It appears the Pac-10 Conference might finally be up for grabs. After nearly a decade of dominance, USC and Head Coach Pete Carroll may have more questions than answers this season.
We all remember the Mark Sanchez press conference just a few short months ago. The one in which the former Trojan quarterback announced he was leaving early for the NFL. And the one in which Pete Carroll looked as if someone had not only stolen his ice cream cone, but also kicked him in the privates while doing so.
Flash forward to the end of fall camp where Carroll finds himself naming a true freshman as his replacement for Sanchez. Sure, a very highly touted freshman in Matt Barkley, but also the first true freshman to ever be named No.1 QB at USC...I repeat...ever.
Throw in the fact the Trojans are replacing both coordinators (OC Steve Sarkisian and DC Nick Holt both bolted for the University of Washington) and just three defensive players with legitimate starting experience and the race for the Pac-10 Title in 2009 could be a real one, and it could play out a little bit differently.
First off, it's not enough to simply predict how teams are going to finish by simply labeling them an '8-4 team' or a '7-5 bowl team.' In order to forecast the Pac-10 standings you have to navigate your way through the schedule, game by game, week by week. The ebbs and flows of the schedule will dictate many of the wins and losses.
And in the Pac-10, it's about the schedule first. Just ask Washington about having to follow up an 0-12 season with a season-opening tilt with LSU, as well as early games against USC and at Notre Dame.
And second, you consider returning starters. Most importantly, and don't let USC's recent history fool you, it's most often been about a returning quarterback, preferably a senior.
California and the 0-12 Huskies are the ONLY Pac-10 teams returning their opening game quarterbacks from a year ago—and they each spent significant time on the sidelines, either due to injury (UW's Jake Locker) or coach's decision (Cal's Kevin Riley).
Three schools appear to be going with freshmen (either true or redshirt): USC's Matt Barkley, UCLA's Kevin Prince, and Stanford's Andrew Luck.
Three other schools are leaning toward senior signal callers who have some starting experience but have either been waiting in the wings, or on the trainer's table: Oregon State's Sean Canfield, Arizona State's Danny Sullivan, and Washington State's Kevin Lopina.
Arizona looks to be going with two quarterbacks, sophomores Matt Scott and Nick Foles.
And that leaves Oregon...
WEEK 1, SEPT. 5
The first week, and the season, actually kicks off Thursday night, September 3rd, with Oregon heading to Boise State to battle the Broncos on the blue turf.
Oregon will have junior Jeremiah Masoli back under center. Masoli started 10 games for the Ducks last season, and brings bruising runner LeGarrette Blount (and his Pac-10 leading 17 TDs) with him.
The conference, a woeful 19-38 in road games a year ago, will also be attempting to shore up some inefficiencies on defense.
No team returns more than four to their front seven. And not one Pac-10 defensive lineman or linebacker was named to any of the major preseason All-American teams.
Might this mean some high scoring games for the conference?
Oregon @ Boise St.
This is a revenge game for Oregon, after being punched in the mouth at Autzen last year, 37-32.
The Ducks, led by first year Head Coach Chip Kelly, are inexperienced on the offensive line, however, Boise counters with just two returning starters in their defensive front seven, and zero seniors.
And despite a solid Bronco secondary I look for Oregon, known for their potent running game, to shock Boise St. with an aerial attack as the Ducks and Air Kelly soar to a 1-0 start.
PREDICTION: Oregon 41 Boise St. 37
Central Michigan @ Arizona
Coach Mike Stoops' Wildcats will be attempting to find a replacement for the departed QB Willie Tuitama.
Central Michigan, on the other hand, will arrive in Tucson with their record setting signal caller, Dan LeFevour.
The Chippewas return 10 defensive starters that will have Stoops bouncing back and forth between Scott and Foles at quarterback, and LeFevour will add enough offense to place Stoops right back on the hot seat.
PREDICTION: Central Michigan 24 Arizona 20
Stanford @ Washington State
The conference opener pits a team on the rise in Coach Jim Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal with a team nearing record depths in Coach Paul Wulff's WSU Cougars.
The Cougars fell 58-0 last year in Palo Alto. This year, even with the Cardinal sporting a new starter at QB (redshirt frosh Andrew Luck) it should be a nice start for Harbaugh in his quest for a bowl.
PREDICTION: Stanford 48 WSU 10
Others: Arizona State over Idaho State, LSU over Washington (big), California over Maryland (perhaps closer than expected), Oregon State over Portland State, UCLA over San Diego State, USC over San Jose State (despite Dick Tomey owning five wins over USC while at Arizona).
WEEK 2, SEPTEMBER 12
USC @ Ohio State
Does it get any bigger than this?
Here is where a lot of questions may be answered. Or perhaps some weaknesses exposed, as the script flips from a year ago when the Buckeyes came to LA with their true-frosh phenom Terrelle Pryor. Now it's USC's turn, coming into Columbus with Matt Barkley.
How will he handle 102,000 rabid Buckeye fans?
