Aug. 19, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

Pete Carroll has not only built a dynasty on the conference level, but one on the national as well.

His Trojans are perennially one of the top teams in the nation and USC will be looking for an unprecedented eighth straight Pac-10 crown this fall and yet another trip to the Rose Bowl - either for the Rose Bowl game itself or for the BCS Championship that will be played in Pasadena a week later.

But don't hand the Trojans the title just yet. They have what's stacking up to be some very stiff competition -maybe their stiffest in the last nine years - with the likes of Cal, Oregon and Oregon State looking to take down the mighty Trojans.

Do the Bears, Ducks, Beavers or anyone else have what it takes to topple USC?

2008 Record: 8-5 (5-4), Las Vegas Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: Willie Tuitama's shadow looms rather large this summer as the Wildcats try and settle on a starter to replace their departed QB. Nick Foles and Matt Scott have a grand total of 11 career attempts between them so while Tuitama wasn't the perfect QB, he will be missed. The two candidates have different skill sets so it'll be interesting to see who head coach Mike Stoops settles on. Whoever he does pick will have one of the better tight ends in the country to throw to in Rob Gronkowski who hopefully will be healthy for the start of the regular season. The offensive line, however, has some holes and questions marks that will carry over into October and November. 
Defensive Keys: The front four is the decided strong suit of the 2009 Wildcats. Featuring almost entirely upperclassmen on the two-deep chart, they're going to set the tone for the unit. With that being said, linebacker is arguably the position that's giving the coaching staff the most cause for concern. There isn't a ton of size or experience there. The secondary features a good one in CB Devin Ross, but he's going to need help.
Keep An Eye On: TB Nic Grigsby, WR Terrell Turner, DE Brooks Reed
All In The Numbers: 10, years between bowl appearances for the Wildcats after last year's berth.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at Arizona State
Outlook: Few were on a hotter seat last year than Stoops. The Arizona faithful were growing tired waiting for that bowl berth to come. Stoops delivered last year, but now can he deliver another and another and another? He can with this year's roster, but it won't be easy. The quarterback uncertainty and offensive line questions make a return to the postseason anything but a certainty. Road games at Iowa, Oregon State, Cal and USC won't make Stoops' job any easier.

Arizona State
2008 Record
: 5-7 (4-5)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense 
Offensive Keys: It's a big-time transition year for the Sun Devils who must replace almost all of their big playmakers from a season ago. Starting with QB Rudy Carpenter who was the Sun Devils' man under the center for the last four seasons, head coach Dennis Erickson must map out how his offense - that was the driving force behind that unexpectedly successful 2007 campaign - can retool. Danny Sullivan will take over for Carpenter. Sullivan has experience as a senior, but he's going to need much better play out of the offensive line as the running game struggled to get going and too many sacks were allowed - again.
Defensive Keys: While offense has been Arizona State's calling card the past few seasons, there might be a role reversal this year as the defense is expected to be the stronger of the two units. The Sun Devils are going to be very deep at linebacker and should feature a very good secondary. Arizona State allowed just 22.7 points per game last year as they've improved significantly from year to year.
Keep An Eye On: WR Chris McGaha, DT Lawrence Guy, CB Omar Bolden
All In The Numbers: 43, games Carpenter started for the Sun Devils over his four seasons.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Arizona
Outlook: The Sun Devils did not put up impressive numbers on offense last year so there's plenty of concern over what they're going to do this year. The defense will have to do the dirty work to keep Arizona State's head above water. And with a schedule that features a return-game at Georgia after last year's matchup with the Bulldogs. Then later on in the season the Sun Devils have to deal with a three-game stretch that features Cal, USC and at Oregon.

