What are some things to look for as we headed into the next decade of Pac-10 football?
Thanks for asking.
10. A Heisman Trophy that doesn't go to USC: The Pac-10's last Heisman Trophy winner who didn't play for USC? Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in 1970. Stanford's Toby Gerhart, the 2009 runner-up, earned the highest non-USC finish since Stanford's John Elway in 1982. The other nine teams are due. The next decade won't end without a Pac-10 player claiming the Heisman Trophy who isn't a denizen of Heritage Hall.
9. Getting defensive: Pete Carroll built a dynasty at USC because of defense. The Pac-10 needs to transform from underrated on defense to just unmistakably good on defense. The offensive skill and creativity are exciting -- and appreciated by the NFL -- but playing more consistent defense is how to permanently enter the "best conference" debate.
8. Coaching turnover or coaching continuity? How long does Jim Harbaugh remain at Stanford? Because as long as he does, the Cardinal are a top-25 team. Or close to it. Are Chip Kelly and Steve Sarkisian long for Oregon and Washington, respectively? Is this Lane Kiffin thing going to work out at USC? And what about Dennis Erickson and Paul Wulff, who both sit on hot seats? Good programs have coaching continuity. Programs that win between zero and six games a year, don't.
7. UCLA returns to the nation's elite: Did you read all the jocular commentary about Rick Neuheisel mildly trash-talking USC while celebrating UCLA's victory in the EagleBank Bowl? There was just a sniff of desperation to the amusement, eh? Because, deep down, everyone knows Neuheisel is going to win at UCLA.
6. The return of the quarterback: The conference of quarterbacks took a nap the second half of the previous decade. But it appears to be waking up. Quarterbacks like Jake Locker, Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Jeremiah Masoli and Nick Foles -- etc. -- appear ready to restock the NFL with Pac-10 signal-callers.
5. A rising Northwest: Oregon and Oregon State don't appear to be headed for a drop anytime soon. They may play for the Pac-10 title again in the 2010 Civil War. But there's a big purple cloud rising over Seattle and it has nothing to do with rain. In just one season, Sarkisian made it clear he has the coaching chops to lead Washington back into the Pac-10 and national picture.
4. Increased Parity: Even before Pete Carroll opted to bolt for the NFL, it was clear in 2009 that the the rest of the Pac-10 has caught up with USC. In 2010, the Pac-10 looks to be as deep with potential bowl teams as it has ever been. That might be a trend. Or a blip.
3. Expansion? Pac-10 presidents and athletic directors don't want to expand, but they might be forced to in order to keep up with 12-team BCS conferences with conference championship games. See No. 1 as a key reason why.
2. Will the USC dynasty crumble or endure? The first question is how hard USC might get hit by NCAA sanctions. The second is whether Kiffin can maintain the level of excellence established by Carroll. Those questions are intertwined but also mutually exclusive.
1. Can the Pac-10 keep up? The SEC and Big Ten make a lot more money than the Pac-10. Those conferences have better bowl arrangements, but their biggest advantage is TV revenue. New commissioner Larry Scott must figure out a way to negotiate a lucrative deal, which will start in 2012, that doesn't leave the conference behind. And, if you're a college football fan, you should root for the Pac-10 to get it done. If the BCS conferences become stratified into have and have-nots, then the competitive pool might get smaller, and that will subtract from the game as a whole.