We're approaching the close of the decade – a decade that has not been very kind to Pac-10 football, unless of course you support a certain team in Cardinal and Gold.
Editor's Note: This story will appear in this month's SC Playbook Magazine.
It has been the decade of USC dominance … the decade of Bowl Championship Series disappointment (for Oregon and Cal) … the decade of bad coaching (Arizona, Stanford and Washington) … the decade of even worse officiating … the decade of marginal respect on the national scene.
And when decades end, all-decade teams (and players and coaches) begin. So with no further introduction – and while reserving the right to make changes based on '09 developments -- we present our all-decade awards:
*** ALL-DECADE TEAM
(Note: Players selected based on the strength of their career, not single-season excellence.)
Quarterback: Matt Leinart
, USC. Surrounding talent being equal, I'm not sure Leinart would be a better quarterback than Oregon's Joey Harrington
or Cal's Aaron Rodgers
– or certainly Carson Palmer
. But that's all hypothetical. The reality is that Leinart won a Heisman Trophy and two national titles, and nobody else's career comes close.
Running back: Reggie Bush
, USC. The best player I've seen in the Pac-10. Ever. Could change a game at any moment and score from anywhere on the field. The biggest no-brainer selection on this list.
Running back: Steven Jackson
, Oregon State
. I went with two tailbacks and thought the second slot would be a tougher decision than it was. Jackson is the only player to lead the conference in rushing twice during the decade. The clear No. 2 behind Bush, and ahead of Cal's Marshawn Lynch
's DeShaun Foster and others.
Receiver: Reggie Williams
USC RB Reggie Bush had 2,330 all-purpose yards in 2004 (the most by a Trojan since Marcus Allen had a school-record 2,683 yards in his 1981 Heisman season) and averaged 10.1 yards every time he touched the ball (231 touches).
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
, Washington. There weren't as many good options at wideout as tailback. But Williams, a multi-time all-league performer and tremendous playmaker, was the best of the bunch.
Receiver: Derek Hagan
, Arizona State
. Gave Hagan the edge over USC's Mike Williams
(and others) because of the strength of his career: He's the Pac-10 leader in career receptions and is second in receiving yards.
Tight end: Marcedes Lewis
, UCLA. Rates above Arizona's Rob Gronkowski
, but not by much. If the Arizona junior has a big year, it could warrant a post-season revision.
Offensive line: Sam Baker
, USC. If you need one lineman to make one block to win the Rose Bowl, Baker is the pick.
Offensive line: Ryan O'Callaghan
, Cal. Only USC has consistently fielded a better offensive line than Cal, and O'Callaghan was the best of the Bears.
Offensive line: Adam Snyder
, Oregon. I was surprised by how many good linemen, both offensive and defensive, the league has produced in the past nine years.
Offensive line: Ryan Kalil
, USC. Also considered USC's Jacob Rodgers, WSU's Calvin Armstrong
and Oregon's Max Unger
for first-team honors.
Offensive line: Alex Mack
, Cal. Can't have an offensive line without a center, and Mack gets the edge, for now, over USC's Kris O'Dowd.
All-purpose: Maurice Drew
, UCLA. DeSean Jackson
was a better punt returner, but I went with Drew because of his production as a runner and receiver – and he was a better teammate.
Kicker: Justin Medlock
, UCLA. Voted first-team all-league twice and second- team once. Only OSU's Alex Serna came close to matching Medlock's career.
Defensive line: Terrell Suggs
, ASU. Had a tremendous career and a season for the ages in 2002, when he had a league record 31.5 tackles-for-loss.
Defensive line: Shaun Cody
, USC. Probably the most dominant interior defensive lineman in the conference this decade, with the possible exception of...
Defensive line: Mike Patterson
, USC. Patterson and Cody formed what was the best tackle tandem the league has seen in eons.
Defensive line: Haloti Ngata
, Oregon. The top non-USC tackle of the decade, just ahead of Cal's Brandon Mebane
Linebacker: Lance Briggs
, Arizona. He was an early-decade player and one of the very few to be named first-team all-conference three times.