2008 Record: 9-4 (6-3), Emerald Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense 
Offensive Keys: The Bears will have one of the top tailbacks in the game lining up in the backfield this year with Jahvid Best coming off a 1,580 yard 2008 season. But expect teams to stack the box on Cal early and often until their quarterback - whoever that turns out to be - proves they can be a legitimate threat. Jeff Tedford has his hands full trying to figure out who suits the Bears offense best between Kevin Riley and two other inexperienced contenders. It's Riley's job to lose, it appears, after he went 7-2 as a starter last year. Whoever ends up being named the starter won't have much in the way of a big time playmaker in the DeSean Jackson mold at wide receiver. The offensive line should not be a worry.
Defensive Keys: While USC undeniably had the best defense in the Pac-10 last season, some believe the Bears could carry that mantle this season. The linebacker spots will feature new starters, but other than that everyone from last year is back and the Bears front three will be among the nation's best. The secondary should be very strong as well with two cornerbacks - Darian Hagan and Syd'Quan Thompson - who will rank among the league's best. The Bears finished second in the conference in scoring defense allowing 19.9 points per game. Some teams will be lucky to sniff that many points against the Bears.
Keep An Eye On: RB Shane Vereen, DE Cameron Jordan, DE Tyson Alualu
All In The Numbers: 51, years since Cal last played in the Rose Bowl.
Deciding Game: Oct. 3 vs. USC
Outlook: There aren't very many question marks with this team, but the quarterback situation is the glaring one. Depending on who wins the job, Tedford will tailor the offense to them and don't be surprised if he plays it a little conservative with Best and that very good defense backing up the offense. Cal should be one of the challengers for the Pac-10 title and if they can beat USC at home in early October then they may be on their way to securing that Rose Bowl berth that has eluded them for half a century. 

2008 Record: 10-3 (7-2), Holiday Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Chip Kelly has officially taken the reins as the head coach of the Ducks and his spread-option should be in high gear this year when Jeremiah Masoli lines up under center. Not much - if anything - was expected out of Masoli last season, but he ended up throwing for 13 TDs and rushing for another 10 to firmly entrench himself as the Ducks quarterback this season. If Masoli wasn't a big enough threat for teams, then LeGarrette Blount will be. The running back ran for 1,002 yards and 17 scores last season. Two big defections on the line will cause Ducks fans to worry. Regardless, the offense is going to score a lot of points after averaging 41.9 last year. And that's going to be very important.
Defensive Keys: For as strong as the Ducks are shaping up to be on offense, defensively it could get very interesting. Many of the Ducks top players from last year are no longer around, starting with Nick Reed. The defense had a tough time stopping the pass last year and the secondary lost a few of its best.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jeff Maehl, LB Casey Matthews, FS T.J. Ward
All In The Numbers: 280.1, rushing yards per game for Oregon last year, second in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. USC
Outlook: The Ducks have the potential to win the Pac-10 depending on a few factors. Obviously how the other contenders in the conference do and how porous the defense turns out to be. Because if there's one certainty with Oregon this year it's that the offense will be very potent. It helps the Ducks, as they transition from the Mike Bellotti era to the Kelly era, that the schedule features the season's toughest conference games at home when Cal, USC and Oregon State visit. An interesting first game of the year features a trip to Boise State. Don't overlook the fact Oregon is also breaking in a new kicker and punter.

Oregon State
2008 Record: 9-4 (7-2), Sun Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense 
Offensive Keys: The quarterback position is still up in the air. Head coach Mike Riley will have to choose between Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield at some point. Moevao was the team's leading passer last season, but he's coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and Riley might be leaning toward tabbing Canfield. But it helps that the Beavers will have Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield. He's coming off shoulder surgery as well, but all indications are he's healthy and ready for a big season. That being said, the offensive line must replace three starters up front.
Defensive Keys: The Beavers are losing 22 sacks from last year's front four and replacing that kind of production will not be easy. As if that weren't enough to worry about, the secondary will be completely new. That's not to say they're inexperienced, but what kind of results Oregon State gets out of them remains to be seen. But with so many defections, the impressive numbers the Beavers put up last year could shoot up.
Keep An Eye On: WR James Rodgers, LB Keaton Kristick, CB Tim Clark
All In The Numbers: 5, games Oregon State won by eight points or less last year.
Deciding Game: Dec. 3 at Oregon
Outlook: The Beavers almost surprised the world last year in very nearly stealing the Pac-10 from USC's grasp thanks in large part to the Thursday night upset of the Trojans that officially introduced everyone to Quizz Rodgers. He'll be the focal point of the offense this season, but the Beavers have gotten it done with defense lately and with so many starters gone from last year's very good squad, it makes for an uncertain status of the Beavers. They're capable of contending for a conference crown or potentially struggling, especially if the injury bug crops up.

