Once there was a simple way to pick the favorite in the Pacific-10 Conference football race: Look for the most talented senior quarterback. Now there’s a new way: Look to the USC Trojans. The Trojans enter the 2008 football season as overwhelming favorites to win their seventh straight Pac-10 championship and are among the top contenders for another national title.
All of that, even though USC is breaking in a starting quarterback whose fall camp was shortened by injury.
Working in the Trojans’ favor is a cycle of similar quarterback uncertainty playing out across the conference.
Only three Pac-10 teams reported to camp with an experienced quarterback firmly atop the depth chart: senior Rudy Carpenter at Arizona State, senior Willie Tuitama at Arizona and sophomore Jake Locker at Washington.
Everywhere else – from top-rated USC to bottom-rated Washington State – someone new will take over, and in some cases, only after a camp-long competition.
USC is looking to replace John David Booty, now with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. The Trojans began with junior Mark Sanchez atop the depth chart, though he is not quite assured of the starting job.
“Mark is a more mobile guy that creates opportunities for himself to make some plays in addition to the normal plays in the offense,” USC coach Pete Carroll said at Pac-10 media day. “He’s very competitive, he’s a great practice player, he’s got a great arm. He’s really a fantastic player. … I think he’s going to do everything that anybody can do with this spot – if he can hold on to his job and keep ahead of Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp, because the competition is on as it always is.”
The situation became more jumbled in camp when Sanchez went down with a knee injury. However, with the opener at Virginia just days away, Sanchez has reclaimed the top spot, with Corp apparently passing Mustain for the reserve job.
The situation is typical of what has played out at Southern California for much of this decade, as good players have departed, and they have been replaced by other good players who are backed up by still other good players.
“We had a terrific run in our history here, but the kids who have been in the program for so many years winning championships have all left us,” Carroll said. “(This season has brought) emergence of the leadership from guys like Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Kevin Ellison and Mark Sanchez and Kristopher O’Dowd. We sense a whole new excitement about a program.”
The team most often cited as the top threat to Trojans supremacy is ASU, in its second season under coach Dennis Erickson and its fourth behind Carpenter.
However, the other prime challengers – Oregon and California – each headed to camp with quarterback questions.
“The quarterback position is – I won’t say of concern, but I’ll say of interest,” Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said at the start of camp. “We’re going to have five guys competing for that job. We have a practice order, and Nate Costa heads that up. But Justin Roper did a tremendous job in our bowl game and probably his performance in practices leading up to that game and in the (Oregon State game), gave our team the confidence, I believe, to win that football game.”
Costa seemed on his way to winning the starting job before going down last week with a knee injury. Roper likely will open the season at the controls.
At Cal, coach Jeff Tedford also entered camp without certainty, but with options. In the end, he chose sophomore Kevin Riley over senior Nate Longshore.
Contrary to usual Pac-10 trends, the other two teams with the most stable quarterback situations – Arizona and Washington – are projected toward the middle or bottom of the league.
Expected to battle along with them for the remaining bowl slots are UCLA, where third-stringer Kevin Craft will step up after injuries to Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson; Oregon State, where the starting job went to Lyle Moevao after injuries took Sean Canfield out of the running; Stanford, where sophomore Tavita Pritchard (from Clover Park in Lakewood) seems to have at least the temporary lead in heavy competition that could last all season; and Washington State, where Gary Rogers will try to replace Alex Brink, whose name now dots the WSU record book.
“I think it’s a tremendous conference both from the talent of a playing standpoint and a coaching standpoint,” said Bellotti, the dean of Pac-10 coaches. “If you look at a veteran quarterback, I think that’s a starting point. If you look at an emerging defense, I think that’s another starting point. You’ve got to have some support people on offense because a quarterback in and of himself can’t do it.”