By Marc Lawrence
After capturing seven straight PAC 10 titles, the University of Spoiled Children (USC) was hit hard in 2009. Not only in the standings but also during the off-season when head coach Pete Carroll scooted off to Seattle in the NFL. And suddenly, just like that, a race is on in the PAC 10.
Replacing Carroll is Lane Kiffin, the celebrated former head coach with Tennessee (last year) and Oakland in the NFL. Kiffin is an ex-assistant with the Trojans who has a penchant for recruiting. His first recruiting class, with the Volunteers last year, was ranked best in the land by Rivals but he drew more attention when he received a 'verbal' commitment from 13-year-old quarterback David Sills. USC is one of two teams (UNLV the other) that will face 13 FBS opponents this year.
Knocking on the door will be California and the Oregons, three teams that have been bridesmaids much throughout the Carroll era. And the feeling here is Washington, behind QB Jake Locker - a possible first pick in this year's NFL draft - will have a strong say in who finishes where in this wide open loop.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
ARIZONA - *10 / 4
TEAM THEME: GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
One of the smartest moves HC Mike Stoops made in his six years at the Wildcats' helm was bringing OC Sonny Dykes in to run his offense. In three short seasons, Dykes turned an offense that was averaging 253 total yards and 17 PPG into an attack that accounted for over 30 PPG and just under 400 yards of total offense. The trouble in Tucson is that Dykes has taken his playbook to Louisiana Tech. The good news for the feline faithful is the Wildcats return 10 starters from an offense that rushed for over 2,000 yards and 19 TD's and threw for more than 3,000 yards and 20 scores. While we're not fond of Stoops' plan to form co-offensive coordinators among the current staff, we're guessing they'll be more good news than bad news this season - if QB Nick Foles and RB Nic Grigsby don't get too ‘nicked' up.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Arizona St (12/2)
ARIZONA STATE - 7 / 7
TEAM THEME: ROAD BLOCKS
After leading the Sun Devils to a 10-win season in his first year at Tempe, Dennis Erickson has only been able to muster a total of nine wins in the past two campaigns. It should be another tough road ahead for the veteran HC as five of ASU's six away games this season are against bowlers. In defense of Erickson, his Sun Devils fielded one of the youngest teams in the country last year while losing three starting O-linemen to season-ending injuries. And speaking of defense, seven starters return from a unit that was tops in the Pac-10 and 13th nationally. The erratic offense should get a boost with redshirt JR QB Steven Threet, a Michigan transfer, competing for the starting job. While Devils' fans shouldn't experience another season of complete hell, those trips outside of Tempe put us at a crossroad in determining ASU's 2010 fate.
PLAY ON: vs. Oregon St (10/2)
CALIFORNIA - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: EIGHT IS NOT ENOUGH
Jeff Tedford enters the season as the longest tenured coach in the Pac-10. In his first eight years at the Cal helm, his Bears own the second winningest record among conference foes. Despite turning around a 1-10 program, producing eight straight winning seasons and a delivering a 5-2 bowl record, the Berkeley bunch wants more. Granted, the Bears did beat two ranked opponents in the same season last year for the first time since 1950. To get to the next level, however, Tedford will have to address a couple of issues. Replacing RB Jahvid Best, a first-round draft choice, will fall to the fast feet of junior Shane Vereen who accounted for 852 yards and 12 TD's during Best's injury-plagued 2009 season. The bigger concern is to repair a defense that slipped 63 YPG last season. Rest assured, Tedford will not sleep until these Bears, at minimum, smell the Roses.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. USC (10/16) - *KEY +10 pts or more
OREGON - 9 / 8
TEAM THEME: WHAT THE DUCK IS GOING ON?
Let's tell it like it is: the black clouds recently cast over the Oregon program are nearly as ugly as their uniforms. RB LeGarrette Blount's Mike Tyson-like display in last season's opener cost him dearly in this year's NFL draft. His back-up, LaMichael James (physical harassment) was suspended for this year's season opener and all-everything QB Jeremiah Masoli (burglary) was dismissed from the squad and since enrolled at Ole Miss. Not only was Masoli an All-Pac 10 second-team performer, he led the Ducks to an 8-1 league record in which they scored 36 or more points in every contest. A junior-laden team in 2009, the Ducks will now turn to senior leadership and 17 returning starters in hopes of overcoming these key player losses and the egg they laid in last year's Rose Bowl. Early pre-season polls put them in the Top 12 but we'll wait on their trip to Rocky Top before figuring out what to do with this Quack Attack.
