Pac-12 second-half preview

The major preseason stories in the Pac-12 were four new coaches, the return of Matt Barkley, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and USC and Oregon apparently headed for a showdown with national-championship implications on Nov. 3.

The major midseason stories are a little different.

USC and Oregon could still be an epic clash, just not as epic because USC already has lost. Also, Barkley's middling numbers for an offense that hasn't been consistently in sync have diminished the national perception of the Trojans. The Ducks are now the Pac-12 team at the center of the national discussion.

As for the four new coaches, three have gotten off to great-to-solid starts in year one. But how will they finish? And will Mike Leach get Washington State on track?

Will Arizona State maintain its fast start, or are the Sun Devils headed for a tough dose of reality as the schedule firms up, starting with Oregon on Thursday?

Speaking of fast starts: Oregon State. The Beavers have surged, and coach Mike Riley has moved from the hot seat to the throne of a national-coach-of-the-year candidate. Oregon and Oregon State are the only two unbeaten teams in the conference, so it's not inconceivable that the Civil War could be for the North Division crown, a spot in the Pac-12 title game and, perhaps, a chance to play for the national title.

It could become the season's true epic clash.

As for hot-seat talk, as distasteful as it is, nearly all of such focus will be on California coach Jeff Tedford. The Bears have won two in a row after a 1-4 start, but it remains in the air whether this team can be consistent enough to earn a bowl berth. A losing record wouldn't be good for Tedford.

Finally, in terms of individual awards, it will be interesting to see if any Pac-12 player emerges as a true Heisman Trophy contender. Might Barkley turn it up during the second half? Will Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas start to fill up "SportsCenter" with highlights? Is there a potential dark-horse candidate?

Ultimately, midseason reviews don't mean much. Teams and players can reverse course -- positively or negatively -- at any moment.

But what it is fair to say is there are plenty of rich plot lines heading into the season's second half, even if those were not the stories that advanced the season.

Bold prediction: The conference will fill all seven of its bowl obligations, plus one. Oregon is already in; Oregon State, Arizona State, USC and UCLA are all one win from being bowl-eligible. If you follow the Sunday zaniness that is our weekly bowl projections, you know your bloggers project Oregon to the national championship, which opens up one more spot. We see Stanford and Washington bowling. That's seven right there. The eighth spot is up for grabs, with Arizona and Cal the likely candidates. Cal could get to .500 this week, then would need two more wins with Utah, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State remaining. If Arizona takes care of Colorado and Utah in the second half, that leaves it looking for one more win over from among Washington, USC, UCLA and Arizona State.

Looking forward to: The race in the Pac-12 South. Once thought to be gift-wrapped for the Trojans, the recent inconsistent play of USC opens up the possibility of someone else as the South's representative in the title game. The Trojans are still the favorite, but Arizona State and UCLA aren't going to make it easy. Both of UCLA's losses have come to North Division teams, USC's loss was to Stanford and ASU's was out of conference. It's more wide-open than we ever could have imagined in August.

Top five games (by date, not importance):

Oct. 18, Oregon at Arizona State: Time to find out if the Sun Devils are for real. They have the conference's No. 1 scoring defense facing Oregon's top-ranked scoring offense. The Sun Devils rank second in scoring. Both teams are getting phenomenal quarterback play and both like to work fast.

Oct. 27, UCLA at Arizona State: This is a pivotal game in the aforementioned race for the South Division title. It features two explosive offenses and two of the league's brightest young quarterbacks. Some pretty good players from both defenses as well.

Nov. 3, Oregon at USC: This is still the big one. An Oregon win gives the Ducks some much-needed national credibility, while a USC victory puts the Trojans back in the BCS championship hunt. Might be a last-gasp Heisman run for Thomas and/or Barkley.

Nov. 17, USC at UCLA: A new chapter in this historic rivalry begins with Jim Mora at the helm for the Bruins. He has made them a player in the Pac-12 South, and lest we forget, coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense put up 43 points on USC last year when he was with ASU. This one could decide the South champion.

Nov. 24, Oregon at Oregon State: The stakes could be stratospheric -- as in national championship implications for both schools. If the Ducks take care of business Nov. 3 and Oregon State can navigate a second-half schedule that includes Stanford and ASU, then all of Oregon will show up for what could conceivably be the Pac-12 game of the year.