Thursday, September 3, 2009

2009 Pac-10 Preview

With the college football season set to kickoff tonight in Boise, could the Pac-10 be changing its image? Coming off a season in which the Pac-10 dominated bowl season (5-0) with tough, defensive play, the conference seems to be moving away (at least a little) from the pass-happy, finesse offenses of the past. Stanford, USC, Cal, Oregon and Oregon State are all run first offenses. The Pac-10 has always been the conference of quarterbacks, but now look at the situation -no big names and most of the conference signal callers are freshmen or sophomores, or first-time starters.

And while the Beavers and Trojans have always had a reputation for stingy defenses, the Arizona schools, Cal, Stanford and UCLA all have solid units. This shift towards power and defense will be interesting to follow in an age of spread offenses and record passing numbers.

10. Washington State
What happened to this once proud program? This team was in the Rose Bowl only six years ago while posting three straight 10-win seasons. Somehow, Bill Doba managed to destroy in 5 seasons what it took Mike Price 14 seasons to build. Now head coach Paul Wulff must pick up the pieces.

Where does he start? The Cougs lost their 11 games last year by an average of 40 points! In fairness, the Cougars were hammered by injuries, but there's simply not much talent and even less depth. The offensive line must improve to keep sophomore quarterback Marshal Lobbestael from getting killed, and start punching some holes for running back Dwight Tardy to run through. The good news is that it is unlikely to be as bad as last year. Wazzu finished last season on a positive note by beating the Huskies, and that should carry over a little into this year. But not enough to notch more than two, maybe three wins.

9. Washington
As bad as the Cougars were, somehow the Huskies were worse. In fact, the Huskies might have been the worst team in Division I football last year. Not only did they fail to win a game, their defense gave up a school record 452 yards a game (breaking the previous year's record of 447 yards). The good news is that mega-talented quarterback Jake Locker is back after missing most of last season with a broken thumb. He is a difference maker when healthy, but must improve his accuracy. New head coach Steve Sarkisian will help. The former USC offensive coordinator has already made an impact in recruiting, but the talent on the field is lacking (especially on defense). Look for them to gut out a few wins behind the arm and legs of Locker.

8. Arizona State
No team in the conference has underachieved more than the Sun Devils this decade. Loaded every year with talent, they always seem to find a way to disappoint. To avoid this head, coach Dennis Erickson must find a way to improve his offensive line. The Sun Devils have been lousy in pass protection and failed to establish a running game last season, averaging a paltry 89 rushing yards a game. Little known senior Danny Sullivan will play quarterback, while ASU searches for weapons at receiver and tailback. Defensively, things look much brighter for the Sun Devils. Defensive End Dexter Davis will lead a veteran defense that will frustrate opponents.

With the talent level rising, head coach Rick Neuheisal is searching for playmakers on offense. Last season, the Bruins were last in the conference in rushing while quarterback Kevin Craft threw a school record 20 interceptions. The coaches are high on redshirt freshman Kevin Prince as he takes over the reigns at quarterback. Meanwhile the Bruins must fill holes at tailback and receiver while getting much better play from their O-line. On defense, things are much more promising. The defensive line is anchored by all-conference tackle Brian Price, while Reggie Carter highlights the league's best linebacking corps. This front seven will take pressure off an ultra-talented, but young secondary that includes corner Alterraun Verner and incoming star Aaron Hester. If this unit can get past the loss of defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, they could have a special year.

6. Arizona
After making a bowl game for the first time since 1998, the Wildcats hope to build upon their success. There are reasons for optimism. They return 1,000 yard rusher Nic Grigsby, and arguably the best tight end in the country in Rob Gronkowski. Defensively, they return seven starters from a squad that finished 3rd in the Pac-10 in total defense last year, led by senior cornerback Devin Ross.

However, there are questions all over the offensive line, and Mike Stoops has still not named his starting quarterback between sophomores Matt Scott and Nick Foles. With Mike Thomas gone, there will be no proven receiver to bail them out. If a quarterback emerges, this could be a dangerous team, but road games against USC, Cal and Oregon State will make a return to a bowl game a difficult chore.

Warning: The Wildcats had better watch out for an early landmine when Central Michigan comes to Tucson.

5. Stanford
Jim Harbaugh has transformed this team from the epitome of a soft, academic school to a tough, physical power team that pushes opponents around every week. On defense, the Cardinal returns seven starters to a squad that grinds away up front and gets after the quarterback. Offensively, Stanford will rely on their ground game that averaged 200 yards a game last season behind the power running of Toby Gerhart, the team's first 1,000 yard runner in 16 years. That will make life easier for redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck who gets the nod over veteran Tavita Pritchard. Jim Harbaugh's hard work to change this team's identidy should pay off with a bowl invite.

4. Oregon State
Despite their reputation for always fielding tough, athletic defenses, it may be the Beaver's offense that carries the team this year. With only three starters returning, defensive coordinator Mark Banker must once again find playmakers. They will miss the production of Victor Butler and Slade Norris, but should be fine up front. Keaton Kristick will lead a solid group of linebackers, but the Beavers must replace their entire secondary. Ouch.

