What to watch in the Pac-10

Posted by ESPN.com’s Ted Miller

To paraphrase a great philosopher and renaissance man, Ric Flair, “This ain’t no garden party, brother, this is the Pac-10, where only the strongest survive. Wooooooo!”

Folks, the screws are tightening.

1. Does USC’s Pac-10 run end Saturday? It’s fairly simple. If Stanford wins at USC, it’s likely one of the great runs in the history of college football — the Trojans’ seven years atop the Pac-10 — will come to an end. If the Trojans win, however, they head into a bye week when they can get healthy and rested and then fix their eyeballs on a conference race that remains within reach. Quick trivia question: How many Top-25 teams other than USC have played six of their last eight games on the road?

2. Will California be flat or inspired by Jahvid Best‘s absence? Arizona has a lot to play for at Cal. The Bears? Hard to say. It will be interesting to see which team shows up. The Bears have looked good at times this year. And very bad. Best, who suffered a concussion last weekend against Oregon State, was once a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Now his season is likely over. Cal, which has clearly underperformed this fall, might come out yawning, a team just playing out the string. Or it might come out more focused than ever after learning how one unlucky moment could take the game away for good.

3. How will true ASU freshman QB Brock Osweiler respond to Autzen Stadium? Alright kid, go get ’em! What? Go get ’em! What? Osweiler will make his first career start in one of the nation’s loudest and toughest venues against an extremely fast defense that was humbled last weekend at Stanford and will be plenty motivated for redemption. Osweiler, by the way, won’t have Toby Gerhart or the Cardinal’s smart, physical offensive line to help either. Good luck, though. What? The Pac-10 blog said good luck! What?

4. Sean Canfield vs. the Washington secondary: Canfield has been playing as well as any quarterback in the conference of late — and that’s saying something because a lot of quarterbacks are playing well. The Huskies’ secondary has struggled throughout the season. It ranks ninth in the conference and 110th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. The idea of Canfield and his quick release dumping the ball to either of the Rodgers brothers in space has to keep Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt up at night. His secondary just doesn’t have the speed to match up.

5. Might Pullman put a chill in UCLA? Good news for UCLA: It doesn’t appear the Bruins will encounter a real mid-November day in Pullman. Reports say it may snow on Friday but it will be partly cloudy and pleasant — mid-30s — on Saturday. If the Cougars are to pull the upset, they need all the help they can get, and snow and cold might be a boon against the visitors from sunny southern California. Of course, the weather is often unpredictable. Maybe that snow will start Friday and keep coming?

6. Luck & Gerhart challenge the USC D: After piling up 505 yards against an Oregon defense that mostly shut down USC, Stanford will face those Trojans with a physical, balanced offense that can attack a defense by land (Gerhart) or by air (Andrew Luck). Whether the blame falls on youth or injuries, USC’s defense has not been itself since the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame game on Oct. 17. Considering Stanford has scored 84 points the past two games against two of the nation’s better defenses, this could be a humbling afternoon for the Trojans. Or it could be a turning point.

7. Will Nick Foles pick apart the Cal secondary? Before the season, Arizona had questions at quarterback, and California, with four starters returning, had one of the best secondaries in the nation. Now, the Wildcats have Foles, a sophomore who is completing 71.4 percent of his passes, and the Bears rank 93rd in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Go figure. Foles’ quick release — the Wildcats have surrendered only four sacks all season — and accuracy will stress the Bears.

8. Jake Locker is due a big performance: Locker has been spectacular for Washington at times this year. Not so great at others. He’s banged up. And his team has lost five of six. But there are reasons Pac-10 coaches fear Locker and the NFL covets him — he’s a great talent with superior playmaking ability. Washington can’t win if he doesn’t play well. It sometimes can’t even if he does. But if he puts together a special game, the Huskies could pull the upset.

9. Oregon’s O vs. Arizona State’s D: The Sun Devils are suddenly hurting in the secondary, but they have been consistently tough on defense all season, particularly against the run where they rank sixth in the nation (87.4 yards per game). Oregon, of course, is one of the nation’s best running teams (233.56 yards per game). It will be interesting to see who blinks in this strength-on-strength battle, or if the Ducks just try to attack through the air, sensing that’s where Arizona State will be most vulnerable.

10. Will Matt Barkley‘s slide end vs. Stanford’s defense? A few weeks ago, Barkley was running the USC offense with aplomb and was the toast of college football. But his last six quarters — the second half at Oregon plus the visit to Arizona State — haven’t been sharp. It doesn’t help that his two favorite targets, tight end Anthony McCoy and receiver Damian Williams, may not be available Saturday. But he’s coming home, which should help, and it’s hard to believe that he won’t be eager to prove that his recent slump was just a momentary blip on his path toward becoming a superstar quarterback.

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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