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August 12, 2010

Pac-10 race should be wide open in '10

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Good luck predicting the Pac-10 champion.

Attrition often is a factor in championship races, but this year, the attrition started well before the season did.

For years, the safe bet to win the Pac-10 crown was USC, which won or shared seven consecutive league titles from 2002-08. But because of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal, the Trojans are ineligible for the championship.

Reigning champion Oregon has to defend its title without quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was dismissed from the team and ended up at Ole Miss.

Oregon State loses its all-conference quarterback, the only quarterback in the league to throw for 3,000 yards last season. Stanford loses its All-America running back. Arizona lost its offensive and defensive coordinators from last season.

Add to those factors that Washington is in its second season under coach Steve Sarkisian, Arizona State has a new coordinator and a new quarterback to bolster its offense and Cal isn't facing the pressure of high expectations.

That all contributes to what figures to be a wide-open Pac-10 race.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers. The little guy is a big-play threat who puts up huge numbers. He has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first two seasons, and he's also an adept receiver who had 78 catches last season. He also had 19 plays that covered at least 20 yards.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: UCLA FS Rahim Moore. Every coach agrees that turnovers are the deciding factors in most games. With that in mind, any coach would want Moore on his team. Moore led the nation with 10 interceptions in '09. He also posted 49 tackles and seven pass breakups. Moore, a junior who has started every game of his career, figures to be a leading contender for the Thorpe Award.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Oregon QB Nate Costa. The dismissal of Jeremiah Masoli thrust Costa into the starting lineup and onto the hot seat. With Masoli, the Ducks were considered a contender for the national championship. That still may be the case with Costa, a fifth-year senior who's actually a better passer than his predecessor. But he also has a history of injuries, which have limited his playing time. He's attempted only 38 passes in his college career and thrown one touchdown. He threw for a mere 82 yards in his only start last season. Still, he was set to be the starter in 2008 before he was injured. Masoli stepped in and Costa didn't get his job back -- until now.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Arizona State CB Omar Bolden. He's trying to come back from a knee injury that prematurely ended his junior season. If he comes back strong, he'll provide a boost to a Sun Devils secondary that will have three new starters. If there are lingering effects from the injury, the Sun Devils' pass defense may be in trouble.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor. Somebody has to replace some of the production of departed All-America/Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. Last season, Taylor rushed for 303 yards in a backup role and showed enough explosiveness (63 yards on six carries vs. Arizona State, 62 yards on eighth carries vs. USC) to indicate he can be successful in a starting role. He has good speed and elusiveness. Even better, he has a good offensive line in front of him.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: USC LB Devon Kennard. After playing well at end and linebacker as a true freshman, he seems primed to make a step toward elite status. He may not be listed as a starter heading into the season, but it's just a matter of time before that changes. He's big, fast and intimidating and so good that he has to be on the field as much as possible. His emergence could force Chris Galippo into a backup role at middle linebacker or to another position.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: USC WR Kyle Prater. The Trojans receiving corps is counting on receiving a boost from a stellar group of freshman, and Prater, a high school All-America from Illinois, looks to be the best of the bunch. Indeed, if the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder quickly adapts to playing at the college level, he could emerge as USC's best receiver. He enrolled early and was a star during spring drills.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Arizona LB Derek Earls. Coach Mike Stoops knows a good defensive player when he sees one, and he like what he has seen from Earls, a junior college transfer. From North Dakota State College of Science, Earls has excellent size (6-3/235), good range and a mean streak. He enrolled early and established himself as a starter in the middle, an area the Wildcats need to upgrade.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: USC LB Chris Galippo. Expected to step in and become USC's next great linebacker, Galippo hasn't quite lived up to that billing. To be fair, he's had injury issues and hasn't played poorly. Last season, he made 70 tackles, third-highest on the team, but he hasn't met the standards of former star USC linebackers. This season, he'll have to raise his level of play to hold off sophomore Devon Kennard and retain his starting spot.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Washington State's Paul Wulff. His third season in Pullman figures to be make-or-break for Wulff; the Cougars went just 3-22 in his first two seasons. No other team from a Big Six conference has endured as much futility in that span. Washington State needs at least two victories this season to avoid the program's worst three-year stretch in its history.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Oregon State. The Beavers don't always have elite talent, but coach Mike Riley and his staff always seem to field a strong team that gets better as the season progresses. Oregon State has had winning records in six of the past seven seasons and posted at least eight wins in each of the past four seasons despite typically playing a challenging non-conference schedule. Mark Banker supervises a defense that routinely rates among the conference's best. Danny Langsdorf's offenses have averaged more than 27 points per games in each of the last four seasons.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: UCLA's Norm Chow. Don't blame him for UCLA's recent offensive struggles. The Bruins were a mess before he arrived and it will take a while to straighten it out. In his distinguished career, Chow has been a part of three national championship teams and has mentored three Heisman recipients. He's won various awards as the nation's premier assistant.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Arizona State's Craig Bray. In three seasons under Bray, Arizona State has ranked fourth or better in the Pac-10 in total defense each time. Last season, the Sun Devils led the conference in total defense and were second in scoring defense. The defense accomplished that despite getting little help from the offense.

