Strutting Its Stuff

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pacific 10 Conference has a confident look this fall, a swagger that comes from winning three major bowl games and finishing last season with three teams in the top 10.

"A great season for us," conference Commissioner Tom Hansen says. "Historic."

It's enough to make fans forget that only two years ago this was a conference in doubt, its teams losing a slew of nationally televised games, the collective embarrassment stretching from Seattle to Los Angeles.

"There was a lot of youth and a lot of other reasons for the woes of a couple of years ago," says Chris Fowler, ESPN's college football host and a poll voter. "Nobody really thought the Pac-10 was going to stay down forever."

It's not only football that has recaptured the attention of the college cognoscenti. The Pac-10 placed three teams in the Elite Eight of the men's basketball tournament in March, marking only the second time a conference has produced so many top-ranked football and basketball teams in a single academic year.

Now, does all of this translate into a little more respect, especially from the East Coast?

Does Oregon State get more credit for defeating Arizona? Does UCLA rise in the rankings with a victory at Stanford?

Maybe. The three teams that finished in the top 10 last season--Oregon, Oregon State and Washington--return to the top 20 this fall, joined by UCLA at No. 17. It helps that the two Oregon teams were historically doormats.

"There is a perception of great depth this year," Fowler said. "People expect UCLA to bounce back and definitely USC will jump up in there. The Arizona schools have talent."

The conference is attracting even more attention because of Heisman Trophy talk swirling around Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton and Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington. And, come January, the Rose Bowl will play host to its first bowl championship series national championship game.

If a Pac-10 team gets into that game by being ranked No. 1 or No. 2, the conference might pull off a repeat of last season, putting its second-place team into the BCS' Fiesta Bowl.

The scenario was mentioned a time or two at the recent Pac-10 media day. But January is a long way off and even a beaming Hansen acknowledged that "now we go again and [last season] is nothing but history."

The Pac-10 revival makes it less likely that any team will survive the regular season unbeaten.

Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson calls the parity "unbelievable." Stanford Coach Tyrone Willingham, whose team is expected to run in the middle of the pack, likened it to auto racing. The Cardinal, he said, plans to draft off the leaders.

"There are a lot of good teams in the conference and we're hoping to let some of those teams pull us along," he said. "Hopefully, when the race is done we can finish near the front."

Pac-10 coaches also hope the polls will be understanding.

"Shoot, teams are really loaded," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "I can't imagine we're not getting the highest consideration."

1. OREGON

Coach: Mike Bellotti, seventh season.

2000 record: 10-2, 7-1.

Case for: Is quarterback Joey Harrington truly Heisman Trophy material, as suggested by Oregon's preseason promotional blitz? It might not matter because he has a veteran offensive line and a top-notch receiver in Keenan Howry. Tailback Maurice Morris will get some help if Tennessee transfer Onterrio Smith survives preseason disciplinary problems. And the Ducks don't play Washington.

Case against: Defense is the question mark for the Ducks, who have only four starters returning, fewest in the Pac-10 on that side of the ball. They also must restock what was a solid kicking game.

If all goes right: Oregon starts fast and Harrington gains confidence, not to mention Heisman votes, through November. A Dec. 1 victory over highly ranked Oregon State could put the Ducks in the national championship game at the Rose Bowl.

2. OREGON STATE

Coach: Dennis Erickson, third season.

2000 record: 11-1, 7-1.

Case for: The heart of the offense returns with quarterback Jonathan Smith and tailback Ken Simonton, who is looking for a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. Better yet, the season starts with Fresno State and two opponents off the dessert tray--New Mexico State and Montana State. Most of the tough Pac-10 games are at home.

Case against: Speedy receivers made this team dangerous in 2000 but the core of that group--Robert Prescott, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson--has departed. Oregon State also must replace six starters on a defense that led the conference last season.

If all goes right: The Beavers show their stuff against UCLA and Washington, then show the pollsters they are for real by winning the nationally televised showdown at Oregon.

3. WASHINGTON

Coach: Rick Neuheisel, third season.

2000 record: 11-1, 7-1.

Case for: Neuheisel has a good thing going with a program that appears deep enough to withstand the loss of quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, last season's Rose Bowl MVP. The Huskies have quality tailbacks--Rich Alexis and Willie Hurst--not to mention the conference's scariest defensive lineman in nose tackle Larry Tripplett.

Case against: First things first. Washington opens the season against Michigan, then travels to Miami, so Tuiasosopo's replacement will be tested early. The Huskies do not have to play Oregon, the only team to beat them last season, but must visit unfriendly Corvallis in November.

If all goes right: The Huskies find a solid replacement at quarterback, win at least one of their murderous opening games and never look back.

4. UCLA

Coach: Bob Toledo, sixth season.

2000 Record: 6-6, 3-5.

Case for: Last season, victories over highly ranked Alabama and Michigan proved the Bruins can play in big games, a characteristic that could serve them well with an early schedule that includes Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon State and Washington. Freddie Mitchell is gone, but the offense still has DeShaun Foster running behind a veteran line. Quarterback Cory Paus and receiver Brian Poli-Dixon can light up the scoreboard.

