PAC10 Preview

 

August 30, 2006

Let’s go back to the BCS National Championship Game. For a change, there were two, and only two, major undefeated teams in the nation, giving the BCS a break from its nearly annual selection controversy and the accompanying cries for the cure-all playoff. On one side, there was the “dynasty;” the defending champs who had a 30 plus game winning streak. They featured a senior quarterback who had started for three years and had only lost one game, as well has a litany of future NFL draftees. On the other sideline was the underdog, a talented team that had finally ended a streak of futility against its traditional rival, was largely viewed to be carried by one player on offense and had a coach who was trying to prove he could win big games.

 

As we all know, the game was a classic, coming down to the final play, and the overlooked unbeaten dethroned the latest team to be christened “The Greatest Team of All-Time.” Yes, in January 2003, Ohio State defeated the mighty Hurricanes of Miami.

 

College football is cyclical and history repeats itself (insert your favorite similar cliché here), and the same fate that befell Miami ultimately took down last year’s USC team (proving once again that Trojans always break under pressure). Miami, despite its history of Heisman quality quarterbacks and annual elite recruiting classes, has been unable to find a capable replacement for Dorsey and has fallen from title contention in the years that followed. USC now faces the task of replacing Leinart, along with fellow Heisman winner Reggie Bush and top flight running back Lendale White. History indicates that USC will lose at least a couple games this year, and that leaves the conference open for contenders. Who will step up and sack Troy? (Aside: As those who studied real history know, the actual Trojans lost their war, in part due to their own stupidity. Why do athletic teams continue to name themselves after a stupid loser? It’s almost as bad as naming your team in honor of the French military).

 

Below you will find the PAC10 broken into several groupings, based on coaching, talent, experience, depth, schedule, and, quite frankly, my semi-knowledgeable opinion. While I think picking a national championship contender based on schedule is stupid (see Purdue in 2004 and WVU in 2006), who a team plays and where those games are played are key factors in deciding a conference race. The number in parenthesis denotes the team’s predicted place in the conference standings.

 

Strong BCS contenders

 

University of Southern California Trojans (2)

 

Yes, I did just spend several paragraphs expounding on the historical likelihood of USC falling back to earth, and I do believe it will happen. This will be the year the offense feels the loss of Norm Chow, becoming weaker in play calling (a drunk chimp throwing darts at a playbook could’ve gotten USC to 40 points per game last year) and player development, especially at the quarterback position. They have also had a tumultuous off-season, highlighted by several player arrests.

 

Despite all of that, it’s tough to overlook the cupboard being stocked with top talent. Pete Carroll’s defense was unusually mediocre last season, but is unlikely to be as bad again this season. Carroll is too good of a college defensive coach to let it happen. Add to that their extremely favorable schedule, which has virtually every team capable of beating them coming to the Coliseum, and you have a recipe for a strong run at the PAC10 title. If they don’t win the conference, USC has the cache to get an at large bid to any BCS bowl, provided they win 10 games. Everyone will be gunning for them once again, looking for revenge for recent beatings, and they are likely to slip at least once and most likely twice, but reaching a BCS bowl is a strong possibility.

 

Key Games: Notre Dame, Cal. A win over the always overrated Irish greatly enhances USC’s chances of an at large berth into the BCS, and a win over Cal should give the Trojans the PAC10 title yet again.

 

University of California Golden Bears (1)

 

If not USC, then who will take the PAC10? Call me a homer, but it says here that the California Golden Bears will claim their first conference championship since 1975 and their first outright conference crown since Joe Kapp’s 1958 team.

 

Many key factors are aligning for Cal. The offense will feature Heisman candidate Marshawn Lynch. The media focus on coach Jeff Tedford’s offense is on the propensity for churning out NFL quarterbacks, but its often overlooked that Cal has had at least one back go over the thousand yard mark every year of the Tedford era, including JJ Arrington’s 2,000 yard season two years ago. As good as Lynch is, its unlikely that he’ll break Arrington’s single season school rushing record because his backup, Justin Forsett, came one yard shy of 1,000 himself last year, going over 7 yards per carry. For good measure, third string back Marcus O’Keith averaged around 11 yards per carry last season. All three return to form the best stable of backs in the country.

