LOS ANGELES -- Though the preseason Pac-10 favorite pick has already been unanimously given to USC, there are a handful of teams poised to take advantage should the Trojans falter.
Cal, Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State all return enough talent to at least be labeled as darkhorses in the conference. On Tuesday, each team took time to talk about their strengths, and even weaknesses, during the Pac-10 Media Day.
Most teams in the Bears shoes would consider 2005 a rebuilding year. Cal must replace a host of talent, including Pac-10 leading rusher J.J. Arrington. But coach Jeff Tedford was gushing about 2005 starting tailback Marshawn Lynch.
"When you lose a 2,000 yard rusher, you'd think there'd be some concern there," said Tedford. "But Marshawn may be the best all-around football player I've ever seen. He's so versatile. He's strong, he can run inside, he's fast, he can break the big play. And Marshawn catches the ball as well as any of our receivers."
Preseason All-American center Marvin Philip, who anchors a strong Cal line, is equally impressed with Lynch.
"Any time you get to block for someone like Marshawn, it's just great," said Philip. "Most of the time I catch myself just watching him, and seeing the things he can do. Marshawn is just a phenomenal athlete, and to have someone of that caliber in the backfield filling Arrington's shoes is wonderful."
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti is excited about the addition of former Brigham Young coach Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator. Bellotti has been pleased with the changes Crowton has made thus far.
"I think it's been a really smooth transition. I really feel like [starting quarterback] Kellen Clemens and Gary have hit it off very well," said Bellotti.
Bellotti also thinks that the spread offense will help take pressure off the offensive line while giving Clemens more decision-making responsibilities.
"It has put Kellen back more in his natural state," Bellotti said. "We're going to do more from the shotgun which is what Kellen ran in high school. I think by spreading the field and giving him more options, we're not holding the ball as long.
"And that makes it better for everybody – the offensive linemen, the receivers and the quarterbacks," added Bellotti. "I'm excited, and I think Kellen will have the best numbers of his career."
UCLA will have plenty of positions up for grabs in the coming weeks, but coach Karl Dorrell doesn't mind the position controversies on his team – he encourages them.
"We have competition, but I think competition helps any program," said Dorrell. "It ensures that we don't have any complacency."
Starting quarterback Drew Olsen'storn ACL in January opened the door for younger players to leave an impression in spring practices. Dorrell, however, insisted that the job is Olsen's to lose.
"Drew has gotten himself into a position where he's ready to go," said Dorrell. "He understands that he has guys fighting for the position, but someone is going to have to clearly outplay him. Right now, Drew is our guy"
Dorrell and the Bruins will also lean heavily on tailback Maurice Drew, but the UCLA coach has confidence in his star.
"What I saw this spring was a much more mature player, a guy that's going to be more patient and understand his role," Dorrell said of Drew. "That's going to lead him to have the year that we anticipate him to have, which is being one of the best backs in this conference, if not the nation."
After losing a standout senior quarterback, most coaches would be concerned about filling the position. But Arizona State's Dirk Koetter only expressed excitement over his new offensive leader.
"Obviously replacing Andrew Walter is a big question with everybody, but we feel like we've got a great plan of attack in Sam Keller, who is coming off an MVP performance in the Sun Bowl," said Koetter.
Derek Hagan, arguably the best receiver in the Pac-10, also expects big things from the new quarterback.
"We've been working out with Sam for the past two or three years, and Andrew has taught him everything he needs to know on the field," said Hagan. "We've always had a lot of confidence in Sam to do the job, and he's just really anxious to get out there and show that he can get the job done."