There will be a new look to the PAC 10 conference this year as most teams lose a bunch of experience from a year ago.
However, the team at the top of the pack should be the same team that has been there the past six years in Southern California.
While it looks like USC will run away and hide this year, there is a large cluster of teams of could grab a piece of second place.
Expect a lot of close battles in games where USC or Washington State isn’t playing in.
1. USC (11-1 overall, 8-1 Pac-10)
This may be the Trojans’ worst team since 2001, but that shouldn’t matter much this year.
Mark Sanchez did a solid job at quarterback last year, but I don’t see him being great. The same can be said about Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain. There is a stable of highly talented running backs in Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable, so expect USC to run a bit more this year, despite a slightly weaker offensive line. While there is no standout receiver on the roster, Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton are good, experienced receivers to throw the ball to.
The defense will still be one of the best in the country, although it probably won’t be as good as it was last year.
However, the schedule is much better than last year. Despite having five Pac-10 road games, they get Oregon, California, and Arizona State at home.
USC does travel to Oregon State and UCLA, where it lost two years ago. Don’t forget about a possible BCS elimination game the third week of the season against Ohio State, two weeks after a trip to Virginia.
Even with what appears to be some tough games, the only game I have the Trojans losing is at Arizona. The Wildcats nearly pulled of the shocker last year and it has pulled off a big upset the past few years (No. 2 Oregon last year).
2. Oregon (8-4, 6-3)
Last year went down as what might have been for the Ducks if Dennis Dixon wasn’t hurt. A good thing about an injury is that it gets others more experience, which will be good for Justin Roeper this year if he wins the starting job over Nathan Costa.
Jaison Williams will still be there to throw the ball to, it is just unsure if he can catch it consistently. Despite losing Jonathan Stewart, the ground game looks just as strong with Jeremiah Johnson and Andre Crenshaw back. The offensive line looks very solid again as well.
The defense was inconsistent a year ago, but the secondary is one of the best in the country, which should keep the Ducks in most games.
There aren’t many easy games on the schedule as the non-conference slate includes a trip to Purdue and a visit from Boise State.
The Ducks also have to travel to ASU, California, USC, and Oregon State.
They need to win at least one of those games to get second in conference.
3. Arizona State (7-5, 5-4)
Here comes the log jam in the middle of the conference, so I will go in the order of who I think is the best.
The Sun Devils should have a better team than last year, but the schedule is much tougher. If Rudy Carpenter stays healthy, he should end his career as the all-time leading passer in school history.
Leading rusher Keegan Herring returns, as well as top receivers Chris McGaha and Michael Jones.
The big question remain the offensive that gave up far too many sacks a year ago. Many of those players are gone, which could be a good thing.
The defense should be similar to last year, which is decent.
It looks like the Sun Devils will get off to a 3-0 start before facing Georgia at home, a game I don’t see them winning.
That is the first of a brutal six-game stretch where they travel to Cal, USC, OSU, and Washington, surrounded with a home game against Oregon and two off weeks.
I have the Devils going 1-5 in that tough stretch, which is why they will only end in a mid-level bowl.
The season ends the way it starts with home games against WSU and UCLA before a short trip to Arizona.
4. California (7-5, 5-4)
This is shaping up as another one of those decent years for the Bears.
The quarterback situation is up in the air again between Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley. Whoever wins the quarterback job will miss not having their top four receivers from last year, including draft picks DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins.
The ground game will also be different without Justin Forsett, but speedster Jahvid Best looks like more than a capable replacement.
Some good news for Cal is their defense should be the best it has been in a few years.
Cal opens the season with an interesting game against Michigan State and travels to Maryland the third game of the year.
The Bears only have four Pac-10 road games, which could set up a decent run in the conference. Trips to USC, OSU, and Arizona will be hard, so it will be vital to win the Sep. 6 trip to Wazzu.
A three-game stretch with Oregon, USC and OSU will determine their fate.
