Senior Writer

Pac-10: With USC in purgatory, Oregon takes command


Casey Martin no longer needs to moonlight.

Oregon's golf coach, a former pro, became a minor celebrity for something other than getting the Ducks to their first-ever No. 1 ranking. Martin had a side job last season as Oregon's football uniform coordinator. Lady GaGa's closet is easier to figure out.

"I don't know if Casey's got enough time," said Chip Kelly, the man responsible for coaching the men inside those 80 Nike uniform combinations. "Casey is the hunted."

Kelly seemed uncomfortable with the label that his team is also the hunted, on a much larger scale, this season. This is the first time in eight years that USC isn't favored to win the league. Oregon is coming off a 10-win season that included a Pac-10 title, a Rose Bowl berth and convincing win over the team formerly known as the Trojans.

Not bad for a first-time, first-year head coach.

"That's the one thing about the league, it changes on a yearly basis," Kelly said. "I wasn't here for the (USC) seven-year run."

The Pac-10 is changing now, big time. It's no longer the laid-back Left Coast. New commissioner Larry Scott took the league's message to New York last month, parading the coaches and top four quarterbacks in front of the East Coast media. There's a new logo and two new teams for 2011 (if Colorado can extricate itself from the Big 12 by then).

With USC on probation, the league is taking applications for its next dominant program. Oregon might be it. As coach-in-waiting, Kelly succeeded Mike Bellotti last season. After a turbulent offseason, he's got the poor-mouth shuffle dance down pat.

Woe are the Ducks? Kelly no longer has Jeremiah Masoli. Better yet, he no longer has to deal with Jeremiah Masoli. Emerging star LaMichael James is suspended for the opener but still should be the Pac-10's best runner. LeGarrette Blount is off to the pros and punching his own teammates. The off-field stuff is over, if not forever, at least for now.

"We're the hunted this year?" senior defensive tackle Brandon Bair asked. "I had a guy ask me earlier who is the team to beat in the Pac-10. I said, 'All of us.' We come in as defending champions but in reality it means absolutely nothing."

Kenny Rowe is back at Oregon after leading the Pac-10 with 11 1/2 sacks. (Getty Images)  
Kenny Rowe is back at Oregon after leading the Pac-10 with 11 1/2 sacks. (Getty Images)  
Oh, it means something. Oregon returns 17 starters and is hard to ignore as the favorite. USC is about to be removed from the conversation for the next few years because of crippling NCAA penalties. It can "win" the Pac-10 this season but won't be able to play in a bowl game for the next two seasons. Don't tell Kelly this, but he can finish second in the next two seasons and still go to the Rose Bowl.

Oregon and Kelly have been, at least, resilient. We knew that last year when Kelly's world crumbled around him in the opener at Boise State. The Ducks picked themselves up and lost only once more before the Rose Bowl. We knew Kelly could coach an offense. Now we're finding out he can run a program.

"It's 'what have you done for me lately?'" Kelly said. "Now it's almost like what did you do last weekend? People told us we were done after our first game of the season. Then we battled our way back in."

In this year of the quarterback in the Pac-10, Kelly still hasn't found one -- and we are in the fourth week of August. Seven Pac-10 teams return their starters. Oregon enters the fourth week of August with Nate Costa and Darron Thomas locked in one of the nation's most significant quarterback battles.

Masoli will be missed, but it helps that Kelly is the best quarterback-maker this side of Brian Kelly. The coach reminded reporters that the world may never had known of Masoli if Costa, a senior, hadn't injured his knee late in fall camp 2008. Costa started for a nicked up Masoli last season against UCLA and completed 20 of 33 for 197 yards.

Costa is probably the favorite but don't discount Thomas, a redshirt sophomore dual-threat guy with a strong arm. The starter will be known by Saturday morning, Kelly said.

"If there is one bonus to this we have experience at finding quarterbacks," Kelly said.

There is little other reason to doubt the Ducks becoming repeat champs. Kelly has built his offense around a power running game that will feature James and another super soph, Kenjon Barner (No. 8 in Pac-10 all-purpose yards).

