Yes, the Trojans lost six of their front seven on defense, and will have to break in a new quarterback. Yet, time after time during the Pete Carroll regime USC appeared immune to personnel turnover, and returning a great deal of skill players on offense won't hurt either. This Trojan squad may not be national championship caliber material (and their contest at Ohio State could just prove that point), but in a down year for the Pac-10, they should have more than enough to win (or share) the conference crown for the eighth consecutive year.
The schedule isn't an overwhelming one, although they do have to travel to Pac-10 championship contenders Oregon and Cal. Having the last there contests at home could compensate for any stumbles that may have occurred earlier in the season and assure the Trojans a BCS bowl.
2. Cal – You would be hard pressed to find any Pac-10 team, sans USC, that is better than the Golden Bears this season. 17 returning starters for a team that already was very formidable is big reason for optimism in Berkeley, although losing three starting LB's, including leading tackler Zach Follett, could prove to be a challenge.
Cal's passing attack could suffer with the loss of Cameron Morrah, but the 1-2 rushing attack punch of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen is one of the best of league and will keep opposing defenses honest.
They will have a rough start to the schedule playing Oregon and USC in back to back weeks, and that tandem of contests will naturally define their 2009 league campaign. However, their last seven games should allow them to make up ground if needed and perhaps make a run at the league title.
3. Oregon - They do have only ten returning starters, but so far this decade the Ducks are a program that has often finished in the upper echelon of the Pac-10. So it may be wise not to bet against Oregon, even with its head coaching change.
Their spread offense will have to find new receiving targets with the losses of Terrence Scott and Jaison Williams, and not having running back Jeremiah Johnson is a considerable void to fill. But in 2008 QB Jeremiah Masoli, and running back LaGarrette Blount scored 30 rushing touchdowns between them and should once again prove their prowess on the ground and open matters up for the passing game.
The schedule couldn't break any better for Oregon having seven home games including meetings with Cal, USC and Oregon State. What should be a year of transition in Eugene could ultimately prove to be one of the better seasons Oregon has had in recent years.
4. Oregon State – Lately, it seems that each Beavers' season is the equivalent of the "rope a dope" boxing scheme. They will begin the year looking very unimpressive and take their lumps, but as the season progresses they come out swinging delivering knockout after knockout and ending up in the league's top five.
This year a weak out of conference schedule could have Oregon State coming blazing out of the gates for a change. The numbers don't look pretty for the Beavers, losing eight starters on defense, as well as its two leading receivers. But the Rodgers brothers should compensate for that and prove once again that no team in the Pac-10 is more resilient than Oregon State.
5. Arizona State – for virtually any media member covering the Pac-10, naming the pre-season selections for the teams finishing fifth through eighth is a difficult task. So when in doubt go with the home team, right?
OK, now that the maroon and gold glasses are off, I still see a defense, led by a tandem of star linemen in Dexter Davis and Lawrence Guy, poised to finish as a top three unit in the conference and along with a solid special teams group can pick up the offense if needed. The other side of the ball certainly has its question marks with breaking in new QB, and expecting a relatively inexperienced OL to turn the corner.
However, ASU's group of wide receivers is as good as anyone in the league, and their running backs group could end up being a pleasant surprise. Its first seven games is where the maroon and gold need to do (and can) make some noise. Their last five games pose some stiff challenges but three of them are in Tempe.
6. Stanford - Just like their archrival they have 17 returning starters from a team that some may think is the dark horse of the league this year. Yet, we kind of wonder if this Cardinal team can really make its mark on the Pac-10 in 2009 and turn the corner.
Truth be told, their schedule isn't all that bad at all with seven home games and Toby Gerhart is definitely one of the best ball carriers in the league. But Stanford will have to prove that they have a formidable passing game and a defense that can stop quality opponents, before it can justify the accolades some are bestowing on the Cardinal this year.
This is a another squad that will feature a new quarterback, although Terrell Turner and Rob Gronkowski can aid the first year signal caller, and the defense does have a fair share if talent coming back.
Nonetheless, the Wildcats' schedule is brutal with three consecutive road games in the first half of the season, and three of their last four games are away from Tucson as well with visits to Cal, ASU and USC. All in all, it would be hard for Arizona to repeat its success from 2008.
8. UCLA - Another team that is returning, you guessed it, 17 starters. On the other hand, it is a squad that has a long way to go as they try to return to respectability.
Their best offensive weapon, RB Khalil Bell, has exhausted his eligibility, and their passing game right now leaves a lot to be desired. Their defense is one of the better ones in the league, but even that group cannot compensate for the expected woes on the other side of the ball.
Their schedule isn't a particularly intimidating one, but as the rebuilding process continues in Westwood, a significant improvement over last season is still not expected.
9. Washington – It may have the best returning signal caller in Jake Locker, but the Huskies are also in full rebuilding mode even though they return 18 starters, most in the Pac-10. We don't think they will go winless as they did last year but right now they just don't have the necessary firepower to make significant strides and inch towards the middle of the Pac-10.
Having three home games to start the season is quickly negated by the fact that two of them are against LSU and USC. New head coach Steve Sarkisian can keep an upbeat persona, but he also knows that his squad will have a very tough time making strides this year.
10. Washington State – a rash of players getting in trouble with the law in the off-season is just insult to injury for a team that is already considered one of the league's doormats. Losing six starters from what was already a porous defense undoubtedly doesn't help matters. The schedule offers two neutral site games, but overall when you are this talent depleted it's hard to circle too many contests as sure wins.