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A Conference Headed South

August 24, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

The landscape in the Pacific 10 Conference has changed. You can finally see palm trees again, instead of a rainy Northwest sky.

After a spell when such teams as Washington State and Oregon -- and even, briefly, Oregon State -- stole some of the spotlight from the traditional southern power base, USC is once again the favorite.

The Trojans lost Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer from the team that finished 11-2 and ranked fourth in the nation. But they have enough players back to be considered one of the top contenders, along with another team from the southern half of the league, resurgent Arizona State, and traditional Northwest power Washington.

Palmer led the departing quarterback class that included Washington State's Jason Gesser and California's Kyle Boller, but Washington's Cody Pickett and Arizona State's Andrew Walter are poised to dominate the statistics while other teams regroup.

The coaching landscape is almost unrecognizable too, with Mike Price, Bob Toledo, Rick Neuheisel and Dennis Erickson gone, making Oregon's Mike Bellotti, in his ninth season, the dean of Pac-10 coaches. Astonishingly, that leaves USC's Pete Carroll tied for second in only his third season -- and perhaps on his way to his first Rose Bowl.

A look at the conference, in order of predicted finish:



Coach: Pete Carroll, third year

2002 record: 11-2, 7-1

Case for: Sure, Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer is gone but USC still has plenty of talent and confidence left after winning its last eight. New quarterback Matt Leinart has first-rate receivers in Mike Williams and Keary Colbert and a veteran offensive line, and freshman running back Reggie Bush has inspired plenty of hype. Tackle Shaun Cody is back from a knee injury to lead one of the nation's best defensive lines again after the Trojans held opponents to 83.2 yards rushing.

"We're very fortunate that we had the year we had," Carroll said. "It feels like we're starting over in some ways."

Case against: Even Palmer needed five years to reach his Heisman-winning form, so figure the inexperienced Leinart, a sophomore, will need time to develop. Defensively, there might be vulnerability in the secondary after the loss of three starters, one of them All-American safety Troy Polamalu.

If all goes right: It starts with a top-10 clash on the road against Auburn on Saturday. The key Pac-10 games are both on the road, against Arizona State and Washington. Even so, USC could be headed to Pasadena on New Year's Day for the first time since 1996.



Coach: Keith Gilbertson, first year

2002 record: 7-6, 4-4

Case for: Cody Pickett -- not Palmer -- threw for more yards last season than any Pac-10 quarterback, becoming the first in conference history to pass for more than 4,000. He also was third in the nation in total offense, and has a brilliant receiver in first-team All-American Reggie Williams.

Case against: The Huskies are still settling in after the Neuheisel fiasco, and an opening game on the road against defending national champion Ohio State is no way to start. Plus, the running game -- ninth in the league last season -- is a concern, along with special teams. The Huskies also are breaking in a rookie kicker and a rookie punter -- at Ohio State, of all places.

"There's a lot of newness in our program," Gilbertson said. "A new head coach, a new offensive line coach and a new defensive coordinator. We'll carry on and conduct business as usual."

If all goes right: The Buckeyes are without Maurice Clarett, so the Huskies get lucky, and that kind of boost could propel to them to a 4-0 start, assuming victories over Indiana, Idaho and Stanford, before a trip to UCLA. The Pac-10 schedule is favorable, the Huskies skipping Arizona State and playing USC in Seattle.



Coach: Dirk Koetter, third year

2002 record: 8-6, 5-3

Case for: Andrew Walter set a Pac-10 passing record with 536 yards against Oregon last season, and the surprise team of last season has 17 starters back -- the most in the Pac-10. Walter will need a new target to replace Shaun McDonald, who left early for the NFL.

Case against: A major loss: Terrell Suggs set an NCAA record with 24 sacks, then headed to the NFL early. Seven defensive starters are back, but this is a team that was ninth in the league in scoring defense, giving up 29.1 points a game while counting on Koetter's wide-open offense to wear out the scoreboard.

If all goes right: Blame the Pac-10 schedule for the advantage it gives Arizona State and Washington over USC: They don't have to play each other this season. The only truly daunting game on Arizona State's schedule appears to be USC at home on Oct. 4.

"We were picked to finish ninth last year and finished third," Koetter said. "We're excited that we've been picked to finish higher than last year."



Coach: Mike Riley, first year (also coached OSU from 1997-98)

2002 record: 8-5, 4-4

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