Predicting the Pac-10 champion has been easy over the past several years. Everyone knows USC is the class of the conference, and no other team has made a solid case to supplant the Trojans.

But in recent years, there always seemed to be one or two schools that were expected to perhaps be in USC's league — teams that could maybe give the Trojans a run or give the Pac-10 two Bowl Championship Series berths. Both Cal and UCLA entered last season ranked in the preseason top 15. Cal was a preseason top-10 team in 2006.

There doesn't appear to be a strong candidate for runner-up status this year. More than any other time over the past several years, it's USC and everyone else. Arizona State and Oregon are ranked in the preseason top 25, but their status is iffy. Like all the other top teams in the Pac-10, they have their fair share of questions.

"SC has by far the best talent in the conference, but every other team has some really positive things and some questionable things," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "But SC has lost more games in conference than out of conference the last five years, so it's interesting that people perceive it to be SC and then the rest of the Pac-10. I don't ever see it that way."

Bellotti's implication that the Pac-10 hasn't received its due as a strong conference in recent years may be valid, but it may not hold true this year. Teams like Cal and Oregon State are dealing with heavy personnel losses — Cal on offense and OSU on defense. Arizona State's breakthrough last year was aided heavily by a light schedule, and the Ducks lost their two biggest playmakers in quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart.


Advertisement

The Trojans will have more questions on offense than in past years, but their defense once again is an embarrassment of riches with NFL talent all over the field. The Sun Devils were picked to finish second in the preseason media poll, mainly because there was nobody else to pick. UCLA is in severe transition mode with a new coaching staff and a roster devastated by injuries.

Contact Jonathan Okanes at jokanes@bayareanewsgroup.com.