LOS ANGELES (AP) -From Jim Plunkett to John Elway and Drew Bledsoe to Matt Leinart, the Pac-10 has long been the conference of quarterbacks.
This year's crop may turn out to be the best of all.
Eight of the top nine passers from last fall are back, led by Southern California senior John David Booty, who has emerged as a preseason Heisman Trophy contender. Booty is only one reason the Trojans were a unanimous pick by West Coast media to win their fifth straight conference title.
``To me it's by far the best that I've seen as far as depth quarterback-wise,'' said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who previously coached at Washington State and Oregon State. ``I mean, everybody's got their quarterback coming back.''
Erickson paused, then smiled.
``What that tells me is that whoever has the best defense is probably going to win the league,'' Erickson said during Pac-10 media day.
Defense? They play defense in the Pac-10?
Last year, only one Pac-10 team ranked in the top 25 in scoring defense - USC, which allowed 15.2 points per game, 11th in Division I-A. Meanwhile, four schools - USC, Washington State, California and Oregon State - were among the top 25 in passing offense.
There may be some debate over whether Pac-10 offenses are that good or Pac-10 defenses are that bad. But it seems clear that this year's title will be won in the air.
``I don't think there is any conference in the country that can claim the skill-position players that we do, particularly at quarterback,'' Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen said.
Passing has always been a fancy on the West Coast. One reason is that Pac-10 programs don't have to go far to find prospects; California annually produces bumper crops of passing and receiving prospects.
Another factor is the region's forgiving weather; in the Pac-10, only the four northern schools consistently deal with rain, snow and other Big Ten-style elements that can make passing difficult.
``It's grass basketball,'' said Washington State coach Bill Doba, a former defensive coordinator who spends many hours trying to figure out ways to stop the Pac-10's multitude of offensive sets.
The passing numbers are likely to explode this fall because veteran quarterbacks allow coaches to open up their playbooks.
California junior Nate Longshore is ``another coach on our field,'' Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. ``Nate is a student of the game.''
Tedford knows quarterbacks. In 15 years as a college assistant and head coach, he is credited with developing six quarterbacks who were first-round NFL draft picks, including Cal products Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Boller.
Doba said Cougars senior Alex Brink ``knows more about this offense than I do.''
Brink has been a worthy heir to the Pullman quarterback tradition established by Bledsoe, Jack Thompson, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser, all of whom led the Pac-10 in passing. Brink threw for 19 touchdowns and had 10 interceptions a year ago, earning a spot on the second-team all-conference squad.
Then there's Booty, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder who came to the Pac-10 from Shreveport, La., in the heart of Southeastern Conference country.
Booty spent his first two years behind Leinart, but he has thrown 32 touchdown passes in three seasons. If Booty matches last year's total, 29, he would finish third on the school's career list behind Leinart and Carson Palmer, both Heisman winners.
The softspoken Booty is quick to credit his teammates for his success, but he said he welcomes comparisons to previous Trojan stars.
``I give my best and work hard, and I want to be a winner because of the great players who came before me,'' Booty said. ``If I can be half as good as some of them, I will be happy about my career at USC.''
USC coach Pete Carroll said he expects a big year from Booty, who has had elbow and back injuries but is healthy heading into his final season.
``Coming out of last season he has had a seamless transition,'' Carroll said. ``He is as fast and strong as he's ever been. He's in position for a great opportunity to lead our football team.''
Not every returning starter is as decorated as Booty, Longshore and Brink.
Oregon is looking for more consistency from senior Dennis Dixon, who threw more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes (12) a year ago; Dixon entered fall camp as the starter, but if he falters, the Ducks can call on another experienced senior, Brady Leaf, the younger brother of Ryan Leaf.
Arizona junior Willie Tuitama had an outstanding freshman season but battled concussions last year. The Wildcats hope Tuitama won't take as many hits in new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes' quick-trigger attack.
Only two teams - Washington and Oregon State - are breaking in new starters. Washington starter Jake Locker, a redshirt freshman, has supplanted senior Carl Bonnell, who started the last five games in 2006.
If Erickson's scouting report is valid, Locker looks like he'll fit nicely in the Pac-10.
``Coming out of high school, probably the best I've ever seen,'' Erickson said.
A capsule look at the Pac-10 in order of predicted finish:
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA - A trio of potential NFL linebackers leads a defense that might be best in country. OLBs Brian Cushing and Keith Rivers and ILB Rey Maulaluga could all be All-Americans. ... Trojans have tricky road schedule with games at Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, Cal and Arizona State. ... Looking for the next Reggie Bush? Freshman TB Joe McKnight might be it.
CALIFORNIA - All-American DeSean Jackson has returned five punts for TDs in his career. .... TB Justin Forsett, who ran for 626 yards as Marshawn Lynch's backup last season, becomes the starter. ... Pass defense ranked 103rd in the nation last season and must replace CB Daymeion Hughes.
UCLA - Remember the defense that shut down USC in the final regular season game and kept the Trojans from playing for a national title? Well, 10 starters from the defense are back, led by DE Bruce Davis and LB Christian Taylor. ... New offensive coordinator is Jay Norvell, who held that same job at Nebraska.
OREGON STATE - No returning starter at QB here. Left-hander Sean Canfield takes over for Matt Moore. Canfield was 28-for-45 for 335 yards last season. ... Canfield has one of the top backs - if not so well-known - in the country in Yvenson Bernard, and top-notch receiver Sammie Stroughter.
OREGON - Lots of talk about who's playing quarterback, but if RB Jonathan Stewart stays healthy, he'll be the Ducks' best offensive weapon. The 240-pounder has scored 20 touchdowns in two seasons. ... Ended last season with four straight losses.
ARIZONA STATE - QB Rudy Carpenter had an erratic sophomore season after a brilliant freshman year. He passed for 2,523 yards and 23 touchdowns, but had low efficiency rating of 133.68. ... RB Ryan Torain is another under-the-radar star. He ran for 1,229 last year.
ARIZONA - Coach Mike Stoops has shown some signs of getting the Wildcats going in the right direction, but he's still just 12-22 in three season in Tucson. ... CBs Antoine Cason and Wilfrey Fontenot might be the top duo in the league.
WASHINGTON - Coach Tyrone Willingham appeared to have the Huskies ahead of schedule early last season. But QB Isaiah Stanback's injury ruined the season and Washington lost six straight games. ... Schedule is brutal with home games against Boise State and Ohio State.
WASHINGTON STATE - The Cougars will be breaking in two new cornerbacks, scary stuff in a league with so many good passers. ... Slotback Michael Bumpus (60 catches) and WR Brandon Gibson (49 catches) give Brink two reliable targets.
STANFORD - Coach Jim Harbaugh has already made headlines, first saying Pete Carroll would be leaving USC after this season and then by calling the Trojans potentially the greatest team ever. ... Not much else noteworthy about a team coming off a winless season.

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