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January 13, 2010

Pac-10 Breakdown: Trojans fall off high horse


It was a year of change in the Pac-10.

USC's streak of seven Pac-10 championships came to an end, while Stanford reached a bowl for the first time in seven seasons. Oregon won a Pac-10 crown in its first season under Chip Kelly, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson endured consecutive losing seasons for the first time in his college coaching career and Arizona posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade.

Toby Gerhart finished just 28 points behind Mark Ingram in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Player of the year: Stanford RB Toby Gerhart.
A punishing runner with good speed, Gerhart led the nation with 1,871 rushing yards and 28 scores. Gerhart rushed for at least 113 yards in 11 games and had at least 82 in every game. He finished 28 points behind winner Mark Ingram of Alabama in the Heisman voting.

Rivals.com 2009 All-Pac-10 Team

But California disappointed, UCLA struggled offensively and Washington State floundered, so not everything changed.

Coach of the year: Kelly, Oregon. Kelly directed the Ducks to the Pac-10 championship in his first season in charge, and he held them together after a difficult start. The Ducks looked confused and chaotic after a 19-7 season-opening loss to Boise State. Afterward, star RB LeGarrette Blount was suspended for a postgame incident in which he punched a Boise State player. But under Kelly's guidance, Oregon steadily improved, posted blowout wins over California and USC and clinched the conference championship with a victory over archrival Oregon State.

Freshman of the year: Oregon RB LaMichael James. James was expected to be a complementary back to Blount this season. But after Blount was suspended, James emerged as one of the nation's most productive runners. Though James played sparingly in the first two games, he rolled up 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Danny Langsdorf, Oregon State. The Beavers lost their top two receivers from '08, then lost starting QB Lyle Moevao to injury. Yet, the Beavers actually improved their yardage and scoring output from '08. Under Langsdorf's tutelage, Sean Canfield passed for more than 3,000 yards and emerged as the all-conference quarterback.

Defensive coordinator of the year: Craig Bray, Arizona State. It was a disappointing season in Tempe with just four wins, but the Sun Devils could have been bowl eligible with a little help from the offense. Bray's unit ranked 13th in the nation in total defense and held nine opponents to 23 or fewer points.

Biggest surprise: Stanford. Seven years had passed since the Cardinal had managed a winning season, and just three years ago Stanford muddled through a 1-11 disaster. This season, Stanford won eight games, including victories over Oregon and USC. The Cardinal might have won the Sun Bowl if injured QB Andrew Luck had been available to play.

Biggest disappointment: California. The general feeling in Berkeley was this was the season USC could be knocked off the Pac-10 throne. That was correct, but the idea was that Cal was supposed to unseat the Trojans. Not even close. Cal opened the season ranked 12th and climbed as high as No. 6, then managed just six points combined in losses to Oregon and USC. The Bears closed out an 8-5 season with losses to Washington (42-10) and Utah (37-27 in the Poinsettia Bowl).

Best postseason performance: USC QB Matt Barkley. He passed for 350 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score in a 24-13 Emerald Bowl victory over Boston College. Although Barkley also was intercepted twice, his bowl performance still was the best in the Pac-10, which didn't have much to offer.

Worst postseason performance: Arizona QB Nick Foles. In a 33-0 Holiday Bowl loss to Nebraska, Foles was just 6-for-20 for a mere 28 yards. On the plus side, he only threw one interception. But that one was returned 37 yards to set up a 4-yard touchdown run.

Underclassmen liable to leave early: California Jahvid Best (already declared), USC DE Everson Griffen (already declared), Arizona State DT Lawrence Guy, USC RB Joe McKnight (already declared), Oregon State DT Stephen Paea, UCLA DT Brian Price (already declared), USC WR Damian Williams (already declared).

Next season's breakout offensive player: Oregon RB Kenjon Barner. Just two seasons ago, Oregon had two 1,000-yard rushers. Barner will give the Ducks the chance to do it again. As a backup to James, Barner averaged 6 yards per carry while rushing for 366 yards this season. Kelly will find ways to utilize both speedsters next season.

Next season's breakout defensive player: USC DE Devon Kennard. A highly coveted recruit, Kennard made a significant contribution with 34 tackles and a forced fumble as a true freshman backup. He should be even better as a sophomore. He'll be stronger, more experienced and in the starting lineup in place of Griffen, who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Player most on the spot next season: Washington QB Jake Locker. He opted to return for his senior season, presumably to help the Huskies reach the postseason. The Huskies haven't had a winning season since 2002, so Locker obviously faces a difficult challenge. Locker made great progress as a passer in '09, but he still needs to reduce his interceptions. He was picked off 11 times this season - nine of them in losses.

Next season's conference champion: Oregon. As many as 11 offensive starters and nine defensive starters could return from this season's Pac-10 titlist. James and QB Jeremiah Masoli are among those who will be back, so the Ducks' offense should be as explosive as ever. The defense must get better.

National title contenders: Oregon and USC. The Ducks figure to be ranked in the preseason top five. USC does not. The Trojans have suffered significant losses, too, not the least of which is their coach. But it's a mistake to completely dismiss a team this talented as a contender.


Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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