Mon Nov 22 11:56am EST
On one hand, the Pac-10's nine-game, round-robin conference schedule is (and should be) a source of pride: Where the rest of the nation used the expansion of the regular season schedule from 11 to 12 games in 2006 to add an extra non-conference cupcake to the slate, the Pac-10 consciously made its schedule tougher by mandating an additional league game. In some respects, it's paid off: Jeff Sagarin's weekly rankings, one of the six computer polls employed by the BCS, currently list the Pac-10 as the best conference in college football, rank Oregon and Stanford as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams and calculate that nine of the 11 toughest schedules in the country belong to Pac-10 teams. (Only Oregon ranks lower, with Sagarin's 19th-toughest slate, because it doesn't have to play Oregon.)
On the other hand, critics have argued for years that, outside of computer wonks, the round-robin format hurts the conference by guaranteeing that half its members have an extra loss at the end of the season that they wouldn't have if the 12th game was against say, Idaho State instead. This year, it's beginning to look like the skeptics have it: Where the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC all have at least eight bowl-eligible teams as we speed toward the end of the regular season – and even the Big East, Conference USA, MAC and Mountain West all have at least five – only three Pac-10 teams (Oregon, Stanford and Arizona) have won enough games to qualify for one of the conference's six bowl tie-ins. And the prospects for the rest of the candidates are bleak, to say the least.
Part of the problem, of course, is the bowl ban on 7-4 USC, which automatically reduced the field by ten percent before the season even began. The black hole that is Washington State sucked in another ten percent. Mainly, though, it's the fact that the league's upper crust has been so brutal to the middle class, leaving fully half the conference on the brink of .500 with two weeks to play:
• Arizona State (4-6). The Sun Devils are kings of the moral victory, playing Wisconsin, Oregon State, USC and Stanford within four points apiece in down-to-the-wire losses, and giving Oregon one of its toughest games of the year in September. As for actual wins, though, half of ASU's total came against the two Washington schools, and the other half came against I-AA/FCS patsies Portland State and Northern Arizona, rendering the Devils ineligible for the postseason even if they (improbably) take two in a row over UCLA and rival Arizona to finish 6-6.
• California (5-6). The Golden Bears bear some ugly scars from beatdowns at Nevada, USC, Oregon State and Stanford, but remain the conference's best hope for a fourth bowl-eligible team, because they only have one step to get there: Beat Washington in Berkeley this Saturday. The Bears' bad losses have all come on the road; at home, they're a different team entirely, 4-1 with the only truly close call anyone's managed against Oregon.
• Oregon State (5-5). The Beavers join Cal as one of the most schizophrenic teams in America, countering convincing wins over Arizona, Cal and USC with losses to Washington, UCLA and (somehow) Washington State. The roller coaster routine might bode well for their chances of taking one of their last two, if they weren't against the league's resident powerhouses, Stanford and Oregon. Under the circumstances, 5-7 looks inevitable.
• UCLA (4-6). The Bruins have resurrected their flailing season once, with back-to-back upsets over Houston and Texas after an ugly 0-2 start in September. After four losses in their last five, they can still take some heat off coach Rick Neuheisel and slip into a bowl game with another pair of upsets over Arizona State and USC. No one who watched the offense dig a hole and crawl inside to die last Thursday at Washington expects them to get halfway there.
• Washington (4-6). The the long-suffering Huskies are the best bet to carry the torch with a win Saturday at Cal, which would leave only Washington State between U-Dub and the Valhalla of 6-6. Then again, after returning to realm of the living against Oregon State, the Cougars could also be in position to spoil the league's last remaining hope for a fourth qualifier, leaving only three.
Note that six of that group's eight non-conferences losses came at the hands of teams currently ranked in the top 20, and the other two at the hands of teams that are heading to bowl games themselves. Another 11 came against one of the three Pac-10 teams in this week's polls, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona. Two more came against USC, which has been ranked for most of the season. The other eight were inflicted by one another. With the exception of Oregon State's baffling flop against Wazzu, none of the above has lost to a demonstrably bad team.
They've also left the Pac-10 as the only major conference not sending at least three-fourths of its members to the bloated postseason parade. It's not even sending half. Maybe the unforgiving format and relatively bold non-conference philosophy makes that inevitable, but try arguing that to the rest of the country via midnight games on Versus.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.