Annual chase of Trojans to start again
LOS ANGELES — The second-most interesting debate in the Pac-10 was nearly answered in a hotel hallway last month. USC safety Taylor Mays challenged California tailback Jahvid Best to a friendly sprint to determine the league's fastest man, until their coaches put the brakes on them.
The most intriguing question about the Pac-10 won't be answered until December: Is this the year somebody finally wins a race with the fleet-footed Trojans?
By most accounts outside downtown Los Angeles, the Pac-10 is overdue for a positive answer to that query.
"There's no doubt who everybody is gunning for," said Best, the league's defending rushing champion. "Everybody wants to get what they have."
Cal's Jeff Tedford can tout the conference's 5-0 bowl record last winter. Arizona State's Dennis Erickson can expound on the difficulties of a nine-game intraleague schedule, and Oregon's Chip Kelly can predict big things for every campus in the conference this fall.
Until one of these coaches figures out how to catch USC, much of the rest of the country will still think they all play in the Pac-1.
Pete Carroll's Trojans have created a confounding dynamic for the Pac-10 with their run of seven straight league titles, BCS bowl games and 11-win seasons. No matter how well the rest of the conference plays it sits in a shadow that not even Best can outrun.
"As coaches, you can be sure we all realize how tough this league is, and how we stack up against other conferences around the nation," said Tedford, whose Golden Bears shared the league title with USC in 2006, but lost to the Trojans on the field. "We play football that's as good as anywhere, but there's no doubt Pete has built a program that we all aspire to."
At first glance, USC seems ripe for picking this season, with a wholesale roster shuffle brought about by the departure of quarterback Mark Sanchez and a wealth of seniors who played in four straight Rose Bowls — not to mention the spectre of NCAA investigations on the program's periphery. But at USC, when one star leaves another steps in.
And the other Pac-10 contenders' flaws seem almost as glaring.
How will Cal move the ball if defenses load up against Best? Can the Ducks get themselves together quickly enough under Kelly's new leadership? Can Oregon State finally start a season strong under Mike Riley? And which Arizona State will show up on Saturdays?
"This league is incredible, from top to bottom," said Erickson, whose Sun Devils slumped to 5-7 last year after his strong debut season. "It's the only conference that plays everyone. It's more difficult than people outside seem to understand. I guess they don't see us enough on the West Coast."
The media overwhelmingly favors the Trojans to repeat, but Cal and Oregon figure in most preseason polls. USC faces both on the road before November, the month in which Carroll has never lost, while the Ducks and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli also host the Golden Bears.
"We know we're circled on everybody's schedule," Mays said after insisting he could outrun Best, a high-school sprinter. "That's the way we like it at SC. We know we get everybody's best shot, so if somebody is going to beat us, it's going to have to be a great game for them. They've got to earn it."
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
USC — Key Players: S Taylor Mays, RBs Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson, QBs Aaron Corp and Matt Barkley, WR Damian Williams. Returning starters: 9 offense, 3 defense.
Notes: Trojans might have no returning starters in defensive front seven if DT Christian Tupou doesn't win job. ... Corp's minor knee injury could open the door for freshman Matt Barkley, perhaps the most coveted player in high school last fall, to start. ... Sept. 12 trip to Ohio State could set tone, though Trojans follow with both lowly Washington schools.
CALIFORNIA — Key Players: TB Jahvid Best, QB Kevin Riley, CB Syd'Quan Thompson, DL Cameron Jordan, DL Tyson Alualu. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Best gunning for eighth straight 1,000-yard season for a Cal tailback during Tedford's tenure. Shane Vereen also could have a shot. ... Coordinator Andy Ludwig takes over Bears' offense after leading Utah's perfect season. ... Bears must replace three big-play linebackers.
OREGON — Key Players: QB Jeremiah Masoli, TB LeGarrette Blount, S T.J. Ward, CB Walter Thurmond III, TE Ed Dickson. Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Kelly offers relatively seamless transition from Mike Bellotti after 14 years. ... Sept. 3 season opener at Boise State will make a statement for whole conference. ... Oregon has fewest returning starters in conference, but plenty of players with experience.
OREGON STATE — Key Players: TB Jacquizz Rodgers, QB Lyle Moevao, LB Keaton Kristick. Returning starters: 6 offense, 3 defense.
Notes: Moevao must hold off Sean Canfield for starting job in camp. ... Rodgers was first freshman to win Pac-10 player of the year award and finished second in rushing race despite missing two games. ... Have finished in final AP Top 25 three straight years.
ARIZONA STATE — Key Players: WR Chris McGaha, WR Kyle Williams, RB Dmitri Nance, OL Shaun Lauvao, DL Dexter Davis. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Camp focus on improving offensive line after allowing 34 sacks last season. ... LB Mike Nixon led Sun Devils in tackles (90) and interceptions (five) last season. ... Davis is only returning player in nation with at least 10 sacks in two straight seasons.
UCLA — Key Players: CB Alterraun Verner, DT Brian Price, LB Reggie Carter, QB Kevin Prince, WR/KR Terrence Austin. Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Prince won starting QB job in spring after redshirting last season, unseating 12-game starter Kevin Craft. ... Offensive line should be markedly improved after 18 linemen compete for five jobs in training camp. ... LB Kyle Bosworth back for fifth season after sprained knee knocked him out of second game last year.
WASHINGTON — Key Players: QB Jake Locker, WR D'Andre Goodwin, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, LB E.J. Savannah, S Nate Williams. Returning starters: 8 offense, 10 defense.
Notes: First year under coach Steve Sarkisian, Carroll's longtime assistant at USC. ... Sarkisian, a former BYU QB, compares Locker to Steve Young, calling him "a raw talent that can be molded." ... Huskies were nation's only winless team last season.
STANFORD — Key Players: RB Toby Gerhart, OL Chris Marinelli, QB Andrew Luck, LB Clinton Snyder, DL Ekom Udofia, S Bo McNally. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Stanford hasn't reached postseason since 2001 Seattle Bowl under Tyrone Willingham. ... Gerhart, who set school rushing record last year, rated tougher to tackle than Best by several defensive players at Pac-10 media day.
ARIZONA — Key Players: TE Rob Gronkowski, RB Nic Grigsby, WR Terrell Turner, DT Earl Mitchell, DE Brooks Reed. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: First winning season and bowl appearance under coach Mike Stoops last year. ... Sophomore QB Nick Foles, a transfer from Michigan State, broke Drew Brees' high school records in Austin, Texas.
WASHINGTON STATE — Key Players: QB Kevin Lopina, C Kenny Alfred, RB Dwight Tardy, LB Andy Mattingly. Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Coach Paul Wulff's second season can't be as bad as first, can it? ... QBs Kevin Lopina and Marshall Lobbestael vying to lead offense that led nation with 38 turnovers. ... TB James Montgomery ready to compete after 2008 transfer from Cal.