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Pac-10 becoming three-headed monster worthy of our respect

"We're playing everyone on our roster on both sides of the ball," Kelly said Sunday.

Indeed, a look at the box score shows that nine different Ducks carried the ball Saturday. Seven of them had a gain of at least nine yards, including star LaMichael James, who carried 14 times for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of their nine touchdown drives lasted less than two minutes. That's just silly-good execution.

"I told our team that the mark of a great team is when you're supposed to beat a team, you beat a team," said Kelly. "You don't let people hang around. They've played hard no matter who we're playing."

We knew the defending Pac-10 champion Ducks were going to be good. That's why they're ranked fifth in the country. Their biggest question mark was sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas, who quieted most doubts when he walked into 100,000-plus seat Neyland Stadium in his second career start and engineered a blowout of Tennessee.

The real question -- and the one that's been hovering ever since the Pac-10's cross-country media blitz this summer -- was the strength of the rest of the conference. Fortunately, the Pac-10 plays enough early showcase games to get a decent read on most teams, and the early results are in. USC? Not what it used to be. Washington? Fraud. Cal? Ditto. Washington State? Don't even go there.

Two teams, however, have emerged as legitimate threats to the Ducks: Arizona and Stanford. Not coincidentally for a league long defined by its quarterbacks, the Wildcats and Cardinal boast two of the best we've seen this year.

On dueling channels Saturday night, you could watch Arizona's 79-percent passer, Nick Foles, lead a last-minute touchdown drive to knock off ninth-ranked Iowa, 34-27, or Stanford's Andrew Luck -- whom coach Jim Harbaugh declared "the best quarterback in the country" last year while Luck was still just a redshirt freshman -- shred Wake Forest for four passing touchdowns and a 52-yard rushing score in a 68-24 rout.

On paper, the Wildcats and Cardinal entered the season as just two of several similarly bunched teams that seemed like they could go one direction or the other. Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have used the Oregon measuring stick.

"I know how good Arizona and Stanford are because we face them," said Kelly. "We had one [conference] loss last year, and it was to Stanford. We beat Arizona in double overtime. I've been a huge Nick Foles fan since he took over last year, and I think Andrew Luck IS the best quarterback in the country -- not because Jim Harbaugh said that, but since he threw [two] touchdowns on us last year."

The Ducks open conference play this week at Arizona State (which itself sent a bit of a message with its near-miss at Wisconsin on Saturday), and anyone who's watched them play likely considers them a national-title threat. But Oregon's fortunes may be closely tied to those of the Wildcats, Cardinal and the rest of the Pac-10.

For all of commissioner Larry Scott's rebranding efforts, the Pac-10 still carries a mixed reputation nationally. Two years ago, one of Pete Carroll's most dominant USC teams was essentially locked out of title contention by fellow one-loss teams from the SEC (Florida) and Big 12 (Oklahoma). As of now, the Ducks are waiting their turn behind Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State and TCU, with Big 12 teams Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska capable of jumping ahead of them. Meanwhile, the next-highest Pac-10 team, Arizona, sits 14th in both polls.

Sometimes, the Pac-10's rigorous nonconference schedule can be its own worst enemy. Arizona's win over top 10 foe Iowa was arguably the most significant nonconference feat of any team to date, but it was essentially canceled out by Washington's meltdown against Nebraska the same day. USC's latest uninspiring win Saturday at Minnesota doesn't raise anyone's confidence, either.

The Pac-10 has more victories over BCS-conference foes (eight) than any other league, but it also has more FBS losses (eight) than the SEC (two), Big 12 (four) or Big Ten (five). More opportunities await this weekend, when Oregon State visits No. 3 Boise State and Stanford visits Notre Dame, both on national television.

Meanwhile, Oregon and Arizona (vs. Cal) begin their nine-game conference slates this weekend. Obviously, either could blow it at any moment (Mike Stoops' team sure as heck tried against the Hawkeyes), but perhaps the most telling -- and surprising -- stat to consider is this: In addition to boasting offensive stars like James, Thomas, Foles and Luck, their teams currently rank No. 1 (Oregon), No. 3 (Arizona) and No. 6 (Stanford) nationally in total defense.

That may be the biggest reason to start taking the West Coasters seriously.

