He was driving down Highway 101 in Northern California, and his spirits were as high as the late-morning sun. "I love our team," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said last week as he neared Palo Alto to preside over a spring practice on the Farm. "We've got a chance to have a special season. The Pac-10 is absolutely wide-open. There are nine teams that could win the conference, including us."
Welcome to what should be college football's most unpredictable conference in 2010. Why so much parity in the Pac-10? It starts with the quarterbacks. Seven teams bring back their starting signal-callers, and a seasoned quarterback is a virtual requirement for winning the conference crown. (Only one first-year starter, USC's Matt Leinart in '03, has guided his team to the top of the final standings in the last 17 years.)
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian suffered through a 5--7 record last season, but the Huskies will be dangerous this fall because of one player: senior quarterback Jake Locker. Already projected by many NFL scouts to be the top overall pick in the 2011 draft, Locker flourished in Sarkisian's pro-style offense last season, throwing for 2,800 yards, the third-highest total in school history. What's scary for the rest of the Pac-10 is that this spring Locker has become even more comfortable piloting Sarkisian's offense while displaying his multimillion-dollar arm strength.
The quarterback responsible for Harbaugh's optimism is Stanford's Andrew Luck, who will be a redshirt sophomore. In 2009 Luck led the Pac-10 in pass efficiency. He didn't play in the Cardinal's 31--27 loss to Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl because of a broken right index finger, but that's healed. Over the winter he spent at least 10 hours a week in the Stanford football offices, where he reviewed every offensive play of the '09 season. "I made a lot of mistakes by rushing things," Luck says. "This spring I'm trying to be calm and decisive."
Harbaugh describes Luck as "the best quarterback in the country," but Harbaugh is hardly the only Pac-10 coach who is smitten with his leading man. Coaches at USC (where Matt Barkley returns), Arizona (Nick Foles), California (Kevin Riley), UCLA (Kevin Prince) and Washington State (Jeff Tuel) all gush when they talk about having their signal-callers back for another season.
The biggest question behind center in the Pac-10 is at Oregon, where Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for the season in March after pleading guilty to a second-degree burglary charge. The starter for the defending conference champs will probably be senior Nate Costa, who has attempted only 38 passes in his career but has a good handle on coach Chip Kelly's spread-option scheme.
That's another reason why, on virtually every Pac-10 campus, there is so much promise in the air.
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Besides the Pac-10, three other conferences should be strong from top to bottom this fall:
The usual suspects (Miami, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech) and dark horse North Carolina—which will go as far as senior quarterback T.J. Yates(below) can take it—all have the talent to win the conference.
2. Big 12
The Nebraska-Texas game on Oct. 16 could be a preview of the Big 12 title game. But the same could be said when Oklahoma travels to Missouri the following week.
Four teams from this conference—Temple, Northern Illinois, Ohio and Toledo—should be capable of earning bowl bids during the 2010 season.
ROBERT BECK (STANFORD)
GREAT LUCK The Cardinal QB (12), whom Harbaugh (far left) calls the nation's best, is even better thanks to long winter hours in the film room.
MARGARET BOWLES/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL (YATES)