2009 Pacific 10 Conference (Pac-10) Football Preview
The nation’s most chronically underrated conference finally earned some national respect in 2009 as the Pac Ten posted a 5-0 bowl record, including wins over Big Ten, Big XII, Big East and ACC foes. As the league plays a nine game round robin schedule, there are less bowl eligible teams than the other major leagues, which is the reason that they played in only five bowl games. While the Pac Ten possesses a geographical disadvantage as they’re the only major conference located in the Western Time Zone, there is certainly no disadvantage on the playing field. The Pac Ten is the only conference to possess a winning record against every other BCS conference in the past ten years!
This season, there looks to be a great deal of depth throughout the league. Juggernaut USC looks ready to reload instead of rebuild (like usual) and will be gunning for their 8th straight conference crown. USC’s dominance has given rise to the urban legend that the rest of the Pac Ten is inferior but that simply isn’t the case. California, Oregon State and Oregon are all likely to begin the year ranked and Stanford and Arizona are dangerous teams. In fact, USC’s record during their championship run, including bowl games, is 82-9 and seven of those losses have come at the hands of conference opponents! That means that USC’s toughest foes have come during conference play!
The major perception problem for the Pac Ten is that their teams are rarely seen on television east of the Rocky Mountains outside of major national showcase games (which usually involve USC) while the other major conferences dominate television broadcasts every Saturday. Thus, most casual fans don’t get to see the high quality of play that takes place in the league I ranked tied for 3rd best in the country at the end of last season. Stay up late and watch a few Pac Ten games this fall, I promise you’ll be impressed.
EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH
Shocked that I have Cal upending mighty USC to win the conference championship this year? Frankly, I am as well. However, the Golden Bears have become a consistently strong team under head coach Jeff Tedford and their seven consecutive bowl berths is the conference’s second longest streak behind the Trojans. With such consistency, it isn’t a surprise when every few years the program produces a particularly strong team that competes for the conference title and I think that 2009 could be one of those years in Berkeley. Tedford’s squad has 15 starters back from last season and has a particularly well-scheduled homecoming date with the Trojans. Could this be the first year since 2002 that USC isn’t the Pac Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl?
Tedford made his reputation as a quarterback guru before taking over at Cal, so his offenses are consistently solid. Everything in 2009 revolves around superstar junior tailback Jahvid Best, who ran for nearly 1,600 yards last season and 15 touchdowns. Best is a Heisman Trophy candidate and could very well be the top tailback in the country. He will run behind a solid O-Line which returns three starters from last fall. While former center Alex Mack, a 2nd round NFL draft pick, will be difficult to replace, the Bears have both tackles back and their guards both started during the 2008 season. I expect Best and his excellent backup, sophomore Shane Vereen, to have plenty of room to roam this year.
At quarterback, Tedford had difficulty settling on a starter the past two seasons and I think it negatively affected the team’s production and cohesiveness. This fall, junior Kevin Riley is the unquestioned starter and I think that he will have a big year now that he doesn’t have to worry about being removed after one bad series. Riley threw for 1,360 yards last fall and 14 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions and I expect him to have a strong 2009. His receivers need to be more consistent catching passes but seniors Nyan Boateng and Verran Tucker both have big play potential. I expect the Golden Bears to have a very powerful rushing attack this season and Riley should have a big year off of play action. This could be Cal’s best season on offense since the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers was under center.
Defensively, Cal fielded one of their best units in the Tedford era last fall. Eight starters are back from that excellent squad and they should be very strong up front. Cal became the first team in the conference to run a 3-4 defense last season and all three starters are back on the defensive line. Senior tackle Tyson Alualu had 6 sacks last year and was a 2nd team All-Pac Ten selection. Despite a lot of injuries, this group anchored a very good run defense and I think that this veteran unit is one of the best in the league. I wonder if the Bears won’t employ some 4-3 technique this year with so much talent up front, especially since the big concern is behind them at linebacker, where only one starter returns. Junior Michael Mohamed was the Bears’ best all-around linebacker in 2008 as he racked up 87 tackles, 3 sacks and 3 picks while senior Eddie Young was solid in part time duty, finishing with 40 tackles. Both should be very productive this fall. Also keep an eye on sophomore Mychal Kendricks, who impressed with his athleticism last season. I don’t think that Cal’s linebacking is going to drop off as badly as many people seem to believe and I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar production to last fall behind a very strong line. I think Cal will be very good against the run this year.
That’s bad news for the opposition because their secondary is excellent. All four starters are back after allowing less than 200 yards passing per game in 2008. The star of the group is senior cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, who was a 1 st team All-Pac Ten choice last season after making 70 tackles, 2 sacks and snagging 4 picks. However, all four starters are ball hawks as they combined for 12 picks last season and this is one of the country’s best defensive backfields. Overall, Cal has an excellent defense from front to back and should be one of the league’s best this season.
The schedule is an interesting mix. The non-conference portion features two BCS opponents as the Bears play Maryland and Minnesota. Maryland is a revenge game as Cal lost to the Terps last season after traveling cross country to play a noon game, which rarely occurs when West Coast teams head east as that’s a 9 AM start time back home! The Terps jumped out to a big lead before Cal woke up and held on for the upset. Expect Cal to be ready and angry when they open the season against Maryland at a reasonable hour. Minnesota is an interesting game as the Gophers are opening their new stadium this season but I think Cal is looking at a 3-0 record outside of the Pac Ten. The Bears only have four conference home games but they’ve posted unbeaten home records in three of the last five years and they host the all-important matchup with USC. I’ll elaborate more on this at the end of the preview, but Cal has an enormous chance at defeating USC based on the Trojans’ recent history. Factor in that the Golden Bears are an excellent football team and I think that USC could be in trouble. The Bears also host Arizona and Oregon State and their only two road games of note are at Oregon and archrival Stanford. Oregon will be a stiff test as Autzen Stadium is quite the intimidating venue and the Bears had better not be looking forward to USC the next week.