At 11:49 p.m. Saturday night, Mark Dantonio was the happiest coach in America, grinning for the ABC cameras while accepting congratulations for a triumphant fake field-goal call in overtime against Notre Dame that capped arguably the biggest win of his Michigan State tenure. Roughly 45 minutes later, he was being whisked to a nearby hospital to undergo an angioplasty to open a clogged blood vessel leading to his heart.

If that doesn't put football in perspective, I don't know what will.

Thankfully, the procedure was successful. "Coach Dantonio is resting comfortably ... and is expected to make a full recovery," Dr. Chris D'Haem, who performed the procedure, said Sunday. Dantonio's heart attack will presumably spark another round of columns about the stresses of a head coach's job, a la Urban Meyer last winter, but the truth is not even a trained medical professional could explain why this happened to Dantonio (or, fatally, to former Northwestern coach Randy Walker four years ago) while other more high-strung or less healthy coaches manage to avoid incident.

Hopefully, Dantonio will not rush back to the sideline. Michigan State has the makings of a very good team on its hands (running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Von Bell are both averaging more than 100 yards), but Dantonio's staff has been together since their arrival four years ago. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who will be taking over Dantonio's duties temporarily, first worked alongside Dantonio in the late '80s on Jim Tressel's staff at Youngstown State and rejoined him six years ago at Cincinnati. He'll be OK until Dantonio returns.

In the meantime, get-well messages poured in Sunday from some of Dantonio's Big Ten coaching peers. I hope you'll join me in wishing the same.

Told ESPN's GameDay would be making its first visit to Boise State for Saturday's game against Oregon State, Broncos coach Chris Petersen replied: "It's about time." That's about the closest Boise's recalcitrant leader has ever come to playing the "lack of respect" card most fans and media would assume he and the rest of his program harbor.

Nor does GameDay's party-time atmosphere seemingly fit with Petersen's modus operandi. When star receiver Austin Pettis somersaulted into the end zone following a 58-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter Saturday against Wyoming, his coach wasn't content with a stern dress-down. He benched him the rest of the way. "There's a right way to do it and a wrong way," said Petersen. "... Message sent."

With the Broncos set to receive the full GameDay/ABC Primetime treatment Saturday, prepare for a fresh round of Boise backlash from power-conference country. The Broncos' weekly routine now seemingly consists of having to produce the requisite style points in victory (I'd say a 51-6 road win Saturday sufficed) and then rooting for the other teams on their schedule.

It was a good week in that department for the Broncos. Not only did Virginia Tech finally get back on track with a 49-27 win over East Carolina, but Nevada, Boise's toughest anticipated WAC foe, delivered an impressive 52-31 rout of Cal late Friday. Quarterback Colin Kapernick, who accounted for 329 total yards and five touchdowns, has been shattering offensive records the past few years, but this marked his first legitimizing win over a BCS-conference foe.

Who knows? Maybe Chris, Lee and Kirk will be making a special Friday night visit to Reno on Thanksgiving weekend if both Nevada and Boise run the table. In the meantime, Boise detractors should note that Alabama faces the AP's current No. 10 (Arkansas), No. 9 (Florida) and No. 12 (South Carolina) teams in the next three weeks.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: Alabama vs. Ohio State

Rose: Oregon vs. Boise State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Arizona

Orange: Miami vs. West Virginia

Sugar: Florida vs. Nebraska

The three-way Big 12 race between No. 6 Nebraska, No. 7 Texas and No. 8 Oklahoma is nearly impossible to handicap. A week after the Sooners' eye-opening rout of Florida State, the Huskers one-upped them by going on the road and throttling Washington behind a suddenly powerful rushing attack. And while Texas' offense continues to struggle, it's hard to argue with a defense that held Texas Tech to its lowest offensive output (144 yards) in 20 years. The 'Horns are my odd man out for now because they're the only group of the trio that has to play the other two (Oct. 2 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 16 at Nebraska).

I didn't realize this until after I'd settled on the pairings, but each of the four hypothetical non-title matchups above has some added significance. Florida and Nebraska played for the 1995 national title (the game where Tommie Frazier ran over the Gators). Miami and West Virginia are former Big East foes. Oregon and Boise State -- you know that one. And Oklahoma-Arizona would be Stoops vs. Stoops. Everyone would love it but them. But alas, they don't finalize the lineup on Sept. 19.

