By Pigskin Pete Spring football drills have just concluded around the Pac 10 and we look at what may happen during next fall's conference wars. No question that defending national champion Southern Cal has the tools returning to craft a repeat performance. Yet there may be a surprise brewing in Eugene, where the Oregon Ducks have made some radical changes to upgrade a program that slumped into a 5-6 season ion 2004, the first losing record coach Mike Bellotti has compiled in the 10 years as head Duck. USC and Oregon are the only conference members with proven stars returning at the crucial quarterback position, Matt Leinart at Troy and Kellen Clemens at Duckville. These proven pass-masters will face each other in the league opener for both, in the Webfoot-friendly confines of Autzen Stadium September 24. Oregon will enter this nationally-televised fray with three games under its belt (Houston, Montana & Fresno State), with the latter pair also at Atzen. SC will be coming off a home date with Arkansas after traveling to Hawaii for an opener. The scheduling edge is definitely with Oregon. This could end a Trojan winning streak that stretched to 22 entering the 2005 season. Oregon has radically revamped its offense, placed under the new control of Gary Crowton, former head coach at Brigham Young. Crowton earned national note for his spread and shotgun formations that will be a predictably welcome change for Clemens, who became a prep all-American at little Burns, Oregon in a similar attack scheme. Clemens is a skilled scrambler, throws well on the run and has yet to truly be turned loose as a collegian. He will have a collection of quick, skilled and experienced receivers as throwing targets. Oregon rushing game retooled Rushing has been a noticeable Duck weakness of late, but should show dramatic improvement this fall. The running ranks will show depth and talent. Last season's 1,000-yard rusher Terrence Whitehead returns and will have some impressive new running mates with Terrell Jackson, a 2004 redshirt who starred this spring and incoming freshman Jonathan Stewart, considered as no less than the nation's finest prep runner. The Ducks lost three front line blocking stalwarts to the NFL, but potentially stellar replacements exist in a group of sophomores that were last year's recruiting gems. Defense, or lack thereof, has been a major contributor to the Duck decline in recent seasons. Remedies are coming forth in the form of a pair of all-American prospects up front in returnees Haloti Ngata and Devan Long, backed by a bevy of secondary players finally due to demonstrate the benefit of experience.
Oregon has the tools and the schedule to make a serious bid for national prominence. Apart from the returning talent overload at USC, a look around the Pac 10 reveals serious weaknesses:
OREGON STATE--reeling from an unprecedented spate of player off-field criminality, coach Mike Riley has been given a new sministrative code of conduct to bring discipline to his program. That indicates a failure in coaching control that new printed rules will not repair. Last season Riley reached a 7-5 record with senior stars recruited by his predecessor Dennis Erickson. This time around, no solution has yet been reached as to whom will replace the three-year starter at QB, Derek Anderson, and the defense suffered key losses with the graduation of five players earning NFL attention. The schedule opens with a sure thing at home vs. Portland State, but the next two foes, Boise State and Louisville, seem sure Beaver losses. Fortunately, the Beavs will not play SC in 2005. A losing season seems likely.
WASHINGTON--new coach Tyrone Willingham inherits a weak talent pool and indecision as to a quarterback. The coaching transition is at least a year away from returning the Huskies to the winners' circle they occupied for decades. Defensive veterans will be the Dawgs' best hope for respectability and we doubt any bowl games will come calling at this season's end.
WASHINGTON STATE--the Cougars went 5-6 in 2004 and don't figure to markedly improve. Defense veterans do abound, but running backs are in very short supply and the QB situation was not resolved this spring.
ARIZONA STATE--beyond Oregon and SC, this squad has the best potential after a 9-3 record last year. However, QB is a question after the graduation of last year's leader, Andrew Walter. Coach Dirk Koetter is a solid former Bellotti Assistant and can be expected to chalk up another winning season with a deep collection of effective linemen on both sides of the ball.
ARIZONA--Mike Stoops enters his second season as Wildcat head coach. He had a 3-8 record last year, though he won his last two games. QB is a quandary. Expected starter Rich Kovalchek sat out the spring with a back injury and no promising backup became evident.
CALIFORNIA--Coach Jeff Tedford, another former Bellotti disciple, went 10-2 in 2004 and had long suffering Bear fans thinking of a national title. However, QB Aaron Rodgers and rushing star J.J. Arrington have both moved on as top NFL draft picks. A veteran offensive line can be expected to make tailback Marshawn Lynch an offensive force. Who steps in at QB is as yet undecided and there are major questions on defense.
UCLA--Coach Karl Dorrell broke even at 6-6 a year ago, his third season. Bruin faithful will demand his replacement if he doesn't do markedly better in 2005 as they compare him to the golden record compiled by his cross-town rival at SC, Pete Carroll. No obvious answers have been crafted yet at QB, with last season's stalwart Drew Olson yet to show a complete recovery from a severe bowl game injury, and no effective replacement yet evident.
STANFORD--new coach Walt Harris is installing a new offensive system, with a decision yet to be made as to which of three veteran QB's will be the chosen leader after a 4-7 2004 record that sealed the demise of now ex-coach Buddy Teevens. Harris has a coaching career record of 63-68 and is unlikely to go significantly on the winning side in 2005.
We forecast the following Pac 10 rankings at the end of the upcoming season:
Oregon and USC the league's best, with a title decided early on at Autzen. The other conference members will limp home in the following order...Arizona State, Washington State, Cal, UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona.