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August 17, 2009

Can anyone stop USC's run of Pac-10 titles?

MORE: Pac-10 preseason unit rankings

Who are the Oregon Ducks?

Taking a cue from the famous game show, the answer is: The last team other than USC to win an outright Pac-10 conference football championship.

That was eight years ago. The Trojans have won or shared seven consecutive Pac-10 titles since then.

Yet some have the audacity to suggest that streak could be in jeopardy this season. The loss of eight defensive starters and a star quarterback has the Trojans appearing almost vulnerable, a term rarely used to describe USC.

Meanwhile, California, Oregon and Oregon State appear capable of challenging for the conference title. Of course, teams have challenged before during the seven-year streak only to be felled by late-season injuries, upsets or the Trojans themselves.

So, can the Trojans win an eighth consecutive championship? The answer is yes. Who's going to stop them is a tougher question.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: California TB Jahvid Best. Although two former Heisman recipients - and the top three finishers from last season - return this season, Best could crash the party in New York. He averaged 8.1 yards per carry last season, when he rushed for 1,580 yards - despite a foot injury that required offseason surgery. He had six touchdown runs of at least 60 yards.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: USC FS Taylor Mays. Had he opted to enter the NFL draft, Mays was projected as a top-10 pick. Instead, he's the foundation of the Trojans' rebuilt defense. He has linebacker size (6 feet 3/235 pounds), defensive back speed and keen football instincts. Last season, he accounted for 53 tackles and nine pass breakups.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: California QB Kevin Riley. He has shown flashes of excellence, but he has also been terribly inconsistent. He has endured injuries and the threat of being benched in favor of Nate Longshore. Longshore is gone, and by all accounts, Riley is healthy. He'll direct a potentially explosive offense, but will get the blame - and/or the bench - if the Bears struggle.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Oregon E Will Tukuafu. He must become the leader of the Ducks' pass rush - and must prove he can be effective without Nick Reed on the other side. The pass rush has been one of the strong points of Oregon's defense the past two seasons. Tukuafu's play largely will determine if it remains strong.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: USC QB Aaron Corp. He was named USC's starting quarterback in the spring and faces the task of replacing Mark Sanchez, the fifth player selected in April's NFL draft. Sanchez passed for 3,207 yards and 34 TDs last season; Corp has thrown just four college passes. To complicate matters, Corp has sat out recent practices with a swollen left knee. If the injury proves serious, it might be freshman Matt Barkley trying to fill Sanchez's shoes.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Oregon State WR Darrell Catchings. Look for him to re-emerge as a deep threat for the Beavers. As a true freshman in '07, he had 33 catches while filling in for an injured Sammie Stroughter. With Stroughter back in the lineup last season, Catchings' catches dwindled to seven. Now that Stroughter has left for the NFL, Catchings will take over at split end again and should be the Beavers' go-to guy.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: USC LB Chris Galippo. He was the nation's highest-ranked linebacker prospect two years ago. As a redshirt freshman, he backed up Trojans All-America LB Rey Maualuga. A strong showing in the spring indicated that Galippo is ready to step in and continue USC's streak of dominant linebackers.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Stanford QB Andrew Luck. Inconsistent play at quarterback was the primary reason Stanford fell short of bowl eligibility last season, but an upgrade should be coming. Luck, a redshirt freshman, takes over the offense after beating out incumbent starter Tavita Pritchard in the spring. Luck, one of the nation's top-rated quarterback prospects in '08, has great leadership skills, accuracy and bloodlines. His father, Oliver, was an NFL quarterback.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Oregon LB Bryson Littlejohn. Littlejohn, a junior college All-American, made a big impression in Oregon's spring practices. Expect him to make a similar one this fall. The Ducks need an impact player to bolster the pass rush, and Littlejohn had nine sacks last season at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: USC RB Joe McKnight. Injuries and sharing the load may have "compromised" McKnight's statistics in his first two seasons. Still, he has scored just seven touchdowns, and a lot more was expected from a guy who has been compared to Reggie Bush. It's time for his great speed and elusiveness to translate into more big plays, yardage and touchdowns.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Oregon State LB Keaton Kristick. Playing in the Pacific Northwest and in a league that's teeming with talented linebackers, Kristick has been overlooked. He had a breakout of sorts last season - 84 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks - and earned second-team all-conference honors. He could garner higher acclaim this season.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: California's Jeff Tedford. Though Tedford isn't in jeopardy of losing his job, he does face a season of tremendous expectations. The Bears' lineup appears as strong as ever, and USC may be more vulnerable than in any year since Tedford arrived in Berkeley. The Bears also are at home for a midseason game against the Trojans. This could be the year the Bears win the Pac-10 and advance to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 50 years. If not now, when?

