CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Pac-12 Conference's rise is among college football's surprises

USC defense's turnaround under coordinator Clancy Pendergast and defensive lapses in the Southeastern Conference also are striking developments.

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Shaquelle Evans

UCLA wide receiver Shaquelle Evans sprints away from the Nebraska defense during the Bruins' 41-21 victory Saturday. (Francis Gardler / Associated Press / September 14, 2013)

Mack Brown and Bo Pelini can tell you no season ever goes exactly the way you planned.

Here's a look at a few of the early surprises in this one:

Pac-12 rising

This could be the year the league surpasses the Southeastern Conference and wins the national championship, provided Pac-12 Conference refs are assigned to a Bowl Championship Series title game decided in the final 18 seconds.

Any conference can have good teams at the top, as the SEC proved last season when its best six schools went 30-0 against the bottom eight.

The Pac-12 appears as competitively balanced as it's been in years, although that bodes better for next season when a selection committee will choose the four playoff participants. In the last year of the BCS, two tough league losses still pretty much eliminate you from the title chase.

"I think you judge a league by the strength of the teams in the middle and the teams at the bottom of the league," Sonny Dykes, California's first-year coach, said this week.

Disclaimer: Dykes spoke on his own behalf and was not nominated as league spokesman after his Bears (1-2) allowed 52 points at home last week to Ohio State.

The Pac-12 went 8-1 in nonconference games last week and is 23-4 overall. The league has five teams in the Associated Press top 25 and national title contenders in Oregon and Stanford. (Is UCLA now a possible dark horse?)

It is attention grabbing when UCLA can crush Nebraska in Lincoln the same weekend Washington climbs to No. 17 in the AP poll for the first time since preseason 2003.

Call it progress any week the Pac-12 can have a top national game not involving USC or Oregon. Arizona State at Stanford is on the marquee Saturday, and the outcome will deeply affect the standings.

Stanford Coach David Shaw, one week after facing Army's triple-option run attack, has to prepare his team for Arizona State's spread offense.

"You have to flush last week's game plan," Shaw said. "Throw it in the garbage, throw it in the toilet. Flush it, forget about it."

Go see Cal

Jared Goff, a freshman from Cal, leads the nation with 1,306 yards passing and an average of 435.3 yards passing per game.

To give you an idea of how offenses have changed, Paul Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame with 917 total passing yards. And in 1974, the year USC won the United Press International national title, starting quarterback Pat Haden completed 70 of 149 passes for 988 yards.

Nothing fancy Clancy

No one outside Clancy Pendergast's immediate family could have dreamed that USC's first-year defensive coordinator could turn things around so fast.

Pessimistic Trojans fans are doing a disservice to a defense they complained about for so many years. The unit ranks in the top 10 nationally in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense, sacks, interceptions, pass efficiency defense and tackles for losses.

Indefensible

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