The issue in the Pac-10 these days is becoming less about the dominance of Southern California and more about how the rest of the league is the Packed 9.
Since USC began its current run, only four other teams have finished second behind the Trojans or tied USC for the conference title (Washington State, California, Oregon, Arizona State). No team has been able to pass them, though. Parity exists everywhere but in Troy, where Pete Carroll has a 44-6 conference record since 2002.
|Mark Sanchez's knee injury is a bit of a concern for Southern Cal. (Getty Images)|
Defense: In a league that traditionally doesn't play much D, Carroll has put together some of the best units in the country. This year's might be the best with heavy hitters Taylor Mays and Rey Maualuga.
Since 2002, the only other schools to finish first in Pac-10 total defense have been Oregon State (2003) and Oregon (2005).
Failure to capitalize: Look at the conference teams that have beaten USC since 2002:
2002: Washington State
2006: Oregon State, UCLA
2007: Stanford, Oregon
Of those six, only the Cougars did so much as share the Pac-10 title.
Declines: Since Carroll came into the league in 2001, traditionally capable programs like Washington State, Washington and Stanford have gotten worse. Arizona, a factor in the 1990s, enjoyed its last winning season in 1998.
Turnover: Eight Pac-10 programs have changed coaches at least once during Carroll's seven seasons -- Arizona State, Cal, Washington, Arizona, Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford and Washington State.
Quarterbacks: In a league known for them, USC has cornered the market at times in the Pac-10, considering it has two Heisman Trophy winners at the position under Carroll.
USC is a prohibitive favorite to win its seventh consecutive Pac-10 title (and advance to its seventh consecutive BCS bowl). What team is most likely to overtake the Trojans?
|QB||Rudy Carpenter||Sr.||Arizona State|
|RB||Keegan Herring||Sr.||Arizona State|
|WR||Brandon Gibson||Sr.||Washington State|
|OL||Andy Levitre||Sr.||Oregon State|
|DL||Dexter Davis||Jr.||Arizona State|
|K||Thomas Weber||So.||Arizona State|
For this season, go with Arizona State. Coach Dennis Erickson has the most equipped program. Coming off a 10-win season, he has 16 returning starters, including the Pac-10's best quarterback (Rudy Carpenter), a tailback with heart (Keegan Herring) and an offensive line that has to get better (55 sacks, second most in the country).
"We had some veterans who had a little bit of trouble adjusting to what we were doing," Erickson said. "We, maybe, put too many protections in. We'll simplify our protections. We'll be quicker (throwing the ball)."
It looks like the Sun Devils won't have to outscore teams each week. Last year's team finished 30th in total defense. That was its highest ranking in at least 10 years.
The schedule presents opportunities, if not an easy road. Georgia comes to the desert Sept. 20. There are five Pac-10 road games in the unbalanced nine-game schedule. The biggest, of course, is the Oct. 11 visit to the Coliseum, where the Sun Devils haven't won once since 1999.
In other words, the Packed 9 is hoping to produce a Pac-10 champion.
Offensive Player of the Year
Rudy Carpenter, QB, Arizona State: How does a guy complete 62 percent of his passes while playing behind a line that allowed 55 sacks? Mental toughness. Well, that and probably the best flak jacket ever invented. Dennis Erickson is installing more spread principles to keep Carpenter upright. Read: Quick routes so Carpenter doesn't have to risk life and limb picking out receivers.
Defensive Player of the Year
Rey Maualuga, LB, Southern California: All the great ones get game-planned around. That happened long ago as offensive coordinators tried to figure out a way to avoid Maualuga. The senior tends to overpursue at times but you had rather have that than the guy getting beat.
1. Southern California: If the idea is to run to the ball and stop the run, the nation had better watch out. The linebackers alone -- Maualuga and Brian Cushing are the stars -- frighten small children. Mays, a safety, is one of the fastest players in the sport. This might be Pete Carroll's best defense, which is saying something. Now if USC can get over a quarterback injury (Mark Sanchez), Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (to offensive lineman Jeff Byers), smashed fingers (tailback Joe McKnight) and jock itch, these guys might be pretty good.
|2008 Conference Previews|
|Mountain West||Big 12|
2. Arizona State: Watch out for Erickson in his second year. Not counting the NFL, the Sun Devils' coach is 38-9 in his second seasons at Idaho, Washington State, Miami and Oregon State. It's going to be hard to improve on last year's 10-3 mark but Erickson absolutely believes he's the guy to do it. The toughness thing was there right from the beginning as the Sun Devils went from 51st in total defense to 30th. The mental makeup of the team could hinge on that Sept. 20 meeting with Georgia.
3. Oregon: Dennis Dixon is gone, so let the quarterback competition begin. Sophomore Justin Roper (four touchdown passes in the Sun Bowl) is doing his best not to let Nate Costa start the season against Washington. Costa struggled in the latest scrimmage. The defense is the real story, which is why the Ducks could also be that breakthrough Pac-10 team. Safety Patrick Chung heads what could be the best secondary in the country.
4. Oregon State: Everybody's favorite overachiever has averaged almost eight wins since 2002. The Beavers get Oregon, Cal, Arizona State and USC at home, but they also open at Stanford and Penn State. The return of receiver/returner Sammie Stroughter gives the Beavs a fighting chance. Never underestimate Mike Riley.
5. UCLA: Welcome to juco transfer Kevin Craft's dream. The quarterback job just came open and his coaches are Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow. Opinions vary wildly on the Bruins' standing in the conference. I would have picked them as high as second early in the year. Since then Ben Olson got injured and it's obvious both lines have be rebuilt. Plan for Slick Rick to really arrive in 2009.
6. Arizona: The pieces are in place to get Mike Stoops off the hot seat. If not Carpenter, Willie Tuitama might end up being the Pac-10's best quarterback. In the offense's second year with coordinator Sonny Dykes, it is beginning to click. Returning All-Pac-10 receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski worked well with Tuitama as the Wildcats changed to the spread. Arizona should win seven or eight and go to a bowl. Ten years without a bowl is enough.
Who will win the Pac-10?
It will be an upset
Total Votes: 15,170
7. California: The Bears need to recover from the epic 1-6 meltdown to close '07. Try to remember Cal was once the No. 2 team in the country. Then Kevin "Throw The Damn Ball" Riley lost the Oregon State game. Riley is in a battle for the starting job with veteran Nate Longshore. Coach Jeff Tedford gave up play-calling duties, handing them over to new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Which way you going, Bears?
8. Stanford: The Cardinal did little after that monstrous upset of USC, finishing 2-5. Still, Jim Harbaugh has Stanford optimistic with 20 returning starters. If the early schedule doesn't get the Cardinal down (Oregon State, at Arizona State, at TCU) it could win six. It could also lose 10. Quarterback Tavita Pritchard, the guy under center for the Cal and USC wins, is currently No. 1.
9. Washington: The latest is that Jake Locker hamstring strain could be a tear. If that's the case, the Huskies are done. The running game -- no, the entire offense -- is on Washington's wonderful dual-threat quarterback. Check back on the team's mental well being after it opens against Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma.
10. Washington State: Bill Doba was never able to charm the masses like Mike Price. In comes Paul Wulff, a loyal Cougar who will get the program up to Price levels -- eventually. All the good Cougars teams have had good quarterbacks. Six-foot-six senior Gary Rogers is the man this season. If Rogers is smart he will throw a lot to All-Pac-10 receiver Brandon Gibson.