It’s all about USC in the Pac-10, as the nation’s most visible program aims at its eighth straight conference championship. After winning three consecutive Rose Bowls in blowout fashion, they’ve also become bored with beating up on the Big Ten and are hungry to return to the national championship game. Pasadena will host the BCS’ showcase event on January 7, in the game’s first return since the Trojans lost that 41-38 epic to Texas back in 2005.
For USC, it’s always been about focus. Their performance in big games is extraordinary, and their fans constantly point to that as the reason pollsters should ignore all else and vote them into the national championship game. But a season is more than just its biggest moments and true championship teams take preparation seriously each time out. They do not lose to UCLA when a win locks up a championship game berth (2006). They do not lose games at home to Stanford (2007). They do not lose to Oregon State when they’ve had ten days to get ready and the entire nation is viewing the game as an opportunity for you to show your focus (2008). USC has done all these things. Will 2009 be different?
There’s a ton of rebuilding to do on defense. Like virtually the entire unit. It’s easy to say that USC recruits so well that it’s just replacing talent with more talent. And clearly the loss of ten starters isn’t going to turn them into Arizona. But it’s still preferable to have people back rather than rebuild, and a new defense is enough to justify putting you behind the other national elites. They must also replace Mark Sanchez at quarterback. Here, I am more optimistic. Trojan quarterbacks have been mostly products of the system and with an experienced offensive line and the exceptionally talented Joe McKnight in the backfield, the new signal caller will have no problem putting points on the board. If the Trojans have a big year, it will have to be circa ’05, when Matt Leinhart, Reggie Bush & Co., covered for a shaky defense and outgunned Notre Dame, Fresno State and the rest of the schedule until it finally caught up to them against Texas.
Cal, Oregon and UCLA are getting the most attention among the wanna-be challengers. Cal is the one for whom the good press is most justified. Kevin Kiley is back behind center, and Pac-10 rushing champ Jahvid Best will carry the load in the backfield. The defense is strong up front and in the secondary. A revamped offensive line makes it impractical to pick them to break the Trojan lock, but the folks in Berkley should have a nice season ahead.
Oregon capped off a 9-3 year by outgunning Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl, and this program’s consistent success in recent years accounts for their positive media attention. But Mike Belotti has stepped down as head coach, and they are very young on both lines. The Ducks are not a credible challenger in this league and will have to fight just to make a bowl game. In the case of UCLA, I don’t know that they have a perception as a serious threat to the Trojans, but the presence of Rick Neuheisel has certainly raised their profile in Los Angeles. In a town dominated by Pete Carroll, Kobe Bryant, Manny Ramirez, Joe Torre and the Angels, Neuheisel is a potential star. But he needs a football team to make that happen and the ’09 Bruins aren’t it. They start two freshman on the offensive line, a freshman at quarterback and are soft at linebacker. After a 4-8 year last season, just breaking even this year would be a major victory.
While no one is truly a serious challenger to the Trojans, Oregon State and Arizona will join Cal in at least being a threat to spring an upset if USC comes in with its fabled lack of focus. Oregon State won an ugly 3-0 Sun Bowl game over Pitt (and I thought the state championship game my ’87 high school team played was the only contest to end with that score). In spite of that performance, they will score points in 2009, led by senior quarterback Lyle Moevao. They will also give them up, as most of the defense is rebuilt. In the end, they can at least match last year’s 8-4 mark. Meanwhile, Arizona will be the reverse. They can D it up, but will have problems scoring points. And in the end should get to 7-8 wins.
Stanford and Arizona State have decent reputations, as the Sun Devils made a spirited run at a BCS game back in 2007, while the Cardinal pulled the aforementioned upset of USC and have a fiery coach in Jim Harbaugh. ASU should improve on last year’s disappointing 5-7 finish and get back to the bowl party this year. Dennis Erickson breaks in a new senior quarterback, Danny Sullivan, and if he plays like a veteran, his defense can carry him. Stanford is going to struggle. They have little experience across the board and have a freshman QB in Andrew Luck. Their September 12 trip to Wake Forest will be a benchmark for what we can expect.
Washington and Washington State were once good programs. The Huskies won a national championship back in 1991, and won the Rose Bowl in 2000. WSU shared the league crown in 2002 with USC and went to Pasadena. Both are among the worst in the country today, and are going nowhere this season.
USC fans often get upset at the fact that they are penalized heavily in the BCS voting for a single loss, while schools like Florida, Texas and Oklahoma get more leeway. But this brief overview should show why. There’s no team in this league good enough to beat the Trojans if they are even playing at 75 percent capacity. They don’t have a conference championship game to deal with. The major non-league game that’s always on the schedule is Notre Dame, and lately the Irish have been—at best—no different than the midlevel teams in the Pac-10. So it boils down to this—USC must rev it up to win at Ohio State in September and they play to 75-80 percent capacity in their other games. Going undefeated is not an unreasonable expectation if they wish to play for all the marbles on January 7.
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