USC powers Pac-10 past Mountain West

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If Southern California was removed from the Pac-10 Conference, the Mountain West might stack up against it pretty well.

But with the Trojans casting a shadow as wide as the Pacific Ocean over every Mountain West team (and a lot of other teams in college football, for that matter), the Pac-10 has to be considered a much stronger conference going into the 2007 season.

The Trojans are a near unanimous choice as the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. Quarterback John David Booty is a Heisman Trophy candidate. USC has 10 running backs, any of whom would probably start for any team in the Mountain West. The Trojans have good young receivers, and All-American tackle Sam Baker is back to lead what should be an improved offensive line.

Defensively, the Trojans are as strong as any team in the country. Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis is a dominating space eater, and end Lawrence Jackson is among the most feared pass-rushers in the country. USC might have the best linebacker corps in the sport and its secondary returns intact.

With so much talent returning to L.A., anything short of reaching the BCS National Championship Game would be considered a disappointment for USC in 2007.

But the Trojans aren't the only good team in the Pac-10. California is a legitimate top-15 team with explosive kick returner/wide receiver DeSean Jackson leading the way. Quarterback Nate Longshore and tailback Justin Forsett also might be poised for big seasons.

Arizona won three of its last four games in 2006, and coach Mike Stoops seems ready to return the Wildcats to postseason play in his fourth season. Arizona State finished the 2006 season with a disappointing 7-6 record, but new coach Dennis Erickson inherits enough talent to rebound quickly.

UCLA, which knocked USC out of the 2006 national title game by stunning the Trojans 13-9 in the regular-season finale, returns 10 starters on each side of the football. Oregon State has 16 starters back from a 2006 team that beat USC 33-31 and defeated Missouri 39-38 in the Sun Bowl.

Eight of the Pac-10's teams are capable of playing in the postseason this year, and USC and California might be good enough to reach the BCS. Only Washington, which plays the country's most difficult schedule, and rebuilding Stanford seem like long shots to play in a bowl game.

The Mountain West has two teams capable of becoming the Boise State of 2007. TCU and Utah are good enough to crash the BCS party, which the Broncos did last season. The Horned Frogs have quietly been one of the sport's most consistent programs, with a 64-21 record since 2000, the 11th-best record in Division I-A. Under coach Gary Patterson, TCU has won 10 games in four of the last five seasons, and the Horned Frogs are 12-6 against teams from BCS conferences.

Utah went 8-5 in 2006, after losing quarterback Brian Johnson to a torn ACL. The Utes won four of their last five games, including a 25-13 win over Tulsa in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Utah returns 15 starters, including Johnson, and gets to test its strength against Pac-10 foes Oregon State and UCLA in the first three weeks of the season.

Defending Mountain West champion BYU must replace quarterback John Beck and tight end Jonny Harline, who helped lead the Cougars to an 11-2 record and 10-game winning streak to finish the season. But with 13 starters coming back, coach Bronco Mendenhall seems close to establishing the consistency BYU had under legendary coach LaVell Edwards.

Wyoming and New Mexico might be good enough to finish with winning records this season, and Colorado State returns 18 starters from a team that finished 4-8 in 2006. San Diego State and UNLV are struggling, and Air Force must regroup after longtime coach Fisher DeBerry retired.

The Mountain West, the youngest of the Division I-A conferences, hasn't fared very well against Pac-10 teams in the past. The Pac-10 is 36-15 against the MWC. The leagues are 3-3 in head-to-head matchups in the Pioneer Vision Las Vegas Bowl, which pits the Mountain West champion against the Pac-10's No. 4 team.

But BYU's 38-8 blowout of Oregon in last year's Las Vegas Bowl showed the Mountain West isn't too far behind the Pac-10.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.