SI.com's Stewart Mandel breaks down the 2003 conference race and predicts the final standings.
In the Pac-10's typical competitive fashion, any of four teams -- USC, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon State -- could easily be designated as the preseason favorite, and that's without mentioning the past two conference champions, Washington State and Oregon.
Coming off an 11-win season and Orange Bowl victory, Pete Carroll's Trojans are headed in the right direction, especially with the conference's top defense, but that doesn't mean the coming season won't present a challenge. Finding a capable replacement for Heisman winner Carson Palmer is tops on the agenda, but whoever wins the job gets to work with ultra-talented receiver Mike Williams.
Fast on the Trojans' heels, though, is another upstart program, Arizona State, that turned a few heads with its Holiday Bowl performance against Kansas State. Standout QB Andrew Walter returns to lead coach Dirk Koetter's high-powered offense, and the defense is well stocked even without departed All-America Terrell Suggs.
Another team entering the season with momentum is Oregon State, which returns the Pac-10's top running back, Steven Jackson, not to mention its old coach, Mike Riley. Washington also endured an unexpected coaching change in the offseason, though under drastically different circumstances. The Huskies are a complete wild card, capable of either exploding with prolific passer Cody Pickett and receiver Reggie Williams, or folding without leader Rick Neuheisel. Oregon, coming off a down year, remains a threat if it can shore up its ghastly secondary of a year ago.
New Washington State head man Bill Doba faces a likely rebuilding season after losing stars Jason Gesser, Rien Long and Marcus Trufant. Ditto Cal's Jeff Tedford, who led the Bears to unexpected glory in his debut season but must now go about starting life after Kyle Boller.
Stanford and Arizona bring up the rear. The Cardinal stumbled mightily in their first year without Tyrone Willingham, and this year Buddy Teevens must replace eight offensive starters, while John Mackovic needs a miracle to salvage his tenure with the Wildcats.
Darnell Bing, USC safety: The freshman is so highly regarded that Trojans athletic director and former Heisman winner Mike Garrett ceded his old No. 20 jersey.
Jason David, Washington State cornerback: Notched seven interceptions last season despite missing two games after getting punched in a locker-room fight.
Tyler Ebell, UCLA running back: The pint-sized (5-foot-9) runner packs plenty of punch, notching six straight 100-yard games as a freshman last fall.
Daryl Lightfoot, Arizona State receiver: Should become Andrew Walter's new No. 1 target following Shaun McDonald's defection to the NFL.
Chris Vincent, Oregon running back: The LSU transfer put himself in the mix for Onterrio Smith's old job after tearing it up in spring scrimmages.
Who replaces Carson Palmer? Sophomore Matt Leinart enters the fall No. 1 on the depth chart, but he hasn't exactly blown away the rest of the pack. Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance and Billy Hart remain in the mix, and heralded freshman John David Booty is expected to shake things up as well when he arrives. As solid as the Trojans are at almost every other position, they can't afford to let this one go unresolved for too long.
Will Washington figure out how to run? Even with a passing tandem like Cody Pickett and Reggie Williams, there inevitably will be times the Huskies need to hand it off. New coach Keith Gilbertson's first priority must be to improve a running game that ranked 113th nationally. UW was counting on vaunted redshirt freshman Kenny James to push incumbent tailback Rich Alexis but he missed most of spring with a foot injury.
How will Karl Dorell fare? No question UCLA took a gamble when it hired a 39-year-old alum with no head coaching experience, but those that have played with and for Karl Dorrell are confident it will pay off. One thing's for certain: Dorell enters a situation where the cupboard is hardly bare -- the Bruins will mix a young, talented offense with a defense full of proven veterans. The key is how they'll respond to their coach.
Aug. 30: A year after USC kicked off its unexpected run to the Orange Bowl by edging Auburn at the Coliseum, the highly touted Tigers host the rematch.
Sept. 20: Oregon has a chance to tell the football world it's not staying down for long by ruining Michigan's first trip to Autzen Stadium.
Oct. 4: A game played on this weekend last year, USC-Washington State, ultimately decided the Rose Bowl race. This year, USC visits Arizona State.
Nov. 22: The home team has ruled the day in the last few renditions of Oregon and Oregon State's Civil War, which this season returns to Eugene.