The PAC-10 was wild last season as USC was finally dethroned after 8 years atop the conference, and then the kingdom of Troy really fell apart in the offseason. However, Lane Kiffin should keep things spicy if his one year in the SEC is any indication. The PAC-10 will become the PAC-12 in the next year or two, but this final year with the original ten will be ridiculous with a possibility of 8 or 9 teams in the mix for a conference crown and bowl eligibility. In the end, there will likely be another frantic three-week finish where the Rose Bowl is on the line every week, leading to a Civil War for all the marbles if things break well in the state of Oregon again. USC will be right in the mix and would love to send the second-place team to the Rose Bowl. This is the most unpredictable BCS conference in 2010, but we will give it a shot as always.
The fans in Autzen Stadium celebrated wildly when the Ducks came from behind against OSU to clinch their first Rose Bowl in many years, but the season ended on a sour note with a loss there to Ohio State and the offseason exploits of star QB Jeremiah Masoli, who was kicked off the team and will play in the SEC this year. Nevertheless, the Ducks still return 17 starters overall and have to be considered strong favorites to return to the Rose Bowl with USC not being eligible. Chip Kelly will be able to run LaMichael James all over with an experienced offensive line, and this should help the Ducks hide their weakness at the quarterback position. Darren Thomas or Nate Costa will be the quarterback, but neither will be sorely tested until October 30 at USC and then a finishing kick against the best three teams in the Pac-10, including roadtrips to California and OSU. The defense is very strong in the backfield and will force a lot of turnovers against the wide-open spread attacks in the conference. The only things that may bring Oregon down other than the new quarterback is a new kicker, and that will make field position and field goals very dicey in 2010. Nevertheless, Oregon is the favorite.
Despite losing 33-0 to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, Arizona should not be underestimated after a second-straight 8 win season under Mike Stoops. The Wildcats won six PAC-10 games last season and have a favorable schedule this season with the only tough conference road game at Oregon. The offense returns 8 starters including QB Nick Foles and his favorite targets Juron Criner and Delashaun Dean. The running game will also be prominent with the two-headed monster Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin sharing the carries. The defense will need a bit of time to come together, and the first game should help as Toledo has less talent than a regular PAC-10 team but runs a wide-open offense. Look for kicker Alex Zendejas to improve on his 17-22 field goals from last season, and one would expect Arizona to try and win the time of possession battle to grind down opponents. The Rose Bowl could very well come down to the trip to Autzen, and the Wildcats will be very eager to gain revenge for the double overtime heartbreaker in Tuscon in 2009.
Oregon State Beavers
Two straight seasons OSU has gone into the Civil War with a "win and get in the Rose Bowl" scenario, yet they have watched the Ducks trample all over their dreams twice. This year the Beavers again appear to be pointed back towards the top of the PAC-10 with 15 starters back including both the Rodgers brothers. Coming out of spring ball, sophomore QB Ryan Katz appears to be the new leading man for the offense and he should be well-taken care of as long as he limits mistakes. The defensive front will be incredibly strong, led by DT Stephen Paea. Paea is surrounded on the line by fellow seniors Gabe Miller and Brennan Olander, who will break up many plays before they start. The special teams unit is particularly effective with James Rodgers returning kicks and Justin Kahut returning at the kicker position. The schedule also favors the Beavers with five home conference games, but early road trips to TCU and Boise State will tell the world how good OSU really is. Expect the conference title to be decided at the Civil War, and Corvallis will be rocking with two seasons of frustration to overcome.
IN THE MIX
California Golden Bears
Jeff Tedford has recruited very well on defense the past two seasons, which should convert California from a solid bowl team every year to perhaps a BCS contender. This year the focus will still be on the offense though, as QB Kevin Riley enters his senior season with most of his offensive line intact and all of his receivers from a nearly 3000 yard passing year in 2009. RB Javhid Best will be missed but not too much as California again has two great running backs stepping in with Shane Vereen (952 yards last year) and Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson. The key to jumping into the contender list will be having the defense and special teams come together better than they did in 2009. The schedule only has four conference road games, but three of those are OSU, Arizona, and USC. Thus, look for California to perhaps improve a game or two but not quite challenge for the title unless a lot of breaks go their way on the road.
When Jake Locker came to Seattle, the world was abuzz as U-Dub started with two wins and played Ohio State tough in Locker's first three games. But then everything unraveled, as Locker has only won 7 games since (5 last year). With 18 starters back in coach Steve Sarkesian's second season, expect Locker to want to go out with at least one bowl appearance. The wins against USC and Arizona last year show that this team can get the job done, but most of the top contenders on the league will be road games this season. With BYU and Nebraska on the docket in September, Washington will need to come out well to ensure their first bowl since 2002. The defense loses three solid starters, but should fall no farther than middle of the pack inf the conference. Assuming the Huskies take care of business in Seattle, all it will take is one or two upsets on the road for Washington to be very relevant in the conference race. Washington is back on the rise and should be fun to watch.
