The USC Trojans have now won seven straight Pac-10 championships.
For nearly a decade now, Pete Carroll and the Trojans have utterly dominated the league, and so the obvious question as we approach the 2009 season is this: Will anyone finally bring this streak to an end?
Well, no. Probably not. The Trojans once more look like the league's best team, though both Cal and Oregon (and maybe Oregon State) seem capable of making a run at the title, too.
Here, we take a look at the seven games that figure to shape the Pac-10 championship race in 2009.
1. Cal at Oregon (Sept. 26)
(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
The Bears and Ducks figure to be USC's toughest competition, so this early-season matchup looms large. Cal returns superstar tailback Jahvid Best, who might be the best back in the league, but the Bears also have big questions at quarterback. The Ducks, meanwhile, are all set at quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli is a star in the making, and both Nate Costa and Justin Roper are viable options, too) but must replace several starters along the offensive and defensive fronts. Plus, there's the obvious questions about they'll fare now that coach Mike Bellotti has moved on.
2. Washington State at USC (Sept. 26)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
OK, so there won't be much drama in this one. I'm just wondering how ugly the beatdown will be this year. Last season, the Trojans humiliated the Cougs by the score of 69-0—and that was at Washington State. This year, the Cougs hit the road to play in L.A. And they're not any better.
3. USC at Cal (Oct. 3)
The Trojans have a very tough Week 2 showdown in Columbus against Ohio State, then get a two-week respite (back-to-back matchups against Washington and Washington State) before their first big conference test: A road trip down to Berkeley to take on Best and the Bears. If Cal can get any kind of production out of its quarterback (hello, Kevin Riley), and if Jahvid Best can be at his best, they just might spring a season-changing upset. This could be the USC-Oregon State of 2009.
4. Cal at UCLA (Oct. 17)
(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
This is a very big year for Rick Neuheisel at UCLA. The Bruin faithful have been patient, but now they want to see results, and a win over the rival Bears would certainly offer the program a boost. I just don't see how the Bruins are going to be able to score enough to keep up with Cal. They were terrible on offense last year and will terrible on offense again this year. So the question must be asked: What, exactly, is much-hyped offensive coordinator Norm Chow doing out there?
5. USC at Oregon (Oct. 31)
Circle this one now, folks. There are only two games standing between USC and yet another Pac-10 title: There's the Oct. 3 trip to Cal. Then there's this late-October hike up to Eugene to take on the always dangerous Ducks. Autzen Stadium has a well-deserved reputation as one of the toughest venues for visiting teams in the country, and you can bet the Duck faithful will make the day miserable for the Trojans. An interesting matchup to watch here? Ducks tailback LeGarrette Blount against a young, inexperienced USC linebacker corps. Blount ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2008, but the Trojans held him to 0 yards on nine attempts in a 44-10 rout in L.A. last season.
6. UCLA at USC (Nov. 28)
Look, UCLA isn't anywhere near as talented as USC right now. I mean, it's not even close. The Trojans should crush the Bruins. Destroy them. And yet, I give the Bruins a chance to make this one interesting. For one reason: Rick Neuheisel really, really cares about this rivalry. He's selling his players on it, too. And if you don't think that kind of thing matters, well, look at how it's worked out for Ohio State coach Jim Tressel in his career against Michigan.
7. Oregon State at Oregon (Dec. 3)
(Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Ah, the Civil War. It's always been a great rivalry—you've got the in-state dynamics and the big brother (Oregon) vs. little brother (Oregon State) dynamics—but the rise of both programs in recent years has actually made it an important rivalry, too. The Ducks crushed Oregon State in last year's game, looking unstoppable in a 65-38 shootout. That probably doesn't sit well with Jacquizz Rodgers and the Beavers, who could find themselves in the midst of the Pac-10 title race again this season. Heck, maybe they'll knock off USC again, too.