Breaking Down the Conference Race


Earlier this month, we ranked each team in the conference and gave a comprehensive preview (to see those previews click on the name of any team below). With the Pac-10 media poll set to be released in under a week, let’s look at our rankings, identify the major questions facing each team, and  see why and why not each team will win the conference race. Realistically, the top seven teams have a chance to win the conference and there will be plenty of drama throughout the campaign.

1. USC Trojans

Questions: Is Lane Kiffin the right man to lead USC? His record doesn’t indicate it, but he seems entirely capable and his staff is spectacular. Will the sanctions wear the Trojans down? Last season, the team provided a lackluster performance when it knew a Rose Bowl was out of reach (see: Arizona). Without a bowl game to play for at all, will this team be motivated? Will any big stars transfer?

Why? USC has the best talent top to bottom. Matt Barkley will be better as long as his two favorite targets don’t fall to injury again. At wide receiver, there is plenty of intrigue as the best group of incoming wide receivers in the country assembles. Dillon Baxter showed in spring ball that lightning can strike when he touches the ball. Defensively, the unit is older and under the direction of legend Monte Kiffin. USC won’t be overmatched by the opposing headsets directing the offense like they were last year.

Why not? The NCAA went out of their way to ensure the downfall of Troy. So far, the major stars have stayed but the Trojans can’t withstand many more transfers. Even if they all stay, the sanctions could wear down the USC team. The basketball team was headed for a run at the Pac-10 title before self-imposed sanctions wore the team out. Lane Kiffin might have trouble motivating this team to play each and every Saturday. In a conference this competitive, USC can’t afford to take a game off mentally. 

2. Oregon Ducks

Questions: Will the offseason distractions affect on-field play? Is Nate Costa a capable replacement for Jeremiah Masoli?

Why? The number of starters returning is overwhelming. On offense, pretty much everyone is back except for quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was dismissed after stealing a laptop from a fraternity house. Even if Nate Costa isn’t on Masoli’s level, the talent around him is too good for this offense to sputter. On defense, the speedy attack may be close to dominant.

Why not? With the arrest count piling up in Eugene, offseason issues have been a problem. The Ducks may not come into the season focused, and that will hurt them. Nate Costa is unproven at quarterback and may slow down the offense single-handedly. If Costa isn’t effective, defenses can key in on LaMichael James and stifle a big part of the Duck attack. Furthermore, they must travel to USC in a revenge game, and that will be tough.

3. Oregon State Beavers

Question: Can sophomore quarterback Ryan Katz be effective?

Why? It has been mentioned often on Reign of Troy, but it is worth repeating: Mike Riley is the best coach in the conference. His ability to develop a gameplan that exploits opponent weaknesses is impeccable. Jacquizz Rodgers is a shifty back that can run around teams, and his brother James poses a deep threat. Ryan Katz is a new quarterback, but Riley has made a career of coaching quarterbacks well (see: Sean Canfield). Oregon State’s defense will be better than last year. While the offense might sputter at first, there is too much talent to not believe in this team come October.

Why not? Non-conference schedules can burn teams out. Oregon State must travel to Arlington for a de facto road game against TCU and then go to Boise State. Both teams are locks to be in the preseason top-10 (maybe even top 5), and the Beavers will be tested early. Mike Riley’s teams always start slow, and if they don’t find their groove in these games, the Beavers could find themselves struggling to find a rhythm in conference play. With a logjam at the top, Oregon State will drop out of the title hunt if they can’t get going as soon as conference play starts.

4. Stanford Cardinal

Question: Can the offense survive the loss of Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart at tailback?

Why? Andrew Luck had a very solid redshirt freshman campaign in 2009. His mobility allowed him to extend plays and throw on the run. With one year of experience, Luck will be the top quarterback in the Pac-10. Chris Owusu is an all-conference caliber wide receiver and opens up the long ball for Luck. The offensive line boasts four returning starters, which will help open up holes for the new tailback. The offense is ready to roll and head coach Jim Harbaugh has this program on the rise. 

Why not? There is a decent chance Stanford will not have a legitimate running game this season. Last year, Toby Gerhart’s breakout campaign took pressure off of Luck to make plays. Without having to focus on the tailback, defenses can key in on Luck and limit his effectiveness. On the defensive side, the Cardinal is switching to a 3-4 scheme and that is never an easy change. In the secondary, there aren’t any players that jump out as quality defensive backs. Teams could have an easy time moving the ball and putting up points. Stanford’s offense will be forced to win a lot of shootouts. A solid defense is the cornerstone to a conference championship team.

5. Arizona Wildcats

Question: Can the defense get on the same level as the offense?

Why? Nine starters return to an offense that had its way with Pac-10 defenses. Nick Foles is an accurate quarterback in a pass-happy system that yields large amounts of points. The schedule is fairly favorable for Arizona. They have only two tough road games–at Oregon and at Stanford. Last season the Wildcats were on the verge of their first ever Rose Bowl appearance, and the offense is even better than it was in 2009.

