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September 21, 2009

Monday with Mike: Now the Pac-10 fun begins

A week after snapping a 15-game losing streak that had been the nation's longest, Washington won its second in a row by shocking 20-point favorite USC.

This week, the real fun in the Pac-10 begins. USC's loss means control of the league race is there for the taking, and Round 1 comes this Saturday, when California is at Oregon.

Before the season, that looked to be one of the best games of the season, but the Ducks' opening loss to Boise State removed some of the luster. Now, some of the luster has been restored by USC's loss, especially considering Cal plays host to the Trojans on Oct. 3. In other words, Cal can seize control of the race -- and all but eliminate USC -- with victories in its next two games.

Cal looked a little shaky Saturday in beating Minnesota, but running back Jahvid Best ran to the rescue with five touchdowns, including two in the fourth quarter. Cal had lost eight of its past nine on the road before the win over the Golden Gophers.

"We tried to make a statement that we're going to be road warriors this year," defensive lineman Tyson Alualu told reporters after the game. "It's a different team than last year."

Cal coach Jeff Tedford figured the fact that the game was won in the fourth quarter will help his team. "I think it will give us a boost and give us a little bit of confidence," he said.

Best agreed, saying, "Next week we're going into Oregon, and that's going to be another hostile environment. I'm kind of glad that they came back and kind of tested us so when another team does that to us, we know how to handle it."

Oregon, meanwhile, has won two in a row since its loss, beating Purdue, then Utah. But the Ducks' rushing defense has been weak, and that bodes ill against Best, who is averaging 137.3 yards per game and 7.8 yards per carry. Cal quarterback Kevin Riley has been steady; he is completing 64.7 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Cal hasn't gone to the Rose Bowl since the 1958 season, but the Golden Bears look to be in good shape to finally make a return trip.

USC is not out of it by any means; the Trojans have too much talent to be counted out. But Saturday's loss was the latest in a perplexing string of "Are you kidding me?" losses to league foes. Unless the Trojans get their passing attack revved up -- maybe Ronald Johnson's return will cure those ills -- another loss or two is going to happen this season.

As for Washington, the Huskies play three of their next four and five of their next seven on the road; six of those seven are league games (all except a trip to Notre Dame). The Huskies remain a young team in some key areas, and despite the win over USC, don't look for the Huskies to be serious challengers for the league crown until next season at the earliest.

Two 'Cinderellas' down for count
It was a bad Saturday for the Mountain West Conference. BYU, which opened the season with a shocking upset of Oklahoma, almost certainly saw its BCS dreams end in a big way, getting pounded at home by Florida State. And there also was Utah -- last season's MWC champion -- having its nation's-best 16-game losing streak come to an end in a loss at Oregon, meaning its BCS hopes also are all but gone.

That it was a bad Saturday for the MWC also meant it was a bad Saturday for the potential "BCS-busters." The list shrunk from five to three, and it could shrink more this weekend, when TCU is at Clemson and Houston plays host to Texas Tech.

As this season unfolds, it will be interesting to see whether those casual followers of college football who were tub-thumping about the Mountain West and how it deserved an automatic BCS bid will continue with their tub-thumping.

I would bet a lot of that talk dies down; after all, when there is no established bandwagon to jump on, a lot of casual followers just fade away.

But the talk shouldn't die down. The Mountain West is a good conference and deserves a BCS bid. It's true that sometimes the MWC champ can't hang with the champ of the, say, SEC or Big 12. But you know what? That sometimes is the case for the ACC and Big East (and Big Ten) champs, too.

The BCS powers-to-be need to bite the bullet and add the MWC to the automatic bids list. And if the powers-that-be cry that adding the MWC would mean there would be just three at-large bids, here's a solution: Add the Cotton Bowl (in the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium) as the fifth hosting site and make it a 12-team BCS instead of a 10-team model. That way, you justly reward the MWC and you open another at-large spot for a team from one of the Big Six leagues. Everybody goes home happy.

Bad news, part 1
The fact that senior quarterback Matt Grothe's career is over had to be devastating news in the USF football office Sunday. Grothe was injured late in the second quarter of Saturday's 59-0 rout of FCS member Charleston Southern.

The Big East race looked to be wide open, but Grothe's injury almost certainly takes USF out of the mix. The new starter will be redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels, who's a better athlete than Grothe but needs improvement as a passer.

In the first extended playing time of his career Saturday, Daniels was 10-of-13 for 149 yards and a touchdown. He also ran eight times for 105 yards. But those numbers were against Charleston Southern, and he'll be hard-pressed to match those numbers against the next opponent -- Florida State.

Maybe Grothe's injury will spark junior running back Mike Ford, who hasn't come close to living up to his high school billing. Ford saw his first action of the season Saturday after being suspended for the first two games, and he ran for 19 yards and a touchdown on four carries.

