LOS ANGELES — If this were any other football season, Oregon might be a safe bet to repeat as Pac-10 champion.
If this were any other season, USC might figure to bounce back from last year’s disappointing record, guided by an older, wiser Matt Barkley at quarterback.
But this isn’t any other season.
Not with the Ducks losing their starting quarterback to legal troubles and the Trojans saddled with NCAA sanctions that will shut them out of a bowl game no matter how often they win.
As the Pac-10 gathers at the Rose Bowl today for its annual media day, there’s trouble at the top of the standings that could leave an opening for contenders such as Washington, Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona.
“Especially now that the ’SC domination has kind of subsided,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said during the Pac-10’s media tour through New York this week. “It might be the most competitive conference race in all the country this year.”
Not so long ago, Oregon looked to be solidly ahead of the pack, coming off a Rose Bowl trip, returning with veterans on both sides of the ball.
Jeremiah Masoli was essential, the quarterback who sparked his team’s multifaceted offense by accounting for 2,147 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air, another 668 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Then came a double dose of bad news, Masoli arrested on suspicion of burglary and marijuana possession in separate incidents, after which he was kicked off the team. Star running back LaMichael James also ran afoul of the law — he pleaded no contest to a harassment charge resulting from an altercation with a former girlfriend — and will start the season with a one-game suspension.
“They lose their No. 1 guy,” said former Pac-10 coach John Mackovic, who follows the conference. “You think that doesn’t hurt?”
At least the Ducks had time to adjust, with quarterbacks Nate Costa and Darron Thomas getting work during spring practice.
“I know people are really concerned,” coach Chip Kelly said. “We just look at it like Jeremiah graduated. That happens in college football.”
His successor inherits a proven line and what Kelly calls a user-friendly scheme. “The great thing about our offense is that it can be tailored to the strengths of whoever’s playing,” the coach said. “Our offense is extremely flexible.”
At USC, coach Lane Kiffin insists his team won’t buckle under the weight of four years’ probation, which, pending appeal, includes a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships.
“I don’t believe our players are motivated by the bowl game at the end of the year,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s what you’re thinking about when you’re going down the tunnel or you’re going into the fourth quarter.”
But teams that have no hope of bowl play can lose intensity when the going gets rough late in the season, said former coach Dennis Franchione, now an ESPN Radio analyst.
Franchione should know — he led Alabama through a probation season in 2002.
The key, he said, was to make a big deal out of regular-season matchups. For the Trojans, that means turning Oregon, Notre Dame and UCLA into mini bowl games.
“If they’ve gotten past feeling sorry for themselves, they’ll be OK,” Franchione said. “There just won’t be that rainbow at the end of the year.”
Making the rounds of television and radio shows on the East Coast this week, Barkley insisted that he and his USC teammates won’t suffer any letdowns.
The Ducks are saying all the right things too.
If nothing else, wide-open competition in the Pac-10 this season should keep their attention.
Washington must prove itself defensively but has an early Heisman Trophy hopeful in Jake Locker at quarterback. Stanford lost star running back Toby Gerhart to the NFL but has a capable passer in Andrew Luck.
Oregon State, breaking in a new quarterback, figures to be tough with the tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and his equally dangerous brother, James, at receiver.
Returning to the Pac-10 after several years away, Kiffin has been watching game film and notices a difference.
“When I was here before, of the conference games we played, there may have been two that were close and the rest were blowouts,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have many blowouts. It’s much more balanced.”
Especially when the teams at the top are carrying extra baggage.