Case against: The Bruins need all the points they can get because they have yet to show any signs of life on defense. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman returns after being sidelined last season because of an injury, but new defensive coordinator Phil Snow will need help. Also, Foster and Paus must prove they can make it through a college season healthy.

If all goes right: UCLA piles up the points and gives Snow a chance to get something established on his side of the ball.

5. STANFORD

Coach: Tyrone Willingham, seventh season.

2000 record: 5-6, 4-4.

Case for: Last season was a rebuilding project and now the Cardinal hopes to reap what it sowed. Stanford has as many returning starters as any team in the conference, including quarterback Randy Fasani, free safety Tank Williams and linebacker Coy Wire. If Fasani falters, junior Chris Lewis has the speed and moves to step in.

Case against: Though Stanford lost only a few starters, they were key players. The Cardinal must find the breakaway threat it lacked last season, a task made more difficult by the departure of receiver DeRonnie Pitts. The defense must replace lineman Willie Howard and linebacker Riall Johnson.

If all goes right: Fasani stays healthy and powers an offense that averaged almost 30 points in games he played last season. With a defense that is a year older and wiser, that could be enough to put Stanford back in a bowl game.

6. USC

Coach: Pete Carroll, first season.

2000 record: 5-7, 2-6.

Case for: The Trojans have speed at all of the skill positions, from tailback Sultan McCullough to receiver Kareem Kelly. And new offensive coordinator Norm Chow, the mind behind all of those multiple-receiver teams at Brigham Young, might be just the guy to coax a big season from Carson Palmer.

Case against: The schedule does not favor a comeback, not with early games against Kansas State, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame. That puts pressure on Carroll who, as defensive coordinator, must replace a big part of the line and all his linebackers.

If all goes right: Palmer comes through and the defense holds its own. The Trojans score a few upsets in the early going, propelling them into a somewhat easier second half of the season.

7. ARIZONA STATE

Coach: Dirk Koetter, first season.

2000 record: 6-6, 3-5.

Case for: As is the case with USC, a new coaching staff means a new offense. And that means even more passing from a team that threw for 266 yards a game--best in the conference--in 2000. Koetter built a juggernaut at Boise State and now has a quarterback, Jeff Krohn, coming off a promising freshman season. Senior tailback Delvon Flowers is back from a knee injury but was hampered by a groin pull in camp.

Case against: Arizona State lost its two best players. Tight end Todd Heap left early for the NFL and the defense will be without last season's Pac-10 defensive player of the year, linebacker Adam Archuleta.

If all goes right: Koetter effectively masks the loss of Archuleta by switching to five down linemen and two linebackers. The Sun Devils also need a solid season from Krohn.

8. CALIFORNIA

Coach: Tom Holmoe, fifth season.

2000 record: 3-8, 2-6.

Case for: Junior quarterback Kyle Boller has shown flashes of brilliance and may now benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Al Borges, hired away from UCLA. The defense appears deep enough to weather the loss of linemen Andre Carter and Jacob Waasdorp.

Case against: There is a hint of desperation in the Berkeley air. Holmoe has said--repeatedly--he must field a winning team or face the chopping block. Odd as it sounds, his chances are hurt by the departure of a punter, All-American Nick Harris, whose leg kept Cal in games last season.

If all goes right: Boller has a breakout season, leading the kind of Borges offense that has made UCLA so threatening. Joe Igber, an all-purpose back, also figures in the picture.

9. ARIZONA

Coach: John Mackovic, first season.

2000 record: 5-6, 3-5.

Case for: Though the usually tough defense faltered down the stretch in 2000, its seven returning starters include freshman All-American cornerback Michael Jolivette and linebacker Lance Briggs, second in the Pac-10 in tackles last season. The offense is led by Clarence Farmer, another freshman All-American.

Case against: Mackovic is an offense-minded coach but, for the first time in a long time, Arizona enters the season without a veteran quarterback. Jason Johnson will be asked to revive an offense that sputtered last season.

If all goes right: The defense returns to the salad days of "Desert Swarm," giving the offense time to find its stride. Opening games against San Diego State and Idaho provide a cushion.

10. WASHINGTON STATE

Coach: Mike Price, 13th year.

2000 record: 4-7, 2-6.

Case for: The Cougars might have had a winning record in 2000 if they hadn't lost three games in overtime. They return with two impressive quarterbacks--Jason Gesser, who was injured late last season, and Matt Kegel, who stepped in to engineer a victory over USC. Price might use both.

Case against: Eight starters return from last season's defense, but that might not be a good thing. The Cougars couldn't keep opponents out of the end zone, yielding more than 32 points a game. They were similarly weak in special teams.

If all goes right: Washington State gets the offense cranked up enough to grab early victories against Idaho and Boise State, then steals a few during conference season.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

2000 Pacific 10 Final Standings

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Conf. Overall TEAM W L W L *Washington 7 1 10 1 Oregon State 7 1 10 1 Oregon 7 1 9 2 Stanford 4 4 5 6 Arizona 3 5 5 6 UCLA 3 5 6 5 Arizona State 3 5 6 5 USC 2 6 5 7 Washington State 2 6 4 7 California 2 6 3 8

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*-champion

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