 

Their blockers from last season will change. Cal lost three offensive linemen to the NFL (side note: congrats to Ryan O’Callahan on being named a starter as a rookie on the Patriots) as well as a four year starter at fullback. However the return of Andrew Cameron, a seasoned starter and All Conference performer, from injury helps alleviate concerns, as does the return of Good Samaritan and badass lineman Mike Tepper. Cal returns several other linemen with playing experience, as well as one of the best blocking tight ends around in Craig Stevens. Just as importantly, Cal returns a fantastic offensive line coach who has yet to have a dud in his years in Berkeley.

 

The big focus will be at quarterback, which happens to be Jeff Tedford’s specialty. Cal has a young but experienced and talented group of receivers led by Desean Jackson and Robert Jordan, who along with the running game should take the pressure off starting quarterback Nate Longshore. Longshore was an Elite 11 quarterback in high school and, after spending a redshirt season watching Aaron Rodgers put on a quarterbacking clinic, has won the starting job two years in a row. Longshore won’t be asked to win too many games, but rather just guide the offense and get the ball in the hands of the playmakers who surround him and let a top notch defense work its magic without having to worry about short field position or overwork due to turnovers and constant punts. This is a role made famous in the NFL by Superbowl champion quarterback Trent Dilfer, who happens to be a Tedford product.

 

The real story in Berkeley may be the defense. The loss of senior starting cornerback Tim Mixon will hurt, but Cal should still have a top 10 defense nationally, perhaps even better when one considers the weekly battles against the most complex offenses around (and not the 3 runs up the middle and punt, hope to win 6-4 garbage seen in parts of the Midwest and South). Cal is led by All America level defensive tackle Brandon Mebane who single-handedly draws double and triple teams, pressures the quarterback and gets sacks, and stuffs any back who dares come near him. The rest of Cal’s defensive line should produce at least one All Conference performer, maybe several if pass rushing end Philip Mbakogu can come back from a bothersome knee situation.

 

Cal’s secondary is led by senior four year starter and preseason All America corner Daymeion Hughes. As mentioned earlier, he loses fellow longtime starting senior Mixon to a knee injury, but will still have plenty of talent around him. The secondary could be a relatively weak link as it will be breaking in three new starters, with only Thomas DeCoud having any significant playing experience. Watch for redshirt freshman corner Syd’Quan Thompson, who many observers expect to become better than Mixon (and perhaps better than Hughes) as early as this season.

 

The linebackers are perhaps the strongest unit on the team, which says something considering how good Lynch and the running backs are. Led by All America candidate senior Desmond Bishop, Cal’s linebackers go three deep with players capable of starting at this level. There is so much depth and talent that two players who were freshman All Americans last season will be second string this year. Watch for versatile senior Mickey Pimentel to become one of the top defensive playmakers in the West.

 

Cal’s Achilles’ heel may be the special teams, which have been mediocre at best under coach Pete Alamar the last three seasons. Tom Schneider returns for a third season as the kicker, and Cal fans are hoping that he has made major strides from two sub par seasons to start his career. The punter is juco transfer Andrew Larson, who is said to have a booming leg but had some trouble getting kicks off quickly in practice. The return teams will feature Lynch and Jackson, but no playmaker short of Barry Sanders can do much without blocking. The coverage teams should field a ton of top talent, but the schemes and other coaching aspects are questionable.

 

Key Games: Cal opens at Tennessee in a statement game for both programs. Cal’s chances for a national championship probably hinge on this game, as do its chances of an at large BCS bid. Cal travels to USC late in the season for what should be a monumental showdown. Cal is 0-6 while playing in Southern California (Holiday Bowl included) under Tedford and has suffered annual special teams breakdowns while playing in Los Angeles. This is the year Cal steps up, repeats the 2003 defeat of USC, and finally takes the conference. Joe Kapp should dust off the Taquila and prepare to have his first sip in decades. That is, unless Cal can make the National Championship Game.

