Five things to keep an eye on in Pac-10 race

LOS ANGELES — Start the clock.

The countdown to the Pacific 10 Conference football season officially begins this morning with the league's annual media day, parading coaches and players before a roomful of reporters at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport.

There will be a few unfamiliar faces, starting with Commissioner Larry Scott, who takes over for the retired Tom Hansen. The conference also has two new coaches and plenty of turnover on the rosters.

With training camps set to open early next month, here's a look at five key issues for the upcoming season:

From the top

The installation of USC coordinator Steve Sarkisian as Washington's coach kept Pac-10 football in the news during the off-season.

There was talk of a budding rivalry with his former boss, Pete Carroll, and a pair of secondary recruiting violations in his first weeks on the job.

The transition at Oregon has gone a little more quietly with longtime coach Mike Bellotti stepping aside and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly taking over.

Bellotti's departure, by the way, makes Carroll the dean of Pac-10 coaches. He is set to begin his ninth season with the Trojans.

The conference has also seen a number of coordinator jobs change hands, including Chuck Bullough taking control of the UCLA defense after DeWayne Walker left to become head coach at New Mexico State.

Quarterback shuffle

Four of the five top passers in the conference last season — in terms of yardage, at least — are gone, if you count the expected move of UCLA's Kevin Craft to the bench. That makes for some big changes behind center.

Most eyes will be on USC and Aaron Corp, who is the leading candidate to replace Mark Sanchez. Across town, the Bruins' season could hinge on how well Kevin Prince adapts to his new role as starter. For the first time in a long time, Arizona State enters a season without Rudy Carpenter, who was both efficient and tough enough to survive behind an offensive line that has been porous in recent years.

The other big change comes at Arizona, where the Wildcats must replace Willie Tuitama's 3,088 yards and 23 touchdowns through the air.

Murderer's row

New season, same old question: Can someone loosen USC's stranglehold on the conference?

Early polls suggest that California and Oregon State have the best chance of ending the Trojans' record run of seven consecutive Pac-10 titles.

But don't forget about Oregon. The Ducks start their season with a tough stretch, opening at Boise State, then hosting Purdue, Utah and California.

Among those opponents, all but Purdue could be nationally ranked and if the Ducks emerge with a 4-0 record they will be in the national championship picture.

Game changers

Even with several top quarterbacks moving on, the Pac-10 has a wealth of skill players returning on offense, the kind of talent that can break games open.

  • JAKE LOCKER: Perhaps no player in the Pac-10 means more to his team than the Washington quarterback, who can pass and run. Any chance of a Husky revival depends on his return from last season's broken thumb.
  • JOE MCKNIGHT: It's no secret what the USC tailback can do on the field. The question is: Can he avoid the nagging injuries that hampered him last season?
  • JAHVID BEST: California's quick running back led the conference in rushing last season with 1,580 yards and a gaudy 8.1 yards a carry.
  • JACQUIZZ RODGERS: Last season's upset victory over the Trojans proved that the Oregon State tailback can dominate a game. And he's only a sophomore.
  • ROB GRONKOWSKI: The Arizona tight end might not be a speedster, but in 10 games last season he averaged 14.3 yards a reception and scored 10 times, tied for best among receivers in the conference.

Circle the dates

The Pac-10 won't be serving up many cupcakes in the early season, not with a pre-conference schedule that includes these games.

Sept. 3: Oregon starts things off with that trip to dangerous Boise State.

Sept. 5: California hosts Maryland.

Sept. 12: USC travels to Ohio State, and UCLA visits Tennessee.

Sept. 19: Utah is at Oregon, California is at Minnesota and Arizona travels to Iowa.

Sept. 26: Arizona State plays at Georgia.

If that's not enough, the conference schedule begins in earnest with USC at California for an Oct. 3 game that could ultimately decide the Pac-10 crown.

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