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In wide-open Pac-10, spotlight focuses on Stanford, Harbaugh

It is a kingdom without its de facto king -- Pete Carroll abdicated his throne and bailed out for the pros. Before the season even starts, nine teams have been awarded an extra bowl opportunity, since USC is ineligible. The kid who was supposed to be the conference star -- troubled former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- is now at Ole Miss.

This season the Pac-10 appears to be a league of change and opportunity. Which means it could be Jim Harbaugh's year.

Lord knows what Lane Kiffin will do in his first year at USC. But, in terms of returning coaches, Harbaugh is the one to watch. He's brash, gutsy, a great recruiter, a hotly rumored NFL job candidate, a thorn in the former king's side and a new media star (Harbaugh, a fairly avid user of Twitter, acknowledged that's Andy Staples' clever breakdown of his tweets "was amusing.").

He was excited to get the season started. Stanford's fall practice began on Monday and for weeks Harbaugh had been anticipating getting back to work, calling Aug. 9 New Year's Day.

"A lot of people that espouse to Christianity view Jan. 1 as the start of the new year," he said, in one of his trademark oddball statements. "But we look at the first day of training camp as the beginning of the new year."

And Harbaugh's new year's resolution? Don't let expectations cloud anyone's vision.

There are expectations, which for years have been as rare around the Stanford campus as a blue-and-gold Cal shirt. Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 team in 2006. Last season, the Cardinal went 8-5, beat eventual league champion Oregon and heavyweight USC, and made its first bowl appearance in eight years.

Suddenly Harbaugh is dealing with something that he was accustomed to as a Michigan quarterback but never as a college head coach: the assumption of future success.

"Expectations can be a double-edged sword," Harbaugh said. "They've got to understand that because we went to a bowl and won eight games, we're not entitled to a better bowl. It's got to be earned. This team has that knowledge."

Last year's Stanford team rode tailback Toby Gerhart at every opportunity. Now, with Gerhart in camp with the Minnesota Vikings, five different players are fighting to fill those big shoes.

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Without a proven tailback, and with a star sophomore quarterback in Andrew Luck, expect Harbaugh to shift to more of a passing offense. Again, the term "expectations" comes into play -- they rest heavy on Luck's head.

"We worried a little bit about that last year," Harbaugh said. "He's a great talent and he far exceeded our expectations.

"He's aware that there's more of a focus and spotlight on him. Every quarterback, if they're going to be good, has to handle that. Andrew has used it as a motivator. He's a true talent and an extremely hard worker.

"He doesn't seem like a sophomore slump kind of guy. His talent is true and rare. He has a great work ethic, is a great leader. There's nothing that would indicate that (a slump)."

Luck is so good, and his pedigree is so strong (his father, Oliver, was an NFL quarterback in Houston) that as soon as he began taking snaps, there was speculation about when he would jump to the pros. Many think Luck will play just one more season at Stanford.

"We haven't talked about it," Harbaugh said.

But it's an issue they have in common. Ever since he took the Stanford job, Harbaugh has been the subject of persistent rumors about his own departure, for the NFL or a higher-profile college job. His brother, John, has had success as the head coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Jim started his coaching career in the pros and has his own proud NFL lineage.

Harbaugh signed a three-year contract last December (answering the question Carroll barked at him after Stanford thrashed USC and piled on with a late two-point conversion: "What's your deal?"). But this being college football, a three-year deal isn't exactly an iron-clad agreement. And if Harbaugh meets or exceeds those newfound expectations -- perhaps even if he doesn't -- expect his name to continue to be in play.

But for now he's focused on this season. Harbaugh doesn't have much to say about the changes afoot in the Pac-10 or about the departure of Carroll, whose Trojans Harbaugh beat two out of three times.

"Our opponents are nameless, faceless opponents," he said in answer to a question about changes at USC. "We respect them, yes. But we don't have time to take the names and faces into account. It's more about us."

In a shifting league of new opportunity, it really could be about them.