 

San Diego Dreaming

 

University of Oregon Ducks (3)

 

The Oregon Ducks find themselves in a solid yet tenuous position as a program. After briefly appearing to step into the power void that was created in the conference in the late 1990s, they have been blown out of the water by USC and have watched Cal come from nowhere to pull past the Ducks (albeit not by much at this point, yet the Bears appear to have all the momentum). Last season was their first “up” year since Tedford and Harrington left in 2001, and they still got demolished at home by USC, got passed over for BCS at large bids which went to two teams with more losses than UO, and ended up losing to a then 7-4 Oklahoma team in the Holiday Bowl. They did win ten games, but the only significant win was over Cal, at home in overtime in a huge storm (and even then, Cal barely missed a field goal as regulation ended that would’ve won the game for the Bears) and they avoided 10-2 UCLA. It was about as nondescript a ten win season as one can have without being WSU. That season epitomizes their stagnation as a program, stuck as a top twenty to twenty five team but rarely considered much better than that.

 

There are reasons for optimism this year. The Ducks enter their second year in offensive coordinator Crowton’s spread offense, and teams tend to take some time becoming proficient with the spread. Star quarterback Kellen Clemens departs for the NFL, but Dennis Dixon (and Brady Leaf, who is related to Ryan Leaf) got some game experience at the end of last season when Clemens was injured and should excel in the spread. They lose their leading rusher and solid receiving back Terrence Whitehead, but return much hyped sophomore Jonathan Stewart. Stewart, it should be noted, didn’t do too much as a runner last year, compiling an underwhelming 3.5 yards per carry on the season. Dixon and Stewart should be helped by the return of the entire offensive line. The offense should be consistently solid at worst, and has the potential to be very explosive. Unfortunately for Duck fans, they may have to wait until their young skill position stars mature to see the latter.

 

Oregon’s special teams should be a strength, as they return senior kicker Paul Martinez, as well as the aforementioned Stewart as a kick returner. The defense shouldn’t be terrible, but will miss defensive line beast Haloti Ngata, as well as several other playmakers.

 

The real killer for Oregon this season is the schedule. They have a difficult out of conference with a trip to pesky Fresno followed by a visit from Oklahoma (they also host Portland State, who seems to be playing everyone in the PAC10 this year). Their conference slate has them making trips to ASU, Cal, USC, and also playing the Civil War on the road. The Fresno, Oklahoma, ASU, and Cal games come in succession following a season opener at home against Stanfurd. Oregon’s season could be over before it starts.

 

Key Games: Oklahoma beat UO in the Holiday Bowl last year, but they will be visiting Autzen without Rhett Bomar. A win will move the Ducks up the rankings and set them up for two huge conference road games. Every Tedford – Bellotti game has come down to the wire regardless of the relative strength of the two teams. If that trend holds up, this could be Oregon’s chance to edge back ahead of Cal as a program and set themselves up as the challenger to a rebuilding USC.

 

Arizona State Sun Devils (4)

 

As it does every year under Dirk Koetter, ASU should have an offense that scores almost as often as its coeds do. And like most other Koetter teams, this one will likely fail offensively in its biggest moments and play little defense. So what’s new at ASU? How about a potential player revolt?

 

What started out as a competition between two good quarterbacks ended in a dramatic flurry that not even Shakespeare would’ve dared dream up. Given nearly nine months to choose between senior Sam Keller and sophomore Rudy Carpenter, Koetter couldn’t make up his mind and offered to split snaps, an offer both quarterbacks declined. As fall camp was winding down, Keller was named the starter. The next day, it is believed that Carpenter went to Koetter and threatened to transfer. It has also been widely rumored that roughly twenty players went to Koetter as a group and expressed their strong desire for Carpenter to start, saying Keller was not a good choice to lead. Among these players was Keller’s roommate. And to top it off, Keller had earlier been voted a team captain. The next day, Koetter officially put the knife squarely between Keller’s shoulder blades by naming Carpenter the starter. Koetter said Keller would have all the time he needed to decide on whether or not to transfer, failing to mention that classes started the next day (meaning Keller had less than a day to digest all this, say “et tu” to his roomie, and decide on his future).

