Pac 10 Conference
4. Oregon State
9. Arizona State
10. Washington State
Stories to Watch in the Pac 10
No Carroll, no bowl. Pete Carroll slithered out of Los Angeles for the NFL, unaware (yeah, right) that USC was about to get the hammer dropped on them by the NCAA. When the Trojans take the field this year, they will have former Carroll aide and NFL coach Lane Kiffin leading the way, and they will have nothing to play for but a conference title and pride. The Trojans will make no postseason appearance this year, and they are ineligible for the national championship. Kiffin has the typical loaded roster at USC, but did lose around one-third of last year's lettermen, along with 12 starters. He will try to build around the usual strong offensive line and sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, who had some ups and downs as a freshman. Barkley looked strong at times, and he also had games where he totally looked like, well, a freshman. The Trojans lose their leading rusher and receiver, along with three starters on the offensive line, so it could be a struggle at times for USC to even match their 26.5 point average from a year ago, which was down significantly from what they had been posting in previous seasons. The defense was a bit of a sieve against the run, but Kiffin's father, Monte, is an accomplished defensive coach who will whip the unit into shape. The linebackers will be a strength, with senior Malcolm Smith and junior Chris Galippo both back.
Oregon a quarterback away. The Ducks were strong a year ago, and they looked like a potential national championship contender until quarterback Jeremiah Masoli got in trouble again and was kicked off the team. He's at Mississippi now, and Oregon has the kind of team a new quarterback must dream of. The Ducks have experience all over the place, with key players like running back LaMichael James, receiver Jeff Maehl, receiver D.J. Davis, left tackle Bo Thran, safety John Boyett, cornerback Talmadge Jackson, and linebacker Spencer Paysinger all returning from very good 2009 seasons. New starting quarterback Darron Thomas indeed has a lot to work with. Thomas didn't play much as a true freshman, but he did get his feet wet in the offense and won the job officially in fall practice. The Ducks were exposed a bit defensively in the Rose Bowl, as Ohio State and Terrelle Pryor moved virtually at will while the vaunted Oregon offense was shut down. The Ducks have five league road games, along with a non-conference date at Tennessee, but the league schedule is still manageable. Oregon travels to Washington State, Arizona State, and Oregon State, all very winnable games. If Thomas can play well and continue the Ducks' dual-threat ways in the backfield, Oregon will go a long way, even with a pretty tough schedule.
Washington prepares to climb up the ladder. After an 0-12 2008 season, Steve Sarkisian coaxed five wins out of a marginally-talented Huskies team last year. He got great contributions from quarterback Jake Locker and running back Chris Polk to help get them there. Now, all the stars of that improved offense are back, with Locker looking at being a high pick in the 2011 NFL Draft if he can have another strong season. Polk ran for over 1,100 yards as a freshman, while receivers Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, and James Johnson combined for over 130 receptions and 16 touchdowns. The defense took huge steps last year, and they bring back eight starters, including cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson. For Sarkisian to get Washington to the postseason for the first time since 2002, he needs the team to play more consistent football away from home. The Huskies travel to BYU, USC, Arizona, Oregon, and California before the season finale at still-hapless Washington State. If the bowl season is to call for UW, they have to snap their 12-game road losing streak by pulling an upset. They'll be underdogs in all these games, but need to find a way to "steal" one or two of them.
The battle against expectations. It seems expectations always seem to get the best of California. With a high preseason ranking last year, the Golden Bears fizzled, getting embarrassed at Oregon and at home against USC -- combined 72-6 in back-to-back weeks -- on their way to a so-so 8-5 record. Star running back Jahvid Best battled injury all year, though, so junior Shane Vereen got a lot of playing time, including in the Bears' bowl loss to Utah. Now Best is gone, but there is plenty of confidence that Vereen will do just fine out of Cal's backfield. Quarterback Kevin Riley was as up-and-down as the team was, and in the end, he has a lot of work to do as a senior. Riley isn't nearly accurate enough for what we expect out of head coach Jeff Tedford's offense. He has to get up from 59 to closer to 65 percent completions this year. Look for him to use big receiver Marvin Jones and rangy tight end Anthony Miller a lot. This Cal team has a lot of experience, but they're looked at as a bit of a darkhorse in the conference. I like how their team looks, and they should make noticeable improvements both on offense and defense. The schedule includes five home games in league play, and the last three games Cal plays are all at home. There's no reason the Golden Bears can't make some noise and potentially threaten to claim a major bowl bid if Oregon and/or USC falter.
Best of the rest
Junior quarterback Nick Foles will see a lot of familiar faces on the field with him at Arizona this year. The Wildcats return their top four rushers and eight of their top nine receivers from a year ago. Expect big things out of junior receiver Juron Criner. ... It's not surprising that Oregon State looks strong. They are among the most consistent programs in the country. Again this year, Mike Riley doesn't look to have a serious league contender, but he does have a team that will pull an upset or two and make a fifth straight bowl appearance. The brothers Rodgers -- running back Jacquizz and wide receiver James -- are back to lead the charge ... Stanford loses all-everything running back Toby Gerhart, but they return future NFL starter Andrew Luck at quarterback, and senior receiver Ryan Whalen is one of the best at his position in the Pac 10. ... After some interesting back-and-forth with Carroll, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel wisely quieted down last year. The bluster was not backed up on the field, where the Bruins went 7-6 and needed Army to lose to Navy in order to make a bowl game. Expect some positive steps this year, but the guys Neuheisel needs to make noise are probably still too young to do that. ... If Michigan transfer Steven Threet can become an effective quarterback in the desert, Arizona State might be able to spring a surprise or two. In the end, their league schedule (five road games, home date with Oregon) and a non-conference roadie to Wisconsin make it a bit far-fetched to think the Sun Devils will go bowling. ... It's starting to look up at Washington State, and not just because they have no other direction to look. The Cougars have 40 players with starting experience back, and they will lean on sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel to continue growing in his role. This will be a year where the Cougars close the gap, but not necessarily one where they escape the basement.
Preseason Pac 10 Superlatives
Best QB: Jake Locker, Washington
Best RB: Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State
Best WR: Jermaine Kearse, Washington
Best offense: Oregon
Best defense: USC
Best coach: Mike Riley, Oregon State
Coach in the most trouble: Dennis Erickson, Arizona State
Best non-conference game: Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18
Worst non-conference game: Portland State at Oregon, Sept. 18