When Rick Neuheisel came to Los Angeles in 2008, he promised to rebuild the proud school into what USC had become. This season should be the first time that these promises are delivered upon, as a veteran team of sophomores and juniors comes back to run a new pistol offense behind second-year starter Kevin Prince. Freshman FB Malcolm Jones will be a key to the new offense, but the most exciting rookie is freshman DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Look for the defense to reload with six new starters, but I expect improvement on that side of the ball. Senior kicker Kai Forbath is one of the best kickers in college football, let alone in the PAC-10. Forbath will be a huge weapon if UCLA is to break even with a brutal schedule including Houston and Texas out-of-conference. 2011 will be a big year, but 2010 could be a surprise year and should be a second-straight trip to a bowl for the men in blue and gold.
ALL THE REST
To be fair, the postseason ban and scholarship cuts don't affect the fact that USC will be fighting for a PAC-10 championship and an AP National Title. However, USC gets put in the "All the rest" category because even if they win a conference title, they are not going to the Rose Bowl or to the BCS Championship. Lane Kiffin steps into a much better situation talent-wise than Pete Carroll had, but he also must now deal with the aftermath of the Carroll regime. USC only returns 10 starters from a 5th place finishing team last season, but USC has reloaded as usual even with the loss of a couple recruits and some scholarships. Expect true freshmen TE Xavier Grimble and OL Seantrel Henderson to make an immediate impact, but the real key will be whether the mostly new offensive line keeps Matt Barkley clean. If so, expect USC to rip through many defenses in their 13 game schedule. The defense should be solid, but this looks like a team that needs another year to get back to the top especially with a new coaching staff and scheme. USC stays in the mix but will fall out of national attention late with losses to Oregon State and Notre Dame.
Stanford is back on the football map with Jim Harbaugh as Toby Gerhart led the Cardinal to a strong 8-win season. Even with Gerhart gone, Stanford should be able to continue rolling downhill on offense with 4 offensive linemen back as well as all the skill position talent except for new RB Stepfan Taylor. Taylor should be stepping into a brilliant situation with an offensive line that opens up holes large enough for semis to drive through. The defense is very strong up front and should be able to force opposing teams into passing more often than not. The key to Stanford continuing their success will be to have the cornerbacks and safeties shut down the good passing games of Notre Dame and the PAC-10. The special teams will be likely the best or second-best unit in the PAC-10, which could make the difference in a conference where close games always happen. The PAC-10 is so deep and Stanford has a bad draw of a schedule, so the Cardinal appear to just be on the outside looking in. I expect another bowl season.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Last season the Sun Devils started well at 4-2 but lost their last six, setting up perhaps a "make it or break it" season for coach Dennis Erickson. On paper, the signs point downward as only 9 starters return and the schedule is arguably the toughest in the conference. However, the new players stepping in are solid players on the offensive side of the ball and may improve from a unit that failed to score more than 21 points against any PAC-10 opponent outside the state of Washington. Michigan transfer QB Steven Threet will likely continue the trend of castoff Wolverine quarterbacks becoming stars elsewhere, and he will have a new crew of recievers to throw to except for senior WR Kerry Taylor. The defensive line is returning mostly intact, but behind that everyone is probably new except for freshman PAC-10 player of the year LB Vontaze Burfict. Look for Burfict to sniff out opposing schemes and lad his defense ot better performances than a year ago. On special teams, Thomas Weber returns from injury to hopefully earn his second Groza award, but he will have huge competition from Forbath in UCLA. Bowl eligibility will be a successful season, but that may not be enough to save Erickson.
Washington State Cougars
The early part of the last decade seems so long ago now, as the Cougars have fallen below every other conference team coming into 2010. Coach Paul Wulff has to be pleased to bring back a veteran team finally in his third season, but there's so much ground to make up after not leading a game at any point in regulation last season. Sophomore QB Jeff Tuel was not supposed to start until this season, but he was needed because of th emany injuries the Cougars suffered and he should be much better this season. Also look for California transfer RB James Montgomery to make an immediate impact after being lost last season to injury. The defense is stacked with juniors and seniors on the depth chart and the Cougars should be able to withstand some injuries on that side of the ball, assuming the amount of injuries will not be as ridiculous as 2009. WSU has one of the easiest schedules in the conference, but it is very likely that the Montana State game will be the only game the Cougars are favored in. Look for improvement but no bowl in 2010.
The PAC-10 made a huge splash in the offseason by grabbing Colorado and Utah to become the PAC-12, and then splashed their coaches all over the country with one of their media days spent in NYC and Connecticut. There's not doubt that the PAC-10 wants to expand their brand to the east coast, and knocking down USC a peg may help the conference gain mroe balance and respect from the rest of the country. However, strong programs at both Los Angeles schools defines the popularity of the PAC-10, so it will be interesting to watch USC and UCLA take on the better teams from Oregon this season. Will this be the third straight Civil War with Rose Bowl implications? I believe that it will be for all the marbles, and the Beavers will enjoy their first trip to Pasadena in nearly 50 years.