My reaction to the latest AP and coaches' polls (or BCS standings):

Overrated: Wisconsin (AP: No. 11; coaches': No. 10)

The Badgers may get there eventually, but right now they're a sloppy, banged-up team that required a bevy of breaks to survive Arizona State (20-19).

Underrated: Air Force (NR)

A week after routing BYU, the Falcons went to Norman and gave Oklahoma everything it could handle. I'd put them ahead of ranked teams Penn State and Missouri.

• Houston quarterback Case Keenum entered the season with a realistic shot of breaking the NCAA career passing yards record. Sadly, the redshirt senior's college career ended rudely and prematurely Saturday night when he suffered a torn ACL in a 31-13 loss to UCLA. Making matters worse for the Cougars, his backup, Cotton Turner, is also done for the year with a fractured clavicle.

Keenum finishes his career ranked on the NCAA top 10 lists for total offense (14,448 yards), passing yards (13,586) and touchdown passes (107), but we'll never know what might have been. He played a huge role in bringing Houston's long-dormant program some national relevance. Now it's up to true freshman Terrance Broadway to keep the Cougars from falling back off the tracks.

• Less than three weeks removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, Heisman winner Mark Ingram announced his return by running for 48 yards on his first carry and finishing with 151 yards on nine carries in Alabama's 62-13 rout of Duke. Between Ingram, sophomore Trent Richardson (144 yards against Penn State) and freshman Eddie Lacy (111 against San Jose State), the top-ranked Tide have had a different player rush for 100 yards in each of their games. Not too shabby.

• No. 4 TCU would like to remind you that it's taking care of business. The Horned Frogs throttled Baylor, 45-10, on Saturday, with a near-perfect offensive performance. Quarterback Andy Dalton went 21-of-23 for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Said Frogs coach Gary Patterson: "We played a Pac-10 team [Oregon State] and a Big 12 team, we did all right. And we treated a I-AA team [Tennessee Tech] like we were supposed to [62-7]." The Southwest Conference reunion tour continues Friday at SMU.

• Florida coach Urban Meyer's successful fake punt from his own 39-yard-line, in a game tied 10-10 at the time, changed the course of Florida's eventual 31-17 win at Tennessee. Remarkably, the Gators are now 8-of-8 on fake punts under Meyer, a slightly more flattering stat than another one that made the news this week. Also impressive: Quarterback John Brantley, in his first career road start, went 7-of-7 on third-down attempts of six yards or longer.

• Remember Evan Royster? He's the Penn State running back who entered the season 481 yards shy of breaking the Nittany Lions' career rushing record. If you find him, alert the authorities. Against Kent State, someone impersonating Royster was held below 40 yards rushing for the third straight game, and coaches benched him for most of the second half following a fumble. He and replacement Stephfon Green are now mired in a "running back controversy."

• It's feeling a lot like 2009, with LSU winning games while ranking just 91st nationally in total offense. Of the 27 teams that have started 3-0, LSU is the only one that has done so against three BCS-conference opponents. The good news: The Tigers' defense notched five interceptions (two by star Patrick Peterson) against Mississippi State in a 29-7 win. The bad news: LSU's own offense had just 264 yards. Up next: West Virginia, Tennessee and Florida.

• Suffice it to say, new Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, formerly of Houston, is earning his paycheck. Through three games, he's produced both the nation's No. 3 rusher, Kendall Hunter, and No. 6 passer, Brandon Weedon, who lit up Tulsa for 409 yards and six touchdowns in a 65-28 rout. Receiver Justin Blackmon, who had six catches for 174 yards and three TDs, laughs at his teammates' piddly national rankings. He's the No. 1 receiver.

• On the opposite end of the Big 12 South spectrum, Texas A&M needed three fourth-quarter touchdowns and a last-second defensive stand to survive Florida International, 27-20. Preseason All-Big 12 quarterback Jerrod Johnson endured a nightmarish 11-of-31, four-interception performance. Apparently FIU coach Mario Cristobal has quite the defensive juggernaut on his hands in South Florida. Last week, the Panthers held Rutgers to 172 yards in a 19-14 loss.

• First year Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell earned a Gatorade shower and "had tears in his eyes in the locker room," said quarterback Larry Smith, after earning his first SEC victory, 28-14 at Ole Miss. The Commodores, who nearly knocked off Northwestern in their opener before falling 27-3 to LSU, ended a 10-game SEC losing streak thanks in part to Warren Norman's 80-yard touchdown run and an Eddie Foster pick-six against Rebels quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.

