Parity reigns supreme in surprise-filled Pac-12
PHOENIX (AP) Every season, the Pac-12's coaches talk about how much parity there is in the conference. Every season, the same teams seem to end up on top when it's over.
This season has seen a shift. The calls of parity are actually on the mark.
This is a new version of the Pac-12, where new teams are on the rise and the unexpected has become the norm.
The Pac-12 hierarchy in recent years started with Oregon. The Ducks played for the national title in 2011, again last season and have won five of the past seven Pac-12 championships. They were picked to win the Pac-12 North Division again this season.
But Oregon already has two losses this season, the latest one of the biggest surprises of the college football season: Utah 62, Oregon 20, in Eugene.
''To the outside world, the Utah-Oregon game was crazy,'' Shaw said. ''But to those of us who know, when Utah is hitting on all cylinders, they're extremely good.''
The Utes have been one of the biggest surprises in college football, not just the Pac-12.
Utah struggled after joining the conference in 2011, finishing no higher than tied for third in the Pac-12 South.
The Utes opened the 2015 season with an impressive victory over Michigan in coach Jim Harbaugh's debut and followed with three more victories. The win over Oregon two weeks ago put Utah on the national map and the Utes moved up to No. 5 with seven first-place votes in the latest AP Top 25.
Utah's run has drawn comparisons to the 2004 and 2008 teams, which both finished undefeated and won major bowls.
''It's still really early. We're still only one third of the way through it,'' Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''There's so much football left that it's really hard to make a comparison yet to either of those teams. There is somewhat of a similar feel with the national attention we've received and that type of thing, but there's so much football left that it's just pointless to talk about anything but Cal Berkeley.''
Cal, Utah's next opponent, has been another team on the rise in the Pac-12.
The Bears went 1-11 their first season under Sonny Dykes in 2013 - 0-9 in conference - and improved to 5-7 last season. Cal had some talent coming back, led by quarterback Jared Goff, but was still picked to finish third in the Pac-12 North behind Oregon and Stanford.
The Bears opened with a pair of routs, outlasted Texas in Austin and started conference with victories over Washington and Washington State. Cal moved up to No. 23 in the AP poll after beating the Cougars 34-28 at home last week.
Of course, the Bears were 4-1 at one point last season and faltered down the stretch after the schedule got tougher - just as it is about to do again this season.
''I think this year's team is a lot different,'' Dykes said. ''We're a different team defensively and I think it's going to serve us well.''
The entire conference has been tough to predict.
Stanford opened the season with a disheartening loss to Northwestern, but is now atop the Pac-12 North and up to No. 16 in the AP poll.
The Sun Devils won that game on the heels of a blowout loss to USC the week before. Colorado, at 3-2, has already surpassed its win total from last season and the conference still doesn't have a team that's under .500.
The only concern is that the parity could hurt the Pac-12 when the College Football Playoff comes around. With no clear-cut dominant team, the conference could be left out of the playoff party.
''This is an amazing conference, UCLA coach Jim Mora said. ''There is not a weak team in this conference. It's also very scary, I think for probably all of us. We don't want to eat each other.''
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