PREDICTION: Ohio State 23 USC 17
UCLA @ Tennessee
Lane Kiffin versus Norm Chow—the two former USC assistants face off in a rematch of last year's stunner, a 27-24 UCLA win.
Kiffin is taking over for the departed Phil Fulmer and will be looking to make a statement.
UCLA, under 2nd year Head Coach Rick Neuheisel, is just not quite ready for this cross country challenge.
PREDICTION: Tennessee 30 UCLA 20
Others: Wake Forest (and QB Riley Skinner) over Stanford, Oregon over Purdue, California over Eastern Washington, Washington over Idaho (the streak ends at 15 as the Huskies win their first game since beating Cal in 2007), Arizona over Northern Arizona, Oregon State over UNLV (but close), WSU over Hawaii in Seattle.
WEEK 3, SEPTEMBER 19
Arizona @ Iowa
If Mike Stoops thought the seat was hot after losing at home to Central Michigan, it will be scorching after the return trip from his alma mater.
Iowa, 9-4 a year ago, is 46-18 at home under Head Coach Kirk Ferentz.
PREDICTION: Iowa 27 Arizona 16
Utah @ Oregon
Only three returning starters to the Utah offense that shook up the BCS last year, going 13-0.
They also have two new coordinators and must replace QB Brian Johnson.
Heading into Autzen Stadium with this many questions could be a problem.
PREDICTION: Oregon 38 Utah 24
Others: California over Minnesota (in their new digs), Oregon State over Cincinnati, UCLA over Kansas State, Arizona over Louisiana-Monroe, Stanford over San Jose State, WSU over SMU (can you say Cougar winning streak now at two?), USC over Washington (could Sarkisian have something up his sleeve for Carroll, or the other way around? Huskies winning streak ends abruptly...at one).
WEEK 4, SEPTEMBER 26
California @ Oregon
In the conference season's first marquee matchup, Jeff Tedford comes back to Oregon (where he was coordinator from 1998-2001) and brings an Oregon quarterback with him.
Kevin Riley, from Beaverton High School, gets the nod at QB. However, he has not fared well against Pac-10 competition, and could be in for a rude awakening in his homecoming to Autzen.
Yes, Cal returns eight starters on defense, but they must replace three big-time linebackers.
PREDICTION: Oregon 24 California 23
Arizona @ Oregon State
The Wildcats are a dismal 1-9 in their last 10 against the Beavers. Mike Riley, after a rare good start in Corvallis, will have OSU more than ready and will have his first 4-0 start.
PREDICTION: Oregon State 27 Arizona 16
Others: Georgia over ASU (big and potentially ugly), Stanford over UW, USC over WSU.
WEEK 5, OCTOBER 3
USC @ California
Despite Cal's loss at Oregon the week prior, this will still be a huge game. But perhaps because of the loss, Cal will be a bit deflated and USC will pounce.
Barkley will be a little more experienced and the defense has the speed to contain potential All-American running back Jahvid Best and give QB Riley fits.
PREDICTION: USC 24 California 17
Oregon State @ Arizona State
ASU has won 16 straight over OSU in Tempe. And although this season the Sun Devils might be ripe for an "upset" I think Dennis Erickson will have enough on defense (led by potential All-American DE Dexter Davis) to steal one from his old team.
PREDICTION: ASU 20 OSU 17
Others: Stanford over UCLA (could the 4-1 Cardinal be ranked?), Notre Dame all over UW, Oregon over WSU.
WEEK 6, OCTOBER 10
Stanford @ Oregon State
Are the Cardinal contenders or pretenders?
Stanford got OSU early last season (which is the best time to get them), beating them in week one. Riley, who coached Harbaugh with the Chargers, will be happy to slap the pretender label on his former QB.
PREDICTION: OSU 31 Stanford 21
Oregon @ UCLA
Could this the first of two trips the 2009 Ducks will be making to Pasadena?
Rick Neuheisel would love to provide the stumbling block, but UCLA, with a rebuilt offensive line, new defensive coordinator and new QB will still be searching for too many answers to tame Oregon.
PREDICTION: Oregon 33 UCLA 27
Others: Arizona over UW (Wildcats coming off a bye spells trouble, even in Seattle), ASU over WSU.
So, if you've been keeping track, you'll know the mid-season standings will look something like this:
1. Oregon, 3-0 in Pac-10, 6-0 overall
2. USC, 3-0, 4-1
3. Arizona State, 2-0, 4-1
4. Stanford, 3-1, 4-2
5. Oregon State, 2-1, 5-1
6. Arizona, 1-1, 2-3
7. California, 0-2, 3-2
8. UCLA, 0-2, 2-3
9. Washington, 0-3, 1-5
10.Washington State, 0-4, 2-4
WEEK 7, OCTOBER 17
USC @ Notre Dame
Another big non-conference showdown for the Trojans and their young signal caller.
Will Barkley still be manning the huddle?
Both teams have byes the week before, but the experience of Jimmy Clausen will be the difference and will provide another chink in the Trojan armor.
