Even in down years, the Pac-10 at least had some established quarterbacks, guys who had started for a few years and were well known to NFL scouts. Not anymore. The Pac-10 is a running backs league now. There are stellar backs all over the conference, while the list of returning quarterback starters who figure to keep their jobs this year goes like this: Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon), Lyle Moevao (Oregon State) and Jake Locker (Washington). Masoli, who went to junior college at City College of San Francisco, is more of a running threat than he is a conventional passer. The latter two are coming off surgery.
Yes, other quarterbacks have returned, but Cal's Kevin Riley split time with Nate Longshore last year, while Stanford's Tavita Pritchard, UCLA's Kevin Craft and Washington State's Kevin Lopina are long shots to fight off younger challengers (namely, Andrew Luck, Kevin Prince and Marshall Lobbestael) for the No. 1 spot. Mark Sanchez (USC), Willie Tuitama (Arizona) and Rudy Carpenter (Arizona State) are gone, so the Pac-10 - celebrated as a great passers' conference - will rely more than ever on great running backs. The talk at Thursday's Pac-10 media day was mainly about the backs and the defenders who will have to stop them. There's Joe McKnight, one of a herd of backs at USC - which, what a surprise, was picked by the media to win its eighth straight title.
McKnight averaged 7.4 yards a carry last year, a figure that would be captivating except that Cal's Jahvid Best averaged 8.1 on his way to a conference-leading 1,580 yards. The Heisman candidate, faster than a coffee stain, is a big reason Cal was picked to finish second, ahead of loaded Oregon. Stanford, picked sixth, has its 237-pound wrecking ball, Toby Gerhart; Arizona has Nic Grigsby and Oregon has LeGarrette Blount, all of whom rushed for 1,000 yards. And then there's Jacquizz Rodgers of Oregon State, who was Pac-10 offensive player of the year as a freshman. "Now you see the running game being more efficient than it's been in a long time," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. How good is the Pac-10? "Our most difficult games come from our own conference," USC's Pete Carroll said. "I can't imagine anybody better than this conference." Thorny Rose Bowl: Cal's Jeff Tedford said he would be "disappointed" if the Bowl Championship Series' new deal, which starts next year, deprived an otherwise deserving Bears team of a Rose Bowl berth.
Under the new deal, any team from a non-BCS conference that qualifies for a BCS game would fill the vacancy left by a Pac-10 (read: USC) or Big Ten team that qualified for the national title game. In other words, for one time only, a Cal team that, say, went 11-1 could be aced out for its first Rose berth since 1958 by an undefeated non-BCS team. "Our fans would prefer to go to the Rose Bowl than the national championship," Tedford said. "That's the mind-set at Cal. There's such a drought there. They're so starved for the Rose Bowl." He said if the Bears wind up in that predicament, "it would be disappointing."