A series of offseason events appear to have set up a wide-open race for the Pac-10 championship, yet reigning champion Oregon remains the smart pick to win it.
Well, maybe not.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, perhaps the best in the country at his position, warns not to discount the Cardinal.
"We sort of glimpsed what it was like [last season] to be a winning program," said Luck, a third-year sophomore. "Now, we have a little more urgency and pressure from the players ourselves to practice like we are a championship team."
Luck was valedictorian of his high school class in Houston. His father, Oliver, was a Rhodes Scholar finalist and graduated magna cum laude at West Virginia, where he was a two-time Academic All-America quarterback.
Therefore, if Luck is confident, maybe the smart choice is Stanford.
After all, Oregon dismissed quarterback Jeremiah Masoli during the offseason and Masoli now is at Ole Miss. So why not Stanford, which returns a ton of starters from last season's eight-win team?
Sure, Stanford has won the Pac-10 championship just four times and not since 1999, but last season, the Cardinal beat Oregon. Stanford also beat USC, which isn't eligible to win the Pac-10 championship because of NCAA sanctions.
With USC out of the race, the chances for a team such as Stanford to win the championship are enhanced. That doesn't matter to Luck.
"Nobody wants to win the Pac-10 ... with USC beating them," he said. "It's been a somewhat tumultuous offseason, but I don't look at it as an opportunity to walk in and breeze [to the Pac-10 championship]. There are still a lot of good teams: Oregon State, Washington, Oregon, Arizona. ... Everybody is gearing up for the race."
Stanford's hopes of winning that race are heavily dependent on Luck, who was brilliant as a redshirt freshman with 2,575 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
He has intelligence, understanding and a good, accurate arm. Luck also has a strong offensive line and a group of receivers, led by Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu, that's as good as any in the Pac-10.
But he doesn't have running back Toby Gerhart. Last season's Heisman runner-up, Gerhart rushed for 1,871 yards. He had 223 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon, and he gained another 178 against USC.
Now that Gerhart has gone to the NFL, Luck becomes the focal point of the offense. It's a responsibility he's embracing.
"As a first-year quarterback last year, I don't think too much was expected out of me," Luck said. "Now I have experience under my belt. I'm relishing the opportunity to have a little more pressure. ... It will be different than last year, but it will be good."
Luck was good last year. This year, he's expected to be great. He has developed so well in Stanford's West Coast offense that coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, called him the best quarterback in the country.
"He is a unique talent," Harbaugh said. "He does things physically and mentally that you cannot teach. He's the best quarterback in the nation right now."
That's high praise, indeed.
"I'm glad Coach Harbaugh has faith in me and makes it known," Luck said. "I try not to listen much to what people say. Obviously, he's my head coach, so I listen to what he says. But I'm just trying to win the Pac-10 and win the Rose Bowl."
Of course, so is Oregon, which still is a strong contender even without Masoli. Oregon State is a strong contender with Jacquizz and James Rodgers leading the way. So is Arizona with quarterback Nick Foles an emerging star.
But it wouldn't be smart to count out Stanford.
Best matchup: Oregon State DT Stephen Paea vs. TCU C Jake Kirkpatrick. A pair of potential All-Americans will go head-to-head at times. Strong and quick, Paea is a run stuffer who also can provide an inside pass rush. Kirkpatrick anchored a line that enabled TCU to rank fifth in the nation in rushing offense last season.
Player on the spot: Washington QB Jake Locker. The senior quarterback has been hailed as perhaps the best at his position in the country and a bona-fide Heisman candidate. Here's a chance to prove it against a high-profile opponent on the road. BYU was vulnerable against the pass in '09, but the Cougars also knocked then-reigning Heisman recipient Sam Bradford out of the game in last year's season-opening upset of Oklahoma. The Huskies are optimistic they can make their first postseason appearance since '02. But for that to happen, Locker must play well in games against quality competition - like BYU.
Numbers game: Washington travels to BYU in hopes of ending a 12-game road losing streak. The Huskies haven't won on the road since defeating Stanford 27-9 in '07, although they have come close. In '08, they lost in overtime at Washington State; last season, they lost in overtime at Notre Dame, by one point at UCLA and by a touchdown at Arizona State. Only nine players on the Huskies' roster have participated in a road victory.
What they're saying:
"We just feel where we are offensively and what we're going to do, he is the best choice. He's a great fit for what we do, and I think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback for us." - Oregon coach Chip Kelly, on naming sophomore Darron Thomas as the starting quarterback over senior Nate Costa
"There is a lot of anticipation to finally get going after everything this offseason. The staff came here to coach and the players came here to play, and we finally get a chance to do that." - USC coach Lane Kiffin
"It's my last year, maybe ever, playing football. I'm going to go with a bang." - Cal senior QB Kevin Riley
"This is a really, really good team - maybe as fast a team as we've seen overall." - Oregon State coach Mike Riley, on opening-week opponent TCU
Etc.: Junior Steven Threet, who sat out the '09 season after transferring from Michigan, has been named Arizona State's starting quarterback. Threet was chosen over sophomore Brock Osweiler and junior Samson Szakacsy. The Sun Devils have lost sophomore DT William Sutton, who has ruled academically ineligible. ... Cal RB Shane Vereen aims to pick up where he left off last season. After taking over for an injured Jahvid Best, Vereen rushed for 566 yards in his last four games. That's more than any other Pac-10 returning running back in that span. ... Oregon star RB LaMichael James is suspended for this week's game against New Mexico, leaving the Ducks thin at that position. Kenjon Barner will start, with converted quarterback Daryle Hawkins, walk-on Andres Reed and little-used senior Remene Alston, who has been slowed by a foot injury, backing him up. Freshmen Dontae Williams and Lache Seastrunk likely will redshirt. ... Oregon State sophomore T Michael Philipp is hobbled by a sprained ankle and won't be in the starting lineup against TCU. He'll be replaced by senior Wilder McAndrews.... UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel hasn't decided who he'll start at quarterback against Kansas State. Going with either incumbent starter Kevin Prince, who has been slowed by a strained oblique, or sophomore Richard Brehaut may be a game-time decision. ... Wide receiver Shaquelle Evans, who left Notre Dame earlier this week, is expected to enroll at UCLA. ... Most players improve their conditioning by putting more work in. USC DT DeJohn Harris did it by getting his tonsils out. His tonsils were larger than normal and caused sleep apnea. ... USC G Khaled Holmes is slated to start against Hawaii tonight even though he's been dealing with a pinched nerve in his neck. ... USC, which opens at Hawaii, is 29-1 all-time against opponents from the Western Athletic Conference and 6-0 all-time against Hawaii. The Trojans have won 12 straight season openers and their past 16 non-conference games. ... True freshman OT John Fullington is expected to play right away for Washington State. He could even start because the Cougars desperately need an influx of talent on the line. Washington State allowed 53 sacks last season. The year before, the Cougars gave up 43. ... The Huskies' opener against BYU will be a homecoming of sorts for coach Steve Sarkisian. He was BYU's starting quarterback in 1995 and '96.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.