4. Oregon State
9. Arizona State
10. Washington State
Fab Four: Top Storylines in the Pac-10
Futility in the Pacific Northwest. It's simply amazing how far Washington and Washington State have fallen. As recently as 2002, both were in prominent bowl games, as Washington played in the Sun Bowl and Washington State earned a Rose Bowl berth. Last season, they combined for just two wins (both by Washington State), and may have been the two worst teams in all of Division I-A (er, FBS). Washington was outscored by an average of 38.6-13.3, while Washington State was even more hopelessly inept, losing by an average of 43.8-12.7. Paul Wulff is in the second year of his Wazzu rebuilding effort, and you can expect them to be more competitive, even if they only win two or three games. Meanwhile, Washington hired former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian to pick up the pieces from the Tyrone Willingham disaster. If Sarkisian gets a full season out of junior quarterback Jake Locker, and his team can survive the LSU/USC/Stanford/Notre Dame gauntlet (latter two on the road) over the first five weeks of the season, the Huskies could surprise.
USC's dominance continues. They've done it all before. Whether you ask the Trojans to replace top defensive players who have moved on to the NFL, top offensive players, or top coaches, they do it almost seamlessly. Would you have ever known Matt Leinart left, or Carson Palmer before that? Did the defense skip a beat after Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, or Troy Polamalu moved on? It's all old hat for Pete Carroll, who simply restocks at key positions with the top recruits in the country. Out goes Mark Sanchez, and in comes either Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley. Lost Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, and Brian Cushing, that's fine. They'll just plug in Malcolm Smith, Marquis Simmons, Chris Galippo, and Michael Morgan. Senior safety Taylor Mays returns after an All-America season, and there's no question he will be the leader of the defense. Whether Corp or Barkley start the opener against San Jose State, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, and Joe McKnight will play a huge role in the offense. When they leave, Carroll will just move down the line and put the next great Trojan in the starting lineup.
Cal returns to contention. If a 6-3 conference record equates the end of a down spell, most teams would love the down spell. For California, a return to conference title contention is likely to happen this year. The Bears need to pick a quarterback -- bet on Kevin Riley holding the job this time. Of course, a big part of Riley's job will be to simply turn around and give the rock to Jahvid Best. The 1,580-yard rusher returns for his junior season as a top Heisman contender. He shouldn't have to carry the offense, as senior receivers Nyan Boateng and Verran Tucker both return. Look out for freshman tight end Spencer Ladner, who has the potential to be a really good player. The defense was a rock last year, allowing only 315 yards per game. They could actually improve, thanks to a group of eight returning starters that includes top cornerbacks Syd'Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan, along with pass-rushing tackle Tyson Alualu. A schedule that includes visits from USC and Oregon State is favorable for a conference title run, but it's doubtful the Bears will actually topple the USC machine.
Is Stanford ready? Many -- mainly Michigan fans -- have ripped coach Jim Harbaugh for his rather brash nature when speaking in public. What the detractors can't deny is that he's worked hard to point the Stanford program in the right direction. After inheriting a team that was outscored by an average of three touchdowns per game in 2006, Harbaugh has taken on the slow build to respectability. The Cardinal were virtually even with their opponents in points last year, and the offense has improved by 120 yards per game over two seasons. The next step is to take the next step, and get this program into a bowl game for the first time since the 2001 Seattle Bowl. Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is the new starting quarterback, with two-year starter Tavita Pritchard now a backup. Luck has to get comfortable in a hurry, as the Cardinal play their first two on the road. Seven home games out of the last ten will follow that, and the ability to navigate through some tough games (seven opponents won bowl games last year) will determine Stanford's bowl viability.
Best of the rest
UCLA thinks they can make a run at USC this year. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince is expected to stabilize a quarterback position that was responsible for just eight touchdown passes and 21 interceptions last year. All the other pieces are in place on offense for serious improvement. ... It's nice to see multiple preseason rags saluting Oregon State coach Mike Riley. His teams are never picked to finish high in the Pac-10, but they're always competitive. Jacquizz Rodgers tries to build off a magical freshman season in 2009. He ran for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. ... Arizona lost star quarterback Willie Tuitama off their eight-win squad, but junior running back Nic Grigsby returns. The defense, stellar in the second half of their bowl win against BYU, has seven starters back. ... Mike Bellotti is now the athletic director at Oregon, leaving the head coaching duties to former offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. Kelly inherits some great talent, especially on offense, but it's a daunting schedule that starts with a Thursday night opener at Boise State. ... A subpar 5-7 season included a stunning home loss to UNLV and a blowout loss at Arizona. For Arizona State, it could be a bit of a long road back. They have a strong front seven on defense, and only a trip to Georgia is terribly daunting among the Sun Devils' first six games. A 5-1 or 4-2 start may lead to a better season than expected.
Preseason Pac 10 Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Jahvid Best, RB, California
Defensive Player of the Year: Taylor Mays, S, USC
Coach of the Year: Rick Neuheisel, UCLA
Coach on the Hot Seat: Paul Wulff, Washington State
Best non-conference game: USC at Ohio State, September 12
Worst non-conference game: Idaho State at Arizona State, September 5