Overall, Cal is a very impressive football team in every aspect. The Golden Bears will have an awesome running game and an improved passing attack on offense and an extremely talented defense that should stand toe to toe with USC for the title of the Pac Ten’s best. I will be surprised if the Bears aren’t a top fifteen team in the national preseason polls and I personally think that they are one of the ten best teams in the country. After so much dominance from USC, I know I will be going against the grain with this choice but I am picking the Cal Golden Bears to win the 2009 Pac Ten Championship and play in their first Rose Bowl since 1958.
Big Games: Sept. 19th @ Minnesota, Sept. 26th @ Oregon, Oct. 3rd vs. USC, Oct. 17th @ UCLA, Nov. 7th vs. Oregon St, Nov. 14th vs. Arizona, Nov. 21st @ Stanford
2008 was a very bittersweet season for the Men of Troy. Despite boasting one of the most impressive non-conference wins in the country after blowing out Ohio State and fielding a historically excellent defense which allowed only 9 points per game, USC never seemed to gain any traction as a legitimate contender for a berth in the national title game after being upset early by Oregon State. As I picked the Trojans as the number one team in my final 2008 ranking, I clearly disagreed with the pollsters’ choice of participants in the National Title game. USC might have been the best team in the country last year. This fall, USC has to rebuild their entire defense and replace starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was a top 5 pick in the NFL Draft. Furthermore, the Trojans have to replace both coordinators as their staff was raided by Washington in the offseason. This might be head coach Pete Carroll’s most difficult reloading job since he began the Trojans’ most recent run of success in 2002. However, he has a strong track record as the Trojans have won seven straight Pac Ten titles and boast an 82-9 record during that time span!
On offense, nine starters are back from last season. The offensive line might be the best in the entire country as all five starters return and all are upperclassmen. Like most of USC’s players, all of the linemen were very highly recruited coming out of high school and I would wager that all of them will have a pro career. That kind of beef on the line means that USC should have a devastating running game. The Trojans split carries three ways last fall and all three tailbacks return. Joe McKnight is one of the shiftiest players in the country, CJ Gable is a solid all around back and Stafon Johnson might be the best pro prospect of the three. They combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Expect USC to lean on them in the early going. At receiver, junior Damian Wililams was a 2nd team All-Pac Ten choice in 2008 after catching 58 passes for 870 yards and 9 touchdowns. New starter Ronald Johnson was a very capable third receiver last season as he hauled in 8 touchdowns and he and Williams will form the conference’s top tandem.
So with so much firepower, what’s the big concern? Quarterback. USC recruits the position as well as anyone in America but Carroll was publicly peeved when Sanchez left early for the NFL after turning in a virtuoso performance in the Rose Bowl. That’s because USC will now start either sophomore Aaron Corp or true freshman Matt Barkley this fall. Neither has any notable experience at the college level, unlike Sanchez going who had three years to learn before taking over last season and had even started a few games when starter John David Booty was injured in 2007. With three road games in the first month of the year, quarterback is of utmost concern. USC will still field a great offense and once the quarterback situation is settled they’ll finish with their usual flourish. Expect great production but USC’s fate in the national and conference race will be decided by early October and their quarterbacks will have to be ready to rise and meet the challenge.
Defensively, USC has to replace a ton of talent that formed one of the best defenses in school history. Eight players were drafted in April from last season’s unit which allowed only 12 touchdowns in 13 games! However, this is USC and they recruit as well as anyone in the country so there is a ton of talent on hand. Up front, the only starter back is junior tackle Christian Toupou, who takes up a lot of space. However, junior Everson Griffin is one of the most talented players on the team and he had 4.5 sacks as a backup last year. I expect USC to field a very good defensive line but they won’t be as good as 2008’s group as the three departed starters were multiyear performers taken in the first four rounds. The linebackers lost more talent to the draft than any other position on the team. The top three tacklers are all gone and all three were high draft picks. This fall, sophomore middle linebacker Chris Galippo is expected to be the next Trojan star and he is surrounded by a ton of talent. Expect USC to continue to be very tough against the run but they lack any notable game action. The secondary is by far the most experienced unit on defense. Senior safety Taylor Mays is one of the country’s best players and was a 1st team All-American last fall. Senior cornerback Josh Pinkard is the other starter back but senior safety Will Harris played a ton last year and should seamlessly step into the other spot opposite Mays. Senior cornerback Kevin Thomas and sophomore safety Drew McAllister tied for the team lead in interceptions last fall with three and both should see the field plenty this season.
Overall, the Trojans should once more have a great defense and their secondary is certainly one of the country’s best. However, way too much hyperbole has been directed at this season’s defense as I’ve actually read that some people think this group could be better than last season’s sterling unit. That’s simply not going to happen. Last year’s defense held opponents to an average of 220 total yards and nine points! I don’t ever like to sensationalize anything in sports but USC’s 2008 defense might have been one of the best in the history of college football! From that unit, they’ve lost two first round picks, two 2nd round picks, two 4 th round picks and two 6th round picks in the NFL draft! USC will undoubtedly field a great defense but the last time USC had to replace this much talent was in 2005 and they allowed 23 points per game. I don’t expect their defense to fall that far this season but there will be a noticeable step back.
The schedule is also as tough as ever. The non-conference portion features an early road trip to Ohio State, who will have revenge on their minds for last season’s beatdown in the Coliseum, and archrival Notre Dame, who should be much improved. While USC does have five home conference games, they have to travel to Washington, Cal, Oregon and Arizona State, four of the toughest venues in the conference. Furthermore, five of their first eight games are on the road and they only have six total home games!
