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Pac-10 on the rise, Tressel under fire, Barkley impresses, more mail

We begin with this...

Stewart, will this conference boasting thing ever go away? Saturday, all three of Michigan's biggest rivals (Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame) lost in wonderfully excruciating fashion, and I couldn't even fully enjoy it. Please make it stop.-- Tim, Covington, Ky.

I wish I could, but it would be like a lone guy with a hose trying to put out a forest fire.

There's one obvious reason fans' obsession with conference supremacy continues to rage stronger every year: the BCS. Last year, Florida, Oklahoma and USC all finished the regular season as one-loss conference champions, but the Gators and Sooners played for the national title over the Trojans. Why? Because voters felt the SEC and Big 12 were stronger than the Pac-10.

A year later, however, that perception may be about to change.

The Pac-10 had some big out-of-conference wins last weekend (USC over Ohio State, UCLA over Tennessee, Oregon over Purdue). This weekend there are even more notable matchups slated (Oregon State vs. Cincinnati, Arizona vs. Iowa, Cal vs. Minnesota and Oregon vs. Utah). How many more of these games does the Pac-10 need to win to be considered on par with the Big 12 and SEC?-- Dave, Sparks, Nev.

Both last year and early this season, I've observed that when it comes to public perception, individual teams get credit for big wins, but conferences take the rap for bad losses.

When Alabama beat Virginia Tech on opening weekend, the general reaction was that the Tide look like they'll be a BCS contender again; however, the Hokies' loss, coupled with Virginia losing to William and Mary, Duke losing to Richmond and Wake losing to Baylor meant the ACC must stink. When Oklahoma State beat Georgia, the Cowboys were hailed as "legit;" when they lost to Houston -- on the same weekend Kansas State lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and Colorado lost to Toledo -- the Big 12 suddenly became "overrated."

This is precisely what happened to the Pac-10 last year. On the same weekend USC got feted for thrashing Ohio State, Arizona lost to New Mexico, Arizona State lost to UNLV, Cal lost to Maryland, Stanford lost to TCU, UCLA lost 59-0 to BYU and Washington lost 55-14 to Oklahoma. Any credibility the conference might have hoped for effectively evaporated that weekend, and the Trojans' impressive win was essentially forgotten as soon as they lost to Oregon State (which itself had already gotten blitzed by Penn State).

Looking at the first two weeks of this season, however, I would contend no conference has performed better than the Pac-10. The league boasts the best record (6-2) so far against the five other BCS leagues and the Mountain West and has largely avoided bad losses (with the exception of Oregon's poor showing at Boise State). If the league can pull off a couple more wins this weekend -- like Oregon State against Cincinnati or Arizona (which previously shut down Central Michigan) at Iowa -- it's going to be pretty tough for anyone from the SEC, Big 12 or elsewhere to argue with that record.

But of course, should Pac-10 teams lose more games than they win, or should UCLA (against Kansas State) or Stanford (against San Jose State), suffer a bad loss, it's easy to predict the reaction. The Pac-10 stinks. USC doesn't play anyone. Which is why, at the end of the day, the one surefire way for a conference to preserve its reputation is to schedule Troy and Charleston Southern.

Stewart: Last week, I sent an e-mail questioning your sanity for hyping USC's freshman quarterback Matt Barkley after just one game. Then I saw him lead the game-winning drive against Ohio State. You were right, I was wrong. He is the real deal.-- Phil R., Portland, Ore.

Stewart: Why so much praise for Matt Barkley? Did the sportswriters even watch the USC-OSU game? I realize he was behind center for the winning drive, but 1) most of the credit for that drive should go to Joe McKnight and 2) for the game, Barkley was 15-of-31 passing for 195 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. What did I miss?-- B. Jones, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

First of all, I don't think I've ever received such a barrage of outrage over such an innocuous column as I did for my Barkley piece last week. Note to self: If you choose to invoke the name of Joe Montana, be prepared to face the consequences. That said, I wasn't on some mission to prop up Barkley "after just one game." Truth be told, I didn't even see the San Jose State game. Barkley became a story the day Pete Carroll named him a true-freshman starter.

When considering some of the guys who came before Barkley, it becomes clear the kid must be something special to have earned that distinction. John David Booty graduated high school a year early largely because USC thought he had the chance to start right away, but wound up waiting three years for his turn. Mark Sanchez, the same guy who just made a sizzling NFL debut, also waited three years. Carroll has two similarly tenured quarterbacks at his disposal now, but Barkley simply blew him away. When I saw Barkley for myself that day in practice, I understood why. Physically, he's already developed far beyond his years, but as I noted in that column, his demeanor and composure stood out even more.

