<
>

Five early questions for the Pac-10

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Read in a handful of places that the Pac-10 might be down in 2009.

Balderdash.

Three teams will begin the season as top-25 certainties: USC, California and Oregon.

Two others are close: Oregon State and Arizona.

And the bottom will be much better. Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA, if things fall right, could end up being bowl-eligible. Washington should be much improved with quarterback Jake Locker back and new coach Steve Sarkisian lighting a fire under the program. And Washington State, if the team can stay healthy (knock on wood) will be more competitive than they were in 2008.

Still, there are issues. Here are five to consider.

  1. Will quarterback play return to the Pac-10 standard? In 2008, only USC's Mark Sanchez (No. 6) and Arizona's Willie Tuitama (No. 22) ranked in the nation's top 44 in pass efficiency. And both are gone. Yikes! While the post-spring quarterback vibe at most schools was positive, the summer is often when a new starter can build up chemistry with his receivers in "unofficial" workouts. So get on it, fellas.

  2. Will the rebuilding offensive lines come through? With all five starters back, USC is the only stone-cold certainty on the offensive line. As we noted before: "Three teams that ran the ball well last year -- Arizona, Oregon and Oregon State -- lost three starting offensive linemen, including early-round NFL draft picks. Four others -- Arizona State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State -- were just lousy up front last fall. Even Stanford and California, which should be fairly stout, lost their best blockers from 2008." The depth in the conference (read: number of bowl teams) probably hangs on the depth of quality offensive line play.

  3. Can the Pac-10 send a message with nonconference success? A handful of early-season nonconference defeats in 2008 allowed the gadflies to claim the Pac-10 didn't measure up. A 5-0 bowl record mostly reversed that, but at least a few months of trash-talking were lost. The 2009 schedule is, as usual, loaded with big nonconference games: Arizona at Iowa, Arizona State at Georgia, USC at Ohio State, UCLA at Tennessee, LSU at Washington, Stanford at Wake Forest, Oregon at Boise State, California at Minnesota and Washington State vs. Notre Dame in San Antonio, among others. Yes, a lot of these are on the road. Yes, a lot of these don't look good for the Pac-10. But if the conference doesn't want to again listen to the yammering of 2008, it might want to win a few of these games.

  4. Can anyone dethrone USC? Seven consecutive titles is an amazing feat. Yeah, yeah -- three, technically, were shared, but the Trojans always were the first choice either in the bowl selection or the national rankings. So the question that has been asked since 2002 endures: Can anyone slay Tommy Trojan and earn a Rose Bowl or, heck, a BCS title game berth?

  5. Will the conference earn a second BCS berth for the first time since 2002? The Pac-10 placed two teams in BCS bowls in 2000 and 2002. Since then, it's been all about the Trojans. Sure, a couple of times the conference got screwed -- California in 2004 and Oregon in 2005 come to mind. But those teams didn't help the cause by subsequently losing in the Holiday Bowl. If the above four questions get answered, however, the Pac-10 should have a solid shot of getting two teams invited to the fancy dances.