Simply put, this is USC. They’re going to be fast and talented at every position regardless of how many players they’ve lost to the NFL because this is one of the true powerhouse programs in college football. They’re the epitome of a school that reloads instead of rebuilds. The only question is how they’ll stack up against other top flight teams. Well, they’ve got two top ten caliber opponents on the road in their first five games in Ohio State and Cal. With a young quarterback and an inexperienced defense, both games loom very large and I wouldn’t be shocked if they lost both. However, if the Trojans beat the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium with a quarterback starting his first road game in that kind of environment, then they’re a strong contender for the National Title. In the end, I will be very surprised if USC doesn’t win ten games and play in a BCS bowl this season.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Ohio State, Sept. 19th @ UW, Oct. 3rd @ Cal, Oct. 17th @ Notre Dame, Oct. 24th vs. Oregon St, Oct. 31st @ Oregon, Nov. 28th vs. UCLA
The Beavers continued their recent run of success last fall as they finished the season with a 9-4 record, including handing USC their only loss of the season in a nationally televised game. The Beavers were one game away from their first Rose Bowl berth in forty years but were thwarted by archrival Oregon on the regular season’s final day. Oregon State’s campaign was particularly remarkable as they played one of the toughest schedules in the country and had to rebuild their defense from scratch. Head coach Mike Riley has exceeded expectations so consistently (The Pac Ten media has predicted them, on average, to finish four spots lower than their actual finish in the past three seasons!) that my expectations for Oregon State have risen significantly. While the Beavers enter this season with only eleven starters back and lost seven players to the NFL draft, second highest in college football, I’m completely confident that Riley will once more field a very strong team in 2009.
Offensively, there are a ton of reasons for optimism, the foremost being the presence of the Rodgers brothers, James and Jacquizz. James was the team’s 3 rd leading receiver last fall with 51 catches and 4 touchdowns while also rushing for over 400 yards and 5 touchdowns. Little bro Quizz was even more impressive, rushing for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns, earning Pac Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors as a true freshman! Unfortunately, the diminutive pair both ended last season injured so their durability is a concern. At quarterback, seniors Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield both have significant experience and both were solid when called upon last season. Moevao is the starter and was quite good last year, throwing for over 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. He needs to do a better job protecting the football though, as he did throw 13 picks last year. The Beavers’ offensive line also looks to be a solid unit as three starters return. The key will be how well sophomore Mike Remmers handles the transition to left tackle after spending all season at right tackle in 2008.
The biggest concern on offense is at receiver, where the Rodgers brothers represent the majority of the returning experience. Someone is going to need to step up in Riley’s innovative scheme to replace over 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns worth of lost production from team’s top two departed receivers. Despite some concerns on the line and at wideout, Oregon State still has all of the makings of another very solid offense. If the Rodgers brothers and Moevao stay healthy, I think that the Beavers will be as dangerous this fall as they were in 2008.
Defensively there are some big concerns. Only four starters return from last season, none of whom are in the secondary. However, the Beavers had only three starters back last fall and barely missed a step, so I’m confident in their ability to reload. Unfortunately, this year’s defense lost five players to the NFL Draft, so it will be even more difficult to replace all of the lost production. Up front, junior tackle Stephen Paea is a great building block for a solid line as he made 41 tackles and 5 sacks in 2008. Paea is an absolute load and will be joined by a plethora of experience in the starting lineup as all of last season’s backups return. Riley was especially high on his new starting ends, senior Ben Terry and sophomore Kevin Frahm. Judging by his track record and honesty (more on that in a minute), I tend to believe him. At linebacker, senior Keaton Kristick is the team’s top returning tackler after making 82 stops and 3.5 sacks last season. Joined by juniors Keith Pankey and Dwight Roberson, the linebackers should be solid and return three out of four players from last season’s starting rotation. The Beavers’ solid front seven should be very tough against the run.
The big question is the secondary. Even Riley has expressed his doubts, calling the defensive backfield his biggest concern entering the season. Three of last season’s starters were picked in the NFL draft and they finished tied for 1 st place in the Pac Ten in completion percentage allowed! I’m very concerned about Oregon State’s ability to stop the pass. I expect Oregon State to field their typically tough run defense this season but teams will be targeting them in the pass game early and often.
The schedule is significantly lighter than last season. Last year’s non-conference schedule featured trips to Utah and Penn State and a visit from Hawai’i while this season’s non-conference schedule features a trip to UNLV and visits from PSU and Cincinnati. That PSU, by the way, is D-1AA Portland State, so it is safe to say that the Beavers will have a much easier time outside of Pac Ten play. The conference schedule will be tougher though, as Oregon State has five conference road games and has to travel to Cal, USC and archrival Oregon on a Thursday night! Making things even more difficult is the fact that four out of their final six games are on the road.
The beauty of the Oregon State program is that it has always been the underdog. Their recruiting classes are chronically underrated, the media always picks them to finish worse than they actually do and Riley uses this disrespect to motivate his team to very high levels of achievement. Oregon State has this down to such a science that their 28-12 record is the conference’s 2nd best over the past three seasons and the Beavers are the only team outside of USC to finish the season ranked in each year. I really like the Beavers’ offensive attack this fall and I’m confident that their run defense will be very productive. While I’m definitely concerned about their pass defense, I do think that a light opening schedule will allow Oregon State to get the kinks out early and produce a respectable unit. While I don’t think that the Beavers will be a major contender for the conference title this year because of their tough road schedule, I definitely think that they’ll once more field one of the conference’s toughest teams in the trenches and exceed expectations for the 4 th consecutive season. I can definitely see the Beavers winning ten games this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 26th vs. Arizona, Oct. 10th vs. Stanford, Oct. 24th @ USC, Oct. 31st vs. UCLA, Nov. 7th @ Cal, Dec. 3rd @ Oregon
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Jim Harbaugh has done a great job in his two years at Stanford. After inheriting a team which only won one game the year before he took over, he has guided the Cardinal on a steady upwards arc towards respectability, highlighted by a shocking 2007 upset victory over USC in the Coliseum. He’s also done a great job convincing high school players that the Cardinal is rapidly approaching a breakthrough on the field; He signed a top 20 recruiting class this past February! The key to maintaining the undeniable momentum surrounding the team, which went 5-7 last year, is for Harbaugh to guide Stanford to a bowl berth for the first time in his tenure. With seventeen starters back it seems likely he’ll succeed this fall.
