Thirty-four times, UCLA and USC have played with the Rose Bowl on the line for at least one of the schools, and that scenario might play out again on Nov. 18 at the Coliseum.
USC was the overwhelming pick to win the conference title at Pacific 10 media day a month ago, getting 34 of 42 first-place votes. UCLA got four.
The Pac-10 goes from a season called “the year of the quarterback” to a season of largely new quarterbacks.
Gone is Stanford’s Steve Stenstrom, who became the Pac-10’s all-time leading passer last year. Enter his mop-up man, Mark Butterfield.
Gone is USC’s Rob Johnson, the conference’s alltime accuracy leader at 64.6%. Enter Brad Otton or Kyle Wachholtz. Or both.
Gone is Oregon’s Danny O’Neil, who took the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl since 1958 and threw a conference-high 20 touchdown passes.
Gone is UCLA’s Wayne Cook, the league’s third-most productive passer a year ago.
The best returning starters would seem to be Arizona’s Danny White and Arizona State’s Jake Plummer. In 1994, they were fourth and fifth in production, behind Stenstrom, Johnson and Cook.
But neither leads a team that seems to have enough to challenge USC, UCLA and Washington.
California’s Pat Barnes, who started the Bears’ last three games in 1994, takes over for Dave Barr. Barnes had completed 67% of his passes, and some liked Cal early as a dark horse pick.
But preseason injuries and dropouts have dampened much of the enthusiasm in Berkeley. Last year, Cal was alternately very good (26-7 over UCLA) or very bad (61-0 loss to USC), and the consensus is Keith Gilbertson will be hard-pressed to improve a 4-7 record.
White, a senior, completed 57% of his passes last year and had only seven interceptions.
Match him with what’s left of the Wildcats’ sack-happy Desert Swarm defense, and Arizona seems a cut below last season but still solid.
Defensive end Tedy Bruschi, probably the Pac-10’s most honored returnee, returns, as does nose guard Chuck Osborne. They had 21 of Arizona’s conference-leading 47 sacks last season.
On offense, Coach Dick Tomey has to do a major overhaul. A completely new line must be fashioned, and Arizona needs a running back to take over from 1,000-yard tailback Ontiwaun Carter.
Another major loss was All-American kicker Steve McLaughlin, the league’s field goal leader.
Washington, 7-4 the past two seasons, gets a lift simply by coming off conference probation, but the Huskies are plainly not what they were when they went on their two-year bowl ban.
The Pac-10’s most dangerous player the past two seasons, Napoleon Kaufman, is an Oakland Raider, and Coach Jim Lambright lost another first-round draft pick, tight end Mark Bruener.
Damon Huard returns as Lambright’s quarterback.
Oregon came into the Coliseum a year ago as a 19-point underdog to USC, partly because O’Neil was ill and the Ducks had to go with a sophomore quarterback no one had heard of, Tony Graziani.
Oregon won, 22-7, and never looked back. It was a season in which everything broke right for Oregon. Can it happen again?
Graziani is the starter, and he has Oregon’s three leading receivers back. Sixteen starters return for the conference champions, but their coach, Rich Brooks, was picked off by the Rams.
Mike Bellotti, last year’s offensive coordinator, takes over.
Washington State was a surprise 7-4 finisher a year ago because of its defense, which was the best in the conference.
But eight of those defensive starters are gone, and the Cougars’ offensive prospects aren’t much. Chad Davis returns at quarterback, but last year his offense could average only 16.5 points and 280 yards per game.
Cougar fans are quick to point out those same Pac-10 media voters who tabbed USC this year picked Washington State last a year ago.
Oregon State, 2-6 in the conference last year, will probably roll up big rushing yards out of its Wishbone offense because the Beavers return the team’s leading rusher, quarterback Don Shanklin, plus seven other ball carriers who played last year.
Coach Jerry Pettibone says he has more team depth this time than on any of his previous four Oregon State teams.
His best player is safety Reggie Tongue, who returned three interceptions for touchdowns last season and was the league’s third-ranked tackler at 9.1 per game.
Stanford’s new coach, Tyrone Willingham, has 15 starters from a disappointing 3-7-1 team and a nasty schedule. Four of the Cardinal’s first five games and two of the last three are on the road.
Nine of the returning starters are defensive players, but Willingham isn’t sure that’s good news. Stanford gave up 404 yards and 32.6 points per game in 1994.
And so, perhaps, this one really will be decided Nov. 18 in the Coliseum.
No team has more returning starters, 17, than UCLA, which has beaten USC four years in a row.
Like momentum? After losing six in a row last year, UCLA looked as strong as anyone at the end, winning its last three. USC went 1-1-1 in the stretch.