THE OTHER STUFF

Ore. St.-TCU in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 4

Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18

Washington at Nebraska, Sept. 18

Oregon State at Boise State, Sept. 25

Stanford at Oregon, Oct. 2

Oregon at USC, Oct. 30

Stanford at California, Nov. 20

USC at Oregon State, Nov. 27

Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4

USC at UCLA, Dec. 4

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Stanford. Some may expect the Cardinal, who won eight games last season, to ebb somewhat after losing Gerhart. But Stanford didn't reach a bowl with Gerhart in '08. The big difference was the quarterback play of Andrew Luck, who figures to be even better as a sophomore. The Cardinal also have good receivers and one of the nation's best offensive lines. A new defensive coordinator has been brought in to upgrade that unit. If the defense improves, the Cardinal could be a legitimate contender for the conference championship.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Washington. There is great optimism in Seattle for coach Steve Sarkisian's second season. The Huskies improved from no wins in '08 to five victories in his first season. Continued improvement could result in the Huskies' first bowl appearance since 2002. Senior QB Jake Locker returns to lead a solid offense, but defense is a major concern. The Huskies allowed more than 30 points in half their games last season. This season, they have a brutal schedule that includes non-conference games against BYU and Nebraska and league road trips to USC, Arizona and Oregon.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Oregon at USC, Oct. 30. Although USC is ineligible for the conference championship, the Trojans still hold the key to winning the Pac-10. Defending champion Oregon and USC were ranked first and second in the league's preseason poll. The Ducks have been dominated in their past two games at USC. If Oregon gets by USC, the Ducks could enter the last month of the season as national championship contenders.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Oregon State. The Beavers rarely take the easy road to a bowl game. Unlike most Pac-10 teams, Oregon State doesn't play an FCS opponent. Not only that, the Beavers also seem to seek out the best non-conference opponents available. This season, their non-conference schedule includes Boise State and TCU, which combined to go 25-1 last season. And both games are in the opponents' home state. The third out-of-conference foe is Louisville of the Big East. The Beavers also play Arizona and Stanford on the road.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Arizona State. Facing one FCS opponent is OK. Facing two is ridiculous. The Sun Devils ensure a fast start by opening their season with Portland State and Northern Arizona. That takes away from facing Big Ten power Wisconsin in Week 3.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBJake Locker, Washington (6-3/226, Sr.)
RBLaMichael James, Oregon (5-9/180, Soph.)
RBJacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State (5-7/188, Jr.)
WRRonald Johnson, USC (6-1/190, Sr.)
WRJermaine Kearse, Washington (6-2/198, Jr.)
WRJames Rodgers, Oregon State (5-7/188, Sr.)
TMichael Philipp, Oregon State (6-3/307, Soph.)
TBo Thran, Oregon (6-5/289, Sr.)
GDavid DeCastro, Stanford (6-5/313, Soph.)
GButch Lewis, USC (6-5/285, Sr.)
CColin Baxter, Arizona (6-4/295, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
ERicky Elmore, Arizona (6-5/250, Sr.)
TJurrell Casey, USC (6-1/295, Jr.)
TStephen Paea, Oregon State (6-1/311, Sr.)
EKenny Rowe, Oregon (6-3/231, Sr.)
LBVontaze Burfict, Arizona State (6-3/245, Soph.)
LBCasey Matthews, Oregon (6-2/237, Sr.)
LBMichael Mohamed, California (6-3/238, Sr.)
CBDesmond Trufant, Washington (6-0/172, Soph.)
CBTrevin Wade, Arizona (5-11/182, Jr.)
FSRahim Moore, UCLA (6-1/195, Jr.)
SSDelano Howell, Stanford (5-11/198, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KKai Forbath, UCLA (6-0/192, Sr.)
PBryan Anger, California (6-4/201, Jr.)
KRChris Owusu, Stanford (6-2/202, Jr.)
PRWilliam "Bug" Wright, Arizona (5-9/175, Jr.)

