PHOENIX (AP) — The Pac-12 just passed the midpoint of the 2013 season and one thing hasn’t changed from previous seasons: Oregon is the team to beat.
The second-ranked Ducks have dominated through the season’s first seven games, winning by an average of 40 points per game while churning out more yards and points than all but one team in the country.
Beyond Oregon’s dominance, the Pac-12 has been full of surprises through the first half of the season, from upsets, breakout performances and newfound depth across the conference.
Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights and lowlights of the season so far:
BEST TEAM: Oregon. As stated above, the Ducks are the class of the conference, their closest game so far a 21-point win. Oregon didn’t face a ranked team early in the season, but blew past then-No. 16 Washington 45-24 on Oct. 12. The Ducks will be tested a little more over the final five games of the season. Oregon plays No. 12 UCLA on Saturday, then No. 8 Stanford and still has games against Utah, Arizona and rival Oregon State left.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: A case could be made for several players in the conference, including Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, who’s leading the nation in rushing yards per game for the second straight season. But for the best player on the best team, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota has to be the choice. He’s been superb in leading the undefeated Ducks, accounting for 28 touchdowns and over 2,500 yards without turning it over once.
MOST PRODUCTIVE PLAYER: Arizona State running back Marion Grice is sixth in the conference in rushing yards per game at 79 per game. He makes the most of those yards, though, leading the nation with 15.4 points per game — more than six other teams in the FBS — and he has scored 18 touchdowns. He’s also closing in on Arizona State’s career touchdown mark in just his second season.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy has been one of the best defensive players in the country, not just the Pac-12. The fifth-year senior leads the conference and is tied for sixth nationally with seven sacks and is second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss with 10 per game. He had two sacks in Stanford’s win over UCLA last weekend.
BEST NEWCOMER: Few players have had as big an impact in a short amount of time as Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam. The freshman has racked up huge tackling numbers in his first season in Boulder and leads the conference with 9.8 tackles per game — 59 total — and has two sacks on a defense that’s been battered since the Pac-12 season started.
BEST TURNAROUND: When Oregon State opened with a home loss to Eastern Washington, it looked like the Beavers might be headed back down after last year’s breakout season. Oregon State has bounced back nicely from that disappointing loss, winning its past six games, including a 4-0 start in conference, to remain in the hunt for the Pac-12 North title.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Stanford won the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl last season, and appeared to be headed toward a showdown with Oregon on Nov. 7 after winning its first five games. Then Utah got in the way. The Utes had struggled since joining the Pac-12 and were expected to be nothing but a minor speed bump for the Cardinal. Instead, Utah stood its ground against Stanford, beating the fifth-ranked Cardinal at their own power game for a 27-21 victory and the Utes’ biggest home upset in program history.
BEST COACH: The turnaround UCLA’s Jim Mora has orchestrated in Southern California the past two seasons is impressive enough, but this season he also had to deal with one of the most difficult situations a coach and team can go through. Nick Pasquale, a walk-on freshman receiver, was killed on Sept. 8 when he was hit by a car after going home to visit family. Mora helped hold the Bruins together after the tragedy and still has them in position to win the Pac-12 South.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Even after fading last season, USC opened this season ranked and with return-to-glory expectations. It never panned out. The Trojans struggled to find consistency on offense early, receiver Marqise Lee has struggled with injuries and coach Lane Kiffin was fired after a lopsided loss to Arizona State. USC lost to rival Notre Dame last weekend and still has games against Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA.
By JOHN MARSHALL, AP College Football Writer
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