Being Bad Actually Can Be Good

It's shaping up as a breakthrough season for the Pacific 10 Conference, only three USC victories and a decimal-point bake-off from earning its first bowl championship series title-game appearance.

Finally, the Pac-10 appears to have done what is necessary to push a team to the top.

Foremost, the conference has become thoroughly mediocre -- call it USC and the Nine Pylons.

Any student of BCS warfare knows a key to garnering a national title spot is having a great team dominate a weak conference.

It's the reason the two worst BCS leagues, the Atlantic Coast (Florida State) and Big East (Miami, Virginia Tech) conferences, have hogged six of the 10 title-game berths.

The Pac-10 this year has become the perfect storm, a confluence of rising USC air against an emerging weak front.

The Pac-10 is so lousy:

* Only two teams, USC and Washington State, are ranked in the Associated Press top 25.

* Washington State, the biggest threat to USC, spit the bit in last week's loss at the Coliseum.

* Utah, of the Mountain West, is the only school unbeaten in Pac-10 play (2-0).

* Should USC advance to the Sugar Bowl, the conference may not have a second-place team that is BCS eligible.

* UCLA, incredibly tied for the conference lead, boasts an offense so horrid it should come with a viewer discretion warning.

* Stanford, which defeated UCLA, lost to Oregon, 35-0.

* Oregon, the conference's flagship team since 1996 or so, is 5-4 after a 4-0 start and might not even make a bowl.

What happened to the Pac-10?

For one, the big guns are shooting blanks. In a year that was going to be down for quarterbacks no matter what, Washington's Cody Pickett and Arizona State's Andrew Walter have struggled after fantastic 2002 seasons.

This always has been a quarterback-driven conference, yet this year -- USC's Matt Leinart being the exception -- the position has taken a collective backpedal.

Washington and Arizona State were supposed to be the two biggest threats to USC this year.

USC defeated both teams by 20 points -- some threat.

Washington is 5-4, while Arizona State is 4-5 after last week's 51-23 loss to California.

Arizona State Coach Dirk Koetter was so disgusted after the loss, he refused to hand out player-of-the-game awards.

"We got our butts kicked in all phases," Koetter said.

The pluckiest team in the conference may be 5-5 California, which shows signs of explosiveness and had enough gumption one Saturday to shock USC in triple overtime.

Oh, Cal also lost to Oregon State, which lost to Fresno State.

What, in the form of resistance, stands in USC's way?

Arizona? To quote Jackie Gleason, "Hardee-har-har-har."

UCLA? Not unless Bob Toledo returns with his 1998 team.

Oregon State? Most definitely in 2000, when Dennis Erickson fielded a squad good enough to trounce Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl -- but not now.

Really, though, things couldn't be working out better for the Pac-10. In fact, should USC fall short in the BCS this year, fear not, because the Trojans figure to be even better next year.

And the Pac-10 figures to be even worse.

Pac Bits

* Arizona would like to have a new coach in place by Dec. 1, if only to get a jump on recruiting. Cincinnati Bengal assistant coach Ricky Hunley is actively pursuing the position and made his intentions clear last weekend when Cincinnati was in Tempe to play the Cardinals.

"It's home," he told the Arizona Republic when asked about the coaching vacancy. Hunley was a star linebacker in the 1980s and is considered a viable candidate even though he has no head-coaching experience.

* It's clear the Black Coaches' Assn., which recently unveiled a grading system for minority hiring practices, has a keen eye on the Arizona situation. Hunley is African American and a favorite-son candidate. Others mentioned for the job are Boise State Coach Dan Hawkins and Pittsburgh's Walt Harris.

* Woe is Oregon. With remaining games against Cal, UCLA and Oregon State, it is conceivable Oregon could finish with a losing record for the first time since the school went 5-6 in 1993.

* Obviously, the Rose Bowl's best scenario is for USC to finish No. 3 in the BCS and face two-loss Michigan or one-loss Ohio State.

If USC is lost to the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl gets to fill the Pac-10 vacancy but could only select two-loss Washington State if the Cougars finish in the BCS top 12 -- Washington State is 15th this week.

We joked in an earlier column about the Rose Bowl stealing Miami from the Orange Bowl in a return-fire volley for last year's episode in which the Orange Bowl used a one-time contractual move to take Iowa.

Actually, some in Pasadena weren't thrilled with Miami's appearance two years ago, so how about the Rose Bowl takes one-loss Florida State as the at-large pick?

In any case, the Rose Bowl would have a difficult time passing on either Miami or Florida State should either team be ranked No. 3 in the BCS.

* Worst-case Rose Bowl scenario: losing USC to the Sugar Bowl and Michigan State winning the Big Ten title.

If Washington State is not BCS eligible, the Rose Bowl would not have a traditional Pac-10/Big Ten pairing for a third consecutive season -- not exactly what the Rose Bowl signed up for when it joined the BCS in 1998.

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