On offense, Harbaugh’s first two teams have improved by leaps and bounds each season. Last fall, the major flaw with his offense was the lack of a solid quarterback as Stanford threw more picks than touchdowns. This fall, they’re in luck as redshirt freshman Andrew Luck, a highly acclaimed recruit two years ago, is slated to take over after wowing everyone with 5 touchdown passes in the spring game! Luck will have plenty of talent back at receiver, where junior Ryan Whalen led the team in catches last fall with 41. Junior Doug Baldwin, who led the team last fall with 4 touchdown catches, was Luck’s favorite target in the spring game and could have a huge season. After averaging barely over 150 yards per game last year through the air, I expect Stanford to be one of the league’s better passing attacks. However, Stanford will also be a very balanced offense as senior Toby Gerhart returns after rushing for over 1,100 yards and racking up 15 touchdowns in 2008! With a strong returning offensive line which opened enough holes for the Cardinal to average 200 yards per game on the ground, Gerhart could challenge for the Pac Ten rushing title after earning 1 st team all-conference honors last fall. I really like Stanford on offense this year.
Defensively, there has been a lot of improvement under Harbaugh, though it hasn’t really shown on the scoreboard. This season’s D-Line will easily be the best of Harbaugh’s tenure as three starters are back. Even better, the open spot should be very ably filled by sophomore Thomas Keiser, who had 6 sacks last season as a reserve and was named a 1st team Freshman All-American! Expect a strong performance up front. At linebacker, two starters are back but neither was spectacular last season. However, with a better defensive line and another year of experience, I expect the linebackers to make a bigger impact and Stanford should once more improve against the run. The secondary returns three starters and should be solid. Senior safety Bo McNally was the team’s leading tackler last fall and will be a force in run support. Overall, I like the Cardinal to field an improved run defense and they should be decent against the pass. However, this is no better than a middle of the road Pac Ten defense.
The schedule is not going to be easy. Stanford’s non-conference schedule features a trip across the country to Wake Forest and a visit from Notre Dame, giving them two very tough tests outside of Pac Ten play. The good news is that Stanford does host archrival Cal as one of their five conference home games and their 4-1 record at Stanford Stadium last fall should give them some confidence.
Overall, I think that Stanford will have a very similar year to Arizona’s 2008 campaign: A strong and balanced offense combined with an improved defense producing a bowl berth for the first time in years. Despite the Cardinal’s daunting out of conference slate, I think that the pieces are in place for Stanford to make their first return to the postseason since 2001.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Wake Forest, Oct. 3rd vs. UCLA, Oct. 10th @ Oregon St, Oct. 17th @ Arizona, Nov. 7th vs. Oregon, Nov. 21st vs. Cal, Nov. 28th vs. Notre Dame
The Ducks are riding high heading into 2009 coming off of a 10-3 season which ended with a shellacking of #13 Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl. Oregon’s 36-15 record over the past four years is 2 nd best in the conference behind USC! However, longtime head coach Mike Bellotti retired this past offseason and superstar offensive coordinator Chip Kelly is now the man in charge in Eugene. Kelly brought his version of the spread to Oregon two years ago and was a knee injury to star quarterback Dennis Dixon away from powering the Ducks all the way to the national title game in 2007! This fall, Kelly has to replace a ton of departed talent on both sides of the ball and must also learn to split his time in practice evenly between offense and defense. As Bellotti didn’t retire until after spring practice, there could be some issues in the transition process. On top of that, Oregon is being touted as a top 15 team nationally so Kelly will have to struggle with the pressure of expectations that he might not be able to live up to in his first season.
On offense there is a lot of work to do. Luckily, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who took over the offense in early 2008 after transferring in just prior to camp opening, will once more call the shots after rushing for over 700 yards and passing for over 1,700 yards, producing a combined total of 23 touchdowns! The Ducks’ powerful offense averaged 42 points per game last fall thanks largely to their prowess on the ground and despite losing 1,200 yard rusher Jeremiah Johnson I expect another strong year as 1,000 yard rusher LeGarrette Blount will be the featured back. The biggest question this fall will be the offensive line, which only returns one starter! The Ducks have to replace two NFL draft picks and another two year starter on the line! After averaging an incredible 280 yards per game on the ground in 2008, I can’t imagine a completely new O-Line coming together quickly enough to allow the Ducks to approach that much production. At receiver, the top options will be senior tight end Ed Dickson and junior receiver Jeff Maehl.
However, Masoli is a run-first quarterback and if he is forced to throw more often than last season then Oregon could struggle. With the loss of a 1,200 yard rusher, two of the top four receivers and four starters on the offensive line, I will be shocked if Oregon comes close to last year’s production. However, even if the Ducks score two touchdowns less per game, they’re still going to average nearly 30 points per game so this should still be a productive unit.
Defensively, Oregon struggled through the air last fall, allowing 270 yards per game! However, I expect that to improve this season for one major reason: The Ducks have to retool their defensive line and will be more vulnerable to the run. Only senior Will Tukafu is back from last year’s starters and he’s a good one, having made 59 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2008. However, two of their departed starters were taken in the NFL draft, one of whom led the Pac Ten in sacks! The linebackers appear to be fairly solid, led by junior Spencer Paysinger, who made 95 stops last season. I expect a solid performance from the linebacking corps once more but playing behind a new defensive line could make them more exposed to the run after fielding the league’s second best rush defense in 2008.
The secondary returns two starters but the two departed starters were both 1 st team All-Pac Ten selections and 2 nd round NFL draft picks! Seniors TJ Ward and Walter Thurmond are excellent players in their own right as Ward led the team in tackles with 101 and Thurmond led the team with 5 picks. Junior Talmadge Jackson was also solid last season as the nickel back and should be a productive starter at corner opposite Thurmond. With so much talent, I think last year’s pass defense underachieved and the Ducks should be better through the air this year. However, Oregon could take a step back this fall thanks to their defensive line issues and I don’t expect this to be any better than an average defense.
