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The target remains squarely attached to the Southern California Trojans.
Coach Pete Carroll loves it.
"It's cool, it's a beautiful thing," Carroll said with a smile Thursday at Pac-10 media day. "That's exactly what you hope for. Think of the alternative."
The alternative would mean the Trojans aren't dominating the conference, something they've done since Carroll's second season as their coach. He'll begin his eighth campaign Aug. 30 when USC plays a nationally televised opener at Virginia. A mega-matchup with Ohio State follows Sept. 13 at the Los Angeles Coliseum before the Pac-10 opener Sept. 25 at Oregon State.
"Everybody's shooting at them," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "When we beat them a couple years ago, that was a landmark win for the Beavers. That was another game for the Trojans.
"They've recruited well and they've coached the players well. That's a lethal combination."
USC, which has won or shared the last six conference titles, was a near-unanimous favorite to make it seven in a preseason poll of media members who regularly cover the league, picking up 38 of a possible 39 first-place votes. California, picked to finish fourth, got the remaining first-place vote.
"It's an honor," Trojans linebacker Brian Cushing said. "But you can't put too much into it. That's not going to do it for us."
As far as being the team everyone wants to beat, Cushing said: "It's something you want. If that's the case, it means you're doing something right."
Riley said he believes the Trojans have contributed to making everyone else in the Pac-10 better.
"If other teams in the conference didn't grow, you'd be left way behind," he said. "I think our conference is more competitive top-to-bottom than ever."
As much as the Trojans have dominated the Pac-10 in the past six years, going 44-6 against league opponents, they've been even better against nonconference foes, going 26-2, losing at Kansas State in 2002 and to Texas in the Rose Bowl for the national championship following the 2005 season.
"Obviously USC has set a high standard, that's the reality of it," said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, whose team finished it a tie for the title with USC last season but lost out on the Rose Bowl berth because the Trojans beat the Sun Devils.
ASU was picked to finish second this season, followed by Oregon, Cal, UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona, Washington, Stanford and Washington State.
"USC is picked to win it every year," Erickson said.
Not quite, but the Trojans have been picked to win the title six straight times and in 29 of the 48 media polls.
"Anybody can beat anybody in this conference, that's been proven," Erickson said.
Stanford showed last October, rallying to beat USC 24-23 at the Los Angeles Coliseum despite being a 41-point underdog. When the Trojans lost at Oregon 24-17 three weeks later, it appeared their string of five straight conference titles won or shared would end, but they turned that around thanks to late-season collapses by Oregon and California along with their Thanksgiving Night victory at ASU.
"They've been the king of the conference. Until somebody knocks them off, that's how it's going to be," ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "We want to get there. We're playing for first. We're trying to keep moving up that ladder. We want to play in the Rose Bowl. Obviously to do that, we've got to beat USC. Stanford found a way to do that last year."
UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Washington State's Paul Wulff are new to the Pac-10 this season. Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback, previously coached at Washington. Erickson is the only coach ever to lead three conference schools, previously holding down the head job at Washington State and Oregon State. Mike Bellotti is the dean of Pac-10 coaches, entering his 14th season at Oregon.
Naturally, Neuheisel was asked about dealing with USC, the Bruins' crosstown rival.
"I think you have to embrace it," Neuheisel said. "They're that elephant in the living room. They have earned it. Pete has done a tremendous job. You can't be the head football coach at UCLA and not find a way to compete with USC.
"When we catch them, and I say when, we will be able to compete with anybody."
Neuheisel said he called Carroll after getting the UCLA job and told him how great it was going to be to play the Trojans not just for first place in Los Angeles, but first place in the country.
"I look forward to helping rekindle a rich football tradition," Neuheisel said.
Carroll loves being a target
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