For fans who think the Pac-10 is a second-tier conference with only one solid team, it's time to think again.
Not only does it boast the defending national champion, but the Pac-10 also won three out of four bowl games last season. That includes Arizona State's win over Kyle Orton and the Purdue Boilermakers in the Sun Bowl and Oregon State's 38-21 victory against Notre Dame.
California, runner-up to USC last season, will be reloading after losing a host of veteran players. That doesn't mean that they'll be taking a step back, though, as the Golden Bears have enough talented young players to stay near the top of the Pac-10.
Several teams will battle Cal for second best. UCLA and Oregon will both have potent running games to complement solid passing attacks. And the Arizona State connection between receiver Derek Hagan and quarterback Sam Keller promises to be explosive.
Even the bottom of the Pac-10 shows potential. Tyrone Willingham will have Washington on the road to recovery soon, and Walt Harris will do the same at Stanford. Arizona's Mike Stoops should also have the Wildcats headed in the right direction in his second year as head coach.
THE FAVORITE: Southern California No surprise here, as USC has been picked by most publications to win the national title again this year. The Trojans have nearly enough depth on offense to field two competitive teams.
The main question surrounding USC is their offseason losses on defense. Only five starters return, and coach Pete Carroll will have to find a way to replace three departed All-Americans. But the Trojans were supposed to have a questionable offensive line at the beginning of that season, and that unit turned out just fine. The USC offense has plenty of firepower to carry the team until its defense firms up.
The Trojans' main competition from last year, the Cal Bears, must replace NFL first-round pick Aaron Rodgers and standout tailback J.J. Arrington, as well as nine other starters. The conference is solid this year - probably even better than last season -- but the Pac-10 is still USC's to lose.
THE SLEEPER: Oregon After USC, the Pac-10 becomes a much tougher conference to predict. Oregon does have the Pac-10's other senior quarterback in Kellen Clemens, who passed for 2,548 yards , 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2004.
The Ducks also return 14 starters, including a versatile and durable 1,000-yard rusher in Terrence Whitehead. True freshman Jonathan Stewart, the No. 1 running back from the class of 2005, will be a solid replacement when Whitehead needs a breather. And tackle Haloti Ngata and end Devan Long form the best defensive line one-two punch in the Pac-10.
It almost seems absurd to say "what if " in the Pac-10 this season, but with a balanced schedule and a balanced team, Oregon will sneak up on some teams this season.
PROGRAM ON THE RISE: UCLA The Bruins are poised to take a step up in the Pac-10. Unfortunately, it's pretty crowded at the top this season. But with several of the top offensive threats coming back for UCLA, they should be right in the mix with the likes of Cal and Arizona State.
The Bruins' defense did finish dead last in the conference last season, but another year of experience should go a long way for the unit. Senior strong safety Jarrad Page and senior linebacker Spencer Havner will be the leaders of the defense.
Quarterback Drew Olsen, who passed for 2,565 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, should be completely recovered from offseason surgery by September. Maurice Drew, Marcedes Lewis and Junior Taylor will all be potent offensive threats. The offensive strengths will outweigh any defensive weaknesses as UCLA will improve on last season's 4-4 conference record.
PROGRAM ON THE SLIDE: Oregon State Even though they avoid USC this season, the Beavers still have one of the tougher schedules in the Pac-10. After a cupcake opener against Portland State, Oregon State will play six games in a row in which they may be listed as underdogs, including games at Louisville, at Cal and at UCLA.
Departed quarterback Derek Anderson has left some big shoes to fill, and the running game may not be much better than last year. Add all of that together, and it's just too much to ask for the Beavers to repeat last season's 5-3 conference record.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Arizona If Arizona had even a mediocre schedule this year, they would have a chance at moving up several places in the Pac-10. Unfortunately, the Wildcats have to face Utah, Purdue, Cal and USC - and that's just in their first five games.
The good news, though, is that Alex Smith and Urban Meyer have left Utah, Purdue has to travel to Tucson, and Cal has lost a lot of talent. Stoops should have his 18 returning starters headed in the right direction this season, even if it doesn't show in the conference standings.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: USC at Oregon, Sept. 24 In the third game of USC's toughest month of football, the Ducks may have the only legitimate shot of knocking off the highly touted Trojans. Autzen Stadium in Eugene isn't nationally renowned as an intimidating venue for opposing teams, but USC may be a bit less than fresh after hosting Arkansas the previous week.
Matt Leinart versus Kellen Clemens will make for an intriguing quarterback matchup, as will Reggie Bush vs. Terrance Whitehead. Okay, so USC isn't going to lose this game, but it should be a high scoring, high energy contest.
Also watch: Notre Dame at Washington, Sept. 24
UPSET SPECIAL: UCLA at Washington State Though UCLA is sure to a step up this year behind Maurice Drew and Drew Olsen, it will have to watch out for the Cougars on Oct. 15. Washington State should be fresh from a (non) contest against Stanford.
The Bruins, on the other hand, will be coming off of a hard fought game at California. With the best home run threat in the Pac-10 in Jason Hill, alongside talented sophomore Michael Bumpus, the UCLA secondary will have a long day if the big Bruins up front can't put pressure on Cougars quarterback Josh Swogger.
REMEMBER THIS NAME: Marshawn Lynch, California Most teams would mourn the loss of a 2,000-yard rusher like J.J. Arrington, but the Golden Bears are too excited about their next star in the backfield. Marshawn Lynch came up big in a backup role last season, rushing for 628 yards with an outstanding 8.8 yards per carry. After catching 19 passes in limited time as a freshman, he'll also be a receiving threat out of the backfield. Lynch will benefit from one of the best offensive lines in the country, including star center Marvin Philip.
Also watch for: QB Sam Keller, Arizona State
INSTANT IMPACT: DeSean Jackson, UCLA Cal coach Jeff Tedford has said that receiver DeSean Jackson is one of the most polished incoming freshmen he has ever seen, so it's a good bet that Jackson will see serious playing time this season.
It doesn't hurt Jackson's chances that the Golden Bears' top three receiver from last season are gone. But the five-star receiver would have gotten on the field regardless. He put up big numbers in the U.S. Army All-American game with seven receptions for 141 yards.
Also watch for: WR Patrick Turner, USC; RB Jonathan Stewart, Oregon
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. USC 2. California 3. Arizona State 4. UCLA 5. Oregon 6. Washington State 7. Oregon State 8. Washington 9. Arizona 10. Stanford