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PACIFIC 10 / CHRIS DUFRESNE

Calling an Audible on Predictions

September 26, 2003|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Things that often require adjustments: backs, carburetors, telescopes, television sets and preseason predictions.

As the first big weekend of conference play nears, with eight of 10 schools playing for Pac-10 keeps, it's time to reassess the power structure.

First, let's review the preseason media projections: USC, Arizona State, Washington, Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA, Washington State, California, Stanford and Arizona.

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The new order based on nonconference play:

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USC (3-0): Having to replace a starting backfield that included the Heisman Trophy winner, I thought the Trojans might stumble a couple of times this year. I actually picked USC to finish third behind Washington and Arizona State, but the Trojans were the class of the nonconference, no matter what team (quack, quack) Sports Illustrated put on its cover this week.

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2. Oregon (4-0): It was tough to blame the scribes for picking Oregon fifth given that the Ducks lost six of their last seven games last season after a 6-0 start. But the defense, particularly what was thought to be a suspect secondary, doesn't remotely resemble the unit that finished last in total defense in 2002.

"As a team, we knew we had to overcome everything that happened last year," linebacker Kevin Mitchell said. "How good are we? It's hard to say. The potential is there. We've got eight games to go. That's a long way to go still."

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3. Washington State (3-1): Surprise, surprise. The Cougars lost their two biggest stars on defense, Outland Trophy lineman Rien Long and cornerback Marcus Trufant, a first-round NFL pick, yet the defense looks as fast as it has in years. The offense lost star quarterback Jason Gesser and four other starters, yet the team would be 4-0 heading to Oregon this weekend if not for blowing a 19-0 lead at Notre Dame.

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4. Washington (3-1): Meet the ho-hum Huskies. My pick to win the conference title has played like salmon swimming upstream. The Huskies were dominated in their opener at Ohio State, a school that has struggled to win every game since, while quarterback Cody Pickett is nowhere near (yet) the quarterback who passed for a conference single-season record 4,458 yards in 2002.

Washington Coach Keith Gilbertson says Pickett needs to loosen up a bit.

"I have the sense now that he is always striving for perfection, and I think that is unrealistic," Gilbertson said. "Nobody plays perfect."

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5. Arizona State (2-1): The Sun Devils were supposed to be a "sleeper" pick, not a snooze on the field. Last week's 21-2 loss at Iowa was a huge setback for a program built around offense and quarterback Andrew Walter, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate.

Walter is right, though, when he says there is time to make things right. "Conference play is what matters, and there are going to be a ton of huge games and tough games," he said.

The first one is Saturday, when Arizona State plays at Oregon State.

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6. California (2-3): Coach Jeff Tedford took a risk when he agreed to open against Kansas State in Kansas City, Mo., but the closer-than-expected loss clearly toughened a team replacing a star quarterback and nine starters on defense.

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7. Oregon State (3-1): This was supposed to be a 4-0 start waiting to happen, but the Beavers played horribly in a 16-14 loss at Fresno State and narrowly defeated Boise State last week. First-year Coach Mike Riley was hired to shore up the loose ends in this program, but it hasn't happened yet. The good news is that erratic quarterback Derek Anderson broke through with a 400-yard passing effort against Boise State.

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8. Stanford (2-0): The Cardinal already has matched last season's win total. Though redshirt freshman quarterback Trent Edwards threw for only 25 yards in last week's victory over Brigham Young, he is a star on the rise and a player UCLA coveted.

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9. UCLA (1-2): Ranking is based only on nonconference performance. The Bruins have the talent to leap three or four rungs in the standings should the nation's 116th-ranked offense ever come around. Words of comfort from across town: USC Coach Pete Carroll started 1-4 his first year.

10. Arizona (1-3): The Pac-10's equivalent of Rutgers.

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Pac Bits

* There has been a significant change in the Rose Bowl tiebreaking procedure this year that could have an impact on Oregon and USC should the teams finish tied for the conference title. Because the schools don't play each other, the champion would be determined by the schools' record against the highest remaining team in the standings. But if Oregon and USC go undefeated in the conference, that tiebreaker would not apply. In that case, the highest-ranked team in the final bowl championship series standings would be the conference champion.

In the 25 years since the Pac-8 expanded to the Pac-10, there hasn't been a case where co-champions have not played. It has, however, happened twice in the Big Ten in recent years. Northwestern and Ohio State finished tied in 1995, and Ohio State and Iowa were co-champions last year.

The new system replaces the old Pac-10 points system and essentially removes nonconference records from the equation.

* Rick's revenge: Rick Neuheisel, who was fired by Washington this summer and is now suing the school, attended last week's Oregon-Michigan game in Eugene. According to the Eugene Register-Guard, Neuheisel called Oregon Athletic Director Bill Moos and said, "I'll sit with the fans and root for Oregon."

Oregon, as you may know, is Washington's most hated Pac-10 rival; any wonder why Neuheisel has turned tail to root for the Ducks?

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Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this report.

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