?

"The bowl game a little bit," Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said, "but it seems they always come back to Tennessee."

Other early showcase games include Washington State at Wisconsin (the Cougars will be asked only to keep it close), Arizona at Brigham Young, and Houston at Oregon.

San Jose State plays at Arizona State in a matchup of coaching friends Dick Tomey and Dennis Erickson. Tomey, when he coached at Arizona, was 8-5-1 against Arizona State.

Next week, Oregon plays at, yikes, Michigan, and later this year UCLA gets a must-avenge match against Notre Dame at the Rose Bowl.

The Pac-10 doesn't need to win all of these games, but it needs to win some.

Perception is reality in college football, and it can hit you in your pocketbook.

The Pac-10 hasn't put a second team in a BCS game since 2002, when USC played Iowa in the Orange Bowl and Washington State played Oklahoma in the Rose.

In a system without a playoff, what people think of you can mean everything. At-large bowl bids are determined in part by the BCS standings, which include subjective polls.

In 2004, Texas edged Cal out of a Rose Bowl berth because a few voters switched sides after a Cal victory at Southern Mississippi.

If the Pac-9 doesn't take care of business in late August, it could happen again come December.

Remember, it's an interesting football-watching world out there, and not everyone east of Denver stays up late or gets FSN West as part of their cable package.

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* Story lines for opening weekend are vast and varied:

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