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Preview: Pac-10 remains wide open

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Rich Cirminiello

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To say that it’s been an eventful offseason in the Pac-10 would be a gross understatement.

Jake Locker

Washington QB Jake Locker threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for seven more in 2009. 
 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Over the last few months, the conference has added two schools, Utah and Colorado, after flirting with half the Big 12, and watched two of its heavyweights, USC and Oregon, succumb to off-field problems. While the Trojans got spanked by the NCAA and won’t be eligible for the league crown, the defending champion Ducks have been regulars on police blotters, losing star QB Jeremiah Masoli to a dismissal. As change and volatility sweep through the West, there has never been such an opportunistic time for the balance of schools to rise up, win a title, and earn a coveted Rose Bowl berth.

For all the wrong reasons, USC has made the boldest headlines since January, replacing Pete Carroll with Lane Kiffin, and getting hit with sanctions that’ll impact its past, present, and future. Their bowl hopes dashed, the Trojans are in the unfamiliar position of playing for pride and playing the spoiler role. Of course, no one figures to benefit more from Troy’s troubles than UCLA, which will look to narrow the divide in Los Angeles and all of Southern California. With Rick Neuheisel entering his third season, expectations are beginning to grow around Westwood.

While Oregon won’t realistically be the same squad that won the championship a year ago, it’ll still enter the season as the favorite. You never want to underestimate Chip Kelly’s offense, especially with RB LaMichael James and all five linemen back, and the defense will be, at worst, opportunistic. Up in Corvallis, Oregon State has an insatiable appetite for duck after losing the last two Civil Wars in excruciating fashion. As long as Mike Riley and the Rodgers brothers, Quiz and James, are on campus, the Beavers are a safe bet to exceed preseason expectations.

It’s taken the better part of a decade, but Washington is finally ready to make its long-awaited return to the postseason. The combination of QB Jake Locker’s return and Steve Sarkisian’s second season has the Huskies thinking big for the first time in ages. Over in Pullman, the climate couldn’t be more different. Wazzu is staring at a third straight season in the basement, going 1-17 in conference play over the last two years.

In Northern California, the rivalry between Stanford and Cal hasn’t been this tight in years. The Cardinal is coming off its best season in almost a decade, and is set to sponsor QB Andrew Luck’s ascent to stardom. The Bears remain an enigma, often failing to play up to their talent level. They’ll be bowl-bound for an eighth straight year, but their half-century Rose Bowl drought ought to continue.

Out in the desert, Arizona has clearly surpassed Arizona State, a relief for Mike Stoops and a major concern for Dennis Erickson. The Wildcats have won eight games in back-to-back years, but elevating from there will require the front seven to regroup in a hurry. The Sun Devils wish their issues were so simple. The program has fallen on hard times, and could once again be the last stop before the Pac-10 cellar.

If USC is going to regain its grip on the conference crown, it won’t happen until at least 2012. In the meantime, the rest of the league is lining up, hoping to capitalize on a race to Pasadena that no longer has the mighty Trojans standing at the gate.

Team That'll Surprise

Washington – The Huskies have become very trendy in the offseason, but that doesn’t mean a winning season won’t buck recent history. This is a school that hasn’t been over .500 or played in a bowl game since 2002. All signs, however, point to a long overdue revival in Seattle. From the unexpected return of QB Jake Locker to the second full season of Steve Sarkisian and his staff, Washington is poised to make a serious run at the Pac-10’s first division. Yes, there are some holes, especially along the lines, but if this team gets hot early and starts learning how to win, it’s liable to piece together a memorable and much-needed campaign.

GET READY

With 2010 kickoff just days away, check out our series of college football team previews.

Team That'll Disappoint

UCLA – Now that USC is ebbing, the conventional wisdom is that UCLA is set to flow across town. The overall talent level is indicating otherwise. Hey, Rick Neuheisel has done a very nice job of recruiting in two years, but the offense remains stagnant and the defense lost a ton of talent to graduation. Plus, the schedule is a bear, featuring just one sure-thing, an Oct. 2 visit from Washington State. Tangibly speaking, the Bruins want to build on last year’s 7-6 mark, but getting to eight wins is going to be tougher than it seems. As will cutting into the Trojans’ market share in Los Angeles.

Game of the Year … Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4. More than just one of the most underrated rivalries in the country, this game has decided the Rose Bowl participant in each of the last two seasons. Care to make it three in-a-row? The Ducks have produced 102 points in back-to-back wins, sending USC to Pasadena in 2008 and themselves a year ago. With the Trojans out of contention in 2010, the Civil War will have even more at stake in the league race to go along with the requisite offensive fireworks that have become customary in this match up.

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...

1. RB Shane Vereen, Jr. Cal
2. LB Akeem Ayers, Jr. UCLA
3. LB/FB Owen Marecic, Sr. Stanford
4. CB Shareece Wright, Sr. USC
5. OT Michael Philipp, Soph. Oregon State

Coach on the Hot Seat

Paul Wulff, Washington State – Off to arguably the worst start by a head coach in Pac-10 history, Wulff is in desperate need of progress, preferably the tangible kind. His Cougars have gone 3-22 over the last two seasons, rarely being competitive in conference games. He’s used a ton of underclassmen over that time, which better start paying dividends or else the coach will have a hard time justifying a fourth year. While not in nearly as a precarious position, Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson would stand to benefit from a winning season. After starting so quickly in Tempe, he’s won just 11 of the last 29 games, with no quick turnaround in sight.

POLL

  • Who will win the Pac-10
    • Oregon
    • Oregon State
    • Washington
    • Arizona
    • Stanford
    • Someone else

5 Non-Conference Games the Pac-10 had better take very, very seriously

1. Cal at Nevada, Sept. 17
2. Houston at UCLA, Sept. 18
3. Syracuse at Washington, Sept. 11
4. Washington State at SMU, Sept. 18
5. Arizona at Toledo, Sept. 3

Bold Prediction … USC will sit atop the Pac-10 standings, even though it’s ineligible for the league championship and a bowl game. With NCAA sanctions hanging over their heads and the postseason off limits, you think the Trojans will be motivated to play spoiler all season? Absolutely, and those reductions in scholarships won’t impact the 2010 team, so it still harbors more talent, pound-for-pound, than any other team in the conference. While the goals are anything but typical, Troy has found something to play for this year. With Lane Kiffin dealing out the victim card and the dynasty over, USC will play with something to prove in a league light on elite programs.

5 Best Pro Prospects

1. QB Jake Locker, Sr.
2. DT Stephen Paea, Sr. Oregon State
3. QB Andrew Luck, Soph. Stanford
4. DT Jurrell Casey, Jr. USC
5. S Rahim Moore, Jr. UCLA

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill

1. RB Stepfan Taylor for Toby Gerhart, Stanford
2. QB Nate Costa or Darron Thomas for Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon
3. DT David Carter for Brian Price, UCLA
4. DE Trevor Guyton for Tyson Alualu, Cal
5. S Jawanza Starling for Taylor Mays, USC

Tagged: California, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Jeremiah Masoli, Jake Locker, Andrew Luck

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