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD

1. Washington: The Huskies are the only league team to return a 2,500-yard passer (Jake Locker) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Chris Polk).

2. USC: Sophomore QB Matt Barkley is a rising star, and Allen Bradford heads a deep group of running backs.

3. Arizona: RBs Keola Antolin and Nic Grigsby are explosive, and QB Nick Foles has lots of upside.

4. Stanford: Sophomore Andrew Luck is among the country's best quarterbacks.

5. Oregon: Big-play RB LaMichael James will help out oft-injured senior QB Nate Costa.

6. Oregon State: Junior RB Jacquizz Rodgers is a Heisman hopeful, but new starting QB Ryan Katz is unproven.

7. California: Inconsistent senior QB Kevin Riley will be looking over his shoulder at Beau Sweeney. Expect a big season from RB Shane Vereen.

8. Arizona State: The Sun Devils are counting on Michigan transfer Steven Threet for better play at quarterback.

9. UCLA: The running game is mediocre, and QB Kevin Prince has to get better.

10. Washington State: The Cougars ranked 100th or worse in rushing and passing offense last season.

RECEIVERS

1. Washington: Speedy Jermaine Kearse heads a deep and talented receiving corps for the Huskies.

2. Stanford: Ryan Whalen is a gifted possession receiver, and Chris Owusu is a deep threat. The tight ends are good, too.

3. Oregon State: James Rodgers is a big-play threat. H-back Joe Halahuni may emerge as one, too.

4. Arizona: Juron Criner tops a group of four returning receivers with more than 30 catches last season.

5. USC: The Trojans are counting on a talented group of incoming freshmen.

6. California: Though Marvin Jones has all-conference potential, the Golden Bears' receivers have underachieved.

7. Oregon: Jeff Maehl is sure-handed, but the Ducks need a consistent deep threat.

8. UCLA: Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree both had more than 40 catches in '09.

9. Washington State: Jared Karstetter and Gino Simone aren't bad, but getting them the ball isn't easy.

10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils hope junior college transfers can boost a problem area.

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Oregon: The Ducks led the Pac-10 in rushing last season, and all five line starters are back.

2. Stanford: Four starters return from a group that allowed only seven sacks in '09 and paved the way for the country's second-leading rusher.

3. USC: C Kristofer O'Dowd, T Tyron Smith and G Butch Lewis will contend for all-conference honors.

4. Arizona: C Colin Baxter is among the nation's best, and G Vaughn Dotsy's return from injury is a boost.

5. Oregon State: Four regulars return to help RB Jacquizz Rodgers try for a third consecutive 1,000-yard season.

6. California: The Golden Bears are counting on Matt Summers-Gavin's return from injury to provide a boost for an underachieving unit.

7. Washington: The Huskies need to reduce the number of sacks (28) allowed in '09.

8. UCLA: The Bruins will miss T Xavier Su'a-Filo, who is serving a two-year Mormon mission.

9. Arizona State: The injury-plagued Sun Devils already have lost G Zach Schlink to knee problems.

10. Washington State: The Cougars allowed a whopping 53 sacks last season.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. USC: The ends could be overpowering, and Ts Jurrell Casey and DaJohn Harris have a chance to be as good as any pair anywhere.

2. Arizona State: It's hard to run on the Sun Devils, who are tough up front with Ts Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola.

3. Oregon: E Kenny Rowe is a ferocious pass rusher, and the Ducks are solid against the run, too.

4. California: Look for a breakout season from senior E Cameron Jordan.

5. Arizona: Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed form a nice pair of pass-rushing ends.

6. Oregon State: T Stephen Paea will contend for All-American honors, but the Beavers have to find a pass rush.

7. UCLA: Without star T Brian Price, the Bruins are rebuilding up front.

8. Stanford: NT Sione Fua should excel in the Cardinal's new 3-4 scheme.

9. Washington: The Huskies are average against the run and have no accomplished pass rushers.

10. Washington State: The Cougars have no accomplished pass rushers and are not even average against the run.

LINEBACKERS

1. USC: Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo and Michael Morgan are the Pac-10's best trio of linebackers -- and converted E Devon Kennard may be better than all of them.