BEST COACHING STAFF: USC. No legitimate argument could be made against USC. Yes, the Trojans lost their offensive and defensive coordinators from last season, but Pete Carroll and most of his staff remain. And don't forget that staff has produced seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and routinely assemble national top-10 recruiting classes. Jeremy Bates, who had been with the NFL's Denver Broncos, is the new offensive playcaller, and he arrives with a great reputation.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: UCLA's Norm Chow. Don't hold UCLA's offensive ineptitude from last season against Chow, who remains one of the premier offensive coordinators in the nation. His résumé speaks for itself. He has mentored three Heisman recipients and has been a part of three national championship teams. He coached at USC from 2001-04, and in three of those seasons the Trojans ranked among the nation's top 20 in total offense. Look for big improvement from the Bruins' offense this season because of better play at quarterback.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Oregon State's Mark Banker. In each of the past two seasons, the Beavers have ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense and top five in sacks. Furthermore, his defense limited USC to 21 points last season and posted the only shutout in a bowl game with a 3-0 Sun Bowl triumph over Pittsburgh. USC is the only Pac-10 defense to rank higher nationally the past two seasons, but Banker has far less talent to work with than the USC staff.

(Listed chronologically)

1. Oregon at Boise State, Sept. 3

2. USC at Ohio State, Sept. 12

3. California at Oregon, Sept. 26

4. USC at California, Oct. 3

5. USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 17

6. Oregon State at USC, Oct. 24

7. USC at Oregon, Oct. 31

8. California at Stanford, Nov. 21

9. Arizona at Arizona State, Nov. 28

10. Oregon State at Oregon, Dec. 3

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: USC at California, Oct. 3. Under Pete Carroll, USC never loses in November, so Cal gets a break with this showdown being played in early October. The Golden Bears and Trojans have played some close games in recent seasons, and this season they appear more evenly matched than usual. Although Oregon and Oregon State won't agree, this game could decide the Pac-10 championship.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: USC. The Trojans frequently play one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the country, and this season is no different. After a warmup opener against San Jose State, the Trojans travel to face Big Ten favorite Ohio State. They also hit the road to play Notre Dame, which projects to be significantly improved. If that's not enough, the Trojans go to California and Oregon in Pac-10 play.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Oregon State. The Beavers frequently get off to slow starts, but that shouldn't happen this season. The Beavers' first three games are against Football Championship Subdivision member Portland State, Mountain West also-ran UNLV and defending Big East champion Cincinnati, which has 10 new starters on defense. Four of the first six games will be played in Corvallis, too. If there ever was a year for the Beavers to come out of the gate fast, this is it.

MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Idaho State at Arizona State, Sept. 5. FCS member Idaho State went 1-11 last season. The Bengals have had just five winning seasons in the past 20 and lost by an average of 27 points in their nine losses to Football Bowl Subdivision opponents this decade. Arizona State is coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, but it will start this season with an easy victory.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBJeremiah Masoli, Oregon, 5-11/224, Jr.
RBJahvid Best, California, 5-10/195, Jr.
RBJacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State, 5-7/193, Soph.
WRJames Rodgers, Oregon State, 5-7/185, Jr.
WRDamian Williams, USC, 6-1/190, Jr.
TERob Gronkowski, Arizona, 6-6/265, Jr.
TChris Marinelli, Stanford, 6-7/298, Sr.
TCharles Brown, USC, 6-6/295, Sr.
GJeff Byers, USC, 6-4/285, Sr.
GGregg Peat, Oregon State, 6-3/296, Sr.
CKristofer O'Dowd, USC, 6-5/300, Jr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
ETyson Alualu, California, 6-3/295, Sr.
TLawrence Guy, Arizona State, 6-5/293, Soph.
TBrian Price, UCLA, 6-2/295, Jr.
EDexter Davis, Arizona State, 6-2/255, Sr.
LBReggie Carter, UCLA, 6-1/240, Sr.
LBKeaton Kristick, Oregon State, 6-3/226, Sr.
LBMike Nixon, Arizona State, 6-3/224, Sr.
CBSyd'Quan Thompson, California, 5-9/191, Sr.
CBAlterraun Verner, UCLA, 5-11/184, Sr.
FSTaylor Mays, USC, 6-3/235, Sr.
SST.J. Ward, Oregon, 5-11/201, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KKai Forbath, UCLA, 6-0/198, Jr.
PBryan Anger, California, 6-3/199, Soph.
KRJames Rodgers, Oregon State, 5-7/185, Jr.
PRKyle Williams, Arizona State, 5-10/186, Sr.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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