2008 Record: 5-7 (4-4)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 7 defense 
Offensive Keys: Toby Gerhart is back for another big season for the Cardinal and they're ecstatic. There was talk that Gerhart was going to concentrate on baseball, but the senior is looking forward to carrying the load this fall after a big junior campaign. Last year's starter at quarterback, Tavita Pritchard, lost his job to freshman Andrew Luck. Luck may be young, but he's received very high praise from the Stanford coaching staff, including head coach Jim Harbaugh who knows a thing or two about being a quarterback on the highest level. While the rushing game was a big strength last year, question marks on the offensive line cloud the future.
Defensive Keys: Big plays were a problem for the Stanford defense a year ago so the hope is a little more aggressive play will key improved numbers. But with concerns in the secondary, that's easier said than done. The Cardinal will have to rely heavily on the front seven that doesn't return a ton of starters. But the pass rush should be very strong if not one of the better in the conference.
Keep An Eye On: WR Ryan Whalen, DE Tom Keiser, S Bo McNally
All In The Numbers: 1,136, yards rushing for Gerhart last season, a Cardinal record.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Cal
Outlook: Harbaugh has done a very good job of bringing the Cardinal from the depths of futility back to respectability. That being said, it's still been eight years since their last bowl appearance. With seven home games, the Cardinal just might be in line to break that streak. A lot will depend on a freshman quarterback, but he's one who the staff feels is destined for some great things.

2008 Record: 4-8 (3-6)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: The Bruins have struggled to find their quarterback over the last few years, but maybe what they really needed was to find the right offensive coordinator? In comes Norm Chow, he of USC and BYU fame and the man who coached three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks. Head coach Rick Neuheisel was able to lure the renowned assistant to Westwood to help elevate an offense that couldn't produce a running game last year and only managed 17.1 points per game. Kevin Prince is the QB the Bruins will tab, but for all the tutelage that Chow can provide, it's going to be up to the offensive line - which is full of question marks - to protect Prince.
Defensive Keys: The Bruins may have gained a big time coordinator in Chow, but they lost DeWayne Walker on this side of the ball to New Mexico State. Chuck Bullough takes over and his job will be to bulk up that Bruins rushing defense. Certainly nothing wrong with the passing defense after UCLA finished 8th in the nation defending the aerial attack. Brian Price was one reason for the success and so was Korey Bosworth. The two help make up one of the best defensive line tandems in the country. The secondary is expected to be deep, albeit on the youthful side.
Keep An Eye On: RB Christian Ramirez, WR Terrence Austin, FS Rahim Moore
All In The Numbers: 1,878, all-purpose yards for Austin last season, a school record.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at USC
Outlook: The Bruins continue to make strides to bridge that gap between them and their cross-town rivals. And by all indications they are. The talent that Neuheisel has brought in over the past two years should start to pay dividends soon and with Chow's track record it's only a matter of time before the UCLA offense gets going. But for this season, the defense will most likely carry the mantle while the offense continues to progress. A bowl game appears to be in the cards unless the offense sputters badly.

