What to watch in the Pac-10

Posted by ESPN.com’s Ted Miller

Just four games this weekend, but three of them figure to have significant ramifications in the Pac-10 pecking order. Arizona State should be able to take care of business against a beaten up Washington State team, right? USC and California are sitting at home this weekend. Guess here is their bye week experience will feel slightly different.

1. Nate Costa gets his moment: The expectations for Costa were high before the 2008 season. He was the heir-apparent to Dennis Dixon, and many Ducks fans whispered that he might even be better at running Chip Kelly’s offense than Dixon was. Then he blew out his knee. Again. Jeremiah Masoli ended up being thrust into the starting role and ran with it. It seemed that, at best, Costa would finish his Oregon career as a backup wondering what might have been. Now, with Masoli nursing a bum knee, all signs point to him starting at UCLA. Can he keep the Ducks on top of the Pac-10?

2. Can Toby Gerhart make a Heisman push against Oregon State? Gerhart’s name is officially in the mix. If he turns in a big day against the Beavers — say 130-plus yards, a touchdown or two — and the Cardinal improves to 4-0 in the Pac-10, then his candidacy should gain some real momentum as folks look for a candidate to compete with the usual suspects. And the Cardinal’s subsequent national ranking should help.

3. Was Washington a one-hit wonder? The Huskies have lost two in a row after beating USC. Sure, they’ve posted two strong losing efforts this season against LSU and Notre Dame –and let’s not forget they went 0-12 in 2008 — but there was a moment when it seemed like a dramatic and total turnaround was possible. That’s still possible. Beat a good Arizona team and the Huskies would be halfway to bowl eligibility. And they’d be 2-1 in the conference. Another competitive performance won’t mean much, though. Close losses to good teams still look the same in the record book.

4. Is this the Cougars’ best chance for a Pac-10 win? Arizona State is coming off a dispiriting home loss to Oregon State. Its offensive line is beat up. It’s got a bit of a quarterback controversy. It’s possible the Sun Devils will take Washington State lightly. If you look through the Cougars’ remaining schedule, there aren’t too many opportunities for wins. And, to be realistic, their chances are slim Saturday. Still, this might be their best shot. Little has gone well for the Cougars this year. Maybe Lady Luck will smile on them at least once.

5. QB Kevin Prince returns for UCLA: The Bruins managed to beat Kansas State without Prince, who broke his jaw against Tennessee, but Stanford made it clear that a solid defense can’t carry it the entire season. Re-enter Prince. He’s probably not going to be sharp after missing three weeks of work. And he may feel a bit nervous with a jaw that only was cleared medically Wednesday. But he’s the best hope for a downfield passing game that could extend the Oregon defense so it can’t gang up on the run.

6. Might Nick Foles steal the stage from Jake Locker? It’s only Foles’ second start for Arizona, but he was so lights-out at Oregon State it’s not unreasonable to wonder if he can duplicate his three touchdown effort in Corvallis. Of course, Husky Stadium is a bit bigger and louder. But the Huskies’ defense is also a bit softer than the Beavers. Locker might be the conference’s premier quarterback, but Foles is presently its highest rated.

7. Rodgers brothers challenge the improved Stanford defense: Stanford’s defense has been strong much of the season, particularly in its last three games, but it was gashed at Wake Forest when the Demon Deacons seemed to use superior speed to take over in the second half. The Rodgers brothers, James and Jacquizz, are far more dangerous than anything Wake had to offer. They rank one-two in all-purpose yards in the conference. So there’s no mystery here. Contain the Rodgers brothers and you contain the Beavers.

8. Danny Sullivan fights for his job: Arizona State fans are clamoring for Dennis Erickson to bench Sullivan in favor of backup Brock Osweiler, a true freshman. Sullivan ranks last in the conference in pass efficiency, but he hasn’t had a lot of help on offense, particularly with an injury-ravaged line. Washington’s State defense, however, and a half-full road stadium could be the perfect antidote for Sullivan’s woes. Perhaps he and the offense figure some things out and that carries them for the rest of the season.

Kyle Bunch

Partnerships for R/GA Ventures. Raised in California, adopted by Texas. Opinions expressed here are mine and they are fantastic.

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