Could this be the year?
USC has rattled off seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, winning a couple of national titles and establishing itself as college football's premier program along the way.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Pac-10 has stood in the Trojans' dust, wondering if they'd ever have a legitimate shot to knock USC off its throne.
Well, Pac-10, here's your chance.
For the first time in a long time, Pete Carroll's Trojans have some serious questions coming into 2009. They still have not named a starting QB, with sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley in stiff competition.
USC also loses eight starters from last year's stingy defense, along with its longtime defensive coordinator, Nick Holt.
Adding to the rest of the league's optimism should be the fact that the Trojans must play their biggest Pac-10 threats—Cal and Oregon—on the road. Couple that with the fact Carroll's teams have been plagued by surprising losses the past two seasons (Stanford in '07, Oregon State in '08), and you've got some hope outside of the USC campus.
There is no question 2009 presents a real opportunity for someone other than the Trojans to win the conference and earn a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
The remaining question is, will anyone take advantage of the opportunity?
Player of the Year: Jahvid Best (RB, Cal)
Offensive POY: Jacquizz Rodgers (RB, OSU)
Defensive POY: Taylor Mays (FS, USC)
For most college football programs, losing a first-round QB and eight defensive starters to the NFL draft would spell a rebuilding a year. But USC, obviously, is not your typical college football program. The Trojans will no doubt reload in 2009.
The biggest question will be at QB, as Corp and Barkley continue to battle. Whoever wins the job, though, will be able to rely on the best running back corps in the country, one of the most talented receiving units in the nation, and perhaps the best offensive line Carroll has had at USC.
Trips to Ohio State, Cal, and Oregon are a bit scary, but I'll let someone else be the one to bet against the Trojans.
Overall: 11-1 (Conference: 8-1)
It all looks good for the Bears to take a run at USC in '09. They have one of the nation's best RBs in Jahvid Best. Most of the key pieces return for a defense that ranked second in the Pac-10 in '08. The schedule looks manageable, especially with USC coming to Berkeley in October.
Everything looks real good, in fact, until you get to the QB situation. Junior Kevin Riley completed just over 50 percent of his passes in '08, and his consistency has cost the Bears several times already.
If he improves this year, the Bears could spoil USC's run for eight consecutive Pac-10 titles. If not, well, at least Best should be in the Heisman hunt.
Mike Bellotti's transition from head coach to athletic director was so seamless, few outside of Eugene seemed to even notice there was a coaching change. Former offensive coordinator Chip Kelly takes the helm, and he has a talented team to work with, starting with junior QB Jeremiah Masoli.
Masoli threw for 830 yards, rushed for 248 yards, and accounted for 13 total TDs in his final three games in 2008. If he carries that pace into 2009, he may just start hearing some Heisman talk. RB LeGarrette Blount looks poised for a huge year too.
But the holes are big on the defensive side, where the Ducks allowed 28.2 points per game last season.
4. Oregon State
This is just one of those programs you've got to pull for. Mike Riley always does more with less. He doesn't get first shot at the best recruits in the state or in the region (Oregon, Cal, and even USC get first dibs). Yet quietly the Beavers have amassed the second-most wins in the Pac-10 in the past three seasons.
True, OSU loses its entire secondary, as well as key pieces on both lines. But Riley does have the Rodgers brothers in junior WR James and sophomore RB Jacquizz, who shined in the Beavers' upset over USC last fall.
There may be question marks, but Mike Riley thrives in these situations. Don't underestimate the Beavers.
After a breakout year in 2007 in which they won 10 games and found themselves momentarily in the BCS discussion, the Sun Devils whiffed in a big way in 2008.
A 5-7 record, including a six-game losing streak midseason, was a punch to the gut of ASU fans, who thought the program was headed for greatness with the arrival of Dennis Erickson. It could still be, and 2009 will go a long way in deciding that.
The Devils get Cal, USC, and rival Arizona in Tempe this season. But replacing QB Rudy Carpenter, a four-year starter, will prove to be difficult.
Man, after that victory over Tennessee in the Bruins' opener last season, you would have thought UCLA had won the national championship. John Wooden was practically calling UCLA a football school, for crying out loud. Then they lost three straight, en route to a disappointing 4-8 campaign in Rick Neuheisel's first season.
The good news is, Neuheisel has brought in a solid recruiting class, and there's no question the attitude has changed in Westwood. Look for improvement on offense with redshirt freshman QB Kevin Prince taking the reins from shaky Kevin Craft.
I think they're still celebrating that 2007 win over USC on the Stanford campus. That win catapulted the Cardinal to "Up-and-Comer" status and made Jim Harbaugh one of the hottest coaching names in the country. But Stanford stumbled to a 5-7 record in 2008. Even Harbaugh may feel some heat if Stanford does not improve in '09.
RB Toby Gerhart is one of the best athletes in the Pac-10, and his legs give the Cardinal a fighting shot this season. But don't expect any USC upsets or anything.
Mike Stoops likely saved his job by guiding the Wildcats to their first bowl berth of the decade in 2008. So, why not expect improvement in 2009?
For one, the QB situation is highly unsettled, as the 'Cats will turn to either Matt Scott or Nick Foles—both unproven sophomores—to take over for graduated Willie Tuitama.
However, the bigger reason is the schedule. Try finding a win here: at Iowa, at Oregon State, at Cal, Oregon, at Arizona State, at USC.
Simply put, a second straight bowl is asking a lot of Stoops.
Get this: The once-proud program at UW managed to score over 20 points only twice all last season. The Huskies went 0-12 in 2008 and ranked last or second-to-last in just about every major category in the Pac-10 (in-state rival Washington State joined them in the cellar).
But there is hope this season in the form of a new coach (Steve Sarkisian) and a talented QB (Jake Locker).
Prediction: The Huskies' 14-game losing streak comes to an end Sept. 12 against Idaho. I think.
10. Washington State
I really tried hard to find a conference win on the Cougars' schedule in '09. But their best shots, Washington and Arizona, are on the road—and their other best shot, Stanford, is their first game of the season. So...sorry, Wazzu fans.
The defense actually has some pretty nice pieces, though, including junior SS Xavier Hicks, who ranked fourth in the Pac-10 last year with 7.8 tackles per game.