Sixth in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.
Don't be surprised if ... Oregon has the No. 1 defense in the conference.
Maybe you shouldn't be surprised with this one, considering eight starters are returning from a defense you could argue was the best in the conference in 2009.
Yes, Oregon didn't rank atop the final Pac-10 stats. But considering every team plays different nonconference schedules -- with a variety of degrees of difficulty -- it's not unreasonable to discount those games and only review conference games. And in conference play last year, Oregon ranked No. 1 in total defense (316 yards per game) and No. 2 in scoring defense (22.7). Big plays? The Ducks led the conference with 36 sacks and were second in forced turnovers with 25.
(I pointed this out to another Pac-10 coach and he replied, to paraphrase, "Fair enough. But they also didn't have to face the Oregon offense." The Ducks were No. 1 in scoring and No. 2 in total offense in the conference).
As for those three departed starters, tackle Blake Ferras was a fairly pedestrian player. Safety T.J. Ward was an outstanding player, but he missed half the season with an ankle sprain, so John Boyett, who started 10 games, qualifies as a returning starter. The only significant hole is at end with the loss of Will Tukuafu. But the tandem of Dion Jordan and Terrell Turner is an intriguing combination that figures to be more athletic.
The linebacking crop is fast, experienced and deep. Watch out for Michael Clay, whom some observers believe is as good as anybody on the defense. The secondary welcomes back six players with starting experience, though it remains unclear who will start at left cornerback, with true freshmen Terrance Mitchell and Avery Patterson topping the depth chart. End Kenny Rowe led the conference with 11.5 sacks and tackle Brandon Bair might be the conference's most underrated player (just ask coach Chip Kelly).
There's plenty of experience and speed and solid depth. Some youngsters, including true freshman tackle Ricky Heimuli and redshirt freshmen Wade Keliikipi, a tackle, and Anthony Anderson, an end, should bolster depth on a line that should run eight-deep.
Oregon hasn't ranked among the top 40 in total defense since 2004. It hasn't had a "special" defense since 1994, when the "Gang Green" led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl. While Oregon fans through the years have had a love-hate relationship with coordinator Nick Aliotti, the Ducks defense in 2010 has a chance to be Oregon's best in years.
USC and Arizona State should both should have good defenses. UCLA and Oregon State also should be solid. If Arizona answers questions at linebacker, it will be among the conference's best.
But the unit with the fewest questions is Oregon.