July 31, 2009

Arizona picked to finish eighth in Pac-10

Pac-10 media day took place on Thursday and there are not too many surprises across the board.

USC was selected to win the conference yet again. Other schools such as California,Oregon and Oregon State were all selected to finish in the top half of the conference and, much to the chagrin of Arizona fans, the Wildcats were selected to finish eighth, three spots lower than arch-rival Arizona State

The projection of the Trojans winning the conference for the seventh straight time comes as a surprise to no one, but head coach Pete Carroll understands that everyone will be gunning for them and there are plenty of teams in the conference that can play with the Trojans.

"Our conference is so challenging for us," Carroll said. "Year in and year out, without question, our most difficult games, not just one game, but many games, come right from our own conference opponents. I know that we've only lost a few games out of conference through the years, but we've lost a bunch of games to conference opponents. I think it's the best conference in the country."

Cal -- a team that finished fourth in the conference -- came in second in the voting. The Golden Bears return star running back Jahvid Best, which is one of the big reasons they face such high expectations. Best could garner serious Heisman consideration in 2009, but Jeff Tedford says it's a collective team effort and Best buys into that.

"There's one thing I'm very confident of," Tedford said. "Jahvid is a team-above-self guy all the way. He knows the team is No. 1. I think our players and our team will feed off of that, but that is not our goal as a team and I know that's not Jahvid's No. 1 goal."

Coming in third was Oregon, which will be led by first-year head coach Chip Kelly. Kelly takes over for Mike Bellotti, who took over as athletic director, and says balance is his focus for the offense.

"It's a personnel-driven offense," Kelly said. "We'd ultimately want to be a balanced football team."

Kelly will be one of the few coaches with a returning starter at quarterback in sophomore Jeremiah Masoli, but a lot of the focus will be on the defensive side of the ball.

"I think our defense is really going to surprise people this year," Kelly said.

Oregon State was picked fourth and have a history of overachieving under head coach Mike Riley. This year, with Jacquizz Rodgers, James Rodgers, Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao all returning to lead the offense, the Beavers probably won't sneak up anyone like they did in 2008.

On top of that, all three players' health came into question on Thursday.

"Both of those guys are 100 percent going into camp." Riley said of the Rodgers brothers.

He also believes he will be very comfortable at quarterback.

"[Moevao] should be healthy by the first game," Riley said. "I'm hoping we'll have two healthy senior quarterbacks by the first game."

Despite an extremely disappointing 2008 campaign that concluded with a blowout loss at Arizona and the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, ASU was tabbed fifth in the conference.

Head coach Dennis Erickson believes that the improvement in the offensive line could lead to a much improved team in 2009.

"What was an Achilles' heel for us last year could be a strength for us now," Erickson said.

Like several schools in the conference, the Sun Devils will have a new quarterback under center and while Danny Sullivan is projected as the starter as of now, a starter hasn't yet been officially named. Either way, Erickson is confident at the prospects at the position.

"I really like our quarterback situation," Erickson said.

Stanford finished sixth in the voting and is considered by many to be a team on the rise. Led by head coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford has been near or at the bottom of the conference for several years, but has been on the right track since Harbaugh arrived.

"The step we've got to take now is we've got to be a relentless team," Harbaugh said.

Their star on offense is, without question, running back Toby Gerhart. Gerhart is a powerful running back whom, according to Harbaugh, doesn't get enough credit for his speed.

"Toby is our shining star," Harbaugh said. "What people don't know about is his speed. You'll see him running away from linebackers and defensive backs. Personally, I think his future is as an NFL running back."

Coming up just behind Stanford is UCLA, another team many feel is headed back towards the upper-echelon of the conference. After an upset over Tennessee early in the season, the Bruins sputtered the rest of the year and finished eighth in the conference.

Head coach Rick Neuheisel believes that sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince is only gong to get better and is primed to have a much improved season.

"He's wise beyond his years," Neuheisel said of Prince. "He's got all the physical things you look for. I believe he is going to give us a chance to exploit all portions on the field. There will be some growing pains."

Coming in eighth is Arizona, which is coming of its best season and first bowl appearance in 10 years. UA doesn't have the long history of success to make believers out of everyone else just yet, but head coach Mike Stoops believes this is the most talented team he has fielded yet.

"This is our best overall team, one to 85," Stoops said. "Defensively, we have never been stronger."

One subject that may have made people weary of selecting the Wildcats higher is the uncertainty at quarterback. Even though there are several other teams selected higher in the conference that have serious quarterback questions, Arizona seems to have a lot of people it will need to impress when it comes to a situation that many refer to as the most important position on the football field.

Considering Stoops isn't anywhere close to naming a starter between Matt Scott and Nick Foles, the hesitancy to pick the Wildcats higher is understandable.

"That competition will run throughout camp," Stoops said.

Coming in at ninth is Washington, which is coming off its worst year anyone can remember, but brings in new head coach Steve Sarkisian to steer the ship in the right direction.

There is a strong possibility that the rookie head coach will have to work some magic if he wants to see a successful 2009, especially if Jake Locker signs with the Anaheim Angels and decides he wants to get a start on baseball a little early.

What is more likely is that Locker signs the deal without an agent and retains his eligibility in order to play his final two years.

Regardless of Locker's situation, Sarkisian has a tall task ahead of him, but isn't going to settle for mediocrity in the long term.

"These guys didn't come to Washington not to win a bowl game," Sarkisian said.

Coming as a surprise to very few, Washington State pulls up the rear in Pac-10 predictions. Like UW, Wazzou is coming off a very forgettable year, but head coach Paul Wulff has a much more experienced group on offense and is hoping that translates to an improved team in 2009.

The Pac-10 conference from top to bottom is expected to have a down year according to popular perception, but there are people within the conference that simply do not buy that. Many feel the conference is only going to get tougher.

Just ask Harbaugh, whose improving Stanford program is one of the many reasons why the coaches in the conference feel confident about what's ahead.

"This is going to be a physical conference," Harbaugh said. "Only the strong are going to survive in this environment, 2009 Pac-10 football. This is going to be a mighty men conference this year."

Jason Nimrichter

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