But he is still a freshman, and USC clearly intends to lean on its running game for now. For 53 minutes, Ohio State did a great job taking away the Trojans' running game and putting pressure on the young quarterback, and yes, Barkley struggled at times. As for the game-winning drive, I did notice a lot of over-the-top columns after the game that made it seem like Barkley marched USC down the field Elway-style when in fact he completed three passes (two of them short throws). The more impressive thing to me is that despite 105,000 screaming fans, a very frustrating night offensively and a sack to start the drive, his demeanor, from all accounts, never changed. A typical freshman could have very easily melted down under those circumstances.

So, call it "overhyping" if you'd like, but I've been around a lot of college quarterbacks, including a lot of very timid freshmen and sophomores, and Barkley carries himself more like a junior or senior. He's got a swagger to him, and coaches want that in a starting quarterback.

I have been a diehard Buckeyes fan my whole life and will die that way. When Jim Tressel came on board and had the success he did, I thought we finally had a premier coach who brought out the best in the team. Now, with the way his ultra-conservative style has cost the Buckeyes big games, including the other night, I am for the first time beginning to think "Tressel might have to go." Am I out of line?-- Eric Loftus, Toronto, Ohio

Tressel's "play not to lose" attitude continues to be the biggest reason OSU loses big games. USC was outmuscled and outclassed by OSU, save for one drive in the game. But as usual, Tressel gift-wrapped a win to the other team by playing scared and without confidence. I hate to say it, but it's time for Jim Tressel to go. Any chance he's on the hot seat any time soon?-- Greg Smith, Queens, N.Y.

Can you believe it? The same man who, just a few years ago, probably could have run for governor of Ohio and won in a landslide, is suddenly receiving the John Cooper treatment. I know all those big-game losses are frustrating, Buckeye fans, but let's maintain a little perspective. Four straight Big Ten titles, six BCS appearances in seven years, a national title and a 7-1 record against Michigan -- and you want to fire the guy? Really?

I agree Tressel did a poor job coaching last Saturday night, but I want to be as specific as possible. While I got a whole bunch of e-mails about his "conservative play-calling," it was more a case of "conservative game-management." Truth be told, USC had the more conservative game plan. Ohio State took more shots down field and took more chances with its quarterback. But when it came to key fourth-down decisions, USC was aggressive (going for it four times, including on its first touchdown) while Ohio State played for field position. The strategy eventually backfired.

In the grand scheme of things, however, game micromanagement is not what's holding the Buckeyes back. As I wrote Monday, Ohio State's staff is not properly utilizing Terrelle Pryor's talents. I'm no X's and O's guru -- but Chris Brown is. The SmartFootball.com author wrote a fascinating article this week that broke down precisely the flaws in OSU's offense against USC. Among his observations: 1) The Buckeyes used the same formations whenever Pryor rolled out and whenever he threw a screen pass. Not a lot of guesswork required for the defense. 2) Pryor didn't run a single zone-read play, the staple of any good spread-to-run offense. 3) Unlike most dual-threat QBs, Pryor didn't bother faking a bootleg when he handed off -- so USC didn't have to bother defending him.

Contrary to common opinion, Tressel has adapted to his personnel in the past. Ohio State did not run the same offense with Troy Smith that it did with Craig Krenzel, and it's now running a different offense with Pryor. But it seems to me Tressel and his staff don't have a good handle on this one. Whereas coaches like Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez are fully committed to their offenses, it seems Tressel is trying to mix and match traditional elements from his past with less familiar elements of the present, and Pryor doesn't seem like he fits with any of it.

The Buckeyes are still going to beat most of the teams they face due to superior talent, but to cross that last threshold they're going to need to figure out their identity.

Do you feel like pollsters are much less forgiving than they were, say, five to 10 years ago? I feel like back in the day, it would take forever for a name program to exit the polls after losses, but these days, just one loss and you are done (like FSU after Week 1). Similarly, teams can get in just as quickly after a win against a brand-name team.-- Ed Soh, New York

At least in the AP poll, I believe voters are taking their job more seriously than ever before and are adhering more closely to the AP's stated directive that voters "base [their] vote on performance, not reputation or preseason speculation." I'm not saying they're 100 percent consistent about it -- if taken literally, any number of teams could rank ahead of Florida and Texas right now -- but it explains the more dramatic fluctuation from one week to the next. I also think there's a greater respect now for teams like BYU, Boise State and Houston than there was in the past. There have been enough BCS bowl victories and in-season upsets by now that most informed followers are acknowledging that the upper-level non-BCS teams are perfectly capable of competing with most major-conference teams.

