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October 21, 2010

Week 8 preview in the Pac-10

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A No. 1 ranking always is reason to celebrate. That's especially true for Oregon, which is No. 1 in the college football polls for the first time in school history.

THE SCHEDULE
Thursday
UCLA at Oregon, 9 p.m.
Saturday
Arizona State at California, 3:30 p.m.
Washington State at Stanford, 5 p.m.
Washington at Arizona, 10:15 p.m.
Junior guard Mark Asper and his wife, Michelle, certainly celebrated when the polls were released Sunday.

"I went 'Woo!' and said, 'Hey, honey, we're No. 1!' And she went 'Wooo!' " Asper said.

Do these guys know how to party or what?

Seriously, at Oregon, the campus on which "Animal House" was filmed, they know how to have a good time. The game-day atmosphere at Autzen Stadium is among the best in the country, and a "yellow out" is planned for Thursday night's game against UCLA.

But it's completely understandable if the Ducks take a low-key approach to the No. 1 ranking. That's because they're second in the BCS standings, and during the past decade, Oregon players and followers have learned all too well that one misstep or stroke of misfortune can mean an abrupt halt to national championship aspirations.

Last season, the Ducks lost their season opener to Boise State. Even though they won their next seven games and finished 10-2 in the regular season, they never were really in the national championship picture. They went to the Rose Bowl.

In 2007, Oregon was ranked No. 2 in the nation and appeared on the way to the national championship game until quarterback Dennis Dixon wrecked his knee in the 10th game of the season. They settled for the Sun Bowl.

In 2001, the Ducks completed the regular season 10-1, but were passed over for the BCS championship in favor of Nebraska, which did not even win its division in the Big 12. Oregon went to the Fiesta Bowl and dominated Colorado, the same team that pulverized Nebraska 62-36 in the regular-season finale.

Perhaps because of that history, the Ducks are keeping their first No. 1 ranking in perspective.

"It was exciting for the school to be ranked No. 1 for the first time ever," Asper said. "After that, it was, 'OK, I've got to practice tomorrow and I've got to start watching UCLA film and get ready to go.' You can celebrate and revel in things for a minute, but you've got to get back to business and get back to what got you there. Otherwise, you'll slip off and be another upset [victim]."

The past two top-ranked teams have fallen; Alabama lost to South Carolina on Oct. 9 and Ohio State lost to Wisconsin last week.

But Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he isn't reminding the Ducks about that. In fact, even though the No. 1 ranking is a hot topic of conversation in Eugene, Kelly said the Ducks haven't discussed the rankings at all.

"We haven't talked once about the rankings," Kelly said. "We've never had a meeting. We've never brought it up and said, 'We're ranked this or we're ranked that.' We don't pay attention to it. I listen to what our players have said and I don't think they pay attention to it, either.

"Obviously, it's out there. And it's not that we're trying to avoid it and not talk about it because it's a jinx situation. Obviously, [the ranking] is beneficial to us because we don't have far to go [up the rankings]. But we still have to win. If you lose one game -- that's the thing that's unique about college football -- you're probably out of it. We're really in a six-game playoff now just to see if we can qualify."

You've got to like the Ducks' chances. Their remaining six opponents have a combined 22-15 record (59.4 winning percentage). They face only one team that's currently ranked, No. 18 Arizona, and the Wildcats' starting quarterback is injured. In addition, there is no conference championship game in the Pac-10.

Plus, by being ranked so high, they don't have to rely on other teams to lose. In fact, if they win out, their strength of schedule likely would vault them to at least No. 2 in the BCS standings.

"I know if you're going to be No. 1 on Dec. 5, it helps if you start close to the top," Kelly said. "If we were No. 31 right now, it would be very difficult to find your way through the minefield.

"Obviously, [the No. 1 ranking] does matter. There is some significance to it, but not a whole heck of a lot if you don't do anything with it."

Best matchup: Arizona State at California. Both are 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-10, so neither is a legit contender for the Pac-10 championship. Yet, their game is Berkeley appears critical for both teams' postseason outlook. The loser is going to have to post an upset or two the rest of the way to earn a bowl bid.

Player on the spot: Arizona QB Matt Scott. He's the new starter because of a knee injury suffered by Nick Foles in last week's win over Washington State. Scott was the Wildcats' starter at the beginning of last season, but he was replaced by Foles after three games. In those three games, he threw just one touchdown pass and three interceptions. He stepped in when Foles went down last week and completed 14 passes for 139 yards with an interception. He must improve his performance this week against Washington; the Wildcats' Rose Bowl hopes depend on it.