PLAY ON: vs. Stanford (10/2)
OREGON STATE - 9 / 8
TEAM THEME: BEAVER FEVER
Here's another bar bet you'll win nine out of ten times: Name the ONLY team to finish in the top three in the Pac-10 standings each of the last four seasons. Drink up if you had the Beavers on your mind. OSU's 25-11 conference record is second only to USC's 27-9 league mark during that span. In fact, Oregon State went 80-46 this past decade, after going 28-81-1 during the ‘90's. The mastermind behind the success is HC Mike Riley, who spurned USC's advances in the off-season to remain in Corvallis. While the defense slipped a bit, the offense was efficient, committing only 11 turnovers. 17 returning starters, led by the Rodgers brothers (RB Jaquizz and WR James), should be enough to overcome the loss of QB Sean Canfield. With September games versus TCU and Boise State, we'll find out early if we want to mess with these Beavers.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. USC (11/20)
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA - *5 / 6
TEAM THEME: CHANGING LANES
The nine-year Pete Carroll era came to a stunning end when he took the NFL money and headed for Seattle. The Trojans now turn to 34-year old Lane Kiffin, who bolted Rocky Top after one season, to return to the USC sidelines. Kiffin was an integral part of Carroll's first six staffs. "Having been here before, during the championship years, makes the transition a seamless one... I love that," said Kiffin. He brings an all-star coaching staff to tackle a 13-game schedule that sends them packing for four of their first six games. A favorable non-conference schedule finds nary a winning opponent, but do these Trojans have the horses to get back on top? Be careful as our Midweek Alert points out: USC was just 4-4 In The Stats against bowlers last year after going 30-5 the previous five years. Maybe it wasn't the money that caused Carroll to jump off this Trojan horse.
PLAY ON: vs. Washington (10/2)
STANFORD - *8 / 6
TEAM THEME: REDBIRD GOING... UP
It's no wonder that Jim Harbaugh is on every team's ‘in need of a coaching upgrade' list. 2009 saw Stanford break a string of seven straight losing seasons and with any ‘Luck', 2010 will see the Cardinal record a bowl win for the first time since 1996. If Harbaugh plays his ‘Cards' right, and we're sure he will, he'll ride the right arm of QB Andrew Luck to a top echelon job just about the time Luck, a first-team all-freshman selection last year, heads off to the NFL. As Luck may have it, an offensive line that allowed the 2nd fewest sacks in the land last year returns virtually intact. While replacing Heisman runner-up RB Toby Gerhart won't be an easy assignment, Harbaugh does have the luxury of eleven 5th and 6th-year seniors on the roster. With three of the top four tacklers back on defense, it looks like all the Cards are falling into place in 2010.
PLAY ON: vs. Arizona (11/6)
UCLA - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: ROSE(BOWL)-COLORED GLASSES
A big jump on offense and steady improvement on defense has the Bruins back in contention in the watered-down Pac-10. Rick Neuheisel's biggest hurdle this season will be to replenish a defense that loses six starters, including four all-league performers. Still, there's a feeling of confidence in the L.A. air as four wins in the final five games of the season, along with a Top 10 recruiting class, has UCLA breathing a bit more comfortable these days. "I expect us to continue to build on the growth and progress we made on offense a year ago. Most of all, our young players have now gained starting experience and are entering the third year of our system," says a self-assured Neuheisel. Trips to Texas, Cal and Oregon don't exactly have us brimming but it's tough to question the UCLA head man who has had just two losing seasons in 10 years as a college head coach.
PLAY ON: vs. Texas (9/25) - *KEY as DD dog
WASHINGTON - *10 / 6
TEAM THEME: UNDER LOCK AND SAR-KEY
The return of a healthy Jake Locker saw the Washington attack take a quantum leap in 2009 as the Huskies doubled their offensive output from that forgettable 0-12 effort in 2008. The offense, which stays virtually intact, figures to take another jump forward as Locker, the potential top pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, decided to stay in school for his senior season. Last year's five win campaign - their most since 2006 - could have even been higher if not for a couple of close road losses at Notre Dame, Arizona State and UCLA. Second-year HC Steve Sarkisian ended his rookie campaign on a high note with a 42-10 thrashing of Cal and is itching to get back to work as 17 other starters join Locker in Seattle. To no one's surprise, the former NY Giants' DC improved the Huskies ‘D' dramatically last season. However, in 2010 it's all about the ‘O'. Lock it up.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Arizona (10/23)
WASHINGTON STATE - *8 / 9
TEAM THEME: MORE AFRAID OF VIRGINIA
If you thought 2008 wasn't a pretty year in Pullman - check out 2009. Paul Wulff's Cougars allowed more yards than any team in the country by a wide margin and totaled more than only New Mexico State. Despite a slew of young talented players that are a year older in 2010, Pac-10 scribes pick State to, once again, finish in the conference cellar. On the heels of the worst two-year stretch in school history - in which the Cougars have posted a 3-22 record while averaging 12.5 PPG and allowing 41.5 PPG - who could blame them? The offense should get a boost as SO QB Jeff Tuel, who took over the job last October and actually played well before a season-ending kneecap injury, returns along with all of his top WR's. Maybe the Cougars can sneak up on a few teams this season, as it's unlikely any of the nine winning teams on this year's slate are afraid of this Wulff.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. SMU (9/18)