Sorting out the Pac-10 middle

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Results of the annual Pac-10 media poll will be announced on July 30, but here's a guess at how most ballots will look:

1. USC; 2. California; 3. Oregon; 4. Oregon State... 9. Washington; 10. Washington State

And from five to eight all heck breaks loose.

Now, some -- such as Phil Steele -- think Oregon will tumble. Some have issues with Oregon State. And some think Washington will be a surprise team.

But a plurality figures to vote these six teams as they appear above and then throw the other four into the air and leave it to the college football spirits to decide.

So where do you rank Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA?

I wouldn't be completely shocked if any of those four actually broke into the top four. I also wouldn't be astonished if any finished ninth.

I think I've written at various times that all four should end up bowl-eligible, even though eight conference teams with a .500 record or better is difficult to pencil out. (It did, however, happen in 2006 -- and Washington even finished 5-7).

I changed my own 5-8 a number of times. I won't tell you how I voted yet. My boss threatened to tear off my arm and beat me with it if I did. He's done it before so I believed him.

Why the difficulty?

For one, each of the Unfixed Four will break in a new quarterback, though Stanford and UCLA both have their starters back from 2008.

Each has a tough nonconference road game (Arizona at Iowa; Arizona State at Georgia; Stanford at Wake Forest; UCLA at Tennessee).

Arizona and Stanford have perception problems. Some haven't bought into Mike Stoops and believe the Wildcats will regress in 2009. Some just can't wrap their minds around Stanford being a contender.

As for Arizona State and UCLA, both have the same troublesome questions: Quarterback and offensive line.

So let's quickly review the cases for and against each -- in alphabetical order.


For: Fourteen starters are back from a team that won eight games in 2008, including an All-American tight end (Rob Gronkowski), a second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback (Devin Ross), a 1,000-yard rusher (Nic Grigsby), one of the conference's best pass-rushers (end Brooks Reed) and an outstanding punter (Keenyn Crier).

Against: The Wildcats lost a four-year starter at quarterback (Willie Tuitama), their best receiver (Mike Thomas), best offensive lineman (Eben Britton) and leading tackler (Ronnie Palmer). Moreover, the Wildcats haven't posted consecutive winning seasons since 1997-98.

Intangible factor: Mike Stoops made some mistakes early in his tenure, and he may never live down his animated sideline presence. His critics, many of whom, curiously, wear maroon and gold, believe 2008 was a one-hit wonder and still are betting Stoops will not be the long-term answer in Tucson. Of course, if Stoops and the 'Cats win eight again, the ranks of said critics would thin considerably.

Arizona State

For: The Sun Devils have 15 starters back, including perhaps the best defensive end-tackle combination in the conference with Dexter Davis and budding star Lawrence Guy. The defense, in fact, could rank among the best in the Pac-10. Moreover, with four starters back on the offensive line, as well as a couple of guys who were injured in 2008, the blocking should be much better.

Against: Danny Sullivan, even though he's a senior, is an unknown at quarterback. Also, he's not very mobile, and that could be a problem with an offensive line that struggled mightily last year, giving up 34 sacks and leading an anemic rushing attack (89 yards per game).

Intangible factor: Look over at the sideline. That's Dennis Erickson. He always wins, at least at the college level.


For: Seventeen starters are back from a team that won five games and lost three by a touchdown or less. Among those starters is 1,000-yard rusher Toby Gerhart. While quarterback Andrew Luck is only a redshirt freshman, his performance during spring practices suggested he'll substantially upgrade the passing game.

Against: Hey, it's Stanford. These guys are brainiacs who don't live and die for football. They lost four games by 17 or more points a year ago and lost their best two offensive linemen. Plus, they figure to go 1-2 in the nonconference schedule.

Intangible factor: Coach Jim Harbaugh's high-energy, high-optimism, "We're a blue collar team!" approach has been extremely effective, particularly in recruiting. The Cardinal probably will get significant help from youngsters who will split time or even displace returning veterans.


For: UCLA welcomes back 17 starters, including five All-Pac-10 performers (tight end Ryan Moya, defensive tackle Brian Price, cornerback Alterraun Verner, linebacker Reggie Carter and kicker Kai Forbath). The offense also will get a boost from five players returning who would have started last year but didn't play for various reasons: running back Christian Ramirez, tight end Logan Paulsen, center Kai Maiava, fullback Trevor Theriot and offensive tackle Sean Sheller.

Against: Returning starters ... is that good? The Bruins ranked 109th or worse in the nation in five major statistical categories in 2008. The offense was sloppy (29 turnovers) and the line was overwhelmed (83 yards per game rushing; 35 sacks surrendered). Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince didn't look much better than Kevin Craft, last year's starter, during the spring scrimmages.

Intangible factor: It's hard to bet against coordinator Norm Chow and head coach Rick Neuheisel finding some answers on offense.