By JOSH DUBOW, AP Sports Writer
The finish still haunts California coach Jeff Tedford. First-and-goal, just under 2 minutes left and all the Golden Bears needed was one more big play to knock off top-ranked Southern California. Three incomplete passes and a sack later, the Trojans won 23-17 and were on their way to a second straight national title.
"Every time I look at that, it kind of leaves a knot in my stomach," Tedford said. "It was an unbelievable football game and we had a chance to win, but didn't get it done. So we have to go back to the drawing board and see if we can do it this year."
As tough as it was to knock off USC the past two seasons in the Pac-10, it will be that much more difficult this year as many of the challengers have big holes to fill while most of the Trojans' big-play threats are back.
No. 19 Cal must replace all-conference quarterback Aaron Rodgers and 2,000-yard rusher J.J. Arrington, No. 20 Arizona State and Oregon State lost record-setting quarterbacks Andrew Walter and Derek Anderson, and new coaches Tyrone Willingham and Walt Harris must rebuild at Washington and Stanford.
The top-ranked Trojans, on the other hand, return Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinart and every player who scored a touchdown in USC's 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in last season's Orange Bowl. The high-powered Trojans bring back seven players who were named first- or second-team all-conference, including talented tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White, as well as perhaps the nation's best receiving corps, led by Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.
But no one is conceding the conference title to the Trojans just yet.
"No one's invincible. Everyone's beatable," Oregon State receiver Mike Hass said. "You're going to lose players every year. They lost players like everybody else. They've got key guys returning, but there are definitely teams in the conference that could knock them off, and I wouldn't really be surprised if that happened."
After a long stretch of parity in the conference -- nine of the 10 teams won at least a share of the championship between 1993-2000 -- the Trojans have become the dominant force. They have lost just two conference games in the past three seasons: a pair of three-point overtime losses on the road to Washington State in 2002 and California the following season.
They have won 15 straight conference games and 22 in a row overall.
"The biggest advantage is SC, they're used to winning and they expect to win," Washington State coach Bill Doba said. "Even if you do get a lead, you're wondering when the other shoe is going to drop."
USC has boosted the reputation of the Pac-10, which had been often overlooked due to its late-night starts and reputation for wide-open offenses and soft defenses.
But the Pac-10 is the only conference to place two teams in the top 10 of the final AP poll the past five seasons and leads all conferences with six BCS wins in that span.
The Trojans, in fact, were challenged more in the conference than out, winning three of their eight Pac-10 games by fewer than 10 points. USC outscored its three nonconference opponents who played in bowl games by 78 points, including the blowout over Oklahoma for the title.
"We thought USC was head and shoulders above everybody else," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "So the way our conference played them compared to the way Oklahoma played them, maybe we deserve a little more credit."
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
USC -- Toughest replacements could be on the coaching staff where offensive coordinator Norm Chow, QB coach Carl Smith, OL coach Tim Davis and DL coach Ed Orgeron all left. ... Defensive line could be a question mark after losing Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson to the NFL. ... WR Whitney Lewis and Winston Justice return after sitting out last season.
CALIFORNIA -- Cal opens with I-AA Sacramento State, followed by four teams who combined for 12 wins last season, making an easy transition for new QB -- likely JC transfer Joseph Ayoob. ... Marshawn Lynch (628 yards rushing, 8.8 ypc as a freshman) takes Arrington's place. ... Offensive line is one of conference's best, led by C Marvin Philip and T Ryan O'Callaghan.
UCLA -- Four of Bruins six losses last season were by six or fewer points, including 29-24 to USC. ... QB job will probably either go to senior Drew Olson or BYU transfer Ben Olson -- no relation. Whoever wins the job will rely heavily on TE Marcedes Lewis and RB Maurice Drew. ... Coach Karl Dorrell is 12-13 in two seasons but has played in two bowl games.
ARIZONA STATE -- Pressure will be on QB Sam Keller to prove he can replace Walter, the conference's all-time leader in TD passes. Keller threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Purdue in the Sun Bowl. ... WR Derek Hagan had 83 catches for 1,248 yards last season. ... Play at LSU and host USC. ... Sun Devils had a trying offseason. RB Loren Wade was arrested on first-degree murder charges in the March shooting of former ASU player Brandon Falkner.
OREGON -- Former BYU coach Gary Crowton was brought in as offensive coordinator to upgrade the passing game and help team recover from fall from No. 2 in the country in 2001 to 5-6 last season. ... There is talent at the skill positions with QB Kellen Clemens and RB Terrence Whitehead. But Oregon must rebuild offensive line that lost four starters. ... USC, Cal and Oregon State all visit Eugene.
WASHINGTON STATE -- After three straight 10-win seasons, Cougars finished 5-6 last year and missed a bowl. ... LB Will Derting should be healthy and might be the conference's top defensive player. ... Josh Swogger and Alex Brink are battling for the starting QB job and the winner will throw often to WR Jason Hill, who had a school-record 12 TD catches last season.
OREGON STATE -- UCLA transfer Matt Moore is the leading candidate to replace Anderson, the most prolific QB in school history. ... WR Mike Hass is back after catching 86 passes for 1,379 yards last season. ... Beavers won six of seven to end last season but play No. 18 Boise State and at No. 12 Louisville in September.
ARIZONA -- Wildcats won two of final three games in Stoops' first season but still finished second-to-last in the nation in scoring. ... Team will sport new uniforms this season but question remains if it will be the same old Arizona on the field. Wildcats haven't had winning record since 1998. ... Back-to-back trips to Cal and USC provide a tough opening to the conference season.
STANFORD -- Harris goes from coaching in a BCS game with Pittsburgh last season to rebuilding at Stanford. ... Cardinal should be undefeated entering October; then again, they only play Navy and UC Davis in the opening month. ... WR Evan Moore, who is 6-foot-7, gave up basketball last season when Harris was hired.
WASHINGTON -- Tyrone Willingham will try to restore Huskies from the one-win team last year to the team that won at least a share of the conference title five times from 1990-2000. ... First job is picking a QB between speedy Isaiah Stanback, Oregon transfer Johnny DuRocher, Casey Paus and Carl Bonnell. ... Willingham's former team, Notre Dame, visits Seattle on Sept. 24.