• Texas Tech defensive end Scott Smith turned in a monstrous performance in the Red Raiders' 24-14 loss to Texas. The juco transfer tipped two Garrett Gilbert passes at the line of scrimmage that turned into interceptions (one to himself), sacked the Longhorns' quarterback twice and forced a fumble on a Fozzy Whitaker run. "He gives us a pass-rush when we don't get penetration because he's so tall," coach Tommy Tuberville said of the 6-foot-6 Smith, a budding star.

• N.C. State (3-0) picked up the ACC's first win in 10 tries over a BCS-conference foe in last Thursday's 30-19 rout of Cincinnati (1-2). Quarterback Russell Wilson, as he's done so many times in his career, shredded the Bearcats (26-of-40 for 333 yards and three TDs), while the defense picked up five sacks. This could be the year Tom O'Brien's team, having posted losing records his first three seasons, finally turns the corner. Or, Cincinnati really misses Brian Kelly.

• The Bearcats are hardly the lone contributors to the Big East's horrific nonconference performance. This is bad, people. The league's eight teams are just 4-9 against FBS competitors. That record rises to 12-9 if you throw in FCS competitors, but even that puts the Big East at about the same level as the WAC (12-10, 7-10 vs. FBS) and Conference USA (13-14, 8-14).

• Don't leave UCLA for dead, yet. A week after losing 35-0 to Stanford, the Bruins dismantled No. 23 Houston, even before the Cougars' QBs began dropping.

• Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson remains the nation's No. 1 rusher. Unfortunately, the Wolverines' defense ranks 100th.

• News flash: Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer is not fond of Lane Kiffin. For his part, Kiffin continues to show no affinity for extra points.

It's time for an update on my half-joking, half-hopeful campaign to see Temple in the Rose Bowl.

After squeaking out a last-second win over defending FCS champion Villanova, then winning a 13-10 overtime thriller against defending MAC champ Central Michigan, the Owls took a big step forward Saturday with a 30-16 win over Big East foe Connecticut. Lifted by a breakout 169-yard performance from previously banged-up running back Bernard Pierce, the Owls overcame UConn star Jordan Todman's 192 rushing yards as well as a 16-14 fourth-quarter deficit to notch their first win over a BCS-conference foe since 2004, their last season in the Big East. (Coincidentally, it came against the school that replaced them in the Big East.)

"It's a big win because we are 3-0 [for the first time since 1979], and because it was against a real physical opponent," said Temple coach Al Golden. "An opponent that had gone into South Bend and won, gone to play South Carolina and won. That's the significance of it."

(We'll conveniently leave out the part about this year's Huskies going to Ann Arbor and getting "Denarded.")

But now comes judgment day, the single-biggest roadblock (besides the 40 teams currently ranked above them) between the Owls and a date with destiny: Saturday's trip to Golden's alma mater, Penn State. The two teams have a long and very one-sided history; the Nittany Lions are 35-3-1 against their in-state foe, with the last of those three loses coming in 1941. However, the Owls have gradually been making inroads over the past four years. Following 47-0 and 31-0 shutouts in 2006 and '07, they got to within 45-3 in '08 and 31-6 in '09.

But as Temple's official site points out, this will mark the first time since 1945 that Temple has arrived in Happy Valley undefeated. Joe Paterno hadn't even come to State College yet, which is saying something. Sadly, a Tournament of Roses spokesman informed me Sunday they will not have a scout on hand for this historic matchup.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

• Alabama at Arkansas, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Before the season, I felt this game marked the Tide's biggest potential upset threat, what with Ryan Mallett going against Alabama's reloaded secondary. Of course, I didn't envision the Razorbacks rising into the top 10 by then. Still, 'Bama's unlikely to have a "letdown."

• Oregon State at Boise State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): While this will be the closest thing to a Super Bowl in Boise, it may actually be a bigger deal to Mike Riley's team, which is still seeking the breakout nonconference win that eluded it against TCU. The Beavers will need a lot more Rodgers and a lot less (Kellen) Moore.

• West Virginia at LSU, Saturday (9:15 p.m. ET): Please remove LSU (which previously faced North Carolina) from any SEC/cupcake scheduling discussions. As always, quarterback Jordan Jefferson will be the key for the Tigers, though their defense is capable of containing WVU's speedy tailbacks and receivers.