Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Five things to watch in the Pac-10
By Ted Miller
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
There's lots to watch in the Pac-10 this season, but here is our top-five.
Road Warriors will prevail: The Pac-10 finished 19-38 on the road in 2008, and that's still 19-27 if the 0-11 combination of Washington and Washington State are dropped. California has designs on a special season, but it went 1-4 on the road last year. Stanford went 1-6 and was just a win short of bowl eligibility. USC's lone loss came at Oregon State. Oregon's only loss in its final seven games came at Cal. There were only two high-quality road victories last year: Oregon State won at Arizona. Oregon won at Oregon State. The road nonconference slate is brutal -- that should set a tone for conference play. USC, Cal and Oregon State all play at Oregon, which has the most favorable schedule. USC also plays at Cal. The Pac-10 champion likely will be the team that best handles adversity on the road.
Who can stop the run? Six Pac-10 teams ranked among the nation's top 50 in rushing last year. All of those teams scored 21 or more rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.1 yards or more per carry. Five running backs who eclipsed 1,000 yards as well as USC's stable of thoroughbreds return this fall. Moreover, there are quarterback questions throughout the conference. So run defense will be telling in the conference pecking order, probably even more than usual.
The middle should trend up: Last year, Stanford and Arizona State finished 5-7, one win short of bowl eligibility, while UCLA was 4-8. All three of those teams look like potential bowl teams in 2009. Picking the order of finish from five through eight is a crap shoot, but don't be surprised if seven conference teams end up at least 6-6 and earn bowl berths.
Young quarterbacks abound: Only Oregon State and Arizona State are certain to start seniors at quarterback this fall. USC might start a true freshman, but if it doesn't it will go with a sophomore. UCLA and Stanford will turn to redshirt freshmen. Arizona is picking between two sophomores, while Washington State likely would prefer sophomore Marshall Lobbestael wins the starting job over senior Kevin Lopina. California, Washington and Oregon will start juniors. The youth might hurt this year, but the future looks bright.
What about a second BCS team? It shouldn't just be about beating USC. Just beating USC, though thrilling, didn't really do much for Oregon State last year (Sun Bowl) or Stanford and Oregon in 2007 (no bowl, Sun Bowl), etc. For the teams in the top-third of the conference, it should be about posting a great season, one that is BCS bowl worthy, even if that doesn't end USC's seven-year run atop the conference. The Pac-10 hasn't had a second BCS bowl team since 2002, and Cal, Oregon and perhaps Oregon State have the potential to earn such a berth, even if they can't manage to overcome USC in the Pac-10 standings. But can those teams focus for 12 game weekends and finish 11-1 or 10-2?