PREDICTION: Notre Dame 23 USC 20
Others: Cal over UCLA (the Bears take advantage of the bye week), Arizona over Stanford (Stoops saves job?), Washington over ASU (in an upset special on the road)
WEEK 8, OCTOBER 24
Oregon State @ USC
Yes, the Beavers have won two of the last three.
And yes, USC will be coming off a tough loss in South Bend.
But there is no way the Trojans will forget what last year's stunner in Corvallis cost them.
This is revenge time.
And it might not be pretty.
PREDICTION: USC 41 OSU 21
Others: Stanford over ASU, Oregon over Washington (Ducks make it six in a row, but the Huskies keep the spread under 20 for the first time), Arizona over UCLA (are Neuheisel's Bruins reeling?), Cal over WSU.
WEEK 9, OCTOBER 31
USC @ Oregon
Could it happen? Could the mighty Trojans lose for the third time in one season, something they haven't done since 2001, Pete Carroll's first season?
Well, since that first season, USC has been an underdog just one time.
In 2007, at Autzen Stadium, and the Ducks covered.
Happy Halloween, Matt Barkley.
PREDICTION: Oregon 24 USC 20
UCLA @ Oregon State
With the Beavers still reeling from their beating at USC, UCLA comes to Corvallis for an upset special.
Or is it?
The Bruins have actually won the past three at OSU.
PREDICTION: UCLA 31 OSU 27
Others: Cal over ASU, Notre Dame over WSU in San Antonio.
WEEK 9, NOVEMBER 7
Oregon @ Stanford
After the huge win over the Trojans the Ducks head to Palo Alto to face a Cardinal team coming off a bye week and looking to knock off an undefeated Oregon team.
Sound familiar at all?
In 2001, Stanford handed then undefeated Oregon it's only loss on its way to the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.
PREDICTION: Stanford 38 Oregon 34
Oregon State @ California
This time Kevin Riley gets outs of bounds.
Or will he even need to?
The Beavers often slump early. This year the slump comes mid-season, as they drop their third in a row.
PREDICTION: Cal 30 OSU 17
Others: USC over ASU, UCLA over UW (Neuheisel takes out old team), Arizona over WSU.
WEEK 10, NOVEMBER 14
Washington @ Oregon State
This was another potential upset special, but the Beavs should bounce back here at home to take their sixth in a row against the Huskies.
As hard to believe as that is.
PREDICTION: OSU 33 UW 24
Others: Cal over Arizona (Tedford's Bears getting hot), Oregon over ASU, USC over Stanford, UCLA over WSU (Neuheisel still talking 'Northwest Title?').
WEEK 11, NOVEMBER 21
Arizona State @ UCLA
This is a bowl or bust game for both schools.
Will Erickson be back if the Sun Devils fail to make the postseason again?
Can Neuheisel lead the Bruins to a bowl in just his second season?
PREDICTION: UCLA 35 ASU 28
California @ Stanford
The Big Game is starting to look Big again.
Fortunately, Stanford gets Cal at home.
Unfortunately, the Cardinal gets the Bears coming off five straight wins.
PREDICTION: Cal 37 Stanford 27
Oregon @ Arizona
Two years ago the Ducks came to Tucson poised for a National Title run, only to see it crumble in the desert as Dennis Dixon's knee buckled on the Arizona turf.
Now they'll need a win to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive.
PREDICTION: Oregon 24 Arizona 21
Others: OSU over WSU
WEEK 12, NOVEMBER 28
UCLA @ USC
Is the USC dynasty over?
Perhaps, if only for a moment.
But they still own UCLA, no matter the uniform colors or the time outs taken.
PREDICTION: USC 28 UCLA 10
Others: ASU over Arizona (Stoops' chances for second bowl dwindle), Notre Dame over Stanford (Irish complete 4-0 sweep of Pac-10), UW over WSU (will Apple Cup mean something again someday?)
WEEK 13, DECEMBER 5
Oregon State @ Oregon
The not-so Civil War will again give one team the opportunity to spoil the others bid for a conference crown and a date in Pasadena.
Will Jacquizz Rodgers be on the field for the Beavers?
Or will Riley have overworked his potential All-American tailback yet again?
Regardless, he won't be enough as the OSU secondary will be unable to handle Air Kelly as the Ducks passing game is the difference in this one.
PREDICTION: Oregon 44 OSU 31
Others: Cal over UW, USC over Arizona (knocking them out of bowl contention
FINAL 2009 PAC-10 STANDINGS
1. Oregon, 8-1, 11-1 (Rose Bowl v. Ohio State)
2. USC, 8-1, 9-3 (Holiday Bowl v. Nebraska)
3. California, 7-2, 10-2 (Sun Bowl v. Oklahoma State)
4. Stanford, 5-4, 6-6 (Emerald Bowl v. North Carolina)
5. Oregon State, 4-5, 7-5 (Vegas Bowl v. TCU)
6. UCLA, 4-5, 6-6 (Poinsettia Bowl v. Utah)
7. Arizona, 4-5, 5-7
8. Arizona State, 3-6, 5-7
9. Washington, 2-7, 3-9
10.Washington State, 0-9, 2-10
There you have it.