 

So what does all that have to do with ASU’s chances in 2006? Plenty. The backup quarterback is now a true freshman (strangely yet fittingly, ASU had a highly touted 3rd string quarterback transfer out earlier in the offseason due to his place on the depth chart), which is all the more important considering that ASU has only made it through one of the last nine seasons without having to go to a backup at the quarterback position. Additionally, there had to be Keller supporters on the team who are not happy about this, and at the first sign of trouble they are likely to turn on coach Kutthroat and his merry band of backstabbers. And what’s to stop an unhappy 2nd stringer from pulling the same act Carpenter used?

 

I’m still putting them fourth in the conference due to a high powered offense (love their tight ends in the passing game), a defensive line presumably improved by an infusion of talented transfers (though they’ll have to replace their best defender from the last couple seasons, linebacker Dale Robinson), and a favorable home/road split in conference. They do visit Cal and USC, but under Koetter they’ve been repeatedly slaughtered by those two teams regardless of where the games have been played. ASU gets Oregon, UCLA, and Stanfurd at home, giving them a good chance to control their destiny in the 2nd and 3rd tier of the conference.

 

Oregon State Beavers (5)

 

OSU has a lot going for it this season. They return the conference’s leading rusher, Yvenson Bernard, and all five starting offensive linemen. They also return an all conference kicker, Alex Serna, a top tight end in Joe Newton, and a senior quarterback, Matt Moore. They have been unable to beat anyone of consequence except Cal on the road, but among their 5 conference home games are dates with my entire top 4, meaning they don’t play any road games against anyone who projects as a major contender.

 

So why not have OSU higher? For one thing, their defense has a lot to prove. They were pretty bad last year, especially against the pass where they ranked 3rd to worst in the nation. The defense was an embarrassing 12th worst in the nation in points allowed per game. They return some experienced players, but what good is it if those players are experienced at sucking (except, inexplicably, against Cal)? [side note: that last sentence, sans the Cal part, might sum up my entire UW preview. Stay tuned]

 

Another problem is that the senior quarterback is UCLA reject Matt Moore, who continued a not-so-proud OSU quarterback tradition (hello, Derek Anderception) of treating the ball as if it were trying to give him syphallis, and in the process throwing nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. Oh, and he’ll lose by far his best target, Mike Haas. My guess is that he’ll have a better recognition of which team is wearing the Halloween colors this year, but still be no more than slightly above mediocre for a PAC quarterback.

 

So what’s the final pick (oops, sorry for the choice of words, Matt) for OSU? Coach Mike Riley has never lost fewer than four games in a season, and he won’t start now. However, with 13 regular season games, two cream puffs and two decent mid majors on the out of conference slate, and a favorable (in terms of making a run for the top of the conference) home/road conference split (not to mention 5 home games vs 4 road, meaning the annual home team’s win in the Civil War should belong to OSU this year), it’s entirely conceivable that OSU wins 10 games including its bowl. If they win less than 8, Riley should be fired. And I’m not sure he shouldn’t have been fired after totally wasting Steven Jackson, a talent like Derek Anderson, and a good defense a few years ago.

 

A Pre X-Mas Bowl against a Mid-Major? How can I lose?!?!

 

UCLA Bruins (6)

 

The 2005 Bruins may have been the worst 10-2 team in recent memory. They dominated virtually no one, had to come back from several large late deficits in very unlikely fashion, and got spanked in its two losses by a combined 85 points (compare that with WSU, which finished tied for last in the conference and yet only got outscored by a combined 69 points in its 7 losses). UCLA had a very good passing game and a solid ground game, as well as super return man Maurice Drew, but Michael Jackson could’ve moon-walked for a 100 yards on their defense last year.

 

This year’s Bruins lose the key players who made last year’s magic carpet ride happen. Quarterback Drew Olson had the quietest 31 touchdown 3 interception (and half a dozen or so 4th quarter comebacks) regular season I’ve ever seen. The aforementioned Drew, who led the Bruins in rushing and returns (where he was among the nation’s best), and was 3rd on the team in receiving, has moved on to the NFL. Joining him in the pros is tight end Marcedes Lewis, who led the Bruins in receptions, receiving yards, and had more 2.5 times as many touchdowns as anyone else on the team.

