Oregon Looks for Pac-10 Repeat
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
Mike Bellotti just can't let it go.
More than eight months after the coach's Oregon team dominated Colorado to win the Fiesta Bowl, Bellotti - along with most of the Ducks' fans - remains perturbed that the team didn't get a chance to play Miami for the national title.
Despite being ranked second in both the AP and coaches' polls, the Ducks wound up third in the Bowl Championship Series standings and were bypassed for the Rose Bowl in favor of No. 2 Nebraska. Miami crushed the Cornhuskers 37-14 to complete an undefeated season and win the undisputed national title.
After Oregon's lopsided victory in Tempe, Ariz., many observers naturally wondered whether the Ducks could have done any better. Intensifying the debate, Oregon would have played in the Rose Bowl under this year's BCS format, in which margin of victory has been removed from the computer rankings.
'I'll always be bothered by our not getting there. I thought we deserved it,' Bellotti said. 'I'm naive enough to think we'll get another chance. Every year, I truly believe if the ball bounces right that we can get there.'
Oregon came closer to getting there than any Pac-10 team since the BCS was formed in 1998, and because of the conference's overall strength, the Pac-10 might not be represented in this season's championship game, the Fiesta Bowl, next January.
'The SEC, the Big 12, you're playing two or three tough games all year,' Oregon wide receiver Keenan Howry said. 'In the Pac-10, up and down, all 10 teams are tough. Every game is tough.'
The Pac-10 hasn't had a consensus national champion since Southern California in 1972. USC won the coaches' poll in 1978 and Washington did the same in 1991.
The parity is so widespread, seven different schools have won the conference title in the last seven years.
'Obviously, this league is an unbelievable league as far as top-to-bottom is concerned,' said Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson, whose team won the Pac-10 title and Fiesta Bowl in 2000 before slipping to 5-6 last season.
Four Pac-10 teams enter the season ranked among the country's Top 25 in the AP media preseason poll - No. 9 Washington, No. 11 Washington State, No. 15 Oregon and No. 20 USC.
'I think anybody's the team to beat in this conference,' Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser said. 'I don't know of another conference that's like ours.'
Oregon went 11-1 last season but blew its chance at the Rose Bowl when it lost to Stanford 49-42 in the seventh game.
'If any team in our conference had gone undefeated, they would have been in the national championship game,' Bellotti said. 'If any team this year goes undefeated, they would deserve it. We beat each other up.'
Howry remembers the sinking feeling the Ducks had after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to Stanford.
'What we've got to do this year is control our own destiny,' he said. 'The way to get there is to win every game.'
That's a daunting task, considering the Ducks lost quarterback Joey Harrington. Junior Jason Fife and redshirt freshman Kellen Clemens will compete to replace him.
A capsule look at the Pac-10, based on predicted order of finish:
OREGON: Bellotti says Fife and Clemens both are better athletes than Harrington. Eleven starters, tied for the fewest in the league, are back. One of the returnees who didn't start is TB Onterrio Smith, who gained 1,058 yards as a backup.
WASHINGTON STATE: The Cougars were 10-2 last season and are brimming with confidence. Sixteen starters return, including Gesser, who threw for 3,010 yards. A favorable schedule will help: The Cougars host Oregon, USC and Washington.
WASHINGTON: The Huskies return 15 starters, including QB Cody Pickett, who passed for 2,403 yards in seven games before going down with a separated shoulder. The defense collapsed, allowing 112 points in its last two games, but coach Rick Neuheisel believes it will be much better this year.
USC: Second-year coach Pete Carroll says the Trojans should be improved over last year, when they won their last four regular-season games, and lost to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish 6-6. USC returns 14 starters, including QB Carson Palmer, WR Kareem Kelly and RB Sultan McCullough.
UCLA: The Bruins won their first six games last year to rise to No. 4, but then lost four straight and didn't play in a bowl despite a 7-4 record. The Bruins have 13 returning starters, including QB Cory Paus.
OREGON STATE: The Beavers should make a strong comeback from their disappointing 2001 with 17 returning starters. Among the eight returnees on defense are LB Richard Seigler, S Mitch Meeuwsen and LB Nick Barnett - the team's top three tacklers last year. Inexperienced Derek Anderson will start at QB, replacing Jonathan Smith, and Steven Jackson succeeds Ken Simonton at TB.
STANFORD: Just 11 starters return from last year's 9-3 team. First-year coach Buddy Teevens believes in passing. With Chris Lewis throwing and Luke Powell, Teyo Johnson and Ryan Wells catching, the Cardinal have the weapons to make it work.
ARIZONA: Fifteen starters return from a 5-6 team that lost its first five conference games. The Wildcats allowed an average of 34.3 points and gave up more than 40 four times last season.
ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils lost their last five games to finish 4-7, but 13 starters return, including eight on defense. Redshirt freshman Chad Christensen probably will start at QB.
CALIFORNIA: Cal went 1-10 and coach Tom Holmoe was fired, replaced by Jeff Tedford, Oregon's offensive coordinator. The Bears have a conference-leading 18 returning starters led by QB Kyle Boller.