June 21, 2009

Which conference race is most intriguing?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for his opinion about a topic in the sport.

TODAY'S QUESTION: Rivals.com continues to roll out its 1-120 countdown, so it's a good time to ask this: What major conference race are you most interested in?

After all the controversy involving the tiebreaker last season, the Big 12 South has to be most intriguing. Another three-way tie definitely is a possibility with Texas, Oklahoma and probably Oklahoma State being the most likely teams involved. Oklahoma State strikes me a lot like Texas Tech a year ago a senior quarterback, maybe the best receiver in the country and a solid offensive line (as well as an outstanding tailback). In addition, Oklahoma State plays Texas in Stillwater. It could be another wild season. The way that division is going, perhaps instead of making preseason predictions of a winner we should project what team is most likely to get hosed by the system.

I am interested in the Pac-10 race. Why? Because I think USC may be as vulnerable as it has been since Pete Carroll's first season in 2001. The Trojans had 11 players picked in the NFL draft, including eight from its defense. The offense lost its best player, quarterback Mark Sanchez. Also working against USC is a schedule that includes road games at Ohio State, California, Notre Dame and Oregon. No school has so dominated its league like USC has this decade. But the Trojans' run of seven consecutive Pac-10 championships a league record finally may be over, giving Oregon or California a great chance to pounce.

The Big 12 didn't have the best postseason, but I still expect the 2009 season to be a worthy encore to the fireworks of '08. Texas and Oklahoma and their electric offenses will be national title contenders again, with the Red River Rivalry being one of the hottest tickets of the season. Oklahoma State will play the role Texas Tech did a year ago as a potential spoiler with a high-octane offense looking for a shred of defense. In the North, I want to see if Kansas is going to be a legitimate contender for the conference title, not just the division. The Jayhawks dodged the toughest teams in the league during their 12-1 season in '07. They have the offense to hang with the league's best, but they need to beat Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech to be taken seriously. The league also has its sleepers. Behind Robert Griffin, Baylor will be a bowl contender. And I'm not sure how he did it so quietly, but Bo Pelini won nine games in his first season at Nebraska.

There is an element of mystery in each league, whether it is about an overall title or a division race. To me, the most intriguing is the Pac-10 because if league foes don't get USC this season, you wonder if it will ever happen. USC has owned the league of late and the league race has become all about trying to beat USC. The Trojans will have eight new starters on defense and a new quarterback; they also need to replace a talented and productive wide receiver. USC has recruited exceptionally well, but that's a ton of talent to replace at one time. Plus, the schedule isn't kind for USC. The Trojans play their toughest conference games (California and Oregon) on the road. They have six home games, tied for the fewest in the conference. Two of their three non-conference games are on the road against bowl teams from last season (Ohio State and Notre Dame). There's a five-game stretch in the middle of the season in which the Trojans play four road games (Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon, Arizona State), and the only home game in the stretch is against Oregon State, which handed the Trojans their only loss last season. And USC doesn't play home games on consecutive weekends until the final two games of the season. Again, if conference foes don't get the Trojans this season .

The easy answer is to pick the SEC because that league's champion has won the national title in each of the past three seasons. But I'm also interested in the Pac-10 race because this season represents a golden opportunity for someone to end USC's string of seven consecutive conference championships. USC is breaking in a new starting quarterback and is overhauling a defense that allowed fewer points per game than any team in the nation last season. Aaron Corp should be a good quarterback, but it's tough to imagine him being as effective as first-round pick Mark Sanchez. And that defense may be loaded with talent, but a unit full of first-year starters is going to struggle to maintain the dominance that Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Fili Moala and Co. provided last season. USC also must play two of its top conference rivals California and Oregon on the road. If USC's string of titles doesn't end this year, the Pac-10's reign of Troy could continue as long as Pete Carroll stays on the job.

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