Could Arizona contend for the Pac-10 title?

While much has been made of the NCAA sanctions placed against USC and the potential long-term impact on the program, the Trojans remain the face of the Pac-10.

Despite Oregon’s thrilling ride to the conference title and its berth in the Rose Bowl last season, ‘SC is still the league’s flagship franchise. Former head coach Pete Carroll transformed the Trojans into a football factory that produced wins and NFL draft picks, while keeping an often-average conference on the national radar.

Ironically, that success ultimately led to doom with the two-year postseason ban and scholarship limitations.

With Carroll out of Los Angeles and Jeremiah Masoli — a potential Heisman finalist — no longer running the show in Eugene for the defending champion Ducks, could a dark horse candidate emerge to claim the Pac-10 championship in 2010?

Arizona certainly isn’t the first team to come to mind strictly based off the Wildcats’ history, but Gary Randazzo of makes a compelling case as to why the ‘Cats could be serious contenders in the fall for the league title.

Head coach Mike Stoops will have the luxury of watching a potentially dynamic offense take the field every Saturday, led by quarterback Nick Foles, who threw for 2,486 yards and 19 touchdowns while completing 63.6 percent of his passes last season. Skill players abound in Tucson, with wide receiver Juron Criner and running back Nic Grigsby leading deep and talented units. Perhaps only Washington returns as much offensive firepower as the ‘Cats. Frank Scelfo is the new quarterbacks coach, and he is expected to help Foles make big strides this year — particularly by ironing out issues with his footwork and balance.

While only four starters return on defense, the unit was unimpressive at best and very conservative at times last season. The pass coverage was suspect, but that could be helped with a pass rush led by solid defensive ends Rick Elmore and Brooks Reed. Junior cornerback Trevin Wade had five interceptions in ’09 and has 23 pass breakups in the last two seasons, so he should benefit from the new defensive scheme.

The disastrous 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl likely is still weighing on the minds of every player and coach, which is a good thing at least in terms of motivation. I still don’t love the idea of Arizona employing co-coordinators on both sides of the ball, but the Wildcats didn’t seem to run into any problems this spring. However, how will they respond to the first bit of adversity during the season?

Having five conference home games is a benefit, but the Wildcats still must travel to UCLA, Stanford and Oregon. However, all three of those teams have issues — much like every other team in the league.

As mentioned, USC and Oregon have to be considered the top two favorites based on recent trends. We know about the Trojans’ dominance throughout the first decade of the new century, and we know that the team is loaded with talent despite it showing signs of coming back to the pack the last few seasons.

With the team adjusting nicely to new head coach Lane Kiffin and Matt Barkley returning under center, there were hints this spring that the Trojans were ready to regain their swagger — even with the sanctions looming. Throw in a loaded backfield and Kyle Prater joining Ronald Johnson at wide receiver, the Trojans should have no problem scoring points.

Defensively, can the deep and talented defensive line put enough pressure on the opposing quarterback to aid a young secondary?

While Oregon will definitely miss Masoli, both Nate Costa and Darron Thomas are more than capable of keeping the Ducks’ offensive machine rolling. The Ducks also have one of the fastest defenses in the conference and return eight starters to a unit that ranked 35th nationally (336.3 ypg) in ’09.

Mike Riley always has Oregon State playing hard, as evidenced by the Beavers playing for a Rose Bowl berth in the final week of last season. But as talented as sophomore Ryan Katz may be, will his lack of experience prove detrimental to the Beavers? Also, is their front seven good enough to win a close game?

Washington quarterback Jake Locker may be the most valuable player in the league, and he’ll have plenty of weapons to light up the scoreboard in Seattle with 1,000-yard-plus running back Chris Polk and three wide receivers — Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson — who combined for 131 catches, 1,881 yards and 16 touchdowns in ’09. Plus, ten starters return to coordinator Nick Holt’s defense.

UCLA needs to replace a lot of talent on defense — including three who earned first-team all-conference honors — and hope that Kevin Prince is steady under center and utilizes his vast array of weapons offensively.

California is in a similar situation to the Bruins on defense, as new coordinator and veteran NFL assistant Clancy Pendergast will look to make the Golden Bears more aggressive with lots of blitzes and stunts. But can Kevin Riley put it all together under center in his senior season?

Stanford is banking on new coordinator Vic Fangio performing a miracle defensively, while quarterback Andrew Luck will do his best to lead the offense in the post-Toby Gerhart era.

Arizona State still has a decision to make at quarterback, but will it matter if he has to play behind a questionable offensive line? And Washington State is, well, Washington State.

What does this all mean for Arizona? We’ll get our best chance to see if the Wildcats could be serious contenders when they play their most important nonconference game September 18 against Iowa. If Stoops’ team can hang with the Hawkeyes, it could be a foreshadowing of good things to come once the Wildcats enter league play.

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