The Pac-10 is awash in change heading into fall.
LOS ANGELES — The Pac-10 is awash in change heading into fall. There's an energetic new commissioner touting the virtues of a "West Coast advantage," intriguing new coaches at Oregon and Washington, and an apparent league-wide philosophical shift to more run-based offenses in a conference long known for loving the pass.
At least one aspect of the Pac-10 still hasn't changed, though: Southern California is the front-runner, and everybody else is rushing — or passing — to catch up.
Yet judging by the tenor of the league's annual media day, more coaches than ever seem to believe they might finally track down the Trojans this year.
"They have set a very high standard," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, whose Wildcats are coming off their first winning season and bowl victory in his five years in Tucson. "The rest of our ability to close the gap has gotten better, and the conference has gotten stronger. It's not as easy (for USC) as a lot of people think it is."
New commissioner Larry Scott is preaching patience when asked about long-awaited changes in the Pac-10's bowl structure and television deals, but he's already a cheerleader for the conference's sterling record in the postseason. After going 5-0 in bowl games last season, it's clear USC isn't the conference's only outstanding ambassador.
After seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, BCS bowl game appearances and top-four finishes in the AP poll, USC again has been picked to finish atop the league by the media, getting 28 of 32 first-place votes. But the Trojans will have an untested quarterback — probably Aaron Corp — and new starters all over their defense.
Even though coach Pete Carroll says he feels as if he's only "in the middle" of a phenomenal run at USC, the other schools hope he's approaching a bump.
"We would love for this to be the year we finally get past USC," said California tailback Jahvid Best, the Bay Area speedster touted as a Heisman Trophy contender. "You know they're not just going to give it away, though. Somebody has to try to take it."
Carroll insists the Trojans' toughest games are in conference, a claim he repeated Thursday in the hotel ballrooms near the Los Angeles airport. After downplaying the latest allegations of NCAA infractions against his program, this one concerning improper assistant coaching, Carroll insisted the league is stronger than ever.
"It's a new feel," Carroll said. "It's exciting. There's something different going on in the Pac-10. ... What we're seeing is more balance. We're seeing more teams running and passing. I think balance is better."
Last season's statistics seem to back up Carroll. In a league that once produced several 3,000-yard passers annually, USC's Mark Sanchez and Arizona's Willie Tuitama were the only Pac-10 quarterbacks to reach that mark last year, and both are gone.
Several talented passers will take the spotlight this year, from Washington's Jake Locker and Oregon State's Lyle Moevao to less-established starters Corp at USC and Kevin Riley at Cal. Yet most Pac-10 schools have even more impressive talent at tailback.
Best, the Pac-10 rushing champion, is back after averaging 8.1 yards per carry last season. Jacquizz Rodgers returns for his sophomore year at Oregon State after running for 1,253 yards as a freshman.
Stanford's Toby Gerhart and USC's Joe McKnight also are looking to break out.
"With so many good running backs in this league, you have to think that's what most schools will try to do," USC safety Taylor Mays said. "You've got to have defenses for all different types of situations. The Pac-10 isn't predictable in any way."
Additional changes are waiting for several Pac-10 schools. Cal coach Jeff Tedford confirmed the Golden Bears will take a bus to Pasadena when they face UCLA in October, a nod to the state budget crisis that's particularly felt by the UC schools.
The league has two new coaches, both moving into high-profile positions. Oregon is picked to finish third in the Pac-10 under Chip Kelly, who takes over for longtime coach Mike Bellotti. Steve Sarkisian is the new man in charge of rebuilding a once-powerful Washington program that went 0-12 last year.
Sarkisian, who helped run USC's offense for six of the previous seven seasons, won't predict how long it will take to make Seattle's fans forget about the sport's only winless season last year.
"It takes time to bring these things about," Sarkisian said. "We don't dwell on (0-12). We don't need to talk about it. We've barely watched any film of it.
"We've moved on, and we've got plenty of challenges in this league to keep us busy."