1. USC: The Trojans are No. 1 until somebody knocks them off the mountain. With nine starters back on offense, including what might be the nation’s best offensive line, there will be plenty of help for the new quarterback. And do you really think USC’s defense won’t be elite again in 2009? Come on.
2. California: The Bears have 17 starters back from a team that went 9-4 in 2009, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Jahvid Best. The secondary will be one of the nation’s best and the defensive line is as good as any in the Pac-10. Replacing three of four linebackers doesn’t seem to be causing much stress in Berkeley. The only issue is how much the passing game improves. If it improves significantly, this is a potential BCS bowl team.
3. Oregon: Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount give the Ducks a strong one-two punch on offense and an athletic corps of linebackers and cornerback Walter Thurmond and end Will Tukuafu will lead the defense. Both lines are questions that, if answered, could push the Ducks to the top of the conference.
4. Oregon State: Rebuild or reload? The Beavers have transitioned to the latter category, which is why most are overlooking a defense that needs to replace eight starters, including the entire secondary, and an offensive line that must replace three first-rate starters. There are two veteran quarterbacks in Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield and the explosive Rodgers brothers — James and Jacquizz — leading the offense, while tackle Stephen Paea and linebacker Keaton Kristick lead the defense.
5. Arizona: Losing three offensive mainstays — quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas and tackle Eben Britton — hurts, but the Wildcats should be even better on defense in 2009, and the general feeling is the offense will be solid whether Matt Scott or Nick Foles wins the job. For one, tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best target in the Pac-10.
6. Stanford: The Cardinal have lots of guys back — 17 — from a team that fell just short of bowl eligibility in 2008. They also have seven home games after playing just five a year ago. The key is passing — on offense and defense. Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is supposed to be the answer for the offense, while an injection of young talent should improve the athleticism in the secondary.
7. UCLA: The Bruins have two big questions: quarterback and offensive line. The defense should be good, led by tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner — all three are All-American candidates — but it won’t matter if the running game remains anemic. One big reasons for optimism: five offensive players are again available who would have started last year but were out for various reasons back: running back Christian Ramirez, tight end Logan Paulsen, center Kai Maiava, fullback Trevor Theriot and tackle Sean Sheller.
8. Arizona State: Not unlike UCLA, Arizona State has questions at quarterback and on the offensive line while the defense looks solid. Senior Danny Sullivan played well in the spring and looks to be the favorite at quarterback, while new faces could key dramatic improvement on the offensive line. If things fall into place, the Sun Devils could win eight or nine games, but it’s hard to project that until the offensive line proves itself.
9. Washington: The good news is the Huskies could be the most-improved team in the conference. Of course, it’s hard to regress from an 0-12 season. Moreover, Washington could play much better and still have little to show for it because the nonconfernce schedule features LSU and Notre Dame. Still, the return of 18 starters, as well as quarterback Jake Locker and linebacker E.J. Savannah, suggests the Huskies won’t be anyone’s patsy this fall.
10. Washington State: The biggest hope for the Cougars lies in a potentially improved running game that could keep a defense that is thin on talent on all three levels off the field. That didn’t happen last year — see an offense that ranked 118th in the country that surrendered 38 turnovers, tied for most in the nation. But there’s experience on the offensive line and James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy give the Cougars a pair of solid backs. If either Marshall Lobbestael or Kevin Lopina provides adequate quarterback play, Washington State might surprise some folks.