It was another boffo year for the Pacific 10, which in 1986 sent a conference-record six teams to bowl games, put four teams in the final top 20 polls, had more players drafted into the NFL than any other conference and, of course, won the Rose Bowl game--again.
When Arizona State beat Michigan, 22-15, on New Year's Day, that made it six straight for the Pac-10 over the Big Ten and 12 wins in the last 13 seasons.
So now the Pac-10 is promoting itself as the best football conference in the country. Just four years ago, it was derided as the worst by Sports Illustrated, which at least had the foresight to predict that the hard times wouldn't last.
Last season, six teams spent time in the top 20--Arizona State, Arizona, Washington, USC, UCLA and Stanford. All six are expected to spend time there again this season.
Three Pac-10 players--quarterback Chris Chandler of Washington and running backs Gaston Green of UCLA and Brad Muster of Stanford--are being promoted as possible Heisman Trophy winners.
Stanford center Andy Sinclair has been tabbed as the leading candidate for the Outland Trophy by the Sporting News.
And linebackers Marcus Cotton of USC and Ken Norton of UCLA are being pushed for the Butkus and Lombardi awards.
In some ways, though, it will be a season of change.
Four teams have new coaches:
--Larry Smith moved from Arizona to USC to replace Ted Tollner, who became an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills.
--Dick Tomey, a former UCLA assistant, replaced Smith at Arizona, moving over from Hawaii.
--Bruce Snyder, a former Ram assistant and former Utah State head coach, took over at Cal, replacing the deposed Joe Kapp.
--And Dennis Erickson left Wyoming after only one season to replace Jim Walden at Washington State. Walden went to Iowa State.
Five teams--Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA, USC and Washington--are considered legitimate contenders for the championship, with Stanford generally regarded as a dark horse.
Washington, Arizona State and UCLA are considered the favorites in most quarters, which apparently makes ASU Coach John Cooper uncomfortable.
"You've got to be the village idiot not to pick UCLA in this conference," Cooper said.
That doesn't say much for UCLA's Terry Donahue, who said that Arizona State, which does not play USC or Stanford and plays the Bruins in Tempe, Ariz., "literally has one foot in the Rose Bowl."
Arizona State and UCLA will play Oct. 31.
A look at the Pac-10 teams, excluding USC and UCLA:
ARIZONA 1986--9-3 overall, 5-3 Pac-10 (4th)
Transfer Bobby Watters, involved in a three-man battle for the quarterback job with sophomore Craig Bergman and freshman Ronald Veal, has shown signs of cracking.
Watters, who threw for 2,041 yards last season at SMU, is said to be running behind Bergman and late one night last week was taken to the hospital, complaining that he couldn't get the contact lens out of his left eye.
Doctors discovered that he had two lenses in his right eye.
Coaches hate to see that kind of thing.
They also hate to see the kind of schedule Dick Tomey has inherited. Without several of their key big-play people from a year ago, including three-year starting quarterback Alfred Jenkins, the Wildcats will play 6 of 8 conference games on the road.
Center Joe Tofflemire is considered a possible All-American. So is Chuck Cecil, a walk-on in 1983, but an all-conference safety in 1986, when he had six interceptions, broke up a conference-high 19 passes and made 122 tackles.
ARIZONA STATE 1986--10-1-1 overall, 5-1-1 Pac-10 (1st)
Cooper admits that the Sun Devils have a favorable schedule but, in his third year at ASU, he also said: "We have a lot of holes to fill."
Foremost among them is the one left by Jeff Van Raaphorst, a three-year starter at quarterback and Most Valuable Player of the Rose Bowl game. His likely replacement will be Daniel Ford, who saw only limited duty last season as Van Raaphorst's backup.
The Sun Devils have some experience in the line, where All-American Randall McDaniel has started 28 straight games. Cooper calls McDaniel the fastest offensive lineman in college football. Also swift afoot are running back Darryl Harris, who ran for 1,042 yards last season, and Aaron Cox, who has caught 88 passes for 1,720 yards.
Cooper calls defensive tackle Shawn Patterson "probably the best player we've got," but ASU lost some key players from a unit that led the Pac-10 in scoring defense last season.
Two days ago, the Sun Devils lost another when sophomore nose guard Richard Davis, a transfer from Oklahoma, broke his left elbow in practice. He'll be out for at least six weeks.
Still, they figure to be strong defensively. Linebackers Greg Clark and Stacy Harvey, their two top tackles, are back, as are three starting defensive backs--Eric Allen, Anthony Parker and Jeff Joseph.
CALIFORNIA 1986--2-9 overall, 2-7 Pac-10 (9th)
With talented tailback Marc Hicks having transferred to Ohio State, Coach Bruce Snyder has installed a pass-oriented offense.