But that's the AP poll. The coaches seem to be a little slower coming around. How they could not even include Houston this week after winning at Oklahoma State is stupefying. In fact, of the five non-BCS teams currently ranked, all but Utah are ranked higher by the AP than the coaches -- and the Utes are the only ones that haven't beaten anyone of consequence yet this season. Obviously, you never know what hidden agendas are at work with the coaches, but it's probably more a result of the fact that the coaches, in general, put less thought into their ballots, or that they're being filled out by SIDs or other support staff less likely to rock the boat.

I was reading your Weekend Pickoff. How do you come up with the numbers for your final scores? Play out the game in your mind? Pick a spread and randomly pick number? Random number generator, the Holy Spirit moves within you, darts, or monkeys?-- Teddy, Los Angeles

I used to employ a highly complicated formula involving records, returning starters, projected yardage and turnover margin, home-field advantage and potential weather variables. But after going 3-7 last week -- three and freakin' seven! -- I might as well flip a coin to decide the winner, then flip through a phonebook to come up with the scores.

Did the game in Knoxville last Saturday vindicate Phillip Fulmer and Dave Clawson? I saw a lot of the same-old, same-old from the same source.-- R. Pointon, Ellicott City, Md.

I know Clawson was a popular scapegoat for Tennessee fans last year, but the reality is he was vindicated the day Bowling Green made him its head coach. (The Falcons, it should be noted, nearly toppled Missouri last week.) He's a guy that's widely respected in the coaching profession -- as well as by many of the local media that covered him last season -- and anyone unfortunate enough to have watched last week's UCLA game could plainly see the Vols' offensive struggles have far more to do with talent than scheme.

But Fulmer remains responsible for the fact that Tennessee's talent level fell so far in the first place. Once upon a time, his program recruited as well as any in the SEC, but by the last few years of his tenure it'd been lapped by Florida, Georgia, LSU and Alabama, and apparently made some mistakes with the guys it did land. Lane Kiffin and his staff have made tremendous recruiting inroads already (they landed three more commitments from four-star recruits this past weekend), but they're facing a crisis at quarterback not unlike Michigan's last year. Kiffin picked up a big commitment last week from highly touted California quarterback Tyler Bray. The Vols better hope Bray has the same impact next year as fellow Californian Tate Forcier has had this year.

Friday night, my high school alma mater was down 20-7 with a few minutes left, scored two touchdowns but missed the second extra point and lost in overtime. Saturday evening, my college alma mater held up very well on all but one series the entire night but failed to stop USC's final drive. Sunday afternoon: I'm a Bengals fan. Brandon Stokley. Can you tell me a good joke to get me out of this funk?-- Joel, Delaware, Ohio

That sounds absolutely, positively excruciating. But I do have some news that should cheer you up. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia returns Thursday night! Title of the first episode: "The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis."

On a related note, I don't mean to brag (actually, I do), but a certain connection hooked me up with two tickets to Wednesday night's live performance of The Nightman Cometh here in New York. I've even got an invite to join Kaitlin and the gang at their after-party.

The lesson here: It's good to have a Crush.

Does the Oklahoma State meltdown against Houston prove that Mike "I'm a Man" Gundy is in over his head there?-- Mike C., Omaha, Neb.

Not really. It only proves that reports of Oklahoma State's newfound defensive prowess and accompanying national preeminence were premature.

For all his quirks, Gundy is a perfect fit for that program. His teams play an exciting style of football, and the program has a chance to be more consistently competitive now than at any point in its history. But no matter how much money T. Boone Pickens cares to spend, there's always going to be a ceiling at Oklahoma State. As long as Oklahoma and Texas are what they are, the Cowboys are going to be relegated to that next rung of talent. You can win a lot of games with a high-flying offense like Gundy's, but to win championships you need an elite defense, and the top defensive talent in that part of the country is usually going to be drawn to Norman and Austin.

That doesn't mean Gundy's teams can't compete at a high level, win nine or 10 games and maybe even reach a BCS bowl. But No. 5 team in the country? That illusion was bound to get shattered at some point. It just came a few weeks earlier than most might have expected.

Typical Ohio State basher ... could you make it any more obvious? The fact that you even put Michigan with us shows that you have no college football knowledge what-so-ever. Let's jump on the Forcier wagon, why don't we, Stewart? As much as you may want it to happen, Pryor will not lose another game in his collegiate career again. We are the best in the Big Ten and always will be so get used to it.-- Chris, Amsterdam

You'll have to excuse Chris. He was at a coffeshop when he wrote this.

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