Pac-12 conference is off to strong start in 2014

first_img NFL locals photo gallery, Week 3: Alex Smith, Eric Weddle post strong numbers in victory Related We can never say ‘this is going to be an easy game’ — that’s not the case. You’ve got to be ready to play every week. We’ve got to be playing on all cylinders for nine weeks. – Kyle WhittinghamSALT LAKE CITY — Remember just a few years ago when the Mountain West Conference was beating up on the Pac-10 Conference, which was considered among the weakest of the major conferences?There was a day in 2008 when the MWC went 4-0 against the Pac-10 when BYU trounced UCLA, TCU beat Stanford, New Mexico defeated Arizona and UNLV knocked off Arizona State. Back then, the Pac-10 had just a 19-17 non-conference record in ’08 and even had trouble filling its bowl contract obligations for a couple of years.Those woeful days are long gone as the now-Pac-12 is miles ahead of the MWC and one of the top two conferences in the country.Four weeks into the season, the league has seven undefeated teams, more than any other league in the country (the SEC has five) and a 29-4 non-conference record that is second only to the SEC’s 31-3 mark.The Pac-12 has always had one or two of the top 10 teams in the country, but the difference now is the depth of the league. Just look what happened last weekend, when Washington State, picked for fifth in the North Division, nearly upset No. 2 ranked Oregon, while Cal, picked for sixth, scored 45 points but lost on a Hail Mary pass to Arizona on the road.“It’s tough and it’s very balanced,’’ Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Pac-12. “We can never say ‘this is going to be an easy game’ — that’s not the case. You’ve got to be ready to play every week. We’ve got to be playing on all cylinders for nine weeks.’’Right now, five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the Top 25 with Oregon at No. 2, UCLA at No. 11, Arizona State at 15, Stanford at 16 and USC at 18. In addition, four Pac-12 schools are receiving votes in the AP poll. Going by the number of votes, Utah would be 31st, Washington 32nd, Arizona 38th and Oregon State 40th.That’s nine teams among the top 40 in the nation. That’s the same number as the SEC, which has eight teams in the Top 25.The Pac-12 season gets cranking this week with five conference matchups, including Washington State at Utah, Stanford at Washington, Colorado at California, Oregon State at USC and UCLA at Arizona State, the latter on Thursday night. Only Oregon and Arizona, which both have byes, aren’t playing.With the season barely a quarter over, here is a look at some of the best, worst and most in the conference so far.Most surprising teams: Cal and Utah. The Bears were picked for last in the northern division but have shown a big improvement under second-year coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears upset Northwestern on the road earlier in the season and led unbeaten Arizona until a last-second Hail Mary quashed their hopes. The Utes have looked much better on offense so far and solid on defense, but have yet to be tested in the Pac-12.Most disappointing team: UCLA. It’s strange to say that about the No. 11th ranked team in the nation, but the Bruins haven’t looked great this year. They’ve had to scratch and claw to beat three mediocre teams in Virginia, Memphis and Texas, winning by an average of six points. We’ll find out a lot about the Bruins Thursday night at Arizona State, when both teams may be playing without their starting quarterbacks.Luckiest team: Arizona. Did you see that Hail Mary pass as time ran out to beat Cal late Saturday night? Earlier, the Wildcats had to hang on to beat UTSA and Nevada by three and seven points, respectively.Most dangerous team: Washington State. The Cougars lost to Rutgers and Nevada to start the season but have looked much better the past two weeks, crushing Portland State and giving Oregon all it could handle late Saturday night. The Cougars are one-dimensional as usual, but quarterback Connor Halliday is averaging 496 yards per game passing, which would be an all-time NCAA record if he keeps it up.Most puzzling team: Washington. The Huskies, under new coach Chris Peterson, nipped Hawaii by a point and eked out a win over Eastern Washington before crushing Illinois and Georgia State the past two weeks.Best offense: Oregon. The Ducks are still as explosive as ever behind Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota, ranking sixth in the country in total offense and first in the nation in pass-efficiency offense.Best defense: Stanford, which is allowing just 4.3 points per game and 204.3 yards per game, both No. 1 in the nation. If the offense hadn’t stalled against USC, the Cardinal would be unbeaten and in the top 10.Best special teams: Utah. Who can be better than the Utes, who not only have the best punter, place-kicker and kick returner in the conference, but perhaps in the entire nation in Tom Hackett, Andy Phillips and Kaelin Clay.Best player you’ve never heard of: Anu Solomon, Arizona’s freshman quarterback. He’s the guy who threw that long Hail Mary pass to beat Cal, and already this season he’s completed 111 passes for 1,454 yards and 13 touchdowns.Worst start for a new coach: USC coach Steve Sarkisian. Actually it hasn’t been all bad for the former BYU quarterback. But in his first month he had to endure a team captain lying about a supposed heroic rescue, a player accusing him of racism, getting his athletic director in trouble by calling him down to the field during a game and then seeing his team get upset on the road to an average Boston College team. On the plus side, his team knocked off Stanford and is currently ranked No. 18 in the country.Best scenario for the Pac-12: That nine of the 12 teams finish with at least six wins and earn bowl bids and that one team emerges unbeaten or with one loss and makes the playoffs and goes on to win the national championship.Worst scenario for the Pac-12: For the balanced league to show too much balance and end up with several two-loss teams, depriving the league of a spot in the new four-team national playoff. Ute QB wearing his toughness on his facecenter_img Utah football: Utes’ Paul, Phillips earns weekly Pac-12 honors Coach Whit congratulates former BYU teammate McMahonlast_img