The schedule is a decidedly mixed bag. The non-conference portion is very interesting as Oregon opens up at Boise State on the season’s opening Thursday night. That won’t be an easy place to leave with a win. After that, they host Purdue and Utah, so all three of their non-conference games won’t be pushovers. The conference schedule features five home games and all of the contenders for the title have to come to the inferno of noise that is Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks have a 20-5 record the past four seasons. That’s a big advantage for the Ducks and they couldn’t ask for a much friendlier Pac Ten run.
Overall, there are major questions about both lines on top of some major talent drain as six of Oregon’s departed starters were picked in the NFL draft. Even worse, Kelly will be feeling his way through his first season as the head coach and changing the enormously successful dynamic of the offense with a new coordinator could be troublesome. Furthermore, I don’t think Masoli is much of a passing quarterback and if the Ducks struggle on the ground, I don’t think he’ll win them many games. Honestly, looking at the Ducks I don’t see a top 15 team, I see a team that is a borderline top 25 team with a lot of questions at key positions. I expect a solid but unspectacular performance on both sides of the ball in what will be a quasi-rebuilding year in Eugene. Expect the Ducks to win 7 or 8 games in the regular season and play in their 5th consecutive bowl game but they won’t compete for the conference title.
Big Games: Sept. 3rd @ Boise St, Sept. 26th vs. Cal, Oct. 10th @ UCLA, Oct. 31st vs. USC, Nov. 21st @ Arizona, Dec. 3rd vs. Oregon St
Mike Stoops entered 2008 as a 5th year head coach who had yet to earn a bowl berth. Entering last season, a lot of people expected the Wildcats to get to the postseason or Stoops would lose his job. Luckily, Stoops came through, finishing the regular season 7-5 and posting his first winning Pac Ten record. The year was capped off in dramatic fashion as the Wildcats defeated a ranked BYU team in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish with a strong 8-5 record. Stoops’ job is no longer in jeopardy but he needs to build off of last season’s success. Can the Wildcats make it to consecutive bowl games for the first time in a decade?
Arizona will have to make due this fall without record setting quarterback Willie Tuitama. Along with Tuitama, leading receiver Mike Wallace graduated after setting the Pac Ten record for career receptions so there will be some big holes to fill in the passing game. The good news is that three players are back who had more than 40 catches last year and tight end Rob Gronkowski (47 catches, 10 TDs in 2008) is the best at his position in the entire conference. Expect the new quarterback to have plenty of options in the passing game. The running game should also be a positive as last season’s top two tailbacks, junior Nicolas Grigsby and sophomore Keola Antolin, are back after combining for nearly 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns! They will have to get some help up front though, as only two starters return. While the Wildcats lost two 3 year starters on the line, Stoops has recruited well and there are a number of highly thought of upperclassmen ready to step in.
Overall, there is a great supporting cast at the skill positions but replacing both tackles and a 4 year starter at quarterback won’t be easy. Expect the Cats to try and lean on the run while the quarterback situation plays itself out. There are at least three solid candidates to take charge under center and once Stoops settles on a starter, I can see Arizona fielding a good offense. However, I don’t expect them to be as productive as last fall, when they put up nearly 37 points per game.
Defensively, the losses aren’t as bad. The entire defensive line is back and will start all upperclassmen. Look for a very strong effort this fall as this is a very stout and veteran line that has produced three straight solid run defenses. At linebacker, senior Xavier Kelley is the only starter back after making 51 tackles last fall. However, senior Sterling Lewis was very good last year in a reserve role and actually made more tackles than Kelley, so I think that this should be a strong group. The secondary also features one of the conference’s best cornerbacks in senior Devin Ross, who made 50 tackles and snagged 3 picks to earn second team all-conference honors. Senior safety Cam Nelson is also the team’s top returning tackler and should be a solid presence next to one of the underclassmen that is expected to man the other safety spot. Overall, I think that the Wildcats should once more field a solid defense which is strong from front to back.
The schedule is not as easy as 2008, as the Wildcats have 5 conference road games. That definitely makes thing hard as they’ve had winning records in Tucson in two consecutive years. The non-conference schedule is highlighted by a trip to Big Ten foe Iowa, who should be ranked in the top 25. If Arizona wins that game, they could find themselves ranked nationally for the first time in years. The toughest portion of the schedule will undoubtedly be the season’s final four games, where the Cats face Cal, archrival ASU and conference bully USC on the road while hosting Oregon. If the Cats can come out of that stretch with a 2-2 mark then I fully expect Stoops and company to go bowling.
Overall, there are some questions about the Cats offense since they’re replacing one of the best quarterbacks in school history. However, a solid defense and plenty of talent at the skill positions on offense should help offset that loss and I think that Arizona will have staying power in the conference. I will be disappointed in Stoops if the Arizona Wildcats are not a bowl team this year.
Big Games: Sept. 19th @ Iowa, Sept. 26th @ Oregon St, Oct. 10th @ UW, Oct. 24th vs. UCLA, Nov. 14th @ Cal, Nov. 21st vs. Oregon, Nov. 28th @ ASU, Dec. 5th @ USC
Much was made of UCLA’s hiring of former star quarterback Rick Neuheisel last season. Neuheisel, who was massively successful at his last two jobs before leaving amidst shrouds of NCAA violations, was widely expected to quickly return the Bruins to prominence in the Pac Ten. After a season-opening upset victory over Tennessee, hopes spiraled out of control. Unfortunately, reality quickly set in as UCLA drudged its way to a 4-8 finish, thanks in large part to terrible quarterbacking. However, this didn’t dampen enthusiasm for the Bruins as Neuheisel brought in one of the country’s best recruiting classes. After a year in charge, Neuheisel will be looking to take the next step. With sixteen returning starters, is a bowl berth in the cards?
