PHOENIX — The Pac-10’s football coaches went on a look-at-us road show to the East Coast in July, hitting Times Square, ringing the opening bell at NASDAQ and visiting ESPN’s headquarters before landing back on the floor of the Rose Bowl for a media meet and greet.
Now it’s time to see if their teams can live up to the hype.
In what may be its final official year as the Pac-10 — next year’s addition of Utah and likely Colorado, too, will make 12 teams — the conference is as deep and talented as it’s been for quite some time. There may not be a legitimate national-title contender and USC has a two-year bowl ban because of the Reggie Bush fiasco, but the Pac-10 has eight or nine teams that can contend for the conference title.
“There is a lot of parity in this conference, there is no doubt about it,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “Last year we had five teams with the same record. Very difficult to go through this conference unscathed. Very competitive. There is firepower on offense and a lot of great defenses.”
Oregon is the favorite, by a slight margin.
The Ducks are the defending conference champions after going 8-1 — 10-3 overall — and are coming off their first Rose Bowl since 1994. Oregon is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, has a no-huddle offense that makes defenders’ heads spin and is chock-full of confidence after knocking USC off the conference throne for the first time since 2001.
Still, it wasn’t a quiet offseason for the Ducks.
The big blow was the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, who was dismissed from the team after a second run-in with the law. That leaves senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas in a battle that will likely last until just before the season starts.
Running back LaMichael James, who set the Pac-10 freshman record with 1,546 yards rushing last season, was suspended for the season opener against New Mexico after an altercation with his ex-girlfriend that led to a guilty plea on a harassment charge. Two other players were dismissed from the team and two more were suspended for brushes with the law.
“We’re just moving forward, looking at a new season,” defensive tackle Brandon Bair said. “It’s just like we graduated the guys that are gone.”
USC made the Ducks’ offseason seem manageable.
The Trojans, coming off a lackluster 5-4 conference season, were rocked by the loss of coach Pete Carroll, who left for the Seattle Seahawks, then were hit with heavy sanctions that included a two-year bowl ban after the NCAA ruled Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo received improper benefits.
The sanctions allowed players to transfer without having to take a year off and many did leave, leaving new coach Lane Kiffin with just 70 scholarship players — 15 below the NCAA’s limit — at the start of training camp.
“The only way we’re going to be able to express ourselves is to win 13 games,” tailback Allen Bradford said. “We know it’s going to be difficult this year.”
Key players: QBs Nate Costa and Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, DE Kenny Rowe, MLB Casey Matthews. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Costa was slated to start two seasons ago before an injury, and Thomas has drawn some comparisons to former Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon, so the loss of Masoli might not slow Oregon’s potent offense much at all. ... Had nine games of more than 200 yards rushing last season, including 391 vs. USC. ... Offensive line returns intact.
Key players: QB Matt Barkley, WR Ronald Johnson, DT Jurrell Casey, MLB Chris Galippo. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Coach Lane Kiffin draws lots of attention for what he says and how he acts, but he was 7-6 in his only season at Tennessee, with close loses to Alabama and Florida. ... Barkley started as a freshman and had an up-and-down season with 15 TD passes and 14 interceptions. ... Trojans start season at Hawaii, which allowed them opportunity to play 13-game regular season.
Key players: QB Nick Foles, RB Nic Grigsby, DE Ricky Elmore. Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: New quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo tutored eventual first-round draft picks Patrick Ramsey and J.P. Losman at Tulane ... Wildcats finished a solid season with a thud, getting beat 33-0 by Nebraska in Holiday Bowl. ... Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops left for Florida State.
Key players: RB Shane Vereen, LB Mike Mohamed, TE Anthony Miller. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Quarterback Kevin Riley has had a mixed career at Cal, but he’s a senior now and the Bears need him to find the consistency that has eluded him. ... Vereen led team with 952 yards rushing last year filling in for first-round draft pick Jahvid Best. ... New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was in NFL for past 15 years.
Key players: QB Andrew Luck, G David DeCastro, WR Chris Owusu, NT Sione Fua, LB Shayne Skov. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.Notes: Luck, projected as a possible first-round draft pick, takes over the reins after Doak Walker Award winner Toby Gerhart moved on to the NFL. ... Coach Jim Harbaugh has been mentioned as a possible candidate for NFL and big-name colleges but has so far stuck with Stanford. ... The Cardinal is coming off its first bowl appearance since 2001.
Key players: QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse, LB Mason Foster, S Nate Williams. Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: An accurate drop-back passer, Locker is a Heisman Trophy front-runner and the likely No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. ... Polk became the first freshman in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards (1,113) and caught 25 passes. ... The Huskies went from 0-12 in 2008 to 5-7 in their first season under Steve Sarkisian and expect to make another jump this season behind Locker.
Key players: RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR James Rodgers, DT Stephen Paea, LB Dwight Roberson, CB James Dockery. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Jacquizz Rodgers was third in the nation with 21 rushing TDs, while his brother, James, led the Pac-10 with 179.1 all-purpose yards per game. ... The Beavers must find a replacement for quarterback Sean Canfield, who graduated. Sophomore Ryan Katz and Peter Lalich a transfer from Virginia, will fight it out. ... Oregon State finished tied for second in the Pac-10 last season, just missing its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1965 with a loss to rival Oregon.
Key players: QB Kevin Prince, WR Nelson Rosario, WR Taylor Embree, LB Akeem Ayers, S Rahim Moore, DE Datone Jones, K Kai Forbath. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: The Bruins are making steady progress under coach Rick Neuheisel, winning seven games last season and four the year before, and have had two stellar recruiting classes. ... Forbath has made 37 straight field goals inside 50 yards. ... Moore led the NCAA with 10 INTs in 2009.
Key players: WR Kerry Taylor, WR Aaron Pflugrad, LB Vontaze Burfict, DT Lawrence Guy, K Thomas Weber. Returning starters: 3 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Coach Dennis Erickson, who could be on the hot seat after two of the worst seasons in program history, has made big changes with the offense, bringing in new coordinator Noel Mazzone and switching to a no-huddle, four-wide set. ... The quarterback battle between Michigan transfer Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler will likely last until just before the season starts.
Key players: QB Jeff Tuel, DE Kevin Kooymanm, DE Travis Long, WR Jared Karstetter, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, P Reid Forrest. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Any turnaround for the Cougars will have to start on defense. Washington State ranked last in total defense last season, allowing nearly 1,000 more yards than the next closest Pac-10 team. ... Washington State has won just two games the past three seasons and coach Paul Wulff’s job could be in danger if there isn’t improvement this year. ... Tuel won the starting job in a close battle with junior Marshall Lobbestael, who will still get snaps during the season.