Attrition often is a factor in championship races, but this year, the attrition started well before the season did.
For years, the safe bet to win the Pac-10 crown was USC, which won or shared seven consecutive league titles from 2002-08. But because of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal, the Trojans are ineligible for the championship.
Oregon State loses its all-conference quarterback, the only quarterback in the league to throw for 3,000 yards last season. Stanford loses its All-America running back. Arizona lost its offensive and defensive coordinators from last season.
Add to those factors that Washington is in its second season under coach Steve Sarkisian, Arizona State has a new coordinator and a new quarterback to bolster its offense and Cal isn't facing the pressure of high expectations.
That all contributes to what figures to be a wide-open Pac-10 race.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers. The little guy is a big-play threat who puts up huge numbers. He has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first two seasons, and he's also an adept receiver who had 78 catches last season. He also had 19 plays that covered at least 20 yards.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: UCLA FS Rahim Moore. Every coach agrees that turnovers are the deciding factors in most games. With that in mind, any coach would want Moore on his team. Moore led the nation with 10 interceptions in '09. He also posted 49 tackles and seven pass breakups. Moore, a junior who has started every game of his career, figures to be a leading contender for the Thorpe Award.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Oregon QB Nate Costa. The dismissal of Jeremiah Masoli thrust Costa into the starting lineup and onto the hot seat. With Masoli, the Ducks were considered a contender for the national championship. That still may be the case with Costa, a fifth-year senior who's actually a better passer than his predecessor. But he also has a history of injuries, which have limited his playing time. He's attempted only 38 passes in his college career and thrown one touchdown. He threw for a mere 82 yards in his only start last season. Still, he was set to be the starter in 2008 before he was injured. Masoli stepped in and Costa didn't get his job back -- until now.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Arizona State CB Omar Bolden. He's trying to come back from a knee injury that prematurely ended his junior season. If he comes back strong, he'll provide a boost to a Sun Devils secondary that will have three new starters. If there are lingering effects from the injury, the Sun Devils' pass defense may be in trouble.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor. Somebody has to replace some of the production of departed All-America/Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. Last season, Taylor rushed for 303 yards in a backup role and showed enough explosiveness (63 yards on six carries vs. Arizona State, 62 yards on eighth carries vs. USC) to indicate he can be successful in a starting role. He has good speed and elusiveness. Even better, he has a good offensive line in front of him.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: USC LB Devon Kennard. After playing well at end and linebacker as a true freshman, he seems primed to make a step toward elite status. He may not be listed as a starter heading into the season, but it's just a matter of time before that changes. He's big, fast and intimidating and so good that he has to be on the field as much as possible. His emergence could force Chris Galippo into a backup role at middle linebacker or to another position.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: USC WR Kyle Prater. The Trojans receiving corps is counting on receiving a boost from a stellar group of freshman, and Prater, a high school All-America from Illinois, looks to be the best of the bunch. Indeed, if the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder quickly adapts to playing at the college level, he could emerge as USC's best receiver. He enrolled early and was a star during spring drills.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Arizona LB Derek Earls. Coach Mike Stoops knows a good defensive player when he sees one, and he like what he has seen from Earls, a junior college transfer. From North Dakota State College of Science, Earls has excellent size (6-3/235), good range and a mean streak. He enrolled early and established himself as a starter in the middle, an area the Wildcats need to upgrade.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: USC LB Chris Galippo. Expected to step in and become USC's next great linebacker, Galippo hasn't quite lived up to that billing. To be fair, he's had injury issues and hasn't played poorly. Last season, he made 70 tackles, third-highest on the team, but he hasn't met the standards of former star USC linebackers. This season, he'll have to raise his level of play to hold off sophomore Devon Kennard and retain his starting spot.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Washington State's Paul Wulff. His third season in Pullman figures to be make-or-break for Wulff; the Cougars went just 3-22 in his first two seasons. No other team from a Big Six conference has endured as much futility in that span. Washington State needs at least two victories this season to avoid the program's worst three-year stretch in its history.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Oregon State. The Beavers don't always have elite talent, but coach Mike Riley and his staff always seem to field a strong team that gets better as the season progresses. Oregon State has had winning records in six of the past seven seasons and posted at least eight wins in each of the past four seasons despite typically playing a challenging non-conference schedule. Mark Banker supervises a defense that routinely rates among the conference's best. Danny Langsdorf's offenses have averaged more than 27 points per games in each of the last four seasons.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: UCLA's Norm Chow. Don't blame him for UCLA's recent offensive struggles. The Bruins were a mess before he arrived and it will take a while to straighten it out. In his distinguished career, Chow has been a part of three national championship teams and has mentored three Heisman recipients. He's won various awards as the nation's premier assistant.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Arizona State's Craig Bray. In three seasons under Bray, Arizona State has ranked fourth or better in the Pac-10 in total defense each time. Last season, the Sun Devils led the conference in total defense and were second in scoring defense. The defense accomplished that despite getting little help from the offense.
THE OTHER STUFF
Ore. St.-TCU in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 4
Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18
Washington at Nebraska, Sept. 18
Oregon State at Boise State, Sept. 25
Stanford at Oregon, Oct. 2
Oregon at USC, Oct. 30
Stanford at California, Nov. 20
USC at Oregon State, Nov. 27
Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4
USC at UCLA, Dec. 4
TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Stanford. Some may expect the Cardinal, who won eight games last season, to ebb somewhat after losing Gerhart. But Stanford didn't reach a bowl with Gerhart in '08. The big difference was the quarterback play of Andrew Luck, who figures to be even better as a sophomore. The Cardinal also have good receivers and one of the nation's best offensive lines. A new defensive coordinator has been brought in to upgrade that unit. If the defense improves, the Cardinal could be a legitimate contender for the conference championship.
TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Washington. There is great optimism in Seattle for coach Steve Sarkisian's second season. The Huskies improved from no wins in '08 to five victories in his first season. Continued improvement could result in the Huskies' first bowl appearance since 2002. Senior QB Jake Locker returns to lead a solid offense, but defense is a major concern. The Huskies allowed more than 30 points in half their games last season. This season, they have a brutal schedule that includes non-conference games against BYU and Nebraska and league road trips to USC, Arizona and Oregon.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Oregon at USC, Oct. 30. Although USC is ineligible for the conference championship, the Trojans still hold the key to winning the Pac-10. Defending champion Oregon and USC were ranked first and second in the league's preseason poll. The Ducks have been dominated in their past two games at USC. If Oregon gets by USC, the Ducks could enter the last month of the season as national championship contenders.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Oregon State. The Beavers rarely take the easy road to a bowl game. Unlike most Pac-10 teams, Oregon State doesn't play an FCS opponent. Not only that, the Beavers also seem to seek out the best non-conference opponents available. This season, their non-conference schedule includes Boise State and TCU, which combined to go 25-1 last season. And both games are in the opponents' home state. The third out-of-conference foe is Louisville of the Big East. The Beavers also play Arizona and Stanford on the road.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Arizona State. Facing one FCS opponent is OK. Facing two is ridiculous. The Sun Devils ensure a fast start by opening their season with Portland State and Northern Arizona. That takes away from facing Big Ten power Wisconsin in Week 3.