The Pac-12 has been staring enviously at the SEC for years. During its heyday under Pete Carroll, USC never faced college football's preeminent conference in a bowl game, and Oregon came up just short against Cam Newton and Auburn in the 2011 BCS championship game.
The SEC-Pac-12 title game is back in play this season, but only if the Ducks or UCLA can survive a gauntlet that has already tripped up Stanford. As deep and strong as the conference has been, that isn't exactly conducive to producing undefeated BCS title contenders, something the Pac-10 couldn't manage when it was top-heavy.
Even with the presence of linebacker Anthony Barr -- now sitting atop NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt's Hot 100 list -- and quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins will be hard-pressed to win road games at Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks.
The Cardinal and Ducks will play Nov. 7, though the luster could be off that game entirely by then. Also lurking in the Pac-12 North is Oregon State, with a QB-WR battery that might be the country's best, and USC has the talent to rebound and upset Stanford or UCLA.
That's the challenge the Pac-12 has been seeking for years -- having a national profile and an overflow of standout teams. Now it has to meet it.
Five biggest surprises
Oregon State QB Sean Mannion: For two frustrating seasons, the refrain regarding Mannion had been "if only," as in, "If only he could cut down on interceptions, how good could Mannion be?" The answer: He's leading the nation in total offense and passing yards this season, in spite of a battered offensive line and inconsistent ground game. Mannion has thrown for 2,511 yards and 25 touchdowns against only three interceptions, showing outstanding rapport with wide receiver Brandin Cooks (63 receptions for 944 yards and 11 touchdowns). A throwback pure pocket passer, Mannion has the best deep ball in a Pac-12 again loaded with outstanding signal-callers.
Oregon WR Bralon Addison: The operating assumption coming into the season was that Addison would be, at best, the fourth option in the Ducks' passing game behind Josh Huff, tight end Colt Lyerla and running back De'Anthony Thomas. Well, Lyerla has left the team, Thomas missed three games with an ankle injury and Addison has a team-high six touchdown catches, is tied for the team lead with 27 receptions, and his 502 receiving yards are second only to Huff. Factor in his two punt return touchdowns, and Addison (5-foot-10, 181 pounds) looks like a DeSean Jackson clone, a lean speedster who can score anytime he touches the ball, only with better run-blocking skills.
Colorado LB Addison Gillam: Gillam was a consensus two-star recruit headed to San Jose State at this time last year. Now he leads the Pac-12 in tackles per game and is fifth in tackles for loss after following head coach Mike MacIntyre from the Bay Area to Boulder. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, the true freshman Gillam is as instinctive a middle linebacker as the conference has seen in years and will only get better with more experience and time in a college strength program.
UCLA DE Keenan Graham: After posting four sacks in his 37 career games entering the season, Graham leads the Pac-12 with five sacks in five games as a redshirt senior. Graham might not even be in the rotation if projected starter Owamagbe Odighizuwa hadn't suffered a season-ending hip injury. The redshirt senior is an unconventional fit for a 3-4 defense, given his build (6-1, 246), but he plays with relentless effort and good leverage.
Utah WR Dres Anderson: You would figure that the son of 10-year NFL veteran Flipper Anderson would garner interest on the recruiting trail, but Dres Anderson chose the Utes over Nevada, UNLV and UTEP. But after dealing with two seasons of atrocious quarterback play, Anderson has been a chip off the old block with 29 receptions for 592 yards and five touchdowns and also has a rushing touchdown. Anderson (6-1, 187) has been adept at stretching the field and adjusting well once the ball is in the air.
Five biggest disappointments
USC WR Marqise Lee: Call it a reflection of the Lane Kiffin era: When things went bad, they got really bad. With poor playcalling from the now-fired head coach, and with defenses focused on shutting him down, Lee pressed with his opportunities, resulting in dropped passes and mistakes. Lee has been held to 30 receptions for 385 yards (12.8 yards per catch) and one touchdown in five games; he has missed the Trojans' last two games with a knee injury. If healthy, he is more than capable of turning it around, especially with the vertical passes offensive coordinator Clay Helton dialed up against Arizona to great success.
Arizona State DT Will Sutton: After a breakout 2012 season with 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, a heavier Sutton has been a non-factor with 2.5 tackles for loss (one sack) in six games. And while head coach Todd Graham continues to defend Sutton, the Sun Devils rank 75th in the FBS in run defense and 74th in sacks of the opposing quarterback. Sutton is going to have to step up in the second half of the season and dominate at the combine to prove that one outstanding season was not an aberration.
Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins: Seferian-Jenkins has been largely invisible in the Huskies' new up-tempo offense, delivering production (16 receptions for 185 yards and three touchdowns) that represents only a fraction of his first two seasons on Montlake. Even though he still draws major attention from opposing defenses, a player of his immense physical talents (6-6, 276) should be able to best any coverage. Seferian-Jenkins has plenty of quality tape, and his blocking has helped running back Bishop Sankey's great play, but he needed to be the All-America difference-maker he can be to elevate UW up to the same level as Oregon and Stanford.
California RB Brendan Bigelow: Bigelow leaped onto the college football scene last season with two long touchdown runs against Ohio State. But after rushing for 55 yards on three carries on the first drive of new head coach Sonny Dykes' Bear Raid offense, Bigelow has averaged 3.13 yards per carry (222 yards on 71 attempts, no touchdowns), struggled with ball security, and was passed on the depth chart by diminutive freshman Khalfani Muhammad. Bigelow is now being used as a slot receiver, with that brilliant showing at Ohio Stadium looking more and more like a remarkable, one-time-only performance that will never be repeated.
Stanford's tight ends: Once the absolute foundation of the Cardinal offense, tight ends have barely even been a blip on the radar this season with four receptions for 20 yards in six games. Former starter Luke Maumatule is even being moved to defensive end this week to bolster depth on a line that has allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushers. With the knowledge that wide receiver Ty Montgomery, the centerpiece of the Stanford attack, is certain to draw double-coverage the rest of the season, Stanford will need junior Charlie Hopkins and senior Davis Dudchock to provide some kind of threat between the numbers.
Follow Dan Greenspan on Twitter @DanGreenspan.