Ducks determined to stay top dog

PASADENA, Calif. -- It's one thing to beat out USC for the Pac-10 title. It's another to change perception. Oregon did the first in 2009, and it opens 2010 seemingly doing the second by earning the top spot in the preseason Pac-10 media poll.

For the first time in seven years, a team other than USC is the favorite.

But there's a third step for Oregon: Replacing the now wounded Trojans as the lead dog -- lead Duck? -- in the Pac-10 pecking order. To do that the Ducks need only repeat as champs in a conference that features seven teams, that at least one reporter, deemed worthy of a first-place vote.

The Ducks can't motivate themselves by trying to prove their doubters wrong, an approach many coaches and players adopt when they are unhappy with the perch in media polls. They can't claim they are being disrespected. They are the favorites.

"What do you say when you're on top?" defensive tackle Brandon Bair said with a shrug.

Oh, but you know what they do say: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Or not.

"Preseason rankings don’t mean anything to us," coach Chip Kelly said.

Thing is, Oregon might have been an overwhelming favorite instead of just nipping USC by three points and three first-place votes -- one pollster even dumped the Ducks into ninth place. If Jeremiah Masoli hadn't thrown what had been an outstanding career into the dumpster, he would have been hanging out in New York this week with the other Pac-10 quarterbacks, answering a hundred questions about his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

As it is, the Ducks still have 18 starters back and appear deeper and faster than any other team in the conference. But quarterbacks are, you know, important.

"It’s always a question mark when you lose your quarterback," Kelly said. "We have two competent players in Nate Costa and Darron Thomas who will battle it out in preseason camp."

Bair said the Ducks are treating Masoli's, er, departure like a graduation -- next guy steps up. But Bair rejected the notion that it's "Rose Bowl or bust" for the new conference frontrunners. Sort of.

"I'm not going to say Rose Bowl or bust -- I'm shooting for Arizona," Bair said. "If we can be the best that we can, the Rose Bowl is the worst that can happen to us."

Arizona, by the way, is the site of this year's national title game.