5. Arizona (8-4, 5-4)
The Wildcats haven’t been to a bowl game in a decade, but that should change this year.
Willie Tuitama is the best QB in the conference and should shatter the school’s passing yardage record.He will have the top four receivers all returning and the offensive line blocking for him is a big, solid group, making this the most explosive offense in the conference.
Nicholas Grigsby is returns at running back after a solid freshman season.
However, defense has been a problem for the Wildcats, despite having a defensive coach in Mike Stoops.
After losing several players from an underachieving defense a year ago, it will be up to a new cast of characters to put Arizona back on the map.
The schedule is in their favor with only five road games all year. Three of those games are against Pac-10 teams who were below .500 overall a year ago.
Trips to Oregon and New Mexico won’t be easy though.
Don’t foget about the upset victory over USC on Oct. 25. Mark it on your schedule.
This has the potential of a special year in the desert.
6. Oregon State (6-6, 5-4)
It should be an interesting year for the Beavers.
The key to the season will be if either Sean Canfield or Lyle Moevao can step up at the QB position.
Yvenson Bernard is gone in the backfield, but there is a highly touted freshman expected to start in Jacquizz Rodgers.
Sammie Stroughter is back for one more year to try to help out the quarterbacks in the passing game.
The Beavers had the best run defense in the country last year, but they have a lot of guys that need to be replaced.
It doesn’t help that they have the second toughest schedule in the Pac 10.
OSU opens at Stanford and Penn State before getting Hawaii and USC at home. Then there is a tough game at Utah.
The good news is that most of the teams around them (ASU, Cal and Oregon) head to Corvallis.
7. Washington (6-6, 4-5)
I think this year will be the year Tyrone Willingham will breakthrough and go to a bowl game, but just barely.
Jake Locker had a solid freshman season, especially as a runner (986 yards). However, he needs to improve on his 14-15 TD/INT ratio and 47 percent completion percentage.
The skills positions were shot with graduation, so it will be up to Locker to do much of the work on offense.
There should be an improvement on the defensive side of the ball, which will take some pressure off Locker.
The schedule is absolutely brutal.
The Huskies open with a trip to Oregon before hosting BYU and Oklahoma at home.
Last year I said they would beat Boise State and they did. This year I am saying that they will be a top-15 BYU team.
It does get a little easier from there (except for a trip to USC).
The interesting match-up of the year is when Notre Dame pays a visit to Seattle.
8. UCLA (5-7, 4-5)
The beginning of the Rick Neuheisel era won’t be an easy one.
Ben Olson is going to have to stay healthy for a change for the Bruins to be bowl eligible.
Kahlil Bell will help out on the ground, but it won’t be enough, especially without a proven receiver.
The defense has carried the Bruins the past few years, and that will probably happen again.
It will be up to the offense to keep the defense off the field.
UCLA also has itself a tough schedule with an opening visit from Tennessee, followed by a game at BYU.
The Bruins need to sweep the following three-game homestand (Arizona, Fresno State and WSU to have any shot at a bowl bid.
9. Stanford (3-9, 2-7)
Even though the Cardinal is better than last year, it will be hard to get to that four-win mark again.
There is solid depth in the backfield, but the passing game looks to be a question mark once again this year.
Many players return on defense, which is what Stanford will have to depend on this year.
The first three and last three games of the year are daunting for the Cardinal.
They open with OSU, and at ASU TCU. They finish at Oregon, USC and then at Cal.
It appears to be another tough year at Stanford, but things look brighter in the future.
10. Washington State (4-9, 1-8)
With the struggles the past few years, many people forget that this team won 10 games three straight seasons from 2001-03.
The problem is they haven’t been to a bowl game since. This won’t be the year that changes.
Wazzu will turn to senior QB Gary Rogers to lead the way in his first starting time. Having Brandon Gibson to throw to will be a big help.
The defense struggled quite a bit last year, but should be quite a bit better.
There isn’t much hope on the schedule, outside of a visit from Portland State. A trip to Baylor will be for some serious bragging rights.