It was an absolute eye-opener for someone coming to the West Coast and covering college football starting in 2002. Especially for someone who had spent most of his time between the SEC and the Big Ten.
The Big Ten was easy -- basically Ohio State and Michigan and the SEC was Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU. But the Pac-10 wasn't at all like that.
In that decade of the '90s, dark years for USC football, more Pac-10 teams thought they had a chance to win it than didn't. And why not. In the 10 years previous, nine different teams had won the league.
For someone who grew up in Kentucky, you knew UK wasn't going to win the SEC. Nor Vandy, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina or Arkansas. And onetime big boys Georgia and Tennessee were coming to the end of their championship runs. And newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M might spice things up but they weren't winning the SEC either.
And they knew it.
So as we prepare for Pac-12 Media Days Thursday and Friday, the thing that jumps out at you is they still feel that way -- that on the West Coast -- they just might win it. Why not us is something at least seven teams can shout out.
After all, Arizona, the one team that didn't beat USC at the buzzer in the Pac-12 South last fall, somehow managed to win the division when the smoke cleared.
How'd they do that? Who the heck knows. Whatever it was, they didn't have anything left for the postseason where the Wildcats disappeared without a trace.
And now it's 2015. And here we go again. Time to pick the Pac. Might as well start with the South, college football's toughest division as it turned out last season.
And as Arizona proved, the tougher by far to pick in the Pac.
No. 1 USC: Go with the veteran quarterback and leader in the Pac-12 and you're usually going to be right. Sure, the schedule includes Oregon and Washington instead of Oregon State and Washington State but the Trojans do get five of their nine league games in the Coliseum. We see the edge here going to Cody Kessler and all the young talent and speed surrounding him. No team can match the Trojans in those areas in this first post-sanctions season when the stars seem to be aligned just right. The flip side of having a star senior quarterback doing it for USC is having a head coach and defensive coordinator who haven't done it yet and will have to step up to championship caliber this fall. We think they can.
No. 2 ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils cannot be discounted any week of the season. Can they go all the way? Probably not. But in Game 4 in Tempe, USC will find out if Mike Bercovici, the nearest thing to a returning starter at QB, can lightning-strike the Trojans again. Or if Todd Graham really does have USC's number with two of his 28 wins coming against the Trojans. We think USC shows up for a full 60 minutes this season and doesn't let off the gas at the end. Lesson learned.
No. 3 UCLA: The one thing that UCLA's Jim Mora has proved is that he knows how to beat USC with a quarterback like Brett Hundley who three different USC defenses could neither locate nor tackle. Freshman QB Josh Rosen isn't Hundley, who redshirted his first season in Westwood. And there's no way USC can possibly go in with a worse gameplan or less game-ready emotionally this year at the Coliseum, even against a Bruin team with talent everywhere you look.
No. 4 ARIZONA: This is a flip-a-coin pick here between the Wildcats and Utes, both with special stars and equally smart coaches. We'll go with RichRod here with a more consistent QB in Anu Solomon and a defensive superstar in Scooby Wright even if the Wildcats will have to play 12 straight games with no bye. After last year's escape from Tucson over the eventual South winners, USC is lucky to catch the Cats at the Coliseum.
No. 5 UTAH: Again, USC gets the Utes of Kyle Whittingham in the Coliseum where the Trojans probably wished they had them a year ago when the game went one play too long and USC came up short in a game that certainly should have been won. Again, when they play USC, the Utes don't beat themselves, they have a senior QB, a really outstanding running back and the best punter in the world back. But there's been a consistency issue for a team that just doesn't have the depth of talent to do it over the long haul.
No. 6 COLORADO: Give Mike MacIntyre high marks for keeping the Buffs' heads in the game and the fans in the fold at Folsom Field despite a 6-18 mark his first two seasons in Boulder. But for the long haul, in this division, there's nowhere to go up right now. One downside for CU is that for some reason, in good or bad weather, on the road or a mile high, USC has never taken the Buffs lightly. They'll get another cold weather Friday night at altitude again this year to see if it happens. We don't think it will. USC has had too much speed, too many athletes against a CU team without enough defensive talent to do much about it.
No. 1 OREGON: And yes, we know we may be violating our veteran QB rule here with a newby taking over for Heisman-winning Marcus Mariota but maybe not by season's end when it matters and when Eastern Washington transfer, grad student and late-arriving FBS star Vernon Adams could be leading the Ducks. There's a whole host of running backs here and we know the Ducks can play fast. We'll see if Mark Helfrich is the coach Ducks' fans hope he is two years after Chip Kelly. Having a young Stanford team as his key challenger makes that much easier this time around.
No. 2 STANFORD: The good news for USC here is the early game against the Cardinal is at the Coliseum in Week 3. And the one Stanford ace is QB Kevin Hogan, who for whatever reason, much as for his coach David Shaw, hasn't seemed to match up all that well against USC. And as dominant as Stanford has been on defense, it's as untested a team as Shaw has had. But it's a North division even more unproven.
No. 3 CALIFORNIA: We like Cal and QB Jared Goff to outscore the rest of the North. Not sure they'll be able to stop teams all that much but the firepower for Sonny Dykes' guys seems superior to the rest of the Northwest he has to finish ahead of. Remember, it's the Pac-12. Go with the QB. Should be an interesting Halloween shootout in Berkeley for the Trojans.
No. 4 WASHINGTON: As he's said he's been hoping for, Chris Petersen gets more of his own team and his own way of doing things at UW in Year 2. The bad news, some of Sark's guys -- three to be exact who are leaving -- ended up as first-round NFL draft picks on defense. And without an established QB, not a lot the coach can do about it.
No. 5 WASHINGTON STATE: Flip a coin here for the bottom spot. The way we're picking it is the way we have the whole time. Go with the QB. There's one at Wazzu in walkon Luke Falk, who debuted with a 38-for-57 passing performance against USC in the rain in Pullman after Connor Halliday broke his ankle. We think he'll work out well for Mike Leach.
No. 6 OREGON STATE: With the departure of Mike Riley to Nebraska, we think the Beavs did a great job in coming up with Wisconsin's Gary Andersen. But there's a reason hometown guy Riley is no longer in Corvallis. It's going to take a few years for Andersen, who's had success at Utah State and a 19-7 record at Wisconsin, to get it going again at OSU. It won't be this year.
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