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Spring football: Kiffin Era begins, more burning Pac-10 questions

For most of the last decade, Pac-10 spring previews -- or postseason reviews, or any assessment, at any time -- could be summed up thusly: Who can possibly challenge USC? (Or maybe: Which guy will become the Trojans' next superstar?)

Welcome to the new storyline.

First, Oregon broke the Trojans' seven-year stranglehold on the Pac-10 title. Playing a freshman quarterback and featuring a suddenly porous defense, USC lost four times before ending on, uh, a positive note with a victory in the Emerald Bowl.

Then the turmoil started.

Pete Carroll bolted for Seattle and that NFL job, finally fulfilling Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh's prophecy. The NCAA finally closed its investigation into the school's football and basketball programs, and summoned the Trojans to a February hearing -- a verdict could be issued within weeks.

So yeah, the window of opportunity for the rest of the league seems open.

Though Lane Kiffin doesn't think so. USC called on the former Carroll protégé, who fled Tennessee and immediately reeled in another top recruiting class. If you consider brashness and youthful enthusiasm the key ingredients for success, Kiffin's your guy.

"The guy before us raised the bar here," Kiffin recently told The Sporting News. "I can assure you the goal isn't just to meet what Pete did, but go beyond it."

Sounds good. But now we get our first look at Life After Pete. And the biggest question for spring football in the Pac-10 is whether Kiffin can back up the boldness, because his limited head-coaching experience at Tennessee and with the Oakland Raiders doesn't provide much evidence.

Or, as Kiffin suggests, better it?

That's a lot to ask of anyone, because USC was the nation's top program over the last decade. Prediction: No one will win seven straight Pac-10 titles in the near future.

A coaching change would be drama enough, but there's more intrigue here. Carroll's final USC team bore little resemblance, after September, to the previous juggernauts. Matt Barkley was not an immediate superstar. The USC defense was suddenly shaky. The aura of invincibility was punctured by lowly Washington -- led, perhaps not so coincidentally, by former Carroll protégé Steve Sarkisian -- and then shattered by Oregon and Stanford. Hey, the Trojans lost, at the Coliseum, to Arizona.

We'll begin to know more this spring. Is the quarterback position (along with every other) truly an open competition? Is Barkley the right guy? Or could Mitch Mustain, the transfer from Arkansas, get a shot? The Trojans have questions in the secondary and at receiver, but the roster is still brimming with talent.

Can Kiffin rebuild Troy? He brought in his father, noted defensive guru Monte Kiffin, and noted recruiter Ed Orgeron (another former USC assistant, now the defensive coordinator) to help. Judging from the group's first recruiting class, talent won't be a problem anytime soon. USC remains well-positioned to win big. But Carroll did more than lure five-star recruits and carry off cool better than any other college coach. He taught a little football, too. No question, Kiffin is confident. We'll soon begin to see whether we should be, too.

And can the offseason end fast enough?

Chip Kelly's rookie season as a head coach started with a memorable debacle in Boise -- and we're mostly talking about the Ducks' performance during the game, not afterward. Oregon's rebound and run to the Rose Bowl was magical, and with 18 returning starters including their biggest stars, the Ducks seem primed for more success in 2010.

This assumes they're all available for spring practice, and then the actual season, because the offseason has been, well, troubling. Since Jan. 24, five Ducks have been arrested for various allegations; two more are under investigation. The program's reputation is under siege.

LaMichael James, who set a Pac-10 freshman rushing record with 1,546 yards, has a court date set for March 24, six days before the start of spring ball, to answer domestic violence charges. He's currently wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet and is barred from campus (though not from Oregon's athletic complex). Meanwhile, an even brighter backfield star, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, is under investigation (along with former Duck receiver Garrett Embry) for theft of items including laptops from a fraternity house. Neither has been charged.

Oregon must rebuild its defensive line, but at most positions, the Ducks enter spring practice with the luxury of building on 2009. At this point, a return to the football field, even for practice, would provide a respite from the offseason.

Stanford's rise last season was a pleasant surprise. As was the way the Cardinal did it. In knocking off Oregon and USC en route to the program's first bowl game in eight years, Jim Harbaugh didn't employ a fancy offense. Operating behind a big, strong offensive line that powered opponents downfield, running back Toby Gerhart made a refreshingly old-school (no slick promotional campaign, just performance) run at the Heisman (he finished second, just behind Alabama's Mark Ingram). Andrew Luck was the perfect complement as the strong-armed, accurate quarterback throwing play-action passes over the heads of those run-fearing defenses. The no-frills attack was sometimes unstoppable, and in this age of spread offenses and gadgetry, football purists had to love it.

Luck is back, and the broken finger that kept him out of the Sun Bowl has healed; he's cleared for full participation this spring, and he might be the Pac-10's best returning quarterback. But in order to build on its success, the Cardinal must identify a suitable replacement for Gerhart, who rushed for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns. The contenders: Jeremy Stewart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, who combined for 497 yards last season.

"I'm hoping we can find some tandem that adds up to one Toby Gerhart," Harbaugh told the San Jose Mercury News.

Stanford's offense was a potent force last season, but the defense wasn't, ranking ninth in the league. Seeking a more aggressive style, Harbaugh hired defensive coordinator Vic Fangio from the Baltimore Ravens; the Cardinal will move from a 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4.

At long last, Mike Stoops' Wildcats broke through in 2009. They finished second in the Pac-10, and were an overtime away (against Oregon) from the Rose Bowl. It seemed Arizona was on the verge of serious success.

Then came the Holiday Bowl, a 33-0 undressing by Nebraska. Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops left (Dykes to become Louisiana Tech's head coach, Stoops to become Florida State's defensive coordinator); Mike Stoops replaced them with four co-coordinators, with play-calling duties still unsettled.

Good vibrations? Arizona enters spring practice wondering whether that annoying rattle is a serious malfunction. The task: figure out who's calling the plays. And which plays might work to erase the Holiday Bowl slump.

But you want names: Mike Stoops elevated offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, running backs/tight ends coach Seth Littrell and linebackers coach Tim Kish, and added secondary coach Greg Brown. From those four assistants -- and maybe new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo -- some kind of play-calling hierarchy will eventually emerge, probably during spring practice.

On the field, the Wildcats thought they had an emerging star in quarterback Nick Foles, but he regressed (along with the entire offense) in the last three games. Now he'll face renewed competition from Matt Scott. Arizona also must replace all three linebacker positions.

We'll go with Washington. The Huskies were much improved last season, but after going 0-12 in 2008, they needed to win only one game to make that statement true. Well, how about beating USC? And then winning four more games?

Steve Sarkisian infused energy and enthusiasm that had evaporated during Tyrone Willingham's tenure. In Sarkisian's second spring, the anticipation is for the Huskies to take the next step. Much depends upon quarterback Jake Locker, who debated whether to jump to the NFL before electing to stay. Even though he's raw, his physical skills make pro scouts salivate -- and Husky fans, too.

At times last season, it seemed the coaches weren't doing enough to utilize the talents of Locker, who's not a classic dropback passer, but more of a hybrid who doesn't fit neatly into the pro-style attack Sarkisian brought from USC. The challenge this spring is to further develop Locker while adapting the system to his skill set.

The Huskies will also try to find a backup at running back for sophomore Chris Polk. Incoming freshman Deontae Cooper, who's already enrolled, carries the most hype and gets an early shot to earn playing time.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance?ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge?Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati?Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year?Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off?SEC: What's happening at Florida?THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?

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