Numbers game: When Darron Thomas takes the first snap for Oregon on Thursday night, he will become the sixth different Ducks quarterback to start in Oregon's past six games against UCLA. The last Oregon quarterback to start consecutive games against the Bruins was Kellen Clemens, in 2003 and 2004. The Ducks and Bruins did not play in '05. Since then, the Ducks have started Dennis Dixon in '06, Brady Leaf in '07, Jeremiah Masoli in '08 and Nate Costa last season.

What they're saying

"Kevin is our starting quarterback and gives us the best chance to win. We're not going to make a change there unless something unforeseen happens." -- California coach Jeff Tedford, on struggling QB Kevin Riley

"That's the kind of moment I've dreamed about since I was little, having a game-winning touchdown in Husky Stadium. It used to be that the [winning] catch would be for the Huskies. But ever since I came to Oregon State, I wanted to do it against them. I had my opportunity -- and I blew it." -- Oregon State TE Joe Halahuni, a native of Washington, who dropped a pass on what would have been a winning two-point conversion last week

"This is definitely the hardest bye-week practice I've had since I've been here." -- USC DT Armond Armstead, to the Los Angeles Times on the Trojans' preparations to play Oregon on Oct. 30

"They are just both perfect. With some people, you say, 'If they only didn't do that or do this,' or you wish they could do this or do that. But I don't do that with my wife, Sarah, or with Andrew Luck. They are both just absolutely perfect the way they are. For a football coach, that's pretty great -- to have a great wife and a great quarterback." -- Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh

Etc.: The knee injury that Arizona QB Nick Foles sustained last week will not end his season. He'll be evaluated on a week-to-week basis. ... Arizona State sophomore CB Deveron Carr is likely out for the season with a shoulder injury suffered on Oct. 2. In addition, junior WR Aaron Pflugrad is questionable with a turf toe injury, and back problems may result in Brock Osweiler's demotion as the No. 2 QB behind starter Steven Threet. Samson Szakacsy is expected to be Threet's backup. ... Cal's offensive line has allowed six sacks in the past two games. ... Oregon has posted 13 consecutive victories at Autzen Stadium, including 10 in a row over Pac-10 opponents. ... Last week, there was a discrepancy involving Oregon RB LaMichael James' statistics. The Oregon website credited him with 20 yards more than the NCAA stats. The discrepancy stemmed from an error by the Arizona State stat crew in the Sept. 25 game. After an Oregon interception in the end zone against the Sun Devils, the ball was correctly placed on the 20 but the stat crew listed the line of scrimmage as the goal line. So, when James ran for 2 yards on the next play, he originally was credited with a 22-yard gain. Arizona State made the correction, but Oregon did not -- until this week. He's now accurately listed with 848 rushing yards. ... The Ducks leads the Pac-10 in 11 of 32 statistical categories. ... Oregon State's defense has 11 sacks in the past three games. The Beavers had just two sacks in the first three games. ... Beavers WR Markus Wheaton has a sore right knee that's forced him to miss some practice time. But he's expected to be in the lineup when Oregon State faces Cal on Oct. 30. The Beavers are off this week. ... Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor is seeking his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance when the Cardinal face Washington State. ... UCLA QB Kevin Prince's status for Thursday night's game against Oregon is uncertain. He missed practice earlier this week with an injured right knee. Sophomore Richard Brehaut would start if Prince can't go. The Bruins also likely will be without WR Nelson Rosario (high ankle sprain) and CB Sheldon Price (sprained knee). ... UCLA is 4-10 all-time against the No. 1 team in the AP poll. The Bruins' most recent win over a top-ranked team was in the 1976 Rose Bowl over Ohio State. Since then, they've lost six in a row to the No. 1 team. ... USC RB Marc Tyler is a proponent of the "wildcat" formation the Trojans have added to their offense. He rushed for 79 yards and scored two touchdowns on seven carries against Cal. ... Washington QB Jake Locker tied a school record with five touchdown passes in last week's win over Oregon State. He now has 49 career touchdown passes and needs six more to tie Cody Pickett's career school record. ... Washington State QB Jeff Tuel and Threet are the only Pac-10 quarterbacks to have thrown for 200 yards in every game this season. ... Stanford QB Andrew Luck has 16 touchdown passes. He threw 13 last season. ... USC QB Matt Barkley has thrown 20 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. ... Washington freshman DE Hau'oli Jamora, who has 18 tackles, will get his first career start Saturday. ... Washington State freshman S Deone Bucannon made his second start a great one. He posted 16 tackles, including 14 unassisted, in last week's loss to Arizona.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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