Tuesday, August 28, 2007

2007 Pac-10 Preview

Finally, it's football season again! For those of us on the left coast, it means watcing the most exciting conference in college football take the field every Saturday afternoon. Only in the Pac-10 does nearly every team have a shot at the league title. Southern Cal looks as tough as ever, but the conference is stacked in the middle with Cal, UCLA, Oregon, OSU, and Arizona State returning enough firepower to challenge the mighty Trojans. Wazzu and Arizona are longshots, but are loaded with enough talent to ruin anyone's season. Only Washington and Stanford appear to have no chance; Washington because of its brutal schedule and Stanford because of its utter lack of talent. So here are my predictions for how they'll finish.

10. Stanford
Despite some talent at QB and receiver, new coach Jim Harbaugh won't be able to pull the Cardinal out of the cellar where they've been since Tyrone Willingham left the program in 2002.

9. Washington
With highly touted recruit Jake Locker at QB, the Huskies have the potential to be good, but not good enough to overcome perhaps the toughest schedule in the country. Too bad, it's so much easier to hate the Huskies when they're good.

8. Washington State
As usual, WSU will put up a lot of points with quarterback Alex Brink and wideout Michael Bumpus running the offense. Defensively, they will give up too many points to compete in the upper half of the league.

7. Arizona
You would expect a team that returns 18 starters to finish higher, but the Wildcats have yet to prove they can field a consistent offense. A healthy Willie Tuitama at QB and new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes from high-powered Texas Tech will go along way to solve that problem. And they'll get plent of help from a veteran defense led by All-conference corner Antoine Cason that will wreak havoc in Pac-10.

6. Oregon State
The Beavers would be higher, but they recently lost three key players for the season: cornerback Coye Francies, punter Kyle Loomis, and most painful - All-league wideout and kick returner Sammie Straughter. The Beavers will counter this adversity by fielding an outstanding defense led by senior linebackers Derrick Doggett, Alan Darlin, and Joey LaRocque. And even without Stroughter, the offense returns a deep receiving corps, an all-conference tailback, and arguably the best offensive line in the Pac-10. Unfortunately, they will still have to overcome a new quarterback and road games against the league's best teams.

5. Arizona State
New coach Dennis Erickson will give the 'Devils some much needed attitude and swagger. I expect an immediate improvement on defense. The offense will be OK with quality QB Rudy Carpenter and surprise talent Ryan Torain at tailback. The biggest help, however, will be a schedule that includes 8 home games, with the first four at home and the fifth against hapless Stanford. They may start 5-0, oozing with confidence.

4. Oregon
The Ducks head into 2007 absolutely loaded on offense. Unfortunately, they are also loaded with unanswered questions. Dennis Dixon is a senior and the unquestioned starter at quarterback, but will he collapse into a turnover machine like he did in second half of the season? Junior running back Jonathan Stewart is an uncanny blend of power and speed, but can he stay healthy? The receiving corps is deep and talented led by Jr. Jaison Williams, but will they play more consistently and cut down on the drops? New offensive coordinator and spread offense guru Chip Kelly will try and improve a unit that led the league in total offense, but can he keep them from collapsing and embarassing themselves midway through the season?

Defensively, there are more questions. The secondary is the strength of a unit that led the Pac-10 in pass defense last year, but can they stop the run? The D-line is thin and the linebackers unproven.

If the Ducks answer these questions, they are talented enough to challenge USC. But unless they can finally display the kind mental toughness that characterized the great Duck teams of the past, this team will flounder in mediocrity.

The Bruins return an unbelievable 20 starters. The offense will be solid, not spectacular. Ben Olson gets the nod at QB over Patrick Cowan who played most of year replacing the injured Olson. He'll have a lot of fast, experienced receivers to throw to. And Chris Markey is a tough, versatile back who will give them another 1,000 yard season behind a veterean offensive line. The strength of this team will be its defense. Coordinator DeWayne Walker transformed this unit into one of the nation's best last year, culminating in a 13-9 win over rival USC. UCLA has always had tons of talent but has yet to put it all together in recent years, which speaks to coaching, so I have a hard time picking them higher.

2. Cal
With only 12 starters returning (just 5 on defense), you wouldn't expect Cal to be a top ten team. But you'd be wrong. Aside from great coaching, they have a sharpshooter in quarterback Nate Longshore and the best receiver trio in the country led by bonafide superstar DeSean Jackson. If their defense is merely adequate, they'll win 10 games on the strength of 40 points a game.

1. USC
This team will be absolutely freakish. The Trojans sport more talent than the entire Big East conference. Quarterback John David Booty is a Heisman favorite but his offense will be fairly pedestrian (30 points a game). They have a solid line, but unproven (albeit talented) players start at tailback and wideout. What will drive this team is a ferocious defense that returns all but one starter. Trojan linebackers Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers and Brian Cushing could all (and will) start in the NFL. I can't say enough about how good this defense is. They will be the best Southern Cal has ever had, and could be one of the best ever in college football history. Having said this....

Final Thoughts
USC will lose a conference game. The Pac-10 is too tough. Cal, UCLA, Oregon, or someone will knock them off. Unfortunately for them, that may be enough to knock them out of the BCS championship game where they belong. Worse still, because of the Pac-10's lousy bowl contract, only the winner plays in a New Year's Day bowl game. That means whatever teams finish 2nd and 3rd won't get the credit they deserve.

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