PHOENIX — The Pac-12 football season has reached its midpoint and, other than second-ranked Oregon rolling again, few things have gone as predicted.
Oregon State, picked to finish last in the North, is undefeated and tied with the Ducks atop the division. Arizona State is the surprising leader of the South after winning five of its first six games.
No. 11 Southern California had its national championship hopes dented with a conference-opening loss to Stanford, which turned around and lost to Washington in its next game.
Utah, expected to challenge for the South title, is off to another disappointing conference start, winless in three Pac-12 games.
And the Air Raid that was expected to hit at Washington State under new coach Mike Leach has not gone off as planned, leaving the Cougars 0-4 in the conference.
Here are a few of the highs and lows of the Pac-12 season so far:
Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. LaMichael James was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2010 and probably would have been last season had he not gotten hurt. Barner has a chance to be in New York for the presentation, perhaps even win the award if he keeps it up. The senior has rushed for 727 yards in six games and has 10 touchdowns, putting him among the nation’s leaders in scoring. He is also the only Oregon player since at least 1965 to score on a run, a catch, a punt return and a kick return. Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly has been invaluable for the Sun Devils, but Barner is the best player on the best team in the conference.
Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer. A big part of Oregon State’s surge this season has been its improved defense, and Poyer’s shutdown ability on the corner has been a key. The senior can play man to man with anyone in the conference, allowing the Beavers to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and not have to worry about the secondary. Poyer had three interceptions in a tight win over Washington State and has five on the season, second nationally to the six of Fresno State’s Philip Thomas, but in two fewer games. Arizona State’s disruptive defensive tackle Will Sutton is not far behind, 1A to Poyer’s No. 1.
Kelly, Arizona State. An afterthought in a three-man race to be the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback, the sophomore came on strong at the end of preseason camp to earn the job. He has proven to be a good choice, leading Arizona State to a 5-1 record that few outside of the program expected in its first season under Graham. Kelly leads the Pac-12 and is third nationally with a passing efficiency of 175.98, and he has been a dynamic leader with his ability to extend plays and make something out of seemingly nothing.
Most dynamic player
Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas. Barner leads the Ducks in rushing, but Thomas is the leader in electricity. The sophomore has averaged 10.2 yards per catch, 9.2 per rush and close to 15 on kick returns. He has six touchdowns rushing and three more receiving, and he is a threat to score wherever and whenever he touches the ball. Thomas is one of those players you cannot look away from, waiting to see what he’s going to do next.
Graham at Arizona State certainly would be a good choice, but he did not enter the season with people calling for his job if things didn’t turn around. Oregon State’s Mike Riley did. One of the good-guy coaches in college football, Riley kept a positive outlook through two down years in Corvallis and exuded a quiet confidence this season despite dire predictions for his Beavers. Riley has led Oregon State to its best starting record since World War II behind an explosive offense and a much-improved defense. The Beavers are back and do not appear to be going anywhere, thanks to Riley.
Oregon. Not a hard one to pick. The Ducks may have their best team under Chip Kelly, who already has a national championship game appearance and the school’s first Rose Bowl win in 95 years under his belt. Oregon has been unstoppable so far, averaging 52 points and 541 yards per game to rank among the top 10 nationally. The Ducks have two of the most dynamic players in the country in Barner and Thomas, and they have taken quick-strike scoring to a new level with 24 scoring drives that have lasted two minutes or less. But what makes this year’s version of Oregon so formidable is an improved defense that leads the nation with four interception returns for touchdowns.
Oregon State. Riley was on the hot seat after consecutive losing seasons, but the Beavers have knocked him off it by opening 5-0 for the first time since 1939. Oregon State is eighth in both The Associated Press poll and in the first BCS standings behind an explosive offense and a steady defense. The Beavers did not even slow down when quarterback Sean Mannion went out with a knee injury; backup Cody Vaz passed for 332 yards and three touchdowns against BYU on Saturday in his first start since high school.
Washington State has not yet clicked under Leach, and California has put coach Jeff Tedford on the hot seat with an uneven start that included an opening loss to Nevada. More surprising still has been Utah’s start. The Utes opened their first Pac-12 season with four straight losses before coming on strong late last year, spurring hope for 2012. Utah has not lived up to expectations — it received one first-place vote in the preseason Pac-12 poll — losing to smaller Utah State in its second game and dropping its first three conference games. The Utes may have another turnaround on the way, but they have been a disappointment so far.