Friday, May 7, 2010
What we learned this spring
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
What did we learn this spring in the Pac-10? Read on.
1. Reports of Oregon's demise are greatly exaggerated: Watching the Ducks practice this spring certainly made me think "what if?" As in: What if quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a Heisman Trophy candidate, had told himself it wouldn't be a good idea to steal stuff from a fraternity house? Some of you might recall that I not so long ago predicted that Oregon would end up in a BCS bowl game -- THE BCS bowl game. But Masoli was far from the only reason expectations were so high. The Ducks are talented across the board and they are still a top contender for the Pac-10 title. Of course, that's also the reason the "what if" is so meaningful (and surely painful for Ducks fans): Odds are good that the Ducks will take a step back with either Nate Costa or Darron Thomas at quarterback. It won't be a giant step back -- the over-under with this team only dropped from 10 wins to nine -- but it will be a step.
Lane Kiffin will be expected to field an elite team right away at USC.
2. The hullabaloo over, now it's up to Kiffin to coach: There is no honeymoon at USC. The expectation is to play in the Rose Bowl every year. At least. While the NCAA may end up taking a hatchet to that, it's still up to controversial new coach Lane Kiffin to maintain the Trojans' tradition of excellence. If he does, that will take care of all -- or most -- of the howling about his big mouth and his inexplicably rapid rise through the coaching ranks. The first impression is Kiffin is running a tight ship with high standards for play and behavior. He also has mostly kept his comments tame, other than tweaking UCLA on national signing day. There's no question he's surrounded himself with an outstanding staff. Sure, there's a lot of huff-and-puff with Kiffin. But this spring suggested there's also coaching substance. The real measure, of course, will be this fall.
3. The Pac-10 is deep: The Pac-10 was deep in 2009. It appears deeper in 2010. After spring practices, it's fair to say only Washington State looks like a true long shot to earn a bowl berth. Every team has plenty of reasons for optimism. It's possible that Oregon, USC, Oregon State and Stanford will start the season as Top-25 teams. Arizona has experience and talent on offense. UCLA has two potential first-round NFL draft picks on its defense. California has a lot of guys back from a team that won eight games. Arizona State has hope at quarterback to go along with an impressive defense. Washington may be as good at the offensive skill positions as any team in the country. Even the Cougars should be more competitive this fall. While there might not be a national title contender here, it wouldn't be shocking if any of the top nine teams ended up ranked in the final Top 25.
4. Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks: It wasn't too long ago that we were wondering what the heck happened to the Pac-10 quarterback tradition. Well, simply put: It's back (even without Masoli). Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck may be the best two quarterbacks in the nation and could be top-10 NFL draft picks -- and one could go first overall. And don't be surprised if Arizona's Nick Foles or USC's Matt Barkley put up numbers that place them in the all-conference mix. Meanwhile, California (Kevin Riley), UCLA (Kevin Prince), and Washington State (Jeff Tuel) welcome back starters with experience. Each is plenty capable, if not yet consistent. Oregon State is breaking in a new starter, but the early returns on strong-armed sophomore Ryan Katz are uniformly positive. The only true competitions heading into the summer are at Oregon (Costa vs. Thomas) and Arizona State (Brock Osweiler vs. Steven Threet) and neither situation should have fans wringing their hands with worry.
5. Questions on defense: They say "defense wins championships." While more than a few Pac-10 fans would point out that playing against unsophisticated offenses with caretaker quarterbacks helps a defense appear great, the fact is USC dominated the Pac-10 from 2002-2008 because of defense, and Oregon won the conference title last year with a defense that put up the best numbers vs. conference foes. Just about every team has questions on defense, though a handful potentially could be quite stout. Folks at Oregon gushed about their D this spring. There's lots of speed, but a lack of size may be an issue with the front seven. USC looks good on the line, but is rebuilding its secondary and is thin at linebacker. Oregon State unexpectedly lost two returning starters, who quit the team. Arizona must replace seven starters. Arizona State is excited about its D, but it, too, lost seven starters. California and UCLA lost five and six starters, respectively, including their best players. Stanford and Washington must get better on defense to take another step up in the conference. And Washington State is crossing its fingers over two defensive tackles with academic issues. So there are a lot of questions on the mean side of the ball heading into the offseason.