Oregon, Stanford, Arizona leading Pac-10

PHOENIX — The preseason chatter among the Pac-10's coaches centered around this being one of the most wide-open years in conference history.

So far, they seem to be right.

Heading into the first big weekend of conference games, the Pac-10 has five teams in the Top 25 and enough talent throughout to make the schedule feel like a gauntlet of big games.

"I think every (conference) game is going to be the Super Bowl," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.

The only separation appears to be at the top, where three teams have emerged as front-runners: Oregon, Arizona and Stanford.

Dominant and exciting to watch, the Ducks, Wildcats and Cardinal are among the best teams in the country, not just the conference.

The rest of the Pac-10 has been a sometimes hard-to-figure collection of similarly talented teams.

USC, once the undeniable king of the conference, has become essentially the best of the rest. The Trojans are 3-0 and ranked 20th in their first season under Lane Kiffin, but have been alternately shaky on offense and defense.

Oregon State is No. 24 and played close against fourth-ranked TCU, but the Beavers didn't exactly overwhelm unranked Louisville at home last weekend and have third-ranked Boise State on its funky blue turf next.

UCLA knocked off then-No. 23 Houston last week, was crushed by Stanford the week before. Washington has quarterback Jake Locker, but the Huskies are just 1-2 and he hasn't exactly looked like the Heisman Trophy favorite everyone expected.

Arizona State beat up on two FCS schools and missed too many scoring opportunities against Wisconsin, while Cal followed two routs with a lopsided loss to Nevada. Washington State appears to still be in the rebuilding process, though it has shown some signs of improvement.

The talented trio at the top has left no doubt where the power lies in this conference.

It starts with Oregon.

The Ducks won last year's Pac-10 title and made it to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995. Despite an offseason filled with turmoil, including the dismissal of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli from the team, Oregon has been one of the country's most dominating teams, winning its first three games by a combined score of 189-13.

The Ducks have an offense that Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said he hadn't seen even on Playstation and they may be even better on defense, where their speed makes the field feel like a tennis court to opposing quarterbacks.

"They may be the best football team in the country," said Erickson, whose team hosts the fifth-ranked Ducks on Saturday. "When you look at them on both sides of the football and in the kicking game, they're so balanced it's hard to decide what their strengths are."

The Cardinal and Wildcats have been a little bit more of a surprise, two teams with plenty of talent but just enough questions that it was hard to get a handle on how good they'd be before the season started.

Riding the arms of two quarterbacks who are quickly becoming among the best in the country — Andrew Luck and Nick Foles — Stanford and Arizona have climbed the official and public opinion polls.

Picked to finish sixth by the Pac-10's coaches in the preseason, the Cardinal have been nearly as dominant as Oregon. Stanford toyed with Sacramento State to start the season, dismantled UCLA in the Pac-10 opener and made it look awfully easy in beating Wake Forest 68-24 last Saturday.

Stanford is off to its first 3-0 start since 2001 and boasts a No. 16 ranking heading into Saturday's game at Notre Dame.

Arizona's switched with last week's win over then-ninth-ranked Iowa.

The Wildcats won their first two games easily, but didn't exactly win anyone over because of the opponents. The hard-fought 34-27 win over the Hawkeyes did the trick, though, shifting some of the national spotlight toward the desert and on Foles' rising stardom.

Arizona looks to take the next step this weekend against Cal in its conference opener.

"Our goal is to win a championship and we have as good a chance as anybody right now," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "But there's only been one conference game played. This thing is a long way from being finished."

It is starting to shape up, though.

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