Why not? The linebacking corps is inexperienced, and as we learned last season at USC, that isn’t a recipe for success. Except the the defensive end and one cornerback, there are question marks all over the defense. Last season, Arizona had a chance to beat Oregon, but the defense let them down by allowing over 40 points. After Arizona lost to Nebraska 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl, there is cause for concern about this team’s confidence. The bowl game showed that a good offense and solid defense can up-end the Wildcats. 

6. Washington Huskies

Question: Do the Huskies have enough talent around Jake Locker?

Why? Jake Locker has drawn rave reviews from pundits everywhere and should keep Washington in every game. Jermaine Kearse will provide a safety net for Locker. Nick Holt, the defensive coordinator, is a hard-nosed coach that will have a high-caliber defense. The upset of USC last season has the Huskies believing they are in the mix for the title.

Why not? Star tight end Kavario Middleton was recently dismissed from the team for violating team rules. Despite being a program on the rise, the pieces aren’t in place yet for Sarkisian to make a run at the title. The conference road schedule is brutal, with trips to USC, Arizona, Oregon, and California. 

7. California Golden Bears

Question: Is senior quarterback Kevin Riley ready to step up? Since his sophomore year, Riley has wilted in key moments. Will he finally be able to be the leader Cal needs?

Why? Talent is abound in Berkeley. Shane Vereen is a more than capable replacement for the departed Jahvid Best, the offensive line is solid, and there are playmakers at wide receiver. Kevin Riley is in his third season and won’t be facing the lofty expectations placed on him the last two seasons. Coach Jeff Tedford has a history of being a good quarterbacks coach, elevating the games of Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers. If Riley can get going, it will take tremendous pressure off of the defense, which should be sufficient enough to contend. Most importantly, Cal has the benefit of having only two tough conference road games.

Why not? California hasn’t represented the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl since 1959 when Eisenhower was president. Every time Cal has gotten close during the Tedford era, they have been derailed by a crushing defeat. For now, there isn’t any proof that Riley will blossom. He was manhandled by Oregon and USC last season and may have confidence issues. Away from home, the Bears failed to show up on a few occasions, including an embarrassing rout in Seattle. With Cal, it is never a question about talent. Their season is defined by mental toughness, and they are a fragile team. 

8. UCLA Bruins

Question: Is the UCLA offense ready to show up?

Why? UCLA’s defense put up a good fight against opposing offenses in 2009. Only two teams scored twenty-eight points or more, keeping UCLA in every single game. Akeem Ayers at linebacker and Rahim Moore at safety anchor the formidable unit. The Pac-10 schedule is favorable, and the Bruins will get their feet wet early with a trip to Austin. With such a solid defense, the Bruins won’t need a ton of points to win games.

Why not? The Bruins do not have an offense. Kevin Prince isn’t a viable quarterback, and the tension between offensive coordinator Norm Chow and head coach Rick Neuheisel will hinder its progress. UCLA is switching offensive schemes, and that will be painful as more pressure is placed on Prince to make plays. Neuheisel has failed to turn top-15 recruiting classes into good teams and deliver a quality season. Despite fairing well in the non-conference, the Bruins were overmatched in conference just a year ago, going 3-6.

9. Arizona State Sun Devils

Questions: Is this Dennis Erickson’s last season? After a dismal 2009 campaign, people are starting to wonder if Erickson is the right man to lead the program. Can the offense catch up to the defense? The Sun Devils’ defense is rock solid, but the offense sputtered in 2009.

Why? A new spread offense attack could lead to a breakout season for Arizona State. With experience wide receivers, the Sun Devils need an accurate quarterback to step in, and Steven Threet showed some promise in his time at Michigan. If the offense can get going, it will aid a defense that is lead by Vontaze Burfict. Last season, ASU led the conference in five defensive categories and will be just as good, if not better, in 2010.  

Why not? The spread offense could fail miserably. It is difficult to change schemes, and the overhaul could backfire. Last year, Arizona State didn’t have a viable quarterback option and that really killed them. They had a great opportunity to beat USC, but the lack of offense led to their demise. If it doesn’t get going, the Sun Devils will be in for a long campaign.

10. Washington State Cougars

Question: Can Paul Wulff make an appreciable turnaround in Year 3? So far, his teams have been abysmal and this could be his last chance.

Why? Washington State wins the Pac-10 if….all other nine teams suddenly vanish into thin air. They come into 2010 as one of the worst teams in the country on paper and will be facing an up hill battle all season.

Why not? The list is long and distinguished, and that isn’t a good thing. Quite simply, the Cougars lack the talent to be a formidable force. When your offense averages 12 points per game, you’re in for some good old fashioned beat downs.