Part of USF's problem in recent seasons was that too much of the offense was placed on Grothe's shoulders. How the Bulls handle their leader's absence will determine whether they finish in the upper half of the Big East or fall to near the bottom again.

Bad news, part 2
While USF coaches were bemoaning Grothe's injury, you can bet Notre Dame coaches were brought to their knees by the news that star wide receiver Michael Floyd likely will miss the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. Floyd is one of the most talented wide receivers in the nation, and he and Golden Tate formed a deadly duo. Now, Irish opponents can focus on Tate.

Junior Duval Kamara, senior Robby Parris and true freshman Shaquelle Evans will vie to replace Floyd, and sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph will see more passes head his way. But Floyd was a big-time weapon and there's no way the Irish can replace him.

Grid bits
Iowa's impressive victory over Arizona makes this week's trek to Penn State even more interesting. Penn State's lone regular-season loss last season came at Iowa on a last-second field goal, and the Nittany Lions figure to be looking for revenge. Penn State is 3-0, but the opponents have been Akron, Syracuse and Temple. Penn State has struggled to run the ball but has thrown it well; Iowa's will be the best secondary the Nittany Lions have faced. There also are questions about Penn State's defense. The Lions have great stats; then again, who wouldn't playing that schedule? While Penn State figures to win because Iowa's offense doesn't look all that strong, there is some intrigue.

Florida coaches figured -- correctly -- that Tennessee didn't have the offense to beat the Gators (it sure seemed as if Lane Kiffin was playing not to get clobbered rather than playing to win). Still, the Gators' anemic pass offense against the Vols has to be worrisome. Granted, starting wide receiver Deonte Thompson missed the game with a strained hamstring and star tight end Aaron Hernandez played despite having the flu. Still, the Gators didn't throw the ball downfield but once, and that likely had to do with Thompson's absence. Coaches don't look to have much faith -- at least not yet -- in redshirt freshmen Frankie Hammond Jr. and Omarius Hines. Speedy true freshman Andre Debose will miss the season with a hamstring injury. Senior wide receiver Carl Moore hasn't played because of a bad back, and he, too, may miss the season. That makes Thompson's health vital, especially when the Gators play at LSU on Oct. 10 and at home against Arkansas on Oct. 17.

As for Tennessee, one reason the Vols were so conservative on offense is that Jonathan Crompton isn't a competent SEC quarterback. Thing is, Crompton -- a senior -- beat out Nick Stephens in the quarterback competition, which presumably means Stephens isn't that good, either. So, what does that mean for next season? It means Stephens -- a guy who couldn't beat out Crompton -- or a true freshman will be at the controls. The Vols have a commitment from Tyler Bray, a 6-foot-6, 190-pounder from California. Yeah, a rail-thin true freshman quarterback in the SEC is a great way to win games. The Vols will have a good recruiting class (so, too, will Florida, Georgia, Alabama, LSU -- you know, teams in the SEC that already are better than the Vols). But all those good recruits won't mean anything until Tennessee gets a competent quarterback.

Cincinnati earned some respect for the Big East by winning by 10 at Oregon State. The loss snapped the Beavers' 26-game home winning streak in non-conference games.

Also earning some respect for the Big East was Connecticut, which won 30-22 at Baylor a week after losing 12-10 to North Carolina. UConn won behind backup quarterback Cody Endres, who guided a run-oriented offense that rumbled for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Baylor, meanwhile, is aiming for its first bowl appearance since 1994, but the Bears (1-1) now have a thin margin of error. They should win their two remaining non-conference games, against Northwestern State (La.) and Kent State, but they may find it difficult to get the three Big 12 Conference wins they would need to become bowl-eligible. Other than games against Iowa State and Texas A&M, the remaining Big 12 games will be against teams that went to bowls last season and look to be better than the Bears this season.

Indiana is 3-0 for the third time in five seasons. The Hoosiers started 3-0 in 2007 and finished the season in the Insight Bowl; they also started 3-0 in 2005, but finished 4-7. We'll know more about this IU team after its next two games -- at Michigan and a home game against Ohio State.

Colorado State is off to its first 3-0 start since 1994 after beating Nevada. But the next month will tell whether the Rams are a legit contender in the Mountain West. In the mid-1990s, they were one of the best teams in the Western Athletic Conference. Three of the Rams' next four games are against the MWC's best teams: BYU this coming weekend, Utah on Oct. 10 and TCU on Oct. 17.

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was a steady 13-of-15 for 176 yards and two touchdowns in a 53-7 rout of North Texas. His relatively modest numbers came against his former high school coach Todd Dodge, who's now the coach at North Texas. Dodge formerly was coach at Southlake (Texas) Carroll.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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