 

In short, the magic is gone in Westwood. The offense is being turned over to Ben Olson (no relation to Drew), who was the nation’s #1 quarterback recruit out of high school (when he committed to BYU, where he then redshirted and then took a 2 year mission). Off course, that was so long ago that Cal was busy going 1-10 and USC alumni were calling for Pete Carroll’s head and for the head of the AD who dared hire the NFL failure. Olson has thrown a grand total of 4 passes since graduating high school in 2001, and there is virtually no one behind him. With Drew and Lewis gone, he’ll have to do more than just get the ball to playmakers, as there are no experienced ones on the roster.

 

Can Karl “Radio” Dorrell put together another shocking 10 win season? I doubt it, and think that history will judge his 2005 UCLA team to be a bigger fluke than Keith Gilbertson winning 9 games as head coach of Cal in 1993. The talent is there for another run at the Sun, but coaching, lack of playmakers, lack of defense (which should improve with the return of some key defensive linemen, but still be mediocre at best), and a brutal road schedule will do in the Bruins. They will not survive trips to Notre Dame, Oregon, ASU, and Cal, on top of their annual emasculation at the hands of USC.

 

Key games: Oregon State visits the Rose Bowl, giving UCLA a good chance to stake its claim to the top half of the conference. Arizona also comes to LA, giving Dorrell a chance to avenge last year’s brutal throttling in Tuscon and how that his team has some semblance of pride.

 

Leland Stanfurd Junior University Cardinal (7)

 

UC Davis. UC Davis UC Davis UC Davis. In men’s basketball too! Did I mention UC Davis?

 

Now that that’s out of the way, its time more people noticed that the Cardinal finished tied with ASU and Cal for fourth place in the PAC10 last year. They return senior quarterback Trent Edwards, who may be the best quarterback in the conference and possibly one of the ten best in the country. They return their leading wide receiver, senior Mark Bradford. Evan Moore, a 6’7 senior wideout, returns from injury for one final season on the farm. In fact, Stanfurd returns 6 of the 7 players who had receiving touchdowns last season (losing only running back J.R. Lemon). The offensive line is once again a big question mark (i.e. probably a sieve) but with all the returning talent and Walt Harris’ expertise in the passing game, the furd should be able to move the ball in the air against most teams this year.

 

Big problems arise just about everywhere else. What was a decent defense last season loses just about everyone of note, including all name team selection Babatunde Oshinowo. As mentioned, the offensive line is not exactly a strength, although my view may be skewed by watching Cal’s annual knocking out of Edwards and subsequent bludgeoning of backup T.C. Ostrander, esquire. Walt Harris’ expertise pretty much ends with the passing game, as no Cardinal back managed to crack the elusive 250 yard barrier last season.

 

The schedule is kind to the Card. While they only get four conference home games, three are against relative lightweights UA, UW, and OSU. Stanfurd also hosts San Jose State (who to be fair did managed to win three straight in this series during the Cardinal’s glorious Ty Willingham era) and Navy, which gives Furd a good chance at winning four or five home games this season. One or two road wins on top of that gets Stanfurd to their first bowl game since the fabled 2001 Seattle Bowl. Their 3 remaining fans would be thrilled.

 

Key Games: At UO to open the season, and at ASU on Oct 21st. Two solid chances to get the conference road upset they need to get to a bowl. They also visit Notre Dame, and Furd showed last season that their passing game matched up very well with Notre Dame’s total lack of pass defense.

 

Washington State University Cougars (8)

 

Over the years, WSU has added to the college sports lexicon by screwing up so many times that “couging it” became synonymous with blowing games. Last season, however, WSU took it to another level as they repeatedly lost by one score or less on their way to a last place conference finish.

 

Like most delusional fans of losing teams, WSU fans think that all their close losses will turn to wins (and their water will turn to wine, and their fugly women will turn into…fugly women who aren’t related to them). Sometimes teams lose close games because they are inexperienced and need to get over the hump. Sometimes teams lose close games because they are just that bad and other teams cruise for 3 quarters and turn on the afterburners in the 4th just in time to pull out a win and scar the losing team’s fans further. I believe WSU is more of the latter than the former.