In the midst of all the turmoil, Kelly was able to pull five-star running back Lache Seastrunk out of Texas. Look for him to get worked into the lineup behind James and Barner.

Kelly also has what a lot of coaches would kill for -- a defensive line. Bair is a 6-foot-7 monster. End Kenny Rowe led the Pac-10 with 11 1/2 sacks and was the Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Pac-10 Quick Hits
Best offense: Oregon
Best defense: USC
Sleeper team: Washington
Coach of the year: Steve Sarkisian, Washington
Offensive player: Jake Locker, Washington
Defensive player: Rahim Moore, UCLA
Game of the Year: Washington at USC, Oct. 2
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Eliminating any possible distractions going forward is a huge plus. Kelly is still weighing Martin's role in the uniform selection but is leaning toward keeping the job in-house.

"I think our players may do it this year," Kelly said. "We've got an older group. I'm also going to [let them] pick it before the season starts so there's no controversy. Figure it out and let's put it to bed."

Offensive player of the year:

Jake Locker, QB, Washington. Locker already is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. In one season, coach Steve Sarkisian has made his quarterback more of a complete player. Locker is more patient in the pocket yet still led the Huskies in rushing touchdowns (seven). If he doesn't get injured, Locker will throw for 25 touchdowns and lead Washington to its first bowl game in eight years. In the year of the quarterback in the Pac-10, Locker is the best.

Defensive player of the year:

Rahim Moore, S, UCLA While Rick Neuheisel figures out how to get his offense going (94th in scoring?), he has been able to lean on a stout defense. Go figure. Moore is a classic ball hawk. His 10 interceptions were the most in I-A since 1993. Three came against San Diego State. In games in which Moore made a pick, UCLA was 4-1 (3-5 otherwise). Oh yeah, Moore also made 45 tackles.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Oregon: Hard to believe Kelly has been a head coach all of one season. He's lived the life of a 10-year veteran after The Punch, The Rose Bowl and The Offseason. In the middle of it his old boss (Bellotti) left to become a TV analyst. Kelly would like to have A Break. His star tailback is suspended for the opener. His starting quarterback is at Mississippi. Maybe Urban Meyer -- who knows about arrests -- can tell him it's going to get better. If the Ducks can keep their beaks clean they are the next powerhouse in the Pac-10 after the slow decline of USC approaches. Must-see game: Dec. 4 at Oregon State. Last season's Civil War showed Oregon, and really the Pac-10, could play with anyone in the country. The Ducks and Beavers staged a knock-down, drag-out that was worthy of any SEC battle. Oregon State never seems to go away. Oregon is on the rise. It would be nice if the game decided the Pac-10.

2. USC: Take a good look because the dynasty you watched form over the last eight years is about to crumble. USC starts the season with only 71 scholarship athletes. That's before injuries, possible academic casualties or any more transfers. After that, there's a loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons. If the Trojans don't win the Pac-10 this season, it's going to be a long time until they do again. They are solid this season, not great, and absolutely cannot afford any injuries. Quarterback Matt Barkley will be better as a sophomore. Watch for Dillon Baxter, suspended for the opener against Hawaii. He really does have that Reggie Bush look about him (without the handout). Then sit back and watch new coach Lane Kiffin's shot at career victory No. ... 8. Must-see game: Oct. 2 vs. Washington. A possible changing-of-the-guard game as the conference's (maybe the nation's) best quarterback goes against the Pac-10's best defense. USC wants payback after last season's 16-13 loss in Seattle. Two former USC offensive coordinators -- Kiffin vs. Sark -- match wits.

3. Washington: Sarkisian is a quarterback-maker. Locker is his latest project. Some draft gurus already have him being taken No. 1 overall. Long-suffering Huskies fans would settle for a bowl game. As one of 10 starters back on offense, Locker should have a monster year. He has a 6-foot-2 main target in Jermaine Kearse. Chris Polk became the first U-Dub running back to surpass 1,000 yards as a freshman. Linebacker Mason Foster (85 tackles, six forced fumbles) will lead the defense. Must-see game: Sept. 18 vs. Nebraska. Great intersectional battle between two former powerhouses trying to get back.

