10. Washington State
Outside of all-league wideout Brandon Gibson, there are questions everyhere. A new coach. A new quarterback. Running back Dwight Tardy returns from ACL surgery. And a defense that was one of the worst in the conference last season. Sounds like a long season on the Palouse.
I expect big things in the future of this team, but not now. New head coach Rick Neuheisal brings a new energy and optimism to the Bruins, as well as the oustanding hire of offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Unfortunately, with injuries to Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson, they must find a quarterback. Compound that with only three starters returning on offense, four on defense, and not even great coaching can keep the Bruins out of the conference cellar.
First year coach Jim Harbaugh made a splash with his unbelievable upset of USC last year, but only won four games. The Cardinal hopes to improve upon that with 17 returning starters, but five or six wins is realistic.
7. Oregon State
The Good: The Beavers have a stable of offensive weapons with new tailback Ryan McCants, pint-sized runner/receiver James Rodgers and his little brother Jacquizz, not to mention all-star wideout Sammie Stroughter. Oregon State returns an excellent secondary and has one of the best head coaches in the nation.
The Bad: The Beavers offensive line is banged up with all-league offensive lineman Jeremy Perry out for the forseeable future. Beaver quarterbacks combined for the the worst passer rating in the league last year.
The Ugly: Oregon State lost their entire front seven from a unit that led the nation in run defense and carried the team last year. Beaver fans are convincing themselves that there won't be much of a dropoff. They are delusional.
The question for the Husky fans is - How big are Jake Locker's shoulders? Because he will have to carry the team. Locker is the Pac-10's most dangerous weapon, a fearless runner who can make all the throws. The rest of the team remains a question mark. Defensively, they must shore up a group that surrendered 446 yards per game last year. Tyrone Willingham has promised big changes there, but won't elaborate. The biggest obstacle to a winning season for the Huskies is that, once again, they must play a BRUTAL schedule that includes non-conference games against Oklahoma and BYU, and road games against Oregon and USC.
The news came down a few days ago that sophomore Kevin Riley will get the nod as the starting quarterback over Nate Longshore. Apparently, head coach Jeff Tedford liked what Riley's mobility can do for the offense. And they'll probably need it. With the loss of playmaking receivers and running back Justin Forsett, the Golden Bears must find some new weapons. Cal should be solid up front with Alex Mack anchoring the O-line. The offense will lean on speedy sophomore Jahvid Best to carry the ball while they search for answers at receiver. Defensively, they have a pretty salty unit that includes an outstandng linebacking corps led by Sr. Zack Follett.
The Wildcats are primed to score a lot of points. And they will have to. Ironically, just when they put together a solid offensive team, their defense, which has been their strength for the past several years, will be a problem. But the Wildcats will be up to the task in the their second year running Sonny Dykes' spread offense. With senior Willie Tuitama under center and and an excellent receiving corps led by Mike Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski, the 'Cats should light up the scoreboard. If not, coach Mike Stoops will be back in Norman, OK. working with his brother.
Sophomore quarterback Nate Costa will miss 8-10 weeks (and most likely the season) with a torn meniscus in his surgically repaired right knee. The news comes as a blow since his mobility gave the Ducks' spread-option offense a dimension it will lack with Justin Roper who is more of traditional pocket passer. Having said that, the offense will be fine. Roper was outperforming Costa in fall camp and he will have plenty of help. Jeremiah Johnson returns at tailback and if he has recoverd fully from his ACL tear from a year ago, the Ducks will once again have a 1-2 punch in the backfield thanks to JUCO transfer LaGarrette Blount, an upright, bruising runner in the mold of Reuben Droughns. Roper will have a deep, experienced offensive line to protect him and if Jaison Williams can eliminate the drops, Oregon has a bonified star at receiver.
On the other side of the ball, the Ducks have the best defense not named USC. The d-line is solid, anchored by Nick Reed who led the conference with 12 sacks. And if the linebacking corps is not spectacular, then their secondary is. With cornerbacks Jarius Byrd and Walter Thurmond III, and all-conference safety Patrick Chung all on the Jim Thorpe watch list, the Ducks should cause headaches for opposing offenses.
In Dennis Erickson's second year at Oregon State, his team went 11-1 and humiliated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. So expectations are high in Tempe as Erickson looks to challenge USC's dominance. And it's not unrealistic. The Sun Devils are loaded with weapons on offense and should have a much improved defense.
Senior Rudy Carpenter is the most experienced quarterback in the conference, which historically, has paid dividends. Carpenter is a tough, gritty competitor who finds ways to win. But Erickson must find a way to protect him as he took a beating last year with 55 sacks. They will start by going to more four and five wide receiver sets and get rid of the ball faster. The O-line will be a challenge, but if they can shore it up, the offense will be very good with playmakers Keegan Herring at tailback, and sure-handed Chris McGaha and Michael Jones at receiver.
The Sun Devils feature perhaps the league's best defensive end tandem with Luis Vasquez and Dexter Davis. They will get after opposing quarterbacks, while a faster linebacking crew will look to blitz more with converted safety Ryan McFoy. Cornerback Troy Nolan (six INTs last season) will highlight a solid defensive backfield.
DEFENSE. That's all you need to know. Senior linebacker Rey Maualuga is a human wrecking ball and the team's heart and soul. Alongside him is outside linebacker Brian Cushing, a physically imposing freak who looks conspicuously like Latimer from the movie "The Program." Both are former Rose Bowl MVPs. Both are among the best defenders in the country. And both will be playing on Sundays next year. The defensive line is less settled as the Trojans must replace league Defensive Player of the Year Sedrick Ellis. Fili Moala at tackle is the only sure thing. The Trojans are counting on ends Everson Griffen and Kyle Moore to produce a pash rush. There are no such questions in the secondary. Safeties Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison are all-America candidates.
Offensively, there is less certainty. Quarterback Mark Sanchez suffered a dislocated kneecap in camp. If healthy, he's a better option than backup Mitch Mustain. The Trojans are loaded at tailback with Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight. The receivers are talented but unproven as go-to-guys. Their biggest challenge is having to replace almost their entire offensive line. Talent won't be a problem, but experience will. This means the Trojans could be vulnerable early.
Oregon defeated USC last year and was poised to end the Trojans seven year reign as league champions before Heisman frontrunner Dennis Dixon went down for the season. But as good as their defense is, USC simply isn't as dominant as the Leinart-Bush teams from a few years ago. They will lose a conference game, and whoever challenges of the Men of Troy will have to put together a complete season to reach the Rose Bowl.