Seven Years of dominance for the Men of Troy. Seven years of national title aspirations and beating on the poor Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. USC hopes that like most powerhouses, 2009 is just a reloading season on the path to 8 consecutive league titles, but the competition will be fierce as usual to dethrone them. Although Arizona and Washington programs leave a bit to be desired as they rebound, there's at least 5-6 threats to knock off USC. If it happens twice this year, 2009 could finally be the year the little guys step up and take back the Pac-10.
No matter how loaded or reloaded USC is every single season, there has always been one trip wire game against lesser competition in the conference, and this has stopped the Trojans from being a dynasty despite an 82-9 record since 2001. This year, the Trojans will deal with replacing all of the defensive linemen and linebackers, but this defense will certainly reload with Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan, and Malcolm Smith preparing to become stars at the linebacker corps. On offense the Trojans will be dominant behind an pro-caliber offensive line and star WR Damian Williams and RB Joe McKnight. The only question is open at quarterback, but either Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley should be fine with all the talent surrounding them in their first year. The schedule is brutal every other year, and 2009 is when the Trojans have to go to Ohio State, Notre Dame, Cal, and Oregon. There's enough talent to go undefeated as always, but it's hard to imagine USC without a lapse somewhere.
It seems as though the Bears are always right there in the past few years as heri apparent to the USC dominance, but California never seems to come through in the clutch. However, the beginning of the new season brings more optimism again, most of it centered on Heisman candidate RB Javhid Best. While the new quarterback will likely be more important to Best's success than anyone else, don't sleep on backup RB Shane Vereen as he has a lot of ability. The defense will be led by the secondary, which will likely force a high number of interceptions against the wide open offenses of the Pac-10. The schedule starts with a couple winnable home games, but then the Bears will have to be ready for season-defining roadtrips to Minnesota and Oregon followed by USC. Assuming the roof has not caved in at that point, the final seven games are stretched over nine weeks and are not too bad, so look for California to charge hard at the end of the conference race.
When Mike Belotti stepped out of the head coach's seat and moved to athletic director for new coach Chip Kelly, Oregon appeared to be left in good hands. However, Oregon should be wary of what has happened to the Wisconsin program under similar circumstances, and coach Kelly needs to avoid a letdown over time. Part of preventing this will be continuing to lead his spread-option attack to great numbers. The offense has enough at the skill positions to put up a ton of points, but the offensive line is a huge question mark going into the season. Additionally, the defense is inexperienced and could put Oregon in a lot of shootouts. Although there seems to be a lot of cards that need to fall correctly for the Ducks to win the conference, they are still better positioned than most others and have USC coming to Autzen on Halloween for a spooky showdown.
IN THE MIX
Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State has surprisingly been the second-best performing team in the conference the past three seasons, even better than the perception of Oregon and Cal as next-in-line. Coach Mike Riley has instilled a culture of confidence and winning attitudes among his players, which makes them highly likely to overcome all the new starters they will need in 2009. The defense was decimated by graduation, but riley has recruited well and the defensive backfield might be better by year's end than the 2008's version. The offense will include the star brothers Jacquizz and James Rogers, who will certainly take a load off whomever is behind center this season. The only catch is that the schedule is brutal with road games at USC, Oregon, and Cal. Considering OSU's recent struggles away from Corvallis, the Beavers will need to overcome those struggles to be competitive in 2009.
Although coach Rick Neuheisel's first year back at his alma mater was a rough season, there were glimmers of hope in four victories. More importantly, the coaching staff has recruited two consecutive great classes of talent to rebuild the program again, and the results will start showing more clearly this season. The offense was an atrocity last year, but there is some optimism behind new freshman starting QB Kevin Prince. What will keep UCLA in games is their strong defense and special teams, again anchored by K Kai Forbath. Look for UCLA to ride this defense to a better-than-expected finish in the Pac-10, where the opposing defenses will not be too rough on the budding new offense.
Just like UCLA, Stanford is climbing back from the doldrums of the early part of this decade under the solid leadership and recruiting of Jim Harbaugh. Stanford returns 15 starters between the offense and the defense, and the talent is there to notch a couple more wins from last year's total of 5. In fact, with Oregon and Cal coming into Stanford's house this season, they could surprise one or both of those teams to move into the upper echelon of the division earlier than anyone might have hoped at the school more known for academics. Hopefully the pressure of getting win number 6 for bowl eligibility does not interfere with their rough November schedule of Oregon, USC, Cal, and Notre Dame, but that could also motivate them after failing in a similar situation in 2008.
ALL THE REST
The Wildcats finally found themselves in a bowl for the first time in 10 years in 2008, and the program is hoping to continue the upward climb this season. The offense must replace a bunch of linemen, which could make for some long afternoons for whomever takes over the quarterback reins. The defense is stacked with athletes better than any other team in the conference beyond USC, so there will be no excuse for this defense to not come together and be one of the best in the country this season. the key will be learning how to win the close games, which is an art the Wildcats and coach Stoops have not seemed to master quite yet.
Arizona State Sun Devils
While it seems like almost everyone is replacing their quarterback in the conference, the Sun Devils will have to learn to live without 4-year starter Rudy Carpenter. This will be made terribly difficult by the shaky offensive line and medicore skill position players that ASU has coming into this season. The defense is decent, but this team will not reach ten wins again until more talent and experience has been added to the roster.
Winless in 2008. On the bright side, the Huskies can go nowhere but up after finishing a shocking 0-12 last season. Plus, there's pro-caliber talent on both sides of the ball including star QB Jake Locker, but new coach Steve Sarkisian needs to get this talent to live up to potential to turn this program around. With out of conference dates against Notre Dame and LSU, Washington will not be bowling in 2009, but they can set the table for a triumphant return to competitive play in 2010.
Washington State Cougars
Well, at least Wazzu has the Apple Cup because that's about all the positive energy one can find in Pullman. The Cougars return quite a few starters, many from injury-riddled seasons, but there needs to be better talent brought in for the future or else the cellar will become more and more familiar to WSU. At least the final month's sechedule is easier than the first two months, which may allow some momentum to be carried into recruiting season. Yes, it is that bad in this program.
The Pac-10 has a lot of interesting storylines in 2009, with many of the teams learning to live with new quarterbacks. A few programs are clearly on the rebound, but there's only so much room at the top for true competitors to stay year-in and year-out. While UCLA, stanford, and even Washington may get more credit in the years to come, expect the same quarter of California and Oregon teams to shine again in 2009. If nothing else, there will be a lot of opportunities to gain more national respect as a conference with all the tough out-of-conference games fit into these 3 game non-conference schedules in the Pac-10. Some other conferences could certainly learn a thing or two from the Pac-10 scheduling people. Join us on Monday as we tackle the holy trinity of non-BCS conferences: the MWC, C-USA, and the WAC.