2. Oregon: The Ducks are strong with Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. They have good depth, too.

3. Arizona State: All-America candidate Vontaze Burfict heads an athletic trio.

4. Stanford: Shayne Skov and converted FB Owen Marecic will handle the middle in the new 3-4 set.

5. California: Mike Mohamed is a tackling machine, but other Bears linebackers have underachieved.

6. UCLA: Akeem Ayers is a beast. Other Bruins 'backers have to prove themselves.

7. Oregon State: The Beavers are hoping Keith Pankey comes back strong from an injured Achilles.

8. Washington: Mason Foster is solid on the outside, and Huskies coaches are hoping Cort Dennison can be a stopper inside.

9. Arizona: The Wildcats are rebuilding at this position, but JC transfer Derek Earls looks good in the middle.

10. Washington State: The Cougars are trying position changes to plug holes.

SECONDARY

1. UCLA: The Bruins grabbed 20 interceptions in '09, and FS Rahim Moore had half of them. SS Tony Dye also has all-league potential.

2. Oregon: Thanks to guys such as John Boyett, Eddie Pleasant, Marvin Johnson and Javes Lewis, no team anywhere is deeper at safety.

3. USC: If healthy, CB Shareece Wright and SS T.J. McDonald will challenge for postseason acclaim.

4. Arizona: CB Trevin Wade is among the best in the country.

5. Arizona State: CB Omar Bolden returns from injury and will provide a boost. Athletic Ss Keelan Johnson and Clint Floyd now get their chances.

6. Oregon State: The Beavers' secondary was vulnerable to big plays last season. A pass rush would help.

7. Washington: CBs Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson are solid. The safeties? We'll see.

8. Stanford: Cornerback play must improve dramatically for Stanford to challenge for championships.

9. California: A disappointment in '09, the Golden Bears' secondary may have to rely on incoming freshmen.

10. Washington State: Coaches are trying to bolster a unit that ranked last in the Pac-10 in pass defense last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. UCLA: Kai Forbath is the nation's best kicker, and Jeff Locke is among the nation's top punters.

2. Oregon State: K Justin Kahut is excellent; James Rodgers is dangerous on returns.

3. Stanford: Chris Owusu returned three kickoffs for TDs in '09, and K Nate Whitaker is reliable.

4. Arizona: The kicking game is reliable with K Alex Zendejas and P Keenyn Crier. The return teams are solid.

5. California: P Bryan Anger and the return teams are good, but the kicking game needs work.

6. Arizona State: Now that he has recovered from nagging groin injury, K Thomas Weber needs to regain his old form.

7. Washington: The Huskies have so-so return teams, but K Erik Folk is dependable inside 40 yards.

8. Oregon: Kicking concerns overshadow effective return teams.

9. USC: Strong-legged Jacob Harfman, who may handle punting and kicking duties, was adept at both in junior college.

10. Washington State: The Cougars need improvement in all facets of kicking game.

COACHING STAFFS

1. Oregon State: Nobody gets more out of the talent on hand than Mike Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker.

2. Oregon: Chip Kelly's offense is among the nation's most explosive, and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has an impressive resume.

3. Stanford: Jim Harbaugh, who has transformed the Cardinal from comatose to contenders in three seasons, brought in Vic Fangio to upgrade the defense.

4. Washington: The Huskies made marked improvement in one year under Steve Sarkisian. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt had great success while at USC.

5. California: The Golden Bears haven't had a losing record in eight seasons under Jeff Tedford, but they haven't reached expectations in recent seasons.

6. USC: Lane Kiffin has to prove himself, but his father, Monte Kiffin, doesn't.

7. Arizona: The Wildcats have broken through with back-to-back eight-win seasons under coach Mike Stoops, but they have new coordinators on both sides of the ball this season.

8. Arizona State: Although Craig Bray's defense is solid, consecutive losing seasons have put heat on coach Dennis Erickson.

9. UCLA: The Bruins have some big-time names on their staff, but they still are waiting on big-time results.

10. Washington State: The Cougars have managed just three wins in coach Paul Wulff's two seasons.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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