The biggest problem with the Bruins last season was their offense’s inability to protect the football. Former starter Kevin Craft threw 20 picks, at least 6 of which were returned for touchdowns! This season, redshirt freshman Kevin Prince was named the starter coming out of the spring and hopes are high that he’ll be better at protecting the football. Despite the issues at quarterback, UCLA returns a fairly deep group of receivers, led by senior Terrence Austin, who had 53 catches last fall and was a 2nd team All-Pac Ten selection. Senior tight end Ryan Moya was also a 2nd teamer on the all-conference team and he led the Bruins with 3 touchdown grabs. Expect this group to be much more productive this year with decent quarterback play. The offensive line took a beating last year as Neuheisel saw the writing on the wall and started three freshmen. I think that this line will be significantly improved this year and Prince should have plenty of protection after Craft was sacked 35 times last season.
The Bruins also boasted the conference’s worst running game last fall and that should see a big boost as well. Sophomore Derrick Coleman was decent as the backup last year and freshman Milton Knox was one of the country’s best tailbacks coming out of high school. I expect both to get plenty of carries and provide a much better rushing attack. After putting up only 17 points per game last fall, I think that UCLA should definitely see some improvement on offense in 2009.
Defensively, the Bruins were better than most people realized. Consider the terrible field position they were consistently put in by an ineffective offense that turned the ball over all of the time and you’ll be surprised that they didn’t allow more points! This fall, there are a ton of players back from last year and I think that the fortitude gained from last season’s difficult journey will pay off in a big way. Up front, two starters are back, 1 st team All-Pac Ten junior tackle Brian Price and senior end Korey Bosworth, who was a 2 nd team All-Pac Ten choice after racking up 7.5 sacks. The Bruins were beaten too often on the ground but I think that these two should anchor a solid line. Keep in mind that Neuheisel played a lot of underclassmen last year and the line is the most difficult place for young players to succeed. At linebacker, senior Reggie Carter was also a 2nd team All-Pac Ten choice after leading the Bruins in tackles. Along with senior Kyle Bosworth, who was a major contributor in 2007 before an injury forced him to redshirt last season, Carter should anchor a strong group of linebackers and I expect the Bruins to be better against the run.
The secondary was surprisingly good last year, finishing 2 nd in the conference in yardage allowed through the air! Senior cornerback Alterraun Verner was a 1 st team All-Pac Ten choice after making 73 tackles, breaking up 20 passes and snagging two interceptions. Sophomore safety Rahim Moore was impressive as a true freshman as he made 60 tackles and led the team with three interceptions. I really think that UCLA has the pieces in place to field a very solid pass defense, though they will be young. Overall, the Bruins return four players who were either first or second team all-conference choices on defense and they’ll be bolstered by a lot of young up and comers. With one of the most talented units in the Pac Ten, I expect UCLA to field one of the conference’s best defenses this fall.
The schedule is much friendlier in 2009. UCLA’s non-conference schedule featured three ranked team in 2008 while this year they probably won’t face a ranked team outside of league play, though a trip across the country to play Tennessee is daunting. On the flip side, they have five conference road games and they finished with a 1-4 mark away from the Rose Bowl last year so they’ll have to be better away from home this fall if they want to have a chance at a winning record.
After so much trouble last season on offense, I think that if Prince can produce even average quarterback play then the Bruins will be a much better team. I really like the strength of their defense and would not be surprised to see it emerge as one of the league’s best. However, their offense is still a long way away from becoming the dangerous unit that Neuheisel envisions and many of their most talented players are underclassmen. I think the Bruins are at least a season away from making a run at the conference title but they have a very good chance at reaching a bowl game this year. I think six or seven wins is the most likely outcome but with Neuheisel’s strong recruiting, it might not be too long before UCLA becomes a player in the title chase once more.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Tennessee, Oct. 3rd @ Stanford, Oct. 10th vs. Oregon, Oct. 17th vs. Cal, Oct. 24th @ Arizona, Oct. 31st @ Oregon St, Nov. 28th @ USC
Last season was nothing less than the worst year in Washington football history. The Huskies’ 0-12 record was the nation’s only winless finish in division one football and UW is in the midst of a school-worst 14 game losing streak. Former head boss Tyrone Willingham was fired after a year filled with injury and bad luck, leaving with only 11 wins in four seasons. However, there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the Husky program with the hire of new head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was at USC the last seven years. Sarkisian also brought USC’s defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, along with him and hopes are at their highest in a decade in Seattle. With eighteen starters back and a healthy quarterback, it could be quite a turnaround to start off the Sarkisian era.
The aforementioned quarterback is junior Jake Locker, whose style of play and toughness earned him the nickname the ‘Tim Tebow of the West’. In 2007 as a freshman, he ran for 986 yards and passed for over 2,000! Locker was lost in the 4th game of the season last year and the Huskies fell apart without him. I think he’s the best quarterback in the entire conference when healthy and if he takes all the snaps this season it will make a huge difference. Locker wasn’t the only injury casualty last season: Freshman tailback Chris Polk redshirted after being injured in week two and should be a dynamic presence this season in the backfield. The line was also seriously banged up and should be much improved this year with some semblance of consistency. At wide receiver, last season’s top three targets are back, led by junior D’Andre Goodwin, who had 60 catches for 692 yards to lead the team.
Injuries caused UW to run for less than half the yards they gained in 2007 and they also scored 16 less points, posting a paltry 13 per game! With Locker and Polk running behind a healthy line, I can see UW making a huge jump on offense and having renowned QB guru Sarkisian aiding Locker’s development will only make the passing game stronger. I expect UW to be significantly improved on offense so long as they aren’t decimated by injuries once more.