 

WSU does have a pretty good quarterback in Alex Brink, and one of the best receivers in the conference in Jason Hill, but they lose the man who made their offense so dangerous last year, 1900 yard rusher Jerome Harrison. The passing game, which also features wideout Michael Bumpus but lost top tight end Troy Bienemann, should be in the top quarter of the nation once again, but the Cougars may have trouble putting up touchdowns in the redzone without Harrison.

 

WSU’s defense and special teams weren’t very good last season, and don’t figure to be much better this year. The defense does have stud defensive end Mkristo Bruce, but doesn’t have much else that will scare opposing offenses. Bruce will have to be a one man wrecking crew to keep opponents from once again lighting up the Cougs.

 

Coach Bill Doba seems like a nice man who puts in the requisite effort for the job (side note: condolences to the entire Doba family on the loss of coach Doba’s wife), but is just not up to being a head coach at this level. He had some success in year one with Mike Price’s players and system, but its been all downhill since.

 

The schedule does set up a run for a bowl game. After a brutal opener at Auburn, WSU gets two cream puffs at home. They also get 5 conference home games, including UA and UW. An upset or two on the road (Stanfurd? UCLA?) leaves the Cougs fighting for a bowl game at the end of the season.

 

Key games: Cal visits Martin Stadium, a place the Bears haven’t won at since the Jimmy Carter administration. WSU has played Cal tough both times they’ve faced Tedford, and this would seem to be one of WSU’s best chances for a huge upset win to swing them to the middle of the conference and perhaps up into the Holiday candidates category. Beating UW for the 3rd straight year, especially after decades of Husky domination, would brighten the mood of Coug fans everywhere.

 

Ruining our famous coach’s rep, one crappy season at a time

 

University of Arizona Wildcats (9)

 

We are in year three of the Mike Stoops “the revival of this program is just around the corner” tour, and Tuscon residents may be getting dangerously close to the part where they realize that sending someone $50 for a book on how to get people to send you $50 for a book may not be the brightest idea. Yes, recruiting is way up, and the defense looks better, but improving win totals have not followed. Stoops’ game mismanagement and on field temper tantrums directed at teenagers who dare make a mistake during a game may eventually erode the goodwill his brother’s (Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops) name built for Mike.

 

Willie Tuitama looked impressive for a true freshman at the end of last season, but is now getting a little too much hype. UA went 2-2 with him at the helm (including a blowout loss to a putrid Washington team), and didn’t exactly face top defenses. He will face a game in Baton Rouge against a traditionally stingy LSU defense in game two this year, so we will find out quickly just how good Tuitama really is.

 

With the new rules changes this season, especially the ones involving the changes in when the game clock runs, game management and assimilation to the rules will be at a premium. This is not a Stoops specialty, and UA could once again lose a game because of a bumbling late game effort by its head coach (I wonder if he’ll let the team publicly berate him if it happens like he would do to them if the situation were reversed?).

 

Key games: UA hosts BYU to open the season. This is a bellweather game for the Wildcats program, and UA surely doesn’t want to head to LSU in a 0-1 hole. ASU comes to Tuscon to end the season, and a win over ASU could get UA to a bowl game, or make yet another losing season seem more acceptable.

 

University of Washington Huskies (10)

 

Ty Willingham’s and his Huskies’ long, slow march back to mediocrity continues. Senior quarterback Isaiah Stanback is athletic and improving, and could make some plays, but UW doesn’t have the offense, defense, or special teams to contend in what should be a strong PAC10 this year. UW better be careful, as a couple more years in the cellar could make them irrelevant for the foreseeable future. Losing Greyson Gunheim hurts a weak defense already devoid of playmakers. Their schedule has trips to the two teams I have directly above them, which figures to limit their upward mobility. They’ll have a hard time getting more than 3 or 4 wins this year. 

 

Maybe Lorenzo Romar can return the favor and give the football team a player who will spark an unexpected resurgence? Anyone on Montlake know if Spencer Hawes can rush the passer?

 

Key games: The Apple Cup is in Pullman this year. UW used to win this every year, but is in danger of losing 3 straight. A win here is huge for morale, and going into the offseason (and thus recruiting season) on a high note is important. UW is going to Tuscon to try repeating last year’s pussywhipping of the Wildcats. Wins in both these road games sets UW up for a run at 5 wins, or maybe even a bowl bid at 6-6.

 

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