Improved Pac-12 has become a worthy contender

LOS ANGELES — Put away the running clocks. Silly season should be over — at least until Alabama hosts Chattanooga in late November.

It is ridiculous to think Ohio State could play a team so overmatched that the Buckeyes' backup quarterback could throw six touchdown passes in the first half, earn national player of the week, then be benched for the Big Ten opener.

It just proves that very little is proved until conference play starts, so let's get started:

Pac-12

The league has a sterling 29-4 record in nonconference games, but the race for the Rose Bowl, and beyond, starts this weekend with five league games.

What we thought we knew: Oregon and Stanford were the class of the North and watch out for UCLA in the South.

What we know: Oregon and Stanford are the class of the North and watch out for UCLA in the South.

It also goes deeper than that. The Pac-12 may now be, top to bottom, the best conference in America.

Emerging: Washington has gone from gum on your Seattle shoe to top 25 and owns an impressive 38-6 thrashing of Boise State. The Huskies are No. 16 in the Associated Press poll after starting unranked, and UCLA is No. 13 — up eight rungs from its preseason standing.

You could have won $100 in a bar bet on Labor Day by predicting Colorado, one of the worst top-level programs, would still be undefeated on Sept. 26.

Of course, Colorado (2-0) has not played since Sept. 7 because of an open date and a flood. Washington State has already taken Auburn to the limit and upset USC at the Coliseum:

This week: USC at Arizona State sets the parameters for the Pac-12 South race. UCLA, which has Saturday off, watches as it awaits its conference opener at Utah on Oct. 3.

Southeastern

This is still the best Bowl Championship Series outfit until a team from a different conference wins the national championship.

What we thought we knew: Alabama was invincible in the SEC West and the SEC East was tougher than jerky.

What we know: Alabama is still No. 1 but clearly not as good (yet) as the teams that won the last two national titles. The Crimson Tide offense struggled in wins against Virginia Tech and Colorado State, and the defense gave up a school-record 628 yards in a shootout win at Texas A&M.

In the SEC East, defending champ Georgia has already lost to Clemson and sputtered last week against North Texas. Florida has lost to Miami and must now rebound from the season-ending injury to quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Emerging: It's a huge week for Mississippi (3-0) as it heads to Alabama as the fabulous "Book of Manning" documentary was aired on ESPN. The Rebels' celebrated top-five recruiting class is already paying dividends and an upset of Alabama would instantly put Ole Miss in the national title race.

Mississippi runs the type of up-tempo offense that keeps Alabama Coach Nick Saban up at night. The Rebels are averaging 79.3 plays per game and snapping a play every 21.3 seconds. Alabama averages 64 plays a game with a play every 30.8 seconds.

Mississippi Coach Hugh Freeze on Saturday's game plan: "You're going to see us go as fast as we can."

And watch out for Louisiana State. The Tigers have clearly reloaded despite losing 11 players to the NFL draft. LSU, with a win at Athens, can just about end Georgia's national title dreams.

Big Ten

What we thought we knew: Ohio State and Michigan were the class of the Leaders and Legends and could meet on consecutive Saturdays to determine the Big Ten title.

What we know: Ohio State is the team to beat and Michigan is mystery meat after following its big win over Notre Dame with near losses to Akron and Connecticut.

Emerging: Minnesota? We're not sold yet, but the Gophers are one of only eight teams at 4-0 with Iowa coming to Minneapolis on Saturday to play for the "Floyd of Rosedale" trophy.

The Wisconsin at Ohio State winner Saturday will own the tiebreaker in the Leaders Division. Urban Meyer says Wisconsin is still "king" of the Big Ten even though Meyer is 16-0 as coach of the Buckeyes and the Badgers lost six games last season.

Atlantic Coast

What we thought we knew: Clemson and Florida State, the ACC's best teams, are in the Atlantic Division and headed for a showdown at Clemson on Oct. 18.

What we know: Nothing's changed.

Emerging: Miami started the season unranked and on edge as it awaited word from the NCAA about alleged violations and possible sanctions. Coach Al Golden's team has stayed focused enough to beat Florida and climb to No. 15 in the polls.

Big 12

What we thought we knew: Texas, with 19 returning starters, might be primed for another national title run.

What we know: Texas has already lost twice and Mack Brown's job is in jeopardy.

Emerging: Baylor has scored 209 points in three wins, but the games were against Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana Monroe. The Bears may not be seriously tested until Nov. 7 against Oklahoma.

Oklahoma plays at Notre Dame on Saturday in a game that could determine whether the Big 12 has even one elite team.

American Athletic

What we thought we knew: Louisville will go undefeated in the watered-down former Big East but may lack the schedule punch to earn a BCS title-game bid.

What we know: Louisville is 4-0 and No. 7 in the polls but may not be able to climb much higher.

Emerging: Rutgers lost a heartbreaker at Fresno but scored 21 straight points last week to beat Arkansas.

Independents and others

What we thought we knew: Notre Dame, without quarterback Everett Golson, would not be able to replicate last season's remarkable undefeated regular season but could still garner a BCS at-large bid. Boise State of the Mountain West Conference was the odds-on favorite to earn the last non-automatic-qualifier bid to this season's Fiesta Bowl.

What we know: Notre Dame has already lost once and has several tough outs left, but is still on track to get BCS-eligible with nine wins. Fresno State, not Boise, is the leading non-AQ candidate but may have trouble reaching the required top-12 ranking.


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