State of the conference: Pac-10

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Is this the season?

Is this the season when, after all the huffing and puffing and upsets and injuries and brilliant performances, that the Pac-10 crown is placed upon the head of a team other than USC?

This question has been asked before. Like every preseason since 2003.

State of the conference? What did we write last year?

[The Pac-10], from Tucson to Seattle to Eugene to Berkeley to Westwood, looks up and sees USC's Men of Troy standing above, smirking in their Cardinal & Gold Armani armor, which sports six gaudy, sequential badges of Pac-10 supremacy.

Only now it's seven.

And the overwhelming consensus that it will be eight.

And yet.

The whispers of Trojan vulnerability are louder this year. USC is rebuilding its defense with just three starters back. The two leading candidates to start at quarterback, sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley, are greener than most of their predecessors under coach Pete Carroll, though it is true that Matt Leinart won the first of two consecutive national championship in 2003 as a sophomore.

But what's more interesting is not so much talk of Trojan questions, but Pac-10 answers.

Sure, USC was tapped No. 4 in the preseason coaches' poll. But California, ranked 12th, and Oregon, at No. 14, are two legitimate challengers, while Oregon State finally earned the respect that 28 wins over the three previous seasons merit and was 25th.

Last fall, Arizona State, ranked 15th in the preseason, was touted as the Trojans' top challenger, at least in terms of national polls. But the scuttlebutt within the conference was highly skeptical. The Sun Devils had huge issues on the offensive line and had benefited from a highly favorable schedule while winning 10 games in 2007.

There's little skepticism with Cal, in large part because the defense likely will rank among the nation's best. Oh, and this fellow by the name of Jahvid Best is OK, too.

Oregon, which is rebuilding both lines, has more questions, but quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's dramatic improvement down the stretch last season is obscuring those concerns.

Oregon State, meanwhile, has earned the benefit of the doubt after successfully completing what appeared to be substantial rebuilding projects in advance of the previous three seasons. And two experienced quarterbacks and 2008 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Jacquizz Rodgers is a good place to start.

Then there's the middle and lower-third of the conference. From the vantage point of pure preseason speculation, only Washington State appears unlikely to improve from 2008, though even the Cougars have some hope with an easier nonconference schedule and an expectation that injuries can't possibly be as epidemic as they were last fall.

Some seem skeptical about Arizona improving on 2008's eight-win total that was capped by a Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU, but that perspective seems ignorant of the talent and experience the Wildcats have on both sides of the ball as well as a curious focus on Mike Stoops as a coach in 2004 and 2005 rather than his present, more seasoned incarnation.

UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State all appear capable of breaking even -- or better -- and becoming bowl eligible. Washington has 18 starters back, and that doesn't include linebacker E.J. Savannah, a potential All-Pac-10 pick.

Moreover, the return of quarterback Jake Locker and the arrival of a new coaching staff led by Steve Sarkisian suggests that the Huskies won't even remotely resemble the uninspired, 0-12 disaster they were last year under Tyrone Willingham.

In sum, it seems entirely possible that the momentum of a 5-0 bowl season, which reasserted the Pac-10's elite status among BCS conferences -- not to mention reignited debate among the knowledgeable that USC was, again, the nation's best team -- will carry over in 2009.

A caveat for Pac-10 fans: The nonconference schedule is even more brutal in 2009. It includes five road games against teams ranked in the preseason coaches' poll (Ohio State, Georgia, Iowa, Boise State and Notre Dame). And that doesn't include games at Tennessee, Minnesota and Wake Forest.

In other words, it's possible that a repeat of last fall's poor-to-middling performance in early-season nonconference games could cause the rest of the nation to -- fair or unfair -- write off the Pac-10.

So the Pac-10 best adopt a road warrior mentality.

Which, by the way, USC will need in spades to retain its Pac-10 crown and elite national ranking -- see a schedule that includes visits to Ohio State, California, Notre Dame and Oregon.