ANTHONY GIMINO Tucson Citizen
The Pac-10 is the toughest conference to predict this football season.
At Lindy's Football Annuals, where I am senior editor, we finalized all of our team rankings two weekends ago as the first of our series of preseason magazines - the SEC edition - went to print. No conference produced more angst, more shoulder-shrugging, more dart-throwing than the little ol' Pac-10.
And this is in a year when seven of the 11 Division I-A conferences have changed membership, creating mixed marriages that are hard to read.
After the no-brainer choice of USC as No. 1 - in the conference and in the nation - the Pac-10 is wide open with four legitimate candidates for the second spot and probably four legitimate candidates for the last spot.
We were going to pick Arizona seventh in the Pac-10. We ended up picking the Wildcats eighth.
The process for our preseason predictions is so very contrary to the way the Bowl Championship Series picks its teams. No computers, no formulas, just a bunch of people getting together and talking college football (ahhhh... life is good).
Here's how it works in the Pac-10: Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times canvasses coaches and schools for information and ranks the teams for Lindy's. Somebody - OK, me - disagrees and asks him to reconsider. Other input is sought from writers around the conference. Once we get something close to a consensus, we cross our fingers and consider it done.
Thing is, there wasn't much of a consensus this season.
UCLA has the talent to be second in the league but hasn't been able to sustain any momentum under coach Karl Dorrell, as indicated by last season's Las Vegas Bowl loss to Wyoming.
Oregon has been on a slide (corresponding with the loss of Jeff Tedford as offensive coordinator), having lost 17 games in the past three seasons.
Arizona State should stay at a winning level but lost record-setting quarterback Andrew Walter and has had a tumultuous offseason.
Cal's talent drain is significant (only nine returning starters), but mad scientist Tedford schemes as well as anyone in the nation and has stars-in-waiting, such as sophomore RB Marshawn Lynch.
So, who is No. 2?
I suspect Oregon might rank higher in Lindy's than in most preseason magazines, but the tiebreaker for us was Kellen Clemens, a senior who should be the second-best quarterback in the conference behind Matt Leinart. Those three other schools have more-unsettled situations at quarterback.
The Ducks also have a new-look shotgun-spread passing game put in by first-year offensive coordinator Gary Crowton (a former BYU head coach).
Plus, dominating defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is finally completely healthy after an ACL tear in the 2003 opener.
The second half of the league is a jumbled mess, too.
Arizona was in the discussion as high as sixth, over Washington State and Oregon State.
Ultimately, the Cougars (never mind they should have lost at UA last season) look more complete on paper. The Beavers suffered key losses at quarterback, defensive line and in the secondary, but they get the benefit of the doubt, having been to five bowl games in six seasons, while Arizona has been to none.
In an effort to show how close we thought it was, we picked Oregon State 53rd nationally and Arizona 54th.
Sometimes, programs in their second year under a new coach have breakout seasons, which, we concede, could happen at Arizona. UA coach Mike Stoops knows this firsthand on a large scale. He was an assistant at Oklahoma in 2000, when the Sooners went 13-0 and won the national championship under his brother, second-year coach Bob Stoops.
"The first year is the most traumatic," said Mike Stoops, who was 3-8 in his first season at Arizona.
"My brother Bob told me this, and he heard it from Lou Holtz. He said you get better three ways. You get better by developing your players. You get better by recruiting great players and you get better by losing players."
By not wanting to buy into the new system, by being unwilling to meet the staff's more rigorous workout regimen or by being unable to keep up in the classroom, maybe 16 or 17 players have left early, Stoops estimated.
"We lost a lot of players in this program, and we're a whole lot better," he said.
Holding the Wildcats back in the preseason rankings is a lack of experience at quarterback, although this appears to be a down year overall for the Conference of Quarterbacks, so the gap in most games won't be as great as it was last season.
Stanford and Washington were the candidates for the conference cellar.
Under Tyrone Willingham, the Huskies won't be a mess like they were last season, although the talent level is woefully inadequate for the program.
New Stanford coach Walt Harris has even more rebuilding to do than Washington.
The Cardinal lost six players to the NFL, which says a lot about how successful Willingham was in recruiting at Stanford early this decade, and how unskilled Buddy Teevens was in coaching those talented players.
So, there they are, 1 through 10.
By August, I might want a do-over. Maybe by next week.