The Pac-10 was under USC's thumb for so long -- the Trojans won or shared seven straight league titles from 2002-08, and were never seriously challenged as the conference kingpin -- that the genuinely wide, wide open race this fall qualifies as a culture shock: SC is clearly off its pedestal after last fall's late collapse and the abrupt coaching change in January; Oregon's steady ascent veered off the tracks along with its star quarterback's eligibility last month. Yet for all their obvious vulnerability, the Trojans and Ducks remain too talented across the board relative to the potential upstarts to dismiss out of hand. The magazines and polls won't announce a preseason favorite for months, at which point there's still not likely to be any sort of consensus.
In that sort of free-for-all, at this time of year, it's inevitable that a few pundits will allow themselves to be at least temporarily talked into almost anything, especially in a league so full of up-and-comers -- Oregon State! Arizona! Stanford! And, if the Oregonian's Ken Goe is any indication, get ready for a few big, gulping offerings of purple Kool-Aid:
With Oregon and Oregon State breaking in new quarterbacks, with Oregon's offseason chaos and the Beavers' run of injuries and player defections, and USC remaking the coaching staff, maybe it's time to take another look at ... Washington.
The Huskies have been either mediocre or awful since going 8-4 in 2001, but you knew it couldn't less forever.
Oregon and Oregon State have had things their own way in the Northwest for a long time now. But neither UO coach Chip Kelly or OSU coach Mike Riley probably should look in the rearview mirror. Because, here comes Washington.
See also: Approving assessments of Huskies' upcoming schedule and "maturity." Note that this is the Washington that just two years ago finished 0-12 with a loss to Washington State, and that is now eight years removed from its last bowl game. (The Huskies didn't reach the postseason at all during USC's entire run as conference king, which also covers almost all of its current players' conscious memories since the age of ten or eleven. But, per Goe and his Husky-loving cohorts, U-Dub does have enough going for it after last season to make them a perfect storm for the kind of pundit disposed to a little darkhorsery:
• Visible, star player. With apologies to Stanford's Andrew Luck, senior-to-be Jake Locker is widely regarded as the Pac-10's best quarterback, at least in some part thanks to fawning by certain pro scouts who may or may not know what they're talking about. Locker's size and obvious athleticism have tended to overshadow his relatively modest production and inconsistency.
• Coming of age. Locker's supporting cast in '09 was mostly freshmen and sophomores, notably receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, tight end Kavario Middleton and 1,000-yard rusher Chris Polk, all of whom have made good early impressions and seem like significant upgrades over anyone who ever handled the ball when Tyrone Willingham was in charge. That also goes for Willingham's equally youthful replacement, Steve Sarkisian, who made obvious strides in raising the program from the bottom of the Puget Sound in his first season as head coach. He's maturing in Year Two along with the core of his team.
• Momentum. The improvement was most obvious at the end of the season, when the Huskies snapped a four-game losing streak by whipping Washington State, 30-0, followed by an eye-opening, 42-10 thrashing of Cal to end the rebuilding year on what they hope will prove to be a propulsive bang. That the big send-off came against one of the worst teams in the history of the Pac-10 and a limping Cal outfit with nothing in particular to play for on the road is obviously less important than ending a season on a positive note for a change.
• They were so close! The Huskies largely outplayed LSU in the opener, took Notre Dame to overtime on the road and only fell to Arizona State on a fluky bomb on the final play. If they'd manage to pull any of those three games out, they could have finished 6-6 and found themselves in line to end the bowl drought If they'd pulled out all three, Sarkisian would have been the Coach of the Year.
On the other hand, if the Huskies hadn't pulled out late comebacks against USC and Arizona, they could have been 3-9, or worse considering how much juice they had at the end of the season if things were going that badly.
It shouldn't be overlooked, either, that to longtime Pac-10 fans, Washington belongs at the top of the conference as much as USC does, and certainly more than Oregon or Oregon State, both cycling to the top of their historical arcs. Between 1976 and 2000, their last Rose Bowl, the Huskies were easily the most successful program in the Pac-10 and brought home the league's only national championship in that span, in 1991. If there's a void at the top, Washington is an obvious candidate to fill it -- at least, it was as recently as a decade ago. This year will go a long way toward determining whether it will make a move on its old, lofty territory under Sarkisian. He's certainly off to a promising start. But maybe they should wait for the Huskies to actually land in a bowl game before anyone starts getting too concerned with the rearview mirror, huh?