Aug. 1, 2002
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Washington State has gone from worst to first, at least as far as those participating in the Pacific-10 Conference preseason football media poll is concerned.
The Cougars, picked to finish last by the media in each of the last three years, were picked to win this year's championship, it was announced Wednesday.
Sixteen starters return from last year's squad, including former St. Louis School standout Jason Gesser, the Cougars' Heisman hopeful at quarterback.
Washington State, which had a surprising 10-2 record last season including 6-2 in the conference, when it tied for second place with Washington and Stanford, drew 17 first-place votes and 302 points in the poll.
The Cougars, who won the Pac-10 title in 1997 after being tabbed to finish seventh in the preseason poll, hadn't been selected to win the crown in 41 previous polls.
"You finally got it right," WSU coach Mike Price told reporters at Pac-10 Media Day. "It took 41 years to make us favorites. We've got to prove it. This just kind of vindicates what we did last year. It's good for our program. (But) you don't get any points for it."
Price said he believes the Cougars have better athletes now than a year ago, "but I don't know if we have a better team."
Washington, which has 15 starters back from last year, was picked to finish second with 12 first-place votes and 296 points.
"If we can be in the hunt in November, we'll be elated," Washington coach Rick Neuheisel said. "I think the team that wins it this year is the team that plays the best defense."
Defending champion Oregon, 7-1 in the conference last year and 11-1 overall including a 38-16 victory over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, got only one first-place vote. The Ducks were picked to finish third with 272 points.
Oregon has to replace All-American quarterback Joey Harrington, but has 13 returning starters.
"The glow of last year is still there a little bit," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "We're ready to move on. Last year was a magical situation."
Bellotti said he was pleased with junior quarterback Jason Fife's performance in the spring game.
"It really infused confidence, not only in the offense but the entire team," Bellotti said. "People now believe there's life after Joey."
Fife enters practice as the No. 1 quarterback, but will compete with redshirt freshman Kellen Clemens for the starting job.
Southern California was picked to finish fourth, receiving three first-place votes and 243 points, and Oregon State rounded out the top five with one first-place vote and 207 points.
UCLA (178 points) was picked to finish sixth, followed by Stanford (131 points), Arizona (107 points), Arizona State (87 points) and California (47 points).
The preseason media poll has correctly picked 19 champions in its 41 years of existence including the last two years and three of the last four.
Since the league expanded to 10 teams in 1978, the highest Washington State had been picked to finish was fourth, in 1985.
Seven different teams have won the championship in the last seven years -- USC, Arizona State, Washington State, UCLA, Stanford, Washington and Oregon.