Parity in the Pac-10
PHOENIX — The Pac-10's football coaches went on a look-at-us road show to the East Coast in July, hitting Times Square, ringing the opening bell at NASDAQ and visiting ESPN's headquarters before landing back on the floor of the Rose Bowl for a media meet and greet.
Now it's time to see if their teams can live up to the hype.
In what may be its final official year as the Pac-10 — next year's addition of Utah and likely Colorado, too, will make 12 teams — the conference is as deep and talented as it's been for quite some time. There may not be a legitimate national-title contender and Southern California has a two-year bowl ban because of the Reggie Bush fiasco, but the Pac-10 has eight or nine teams that can contend for the conference title.
"There is a lot of parity in this conference, there is no doubt about it," California coach Jeff Tedford said. "Last year we had five teams with the same record. Very difficult to go through this conference unscathed. Very competitive. There is firepower on offense and a lot of great defenses."
Oregon is the favorite, by a slight margin.
The Ducks are the defending conference champions after going 8-1 — 10-3 overall — and are coming off their first Rose Bowl since 1994. Oregon is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, has a no-huddle offense that makes defenders' heads spin and is chock-full of confidence after knocking USC off the conference throne for the first time since 2001.
Still, it wasn't a quiet offseason for the Ducks.
The big blow was the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, who was dismissed from the team after a second run-in with the law. That leaves senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas in a battle that will likely last until just before the season starts.
Running back LaMichael James, who set the Pac-10 freshman record with 1,546 yards rushing last season, was suspended for the season opener against New Mexico after an altercation with his ex-girlfriend that led to a guilty plea on a harassment charge. Two other players were dismissed from the team and two more were suspended for brushes with the law.
"We're just moving forward, looking at a new season," defensive tackle Brandon Bair said. "It's just like we graduated the guys that are gone."
USC made the Ducks' offseason seem manageable.
The Trojans, coming off a lackluster 5-4 conference season, were rocked by the loss of coach Pete Carroll, who left for the Seattle Seahawks, then were hit with heavy sanctions that included a two-year bowl ban after the NCAA ruled Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo received improper benefits.
The sanctions allowed players to transfer without having to take a year off and many did leave, leaving new coach Lane Kiffin with just 70 scholarship players — 15 below the NCAA's limit — at the start of training camp.
"The only way we're going to be able to express ourselves is to win 13 games," tailback Allen Bradford said. "We know it's going to be difficult this year."
OREGON — Key players: QBs Nate Costa and Derron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, DE Kenny Rowe, MLB Casey Matthews. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.
USC — Key players: QB Matt Barkley, WR Ronald Johnson, DT Jurrell Casey, MLB Chris Galippo. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
ARIZONA — Key players: QB Nick Foles, RB Nic Grigsby, DE Ricky Elmore. Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense.
CALIFORNIA — Key players: RB Shane Vereen, LB Mike Mohamed, TE Anthony Miller. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
STANFORD — Key players: QB Andrew Luck, G David DeCastro, WR Chris Owusu, NT Sione Fua, LB Shayne Skov. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
WASHINGTON — Key players: QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse, LB Mason Foster, S Nate Williams. Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense.
OREGON STATE — Key players: RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR James Rodgers, DT Stephen Paea, LB Dwight Roberson, CB James Dockery. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
UCLA — Key players: QB Kevin Prince, WR Nelson Rosario, WR Taylor Embree, LB Akeem Ayers, S Rahim Moore, DE Datone Jones, K Kai Forbath. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
ARIZONA STATE — Key players: WR Kerry Taylor, WR Aaron Pflugrad, LB Vontaze Burfict, DT Lawrence Guy, K Thomas Weber. Returning starters: 3 offense, 4 defense.
WASHINGTON STATE — Key players: QB Jeff Tuel, DE Kevin Kooymanm, DE Travis Long, WR Jared Karstetter, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, P Reid Forrest. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.