Pint-sized Offensive Player of the Year Jacquizz Rodgers took the conference by storm last year as a true freshman. The Beavers will rely on his running as they get settled in at quarterback where Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao have been trading spots as injuries dictate. Canfield is the man for now and should get plenty of help from wideouts James Rodgers, Darrell Catchings and senior tight end Howard Croom. But don't underestimate the loss of Sammie Stroughter. He was a playmaking home run threat who opened things up for the rest of the offense. The Beavers will miss him.

I wanted to put them lower, but Mike Riley always seem to defy logic. He gets the most out of his players and his teams get better as the season goes on. I wonder if Beaver fans know how lucky they are to have him as their coach.

3. USC
The Good: The Trojans enter this season loaded on offense. Their depth at running back is astounding. Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, and C.J. Gable will pound away at teams behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. And last year's leading receiver Damian Williams will make life easier on the quarterback. On the other side of the ball, All-American candidate Taylor Mays returns for his senior season to lead the defense from the Safety position.

The Bad: The Trojans return only three starters on defense. They lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators, AND they are starting a true freshman, Matt Barkley, at quarterback.

The Ugly: Starting wideout Ronald Johnson will likely miss the season with a broken collarbone. Defensive end Armond Armstead is out six weeks with a broken foot. Center Kristofer O'Dowd is out 3-4 weeks with a injured knee. And starting cornerback Shareece Wright out for the season after being ruled academically ineligible. To make matters worse, the Trojans must go on the road to play Ohio State, Cal and Oregon.

Prediction: The Trojans run of seven straight conference championships will come to an end this year as they lose three games. Talent can only take you so far. Much better USC teams were beaten by Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State the last three years. The Pac-10 just isn't intimidated by the Trojans.

2. California
Jahvid Best is the arguably the nation's best runnning back. He averaged an unbelievable 8.1 yards per carry last season. If the Bears can fill some holes on the offensive line, he is set for a big year. Success for the team however, will depend on the emergence of junior quarterback Kevin Riley. He has been unable, despite many chances, to perform consistently over the last two years. If Riley steps up, the Golden Bears will win the conference.

The secondary will be the strength on a defense that returns eight starters, led by all-conference cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson. However, the Bears lose all three linebackers, the heart of last year's defense. Replacing their production and playmaking (especially Zack Follet) will not be easy.

1. Oregon
New head coach Chip Kelly has created an offensive machine in Eugene with his spread-option attack, averaging a school record 41.9 points a game last season. Now he must prove he can manage a team as well as Mike Bellotti did for 14 years. It won't be easy. The Ducks must replace three starters on the offensive line. And they must find a consistent playmaker at the receiver position. Fortunately for the Ducks, they return the league's best quarterback in Jeremiah Masoli and a punishing running game led by Legarrette Blount. Tight end Ed Dickson will cause mismatches downfield and USC transfer Jamere Holland has the speed to stretch the defense.

Defensively, the Ducks have some veterans to replace starters on the defensive line. Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews lead a fast, intelligent linebacking corps. And cornerback Walther Thurmond III anchors a secondary that includes safety T.J. Ward, a crushing hitter who looks to hurt somone on every play.

I give the edge to the Ducks for two reasons. First, they have the most experienced quarterback, which counts for a lot in a conference with so many questions marks at the position. Second, the Ducks get Cal, USC and Oregon State in Eugene. Their game with Boise tonight will tell us a lot about this team.

Bad news for Boise: Every time Chip Kelly has more than a week to prepare, the Ducks have scored 50 points.


James Wood said...

Solid analysis, but I think your mid-coast bias is showing. I think that the Pac-10 is a toss up this year. I won't be surprised if Oregon takes the conference, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see Washington do it either. Top-to-bottom, there just isn't that much separating the teams. There are no cupcakes in the Pac-10

ksuim4u said...

I agree with James by and large. I still think its USC's conference to lose, and I totally agree about WSU on the bottom. The rest of it could basically shake out any which way. I haven't read the reports about the USC WR, but typically, an broken collar bone sets one out 6-8 weeks from the break. I would imagine that he'll be back by mid-season rather than out for the year (unless it is some sort of atypical break, in which case, who knows?). Not at all surprised by your pick, though. We'll see if the Ducks can get past the Cats in Tucson. I got a good laugh a couple years ago when they didn't - to a MUCH worse team than this one.

Jason Campbell said...

Okay. I did my part. I scrolled all the way to the bottom and even read some of the headings...

Go cupcakes!

JUSTIN said...

wow...i was shocked! to see you had the ducks at number 1! (sarcasm)

UCLA will beat the ducks at the rose bowl...i am willing to put $20 on it.

analysis is good, is locker coming back? i heard he signed a baseball contract?

anyways, ducks will end the year with 3 losses. UCLA, Boise state and the beavs...if they squeak by Boise i still think SC gets em.

JUSTIN said...