2008 Record: 12-1 (8-1), Pac-10 Champions, Rose Bowl
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 3 defense
Offensive Keys: Just about everyone is back on offense from last year's team, but not QB Mark Sanchez. He's throwing passes for the Jets right now and the competition between freshman Matt Barkley and sophomore Aaron Corp became interesting when Corp suffered a leg injury that will keep him off the field for a few weeks. Corp was named the starter out of spring, but Barkley - an early enrollee - has been impressive for the most part during fall camp. Head coach Pete Carroll has no problem playing freshman so if Barkley's good enough to play, he's going to play. Whoever hands off the football in USC"s pro-style offense will have a bevy of speedy and talented runners. The offensive line took a hit with news of center Kris O'Dowd's injury, but should still nonetheless be very strong.
Defensive Keys: The nation's best scoring defense that allowed a ridiculous 9 points per game lost a lot of talent. But this being USC, Carroll has more playmakers and athletes than he has available spots on his two-deep chart. Only at USC can backups go on to be productive NFL players so you know the cupboard is not bare. Safety Taylor Mays anchors this unit that was the top ranked pass defense a season ago. And chances are they're going to be just as good this year. No one is going to sleep on this defense, but to expect much of a drop-off - if any - would probably be a mistake.
Keep An Eye On: RB Joe McKnight, WR Damian Williams. DE Everson Griffen
All In The Numbers: 0, games USC has lost in November under Carroll.
Deciding Game: Oct. 3 at Cal
Outlook: The Trojans are stacked with guys who are among the nation's top athletes and playmakers. The quarterback position is a bit of an unknown, but when the Trojans have inserted new QBs under Carroll (Leinart, Booty, Sanchez) things have usually worked out. The offense will be good and the defense should be very good making the Trojans the pick by nearly everyone as the team to beat in the Pac-10. But that's not to say that they can't get nosed at the finish line by Cal or Oregon. Aside from winning the Pac-10 again, USC appears to be a BCS Championship contender - again. But the schedule will not be easy with games at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Cal and Oregon.

2008 Record: 0-12 (0-9)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: The injury to QB Jake Locker last year hurt the Huskies big time last year. Missing the final eight games of the season, Washington limped the finish line with a winless season that cost Ty Willingham his job and ushered in the era of Steve Sarkisian. The former USC offensive coordinator brings with him the Trojans pro-style offense. But that doesn't mean we're not going to see Locker run with the ball. He's too talented not to let him take off with it on a regular basis. Aside from Locker, the tailback position is a bit of a mystery and the offensive line will feature some linemen in new positions.
Defensive Keys: Sarkisian was able to bring USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt with him to Seattle and Holt has a lot to work on leading up to the season opener after the Huskies finished 2008 with the 110th ranked defense. No other Washington team gave up as many yards per game as last year's squad and with so many starters back, it's expected that a repeat will not happen. Daniel Te'o Nesheim is the Huskies top pass rusher and are happy to have back LB E.J. Savannah. 
Keep An Eye On: WR D'Andre Goodwin, TE Kavario Middleton, LB Mason Foster
All In The Numbers: -17, Washington turnover margin, third worst in the nation last year.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Washington State
Outlook: After last year's disastrous season, there is optimism that Sarkisian, with his winning USC pedigree, can shape up the Huskies and begin to turn around the program. It all starts with Locker's health and trickles down to the rest of the team. If Locker can stay on the field then Washington will have a shot in just about every game they play. The schedule, for a second straight season, doesn't offer them much in the way of relief with LSU and a trip to South Bend on tap. But their toughest conference games come at home.

Washington State
2008 Record: 2-11 (1-8)
Returning Starters:  8 offense, 5 defense 
Offensive Keys: There's no where to go but up after the Cougars finished 2008 with the 118th best offense in the country. Both the running and passing game struggled mightily, but the rushing attack is expected to be much stronger this year with a bevy of backs ready to run it. Quarterback, however, is a different story. There are plenty candidates vying to land the starting job, but Kevin Lopina is regarded as the favorite to land it. Lopina better improve on the 0 touchdown, 11 interception performance from a year ago or he won't be starting for long. Whoever ends up under center needs to stay healthy as injuries plagued the quarterback position for the Cougars last year. 
Defensive Keys: As bad the offense was a year ago, the defense wasn't much better finishing the year 118th in scoring. The big culprit was the rushing defense which allowed an insanely high 247.5 yards per game. Not helping matters this year is the uncertain future of the front four. Only one starter returns up front. The pass defense was respectable last year and brings back three starters.
Keep An Eye On: RB James Montgomery, WR Jeshua Anderson, SS Xavier Hicks
All In The Numbers: 1, win that came against an FBS school last season, in-state rival Washington.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at Washington
Outlook: The rebuilding project continues for head coach Paul Wulff in his second season. The Cougars are expected to be a much better offensive team this year, especially with that rushing attack, but how much improvement will they see out of the defense? With a brutal schedule that features road games at USC, Oregon, Cal and rival Washington, 2009 is not shaping up to be an easy one for the Cougars.