Defensively, the Huskies were downright putrid in 2008, allowing more than 38 points per game! The big problem was their porous run defense, which gave up over 240 yards per game on the ground! The good news is that a year’s worth of getting their butts handed to them should have toughened up the front and Holt was known for fielding very solid run defenses at USC. The entire defensive front returns, led by 2008 1st team All-Pac Ten end Daniel Te’o-Neshiem. DTN notched 65 tackles and 8 sacks last fall and was a very disruptive force off the edge. After starting underclassmen at the tackle positions in 2008, the Huskies should have a much stronger D-Line this year with the extra experience and time in the weight room. At linebacker, UW will get a huge boost from the return of senior EJ Savannah, who was the team’s top tackler in 2007 but didn’t qualify in 2008. Along with junior Mason Foster, who was the team’s top tackler last fall with 105, Savannah should be the anchor of one of the better sets of linebackers in the conference. With Savannah back and a lot more experience up front, I could legitimately see the Huskies halving opponents’ production on the ground.
The secondary is more of a concern despite returning three starters. The Huskies allowed over two thirds of opposing passes to be completed, one of the worst rates in the country! Washington did play a ton of underclassmen last season and were absolutely racked by injuries, so I have to think that they’ll be significantly better this fall. However, I can’t expect much more than an average pass defense. With a new defensive coordinator and a new attitude, along with a lot more experience up front and the return of a familiar star, I really think that UW will see significant improvement on defense. I expect a much, much better rush defense and I think the pieces are in place for a decent secondary. Expect the Huskies to be much tougher to move the ball against this fall.
The conference schedule is also more favorable as the Huskies have five home conference games. Unfortunately, they continue their recent trend of extremely difficult opening months with visits from LSU and USC in September, both of whom are expected to be ranked in the top 10! With these two games, UW will have played eight ranked teams in the last four Septembers! It won’t get any easier after that, as they have to travel to Notre Dame in the beginning of October, giving UW one of the country’s toughest opening schedules for the 4th straight year.
I really like the Sarkisian hire and bringing Holt along with him was a coup. Furthermore, the Huskies have had such terrible luck with injuries the past two seasons and I think a season of full health could produce a significantly stronger team. If the Huskies can weather the opening storm, then I wouldn’t be shocked if they finished with a winning conference record. However, with LSU and Notre Dame on the non-conference docket, I think that they’ll be hard pressed to get to a bowl game in Sark’s first year but I expect significant improvement and 4-5 wins is a strong possibility.
Big Games: Sept. 5th vs. LSU, Sept. 19th vs. USC, Oct. 3rd @ Notre Dame, Oct. 10th vs. Arizona, Oct. 24th vs. Oregon, Nov. 7th @ UCLA, Nov. 28th vs. WSU, Dec. 5th vs. Cal
Hopes were sky high entering 2008 for the Arizona State faithful. Coming off of a 10-3 season in head coach Dennis Erickson’s first year, many people believed that the Sun Devils could compete for the league title. However, a shocking home loss to UNLV kick-started a six game losing streak and even a late season recovery against the league’s worst teams wasn’t enough to save a bowl berth. The Sun Devils’ 5-7 record shouldn’t have come as a surprise to most people as their 2007 season featured losses in all of the games that they played against ranked opponents. 2009 will be a very telling season for Erickson, who needs an offensive turnaround to keep momentum with his program.
The Sun Devils return seven starters from an offense than put up less than 23 points per game last year and regressed by nearly 10 points per game from their excellent 2007 season. ASU has to replace a three year starter at quarterback who was the school’s 2 nd leading passer all time, so there will undoubtedly be a little bit of drop off. A three way battle is expected to take place, with senior Daniel Sullivan appearing to have a slight edge going into the fall. The receivers should help make the new QB’s life easier as seniors Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams are solid options. McGaha had over 1,000 yards two years ago and should be the top target. The offensive line should also be decent as four starters return from 2008. The Sun Devils gave up 20 less sacks last season and I think that a much more experienced line will provide solid pass protection. The biggest problem on offense last season was that ASU averaged less than 90 yards per game on the ground. However, three of the top four starters from last season return and former super recruit Ryan Bass was the star of the spring game. Expect the ubertalented sophomore to be the starter this season. Overall, the big question is whether ASU can get decent quarterback play this fall and I think that the running game will have to be a priority for the Sun Devils to score a lot of points.
Defensively, the ASU was surprisingly solid last season. In fact, the defense performed very well against some elite opposition and certainly can’t take the blame for the team’s disappointing season. The defensive line will be led by senior end Dexter Davis, who was a 1st team All-Pac Ten choice after racking up 11 sacks last season. With influx of young talent led by sophomore tackle Lawrence Guy, who was a freshman All-American last fall, Arizona State’s future looks very bright on the line and I expect a solid group to emerge once more this fall. I also expect a strong run defense because ASU has a very good set of linebackers. Seniors Travis Goethel and Mike Nixon combined for 161 tackles and seven interceptions last season and are two of the most athletic ‘backers in the league. I think that they’ll be even better this season as Erickson won the battle for highly touted freshman Vontaze Burfict and he is expected to play immediately at the middle linebacker spot. Arizona State’s linebackers should be excellent this year and I like the Sun Devils’ run defense to be improved. The secondary also should be strong as both starting cornerbacks return and I think that ASU will field a solid pass defense this fall. Overall, Arizona State had a surprisingly decent defense last year and I think that they’re even more talented this season. Expect another strong effort from the defense in 2009.
The schedule is not going to be easy for the Sun Devils though they do have five conference home games. Favorites USC, Cal and Oregon State all come to Tempe so ASU will have to be road warriors this season if they want to make some noise. To make matters worse, the Sun Devils have to play Oregon, Cal and USC in consecutive weeks! On top of all that, they have to travel to Georgia outside of conference play! The only good news is that they host rival Arizona and should finish with no worse than a 2-1 non-conference mark.
Overall, I think that the Sun Devils’ best chance at a bowl game is to establish a strong running attack and play good defense. However, expecting the high-flying Erickson to go conservative seems unlikely. On the other hand, this is an odd Erickson team because the defense is far superior to the offense and perhaps that juxtaposition will force his hand into playing a much more reserved style of football. Despite the strong defense I think that Arizona State will have trouble scoring points with a new quarterback in charge and their difficult schedule leads me to believe that a 6-6 season is going to be a tough task. The Sun Devils’ offense will need to exceed expectations for ASU to earn a bowl berth.
