Athlon Sports Pac 10 Predictions

The USC Trojans must fill their void at quarterback, but they're loaded everywhere else. USC has one of the best defenses in the country, led by a strong front line, which will go a long way in the pass-happy Pac-10. Whoever is throwing the ball for the Trojans will be getting plenty of help, with a dangerous receiving corps featuring Mike Williams and Keary Colbert, two of the top returning players in the conference.

Projected Finish

1. USC
2. Washington
3. Oregon State
4. Arizona State
6. Oregon
7. Wash. State
8. California
9. Stanford
10. Arizona

Washington might be the only team that can out-race USC, with senior quarterback Cody Pickett throwing to top receiver Reggie Williams. Two teams ripe for comebacks are Oregon State and UCLA, both of which have new coaches, experienced regulars and a fresh start. They could knock off Washington or USC and contend for the title. But the sleeper pick this season must be Arizona State, which gained momentum from last year's Holiday Bowl. Oregon will steadily improve as its young players come of age, but the Ducks have lost too much talent to the NFL draft in recent years. Likewise, Washington State will probably take a step back since quarterback Jason Gesser finally graduated and Rien Long decided to skip his senior year.

California was a surprise last season, but the Bears lost a handful of starters to graduation and could slide back behind Bay Area rival Stanford. The Cardinal already suffered its growing pains and might be ready to take a significant step. The basement will probably be occupied by Arizona for the second year in a row, as the Wildcats need a comprehensive rebuilding effort on both sides of the ball.

See Ya

Oregon lost two star underclassmen to the NFL, as running back Onterrio Smith and tight end George Wrighster both decided to skip their senior seasons and declare themselves eligible for the draft.

Sweet Home Alabama

Washington State knew it would have to replace Jason Gesser, but the Cougars weren't expecting that coach Mike Price would be leaving them, too. Price skipped off to Alabama, but left most of his staff in place in Pullman.

Even Swap

UCLA and Washington traded coordinators in the off-season. Bruins defensive coordinator Phil Snow joined the Huskies staff and Washington offensive coordinator Steve Axman came down to Westwood with new coach Karl Dorrell. Axman has plenty experience with UCLA, having tutored Troy Aikman in the late 1980s.

Quarterback Derby

Although USC has the best defense and top skill players in the conference, the Trojans must still choose a starting quarterback, the only missing piece in their starting lineup. Lefty Matt Leinart was a surprise starter in the spring game, but Purdue transfer Brandon Hance and Matt Cassell will also be in the mix. And don't count out incoming freshman John David Booty, who graduated high school in three years and will enroll at USC this fall.

Senior Leadership

In the last decade, every Pac-10 champion has been led by a senior quarterback, except the 1997 Washington State team, which had junior Ryan Leaf, who left early for the NFL. The trend bodes well for Washington senior Cody Pickett, the most experienced and prolific passer on the West Coast.

Kings of the Diamond

If all the Pac-10 teams got together for a friendly afternoon of softball, UCLA would probably win in a rout. Cornerback Matt Ware plays in the Seattle Mariners farm system in the summer, safety Jarrad Page was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, receiver Josh Roenicke is a reserve for the Bruins baseball team and former cornerback Ricky Manning was a minor leaguer for the Minnesota Twins.

Welcome Home

Oregon State coach Mike Riley is more than welcome back in Corvallis. Riley built the Beavers' Fiesta Bowl championship team, but he was not around to enjoy it because he was coaching the San Diego Chargers. Fired from there, Riley is now back at Oregon State, having rejected the job at his alma mater Alabama and been turned down by UCLA.

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