4. Stanford: Kansas reportedly inquired. So did Notre Dame. Michigan might be the next school to ring up AD Bob Bowlsby about the availability of his coach. The quirky Jim Harbaugh is one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country. The thinking being that if he can win at Stanford, he can win anywhere. This season there is no Toby Gerhart but there is Andrew Luck in this season of the quarterback in the Pac-10. Must-see game: Oct. 9 vs. USC. "What's your problem." "What's your problem." It's personal against the Trojans. Given the chance, Harbaugh will rub it in. Again.

5. Arizona: Good news: A tie for second in the Pac-10. Bad news: a 33-0 skunk job against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Overall, though, Mike Stoops turned the corner -- winning eight and bringing some continuity to the desert with consecutive bowl seasons. The 'Cats will be explosive on offense with the two Nic(k)s. Senior Nic Grigsby has a 1,000-yard potential (1,153 yards in 2008). Quarterback Nick Foles completed almost 65 percent of his passes. A pair of big-name coordinators left (Sonny Dykes and Mark Stoops). Mike Stoops cut the jobs in two, named co-coordinators on each side of the job. Look for a third consecutive bowl. Must-see game: Sept. 18 vs. Iowa. Stoops' alma mater comes to Tucson. An upset might mark the biggest win of his career.

6. California: At least the facilities upgrade is showing progress. Once a Pac-10 contender, Jeff Tedford's program has kind of settled into a middle-of-the-road rut. After winning 10 games twice in three years from 2004-2006 and challenging for a BCS bowl, the Bears have averaged eight wins the past three seasons. That extends the Rose Bowl-less streak to 51 years. The Bears won't be in Pasadena again this season. Tedford was a quarterback guru in a previous life but has cranked out a bunch of talented tailbacks lately. Junior Shane Vereen is the latest star runner. Must-see game: Nov. 20 vs. Stanford. Do you have to ask why?

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7. UCLA: There is an opening in the city of Trojans. Applications are being taken in Westwood. Before Pete Carroll left, Neuheisel hoped to catch USC. Now that Carroll is gone, Neuheisel has to catch USC. Put it this way: If he doesn't, he's going to be in trouble. USC is guaranteed to be wounded for the next few years. UCLA has a chance to grab the city's best recruits and finally start beating the Trojans on a regular basis. Neuheisel has the Pac-10's best defender in Moore but needs some consistency on offense. Nevada's "pistol" offense has been installed. If quarterback Kevin Prince makes the natural progression from freshman inconsistency (eight TDs, eight INTs), the Bruins could be on their way. Must-see game: Sept. 4 at Kansas State. Could set the tone for the entire season. Watch Moore go against preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year Daniel Thomas.

8. Oregon State: It's never wise to pick against Mike Riley and the Beavers. They've won at least eight each year since 2006. We're doing it anyway. Oregon State has overscheduled in the non-con (TCU at Cowboys Stadium, at Boise State). Riley has to break in a new starter at quarterback (Ryan Katz). The All-American-level talents of Jacquizz and James Rodgers will not be enough to get the Beavers to a bowl game for the fifth straight season. Must-see game: Oct. 16 at Washington. Oregon State has won six in a row in this series. Bowls have followed in five of those seasons. This game will be a midseason indicator on which way the Beavs are headed.

9. Arizona State: Dennis Erickson has won only nine of his past 24 games in Tempe. There have been two consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1946-47. There isn't much optimism for a program that has slipped badly. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has installed the spread. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict was the Pac-10 freshman defensive player of the year. The Sun Devils will have to win seven to get in a bowl because they play two I-AAs (Portland State, Northern Arizona) Must-see game: Sept. 25 vs. Oregon. Pac-10 opener will tell us if Devils are serious about anything.

10. Washington State: How did it ever get this bad? Paul Wulff in his third season has won only three games. There's not much reason to believe the Cougars won't bring up the rear again. It will be another long year as Wazoo lays claim to being the worst BCS conference team. Must-see game: Dec. 4 vs. Washington. We remember when the Apple Cup meant something.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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