Crossroads: USC down, parity up in Pac-10

Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson's team was picked in the Pac-10 media poll to repeat a ninth-place conference finish, but he pitches his squad as if it's got a shot at the Rose Bowl without coming off as a used-car salesman. Still, the initial reaction is skepticism. Then, as his players swagger by, an impression slowly registers: Wow, a lot of these guys pass the sight test. They don't look like a team that only won two conference games in 2009.

Of course, Arizona State only lost by a late field goal at Georgia in 2009. The eighth-place conference team, UCLA, won at Tennessee. The seventh-place team, Washington, outgained LSU 478 yards to 321 in an eight-point loss.

(Bowl season? Cough, cough).

The almost redundant message coming from the Pac-10 coaches this preseason can be summed up in three terms: 1. depth; 2. parity; 3. wide-open.

"I've never seen it so even in all the years I've been in this league," Erickson said "If someone asked me who was going to win it, I don't know. There are so many good football teams, a lot of guys a lot of guys coming back."

While Erickson's Sun Devils only return nine starters, they aren't inexperienced: 51 lettermen are back. And the conference as a whole averages 15.3 returning starters, which is notably above the average of 14.8 over the past decade.

Further, there's USC's situation. But throw out the fact that the Trojans are ineligible for the postseason, per NCAA sanctions, and therefore ineligible to win the Pac-10 championship. After winning seven consecutive conference titles, the Trojans went down hard in 2009, finishing tied for fifth with four conference losses -- despite beating Big Ten champion Ohio State -- and got blown out by Oregon and Stanford.

In recent years, the conference has been tweaked by many gadflies as the "Pac-1" or "USC and the Nine Dwarfs." In 2010, however, there are nine teams that, if things fell into place, are legitimate candidates to earn bowl berths. Heck, it doesn't strain credulity to imagine scenarios where the seventh, eighth or ninth picks in the media poll (California, UCLA and ASU) push into the Top 25.

“(Washington State coach Paul Wulff) would be the one guy -- and I’m not picking on the Cougs," Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel said, "that would be hard-pressed to tell you he’s got a chance to win the league. But I think everybody else is gonna go back and tell their team that they do.”

And those Cougars, who finished 1-11 last year and have won a single conference game over the past two seasons, should be much improved, though the baby step forward figures to be "competitive" instead of "winning."

Experience at quarterback is typically critical in Pac-10 play: Seven teams welcome back starters, and no conference in the country even approaches the NFL potential of Washington's Jake Locker, Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles. Oh, by the way, two of the top-three picks in the league -- No. 1 Oregon and No. 3 Oregon State -- are replacing their starting QBs.

That's another part of the parity: No team appears dominant. And every team has an area that could be circled in red as a significant concern.

The bad news that comes with parity is it appears likely the Pac-10 will not be a player in the national title hunt (again). And it might be difficult for multiple teams to finish with no more than two defeats, which likely would be the threshold to get two teams into BCS bowls for the first time since 2002.

“I think there is a lot of parity in this conference, there is no doubt about it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "Last year we had [four] teams with the same record. It will be very difficult to go through this conference unscathed."

The upside is it should be a wild ride with lots of upsets, darkhorse charges and surprises.