Linebacker: Richard Seigler
USC DB Troy Polamalu finished his college career as a 3-year starter. In all, he made 278 total tackles with 29 of them being behind the line scrimmage, 6 interceptions, 13 pass deflections and 4 blocked punts.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
, Oregon State. The embodiment of those nasty OSU defenses in 2002-03.
Linebacker: Rey Maualuga
, USC. Also considered Brian Cushing
, Matt Grootegoed
, Keith Rivers
and WSU's Will Derting
for first-team slots.
Defensive back: Troy Polamalu
, USC. Duh.
Defensive back: Ricky Manning
, UCLA. A lock-down cornerback – the Pac-10 hasn't produced many over the years – who was a three-time, first-team all-leaguer.
Defensive back: Taylor Mays
, USC. Secured a spot on the all-decade team even before what should be a stellar senior season. The best safety since Kenny Easley?
Defensive back: Antoine Cason
, Arizona. Also considered Oregon's Patrick Chung
, USC's Darnell Bing
, OSU's Dennis Weathersby
and Cal's Daymeion (Dante) Hughes
for first-team spots.
Punter: Tom Malone
, USC. Only UCLA's Nate Fiske came close to matching Malone's sustained excellence.
*** COACH OF THE DECADE
Pete Carroll is the beyond- obvious choice, with seven consecutive league titles, seven consecutive BCS appearances and two national championships. His hiring, on Dec. 15, 2000, stands as one of the most significant events in conference history.
The not-so-obvious choice: Who's the second-best coach of the decade?
I strongly considered Cal's Jeff Tedford, who rebuilt the Bears into a top-25 regular, and Oregon State's Mike Riley, whose consistent success in Corvallis is remarkable. But neither man has won an outright league championship (Tedford and Cal shared it with USC in '06), and that makes it difficult to slot them ahead of...
Oregon's Mike Bellotti, who came within a controversial final ranking of playing for the national title in 2001, and a quarterback injury (Dennis Dixon) of possibly playing for the title in ‘07. The former Duck boss also won at least 10 games four times and Oregon finished in the top three five different times.
Coach of the Decade, Pete Carroll, has returned the Trojan football program to national prominence.
Harry How/Getty Images
*** TEAM OF THE DECADE
Of the ten 10-best teams the league has produced since 2000, six wear Trojan colors.
Those that don't are Washington '00 (Rick Neuheisel, Marques Tuiasosopo, Pac-10 title), Oregon State '00 (Chad Johnson and Co., stomped Notre Dame in the Fiesta), Oregon '01 (Joey Harrington, BCS controversy) and Cal '04 (Aaron Rodgers, thriller vs. USC at the Coliseum).
But the three best were all coached by Carroll:
- USC '05: Greatest offensive team in league history (580 yards and 49 points per game). Final year for Bush and Leinart. Lost to Texas in Rose Bowl for the ages.
- USC '02: Sizzled down the stretch behind Carson Palmer. Smoked Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Finished No. 4.
- USC '04: One of the best Pac-10 teams of the past quarter- century, along with the ‘91 Washington Huskies. Outscored opponents by 25 points per game. Thumped Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. National champs.
*** WORST TEAM OF THE DECADE
We couldn't end our look at the best of the decade without acknowledging the worst. Not the worst players or coaches -- because that would be mean – but the worst teams.
Jake Locker missed most of Washington's dismal 2008 season after suffering a thumb injury in the fourth game against Stanford.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
There were plenty to consider, but in the end, three stood out as the worst of the worst:
Jon Wilner covers college sports for the San Jose Mercury News. Check his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports.
- Cal '01: Outscored by almost 200 points, fraught with staff bickering and managed to beat one team: Rutgers, back before the Knights were any good.
- Washington State '08: For my money, the worst Pac-10 team of the decade -- five losses by 40 is unimaginably bad. But I can't rank the Cougars first on the loser list because they beat Jake Locker-less Washington in overtime in the rotten Apple Cup.
- Washington '08: As the only winless Pac-10 team in decades (since Oregon State in 1980), the Huskies have to be No. 1. And yet I don't view them as the worst team in terms of talent — a brutal schedule and Locker's injury undermined what could have been a three- or four-win season.