Is this the year that somebody will finally challenge USC in the Pac-10?
Maybe. Just maybe.
The Trojans are always stocked with talent, but this year, coach Pete Carroll is facing one of his toughest rebuilding jobs. Gone to NFL are such 2008 superstars as quarterback Mark Sanchez and linebacker Rey Maualuga, among others, and it’s not clear that even USC has the depth to replace players like that. Which just might open the door for somebody else to win the Pac-10 for once.
The Trojans have won seven straight league titles. Can they make it eight?
Find out here in our Pac-10 preview.
1. USC Trojans
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Just when Mark Sanchez was rounding into form, he announced he was leaving for the NFL. Now, Carroll has to choose—and develop—Sanchez’s successor. Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp are battling for the job, and though Mustain had the big-time high school rep, it appears that Corp has the edge right now. What do we know about him? Not much. But he’s got this working in his favor: He’ll be operating behind the best offensive line in the country. Defensively, the Trojans lose a ton, but safety Taylor Mays returns and should serve as a steadying force. Will the Trojans be dominant in 2009? Probably not. But they’ll be good enough to win another Pac-10 title.
2. Oregon Ducks
(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
After a somewhat sluggish start to the 2008 season—I mean, they almost lost to lowly Purdue—the Ducks rebounded by season’s end with a dominating win over Oregon State in the Civil War and a 42-31 win over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl. Now the question is whether or not that momentum—momentum created in large part by rising star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli—will carry over into 2009, the Ducks’ first season under new coach Chip Kelly. Though the lines need to be rebuilt, the Ducks have speed on the edge and a potentially dominating runner in tailback LeGarrette Blount. Make no mistake: The Ducks will push USC hard.
3. Cal Bears
(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Opinions seem split on the Bears. Some look at all that talent returning from and underrated 2008 defense and see the makings of a Pac-10 contender and possible Top 10 team. Others, meanwhile, wonder where the offense is going to come from. Yes, the Bears boast the services of sensational tailback Jahvid Best, but quarterback is a huge question mark and there’s no Desean Jackson-like threat on the flank, either. Cal has been a fairly consistent winner of late, but coach Jeff Tedford hasn’t been able to get over the top. There’s always something missing. Seems to be the case again in 2009. Oh, and watch out for that early-season trip to Minnesota, Bears fans. It could be tricky.
4. Oregon State Beavers
(Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Yeah, the Beavers started bad last year. And yeah, they didn’t finish all that well either (not to discount that resounding Sun Bowl win over Pitt, of course). But I’m sold on Beavers coach Mike Riley and I’m even more fully sold on the Rodgers brothers. Jacquizz is the tailback who gave USC fits back in 2008; James is the underrated wideout who can make the big play at any time. Yeah, the secondary is starting from scratch, but the fact is, Oregon State has established itself as a legit program. They can’t recruit as well as the USCs and UCLAs of the world, but Riley and his staff have a knack for finding diamonds in the rough (like the Rodgers brothers). Somehow, this team will win eight games. At least.
5. UCLA Bruins
(Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
If anyone can save the UCLA program, it’s Rick Neuheisel, an alum who wants very badly to beat USC (and, oh yeah, the Pac-10, too). His work is cut out for him this season, however. The Bruins offense was horrific last year and, on paper, shouldn’t be much better in 2009. UCLA built its reputation on quarterbacks. And yet I can’t name a single Bruin quarterback of consequence in recent history. I mean, Purdue produces better signalcallers these days. And Purdue isn’t any good. So why can this team win seven games? Simple: UCLA suddenly has a very good defense. They were stout last year and might be even better in 2009. Keep an eye on linebacker Reggie Carter, who might be the best ‘backer in the league.
6. Arizona State Sun Devils
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Last summer I boldly predicted to all who would listen that Arizona State would shock the college football world with an early-season upset of Georgia. But that didn’t happen. In fact, nothing of consequence at all happened for the Sun Devils in 2008, as the program took a big step back (finishing 5-7) despite great expectations. So what we can expect this season? Well, I don’t doubt that this team has talent—not USC talent, mind you, but good talent, at least—but I’m not sure who’s going to play quarterback, I’m not sure who’s going to run the ball and I’m not sure who’s going to make a play in the clutch. The good news? The defense, anchored by a solid group up front, will be one of the best units in the conference.
7. Arizona Wildcats
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Willie Tuitama graduated. That’s all I need to know. Arizona has been one of the nation’s most inconsistent programs in recent years, but even with this bunch, there was one thing you could always count on: Tuitama making plays and keeping his erratic team in games. Well, who’s going to handle that now? Yeah, I know the defense was good in 2008, and, yeah, I know that with eight starters back the unit is supposed to be good in 2009, too. But this program has been so average for so long that I no longer know what to make of it. And, oh yeah, I have no idea who’s going to replace Tuitama.
8. Stanford Cardinal
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
I’ll say this much: Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh certainly is entertaining. And he’s so thoroughly bought into the Cardinal program that, at times, it’s easy to forget that Harbaugh didn’t even go there (he's a Michigan Man ... sort of). Harbaugh is fiery, and energetic, and seems thoroughly convinced that he can make Stanford a winner. I want to believe him. But here’s the problem. He still doesn’t have the talent. At least not yet (all due respect to Bo McNally, one of the most underrated players in the country).
9. Washington Huskies
So what really separates a bad Washington program coming off an 0-12 season from a bad Washington State program coming off a 2-11 season? Answer: Jake Locker. How former Washington coach Ty Willingham convinced Locker—a kid who could have gone anywhere—to come to Seattle is beyond me, but Washington certainly is lucky as heck to have him. Locker hasn’t lived up to the “savior” predictions just yet, but he’s certainly a talent. If Washington can give him any kind of help, they might actually throw a scare into some teams. But I doubt that help is on the way anytime soon. Good luck, Steve Sarkisian.
10. Washington State Cougars
(Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
The worst college football programs in all of the nation? Well, there’s Syracuse. A couple of those Sun Belt teams. Maybe Duke. And, sadly, Wazzu. Paul Wulff struggled through a miserable rookie season in Pullman but at least knocked off Washington in the Apple Cup game. But here’s the reality: There is a shocking shortage of FBS talent on this team. The Cougars are too slow on offense, too small on defense, and too talentless to scare anybody. I mean, this is a bad team. 2-11 would be an achievement.