A year after breaking USC's seven-year stranglehold on the Pac-10, coach Chip Kelly's defending champions were picked to win it again in the preseason media poll Thursday. Oregon edged longtime darling USC by three points, underlining the balance in a conference race that usually was all about chasing the Trojans in recent years.
Don't expect Kelly to get giddy about added expectations, though. Not after dismissing troubled passer Jeremiah Masoli from his team before heading into what's expected to be the most wide-open season in nearly a decade for a rebranded, growing league striving to prove it belongs with the nation's best.
"Last year, you picked us third and Arizona eighth," Kelly said to reporters at the Rose Bowl on Thursday for the annual media day. "I learned from last year's poll that we probably weren't going to put a lot of stock in it. Preseason rankings don't mean anything to us. ... The teams that win in this league are the teams that keep their playmakers healthy."
Or keep them out of trouble with the law, which Masoli couldn't manage. Kelly is looking forward to a preseason competition between Darron Thomas and Nate Costa, who led the Ducks to a win last season over UCLA on the same Rose Bowl field.
The Ducks edged USC 314-311 in the poll's second-closest voting since it began in 1961. After returning the league's fewest starters last season, Oregon will rely on its experience to get through any personnel shortages in another competitive season.
"This is a conference that any team in it can win," Ducks defensive lineman Brandon Bair said. "It's not just about one or two teams. There's talent across the board."
Oregon received 15 first-place votes to 12 for the Trojans from 35 participating members. Oregon State was picked third with 262 points, with Stanford fourth and Arizona -- which finished in a second-place tie and made the Holiday Bowl last season -- fifth.
"I think every team has some questions that need to be answered," Wildcats coach Mike Stoops said. "The team that answers them the quickest is going to do the best."
After a record seven teams received at least one first-place vote, every Pac-10 coach realizes there's no clear favorite this fall. That parity has sent a burst of energy throughout a league that once strived to avoid its reputation as the Pac-1 during USC's dominant decade.
"We've been the left-coast conference and perceived as a finesse conference for years," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, whose Bruins were picked eighth. "You get into conversations with somebody east of the Mississippi River and they'll tell you, 'You play that throwing-the-ball-around football, not the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, tough-guy stuff."'
New Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott has made it his mission to get rid of that reputation by raising the Pac-10's national profile. The 10 coaches and a few players went back East earlier in the week, making several media appearances and even hitting the New York Stock Exchange to promote a conference with games that sometimes start when the East Coast is going to bed.
But as usual Thursday, much of the Pac-10 talk revolved around the Trojans. Oregon State tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and Arizona quarterback Nick Foles both expressed sympathy for the Trojans who were hurt by misdeeds committed before they got to the school.
The Trojans are still eligible to win the conference, but they've been brought low by heavy NCAA sanctions and last season's failures, including a fifth-place finish in conference play. USC is banned from a bowl game, and needed a special dispensation in its punishment to be allowed to play its season-opener at Hawaii on Sept. 2.
New coach Lane Kiffin isn't surprised most media members didn't pick USC to win another title.
"I wouldn't have, either," said Kiffin, back at USC after tumultuous head-coaching stints with the Oakland Raiders and the University of Tennessee. "We went 5-4 in the conference, lost four guys early to the draft, and lost the best coach in the country. I was surprised we were second."