Big Games: Sept. 26th @ Georgia, Oct. 3rd vs. Oregon St, Oct. 17th vs. UW, Oct. 31st vs. Cal, Nov. 7th vs. USC, Nov, 14th @ Oregon, Nov. 28th vs. Arizona
The Cougars have fallen precipitously from grace as last season’s 2-11 record marked their 5th straight season without a bowl berth. Head coach Paul Wulff, a WSU alumnus, inherited an enormous rebuilding job and had so many injuries at quarterback that he actually ran open tryouts from the student body to get some healthy arms at the position! 2008 wasn’t just about losing 11 games; it was about being absolutely blown out most of the season. Their only win against a D-1A opponent came against rival Washington, who was even worse at 0-12 last year. That’s how terrible the Cougars were last season: It took a historically bad UW team without their starting quarterback for WSU to win a conference game. Can 15 returning starters help the Cougars begin to return to competitiveness?
The Cougars were incredibly ineffective on offense last season, averaging less than 13 points per game! In part this was due to injury at the quarterback position but when you throw 6 touchdowns against 21 picks, you’re going to have trouble scoring points. The good news is that Wulff, a former O-Lineman, has four starters back on the line in the second year using his scheme and I would be surprised if the Cougars allowed 43 sacks like last year. The quarterbacks will be significantly better with some protection and I think that WSU might actually be able to pass the ball this season. The bad news is that junior Jeshua Anderson is the only receiver returning with any experience, so a large group of youngsters will need to step up. The running game seems to be the best chance for success as last season’s top two rushers are back and will be augmented by junior transfer James Montgomery, who was the scout team player of the year last fall. I think that starting with a decent running game will be their best chance to improve the Pac Ten’s worst offense. Expect the Cougars to improve slightly but this is still the league’s worst unit.
Defensively, things went quite poorly last year. WSU allowed nearly 44 points per game and their best performance outside of their two wins was allowing 24 points to Hawai’i. The Cougars allowed over 30 points nine times, and over 50 points six times! Even with 8 starters back, this is simply the least talented defense in the Pac Ten. The only major bright spot on the entire defense would be sophomore linebacker Louis Bland, who was a freshman All-American after making 55 tackles last year. To start with, WSU needs to significantly reduce the number of yards allowed on the ground after giving up over 3,000 total rush yards last fall. The good news is that I think another year’s worth of learning and an offense that can actually move the ball and allow the defense to rest will produce a much-improved unit. The bad news is that even if they give up two touchdowns less per game this season, they would still allow more than 30 points per game! Washington State will once more field the league’s worst defense.
The schedule is also very tough. Only five games will be played in Pullman this fall and the conference schedule rotation leaves them with five road league games. Their non-conference schedule includes a visit from SMU and neutral site games against Hawai’i in Seattle and Notre Dame in San Antonio.
Simply put, Wulff inherited a royal mess and it will take some time to turn the ship around. Pullman is almost in Idaho and it is the hardest place in the conference to recruit, giving Wulff even more difficulty in returning his alma mater to prominence. Overall, I expect the Cougars to at least be competitive in most of their games this year after their average losing margin last season was 37 points! Unfortunately, I also think that Washington State will be lucky to match last season’s two win total and I would be absolutely shocked if the Cougars didn’t finish in 10th place in the Pac Ten.
Big Games: Sept. 5th vs. Stanford, Oct. 10th vs. ASU, Nov. 7th @ Arizona, Nov. 14th vs. UCLA, Nov.21st vs. Oregon St, Nov. 28th @ UW
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Pac Ten appears to be a much improved league from top to bottom compared to 2008. Last year, almost every team had to replace a majority of starters and the league struggled in the early going. This fall, most teams are loaded with experience and I really think that the depth is significantly better. I had a lot of trouble picking teams three through eight and I wouldn’t be surprised if any of those teams finished with strong records. However, there were two teams that stood head and shoulders above the rest and they were Cal and USC.
I promised that I had a good reason for picking Cal over USC in their head to head battle this season. Well, here goes nothing: Since 2002, USC has lost exactly seven conference games. Of those seven games, five have come on the road during the first half of conference play and only one game overall has occurred during the season’s final month. This is proof as to why people say USC is practically unbeatable down the stretch. Succinctly put, if USC loses a Pac Ten game, it will be on the road and in the first half of the conference season. With a new quarterback and a rebuilt defense, I don’t think that USC will go undefeated in conference play. Thus, that leaves me with three games that are the overwhelming historical favorites for the Trojans to lose.
The first is at Washington and I don’t think that the Huskies have enough talent on hand this season to knock off USC. Despite the presence of some former USC coaches on the other sideline that will have UW really fired up, I think USC pulls this one out. The second is the 5th Pac Ten game at Oregon. Granted, Autzen is a really tough place to play and USC lost the last time they visited Eugene. However, I don’t think Oregon will have the beef up front to beat USC this time around and this game is getting a little late to fit into my early season hypothesis as it will be USC’s 8 th game.
That leaves me with USC’s trip to Cal on October 3rd. Cal is an excellent team in their own right and this is their homecoming game. Furthermore, it fits perfectly into USC’s trend of losing an early conference road game. This game practically SCREAMS upset at me and even the most ardent USC fans have to express some serious concern. Thus, I am picking Cal to beat USC in that game and that gives Cal a virtual two game lead on the Trojans in conference play.
With Cal beating USC in the early going, it will be a matter of focusing on one game at a time. We saw this last season with Oregon State, who hadn’t played in the Rose Bowl in four decades and the constant pressure might have got to them by the end of the year. However, Cal will have an off week after USC to take a deep breath and they’ll also have already made their trip to Autzen. I think Cal has the talent and focus to take advantage of a huge early season win and earn their school’s first Rose Bowl berth in fifty years.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell
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