No. 1: Oregon. That a team can lose a Heisman candidate quarterback and still be picked to win the conference says more about the wide-open nature of the Pac-10 than anything else. There’s no question the Ducks are going to miss oustsed quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was a perfect fit for Oregon’s spread offense. But the Ducks have so much talent and experience in other areas that they still are the favorite to return to the Rose Bowl this season.
Whether it’s Nate Costa or Darron Thomas under center, the Ducks will provide a nice security blanket with what’s on the field on the rest of the offense. LaMichael James will have to sit out the season-opener against New Mexico after getting into a fight with his girlfriend, but when he returns he gives Oregon arguably the second-best tailback in the conference behind Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers. James is the Pac-10′s leading returning rusher after gaining 1,546 yards and rushing for 14 touchdowns last year as a redshirt freshman. The Ducks’ offensive line, which Cal saw first-hand last season how effective it can be, returns all five starters. Oregon also returns all three top wide receivers, but must replace dynamic tight end Ed Dickson, who was a NFL third-round draft pick.
The Ducks had one of the fastest and most athletic defenses in the Pac-10 last season, and eight starters return to that unit. Defensive end Kenny Rowe exploded onto the scene last season and led the conference with 11 1/2 sacks. Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews form quite one-two punch at linebacker. John Boyett, the Pac-10′s second-leading tackler last season, returns at one safety. Speedster Eddie Pleasant will move from linebacker to the other safety spot.
Costa does have some limited experience for the Ducks. Oregon doesn’t need Costa or Thomas to be as good as Masoli. They just need them to get a good enough grasp of Oregon’s spread option to make the right passes while otherwise handing the ball off to James. With what should be another effective defense, the Ducks are in position to be Pac-10 champs again.