10. Washington State
I expect this team to be more competitive in 2010. Depth is always an issue in Pullman, so if they can stay healthy, quarterback Jeff Tuel and wideout Jard Karstetter are talented enough to make some things happen on offense. Defensively, the Cougars could hardly be worse than last year, giving up 38.5 points per game. Head coach Paul Wulff is convinced this team is better this year and I think they could pull off an upset or two, but it won't be enough to keep them out of the conference cellar.
Why does this team struggle so much? They get more talent than any west coast school not named USC. They have a head coach with winning credentials and one of the all-time best offensive coordinaors. If Rick Neuheisel doesn't notch more than three conference wins, the folks in Westwood will want to run him out of town on a rail. Making matters worse is the difficulty UCLA is having keeping its players on the field. Four of the five projected starters on the offensive line are out. Tackle Xavier Su'a Faolo left on his Mormom mission. Center Kai Maiava is out with a broken ankle. Guard/tackle Jeff Baca was ruled academically ineligible and is out for the season while tackle Mike Harris is suspended for the opener against Kansas State. Both quarterback Kevin Prince and kicker Kai Forbath could also miss the opener because of injuries. If the Bruins win that game, K-State head coach Bill Snyder should be fired.
New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will try to ressurect an inept offense by introducing a Texas Tech style spread offense. Junior Signal caller Steven Threet will have the responsibilty breaking it in. Not gonna be easy. There's little talent or depth in the backfield to take the pressure off . There's no proven receiver, and the offensive line is in tatters. Defensively, things look much better. Despite losing defensive end Dexter Davis and his 31 career sacks, the line could be even better with Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola cementing the interior. Behind them, a fast and athletic linebacking corps led by freshman defensvie player of the year Vontaze Burfict will give the Sun Devils one of the best front sevens in the country.
No program has underachieved more than Cal in the last decade. Despite being blessed with talent, the Golden Bears consistently lose games they should win and fall short in the big ones (not to mention they are incapable of beating Oregon State). Things won't get better unless Kevin Riley can play with some shred of consistency and make plays. Remember when Jeff Tedford could turn any quarterback into a winner? Kyle Boller anyone? Riley has no excuses with Shane Vereen behind him, veteran O-line in front, and stud wideout Marvin Johnson on the edge. On the other side of the ball, coordinator Bob Gregory bolted for Boise St., leaving a defense with only five returners. New coordinator Clancy Pendergast will try to make up for this by taking chances with a more aggresive package led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and all-conference linebacker Mike Mohammed.
There's a lot of hype behind Jake Locker and the Huskies. And not without reason. After taking over a winless team that may have been the worst in the nation, head coach Steve Sarkisian led the Huskies to five wins, including a program defining victory over third ranked USC. This year, with a Heisman hopeful and nine returning starters on offense, the Dawgs will put all kinds of pressure on opposing defenses. If Locker improves his passing the way everyone expects him to, he will be the most dangerous offensive player in the country. Combined with tough-running Chris Polk and long range weapon Jermaine Kearse, the Huskies are primed to put up points. The defense loses some key personnel, including linebacker Donald Butler, but second year coordinator Nick Holt will reload and improve this squad. Unfortunately, a tough schedule with road games against USC, Arizona and Oregon will keep them from finishing higher.
The best quarterback to come out of Tuscon in more than a decade, Nick Foles led the Wildcats to eight wins, and only a double OT loss to Oregon kept them out of the Rose Bowl. With nearly everyone returning, Foles is surrounded an offense that is both talented and deep. Nic Grigsby heads up a solid stable of running backs, while wideout Juron Criner will be a breakout playmaker downfield. But how will the offense handle the loss of departing offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes? Defensively, there are similar questions. With only four returning starters and the loss of coordinator Mark Stoops, will the Cats be able to stop anyone? They have a pair of outstanding defensive ends in Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, and an excellent cover corner in Trevin Wade, but with inexperience on the interior line and at linebacker, the Wildcats could be soft up the middle. Lucky for them, they have a favorable schedule with seven home games including Cal, Oregon State Washington and USC.
4. Southern Cal
The Trojans endured one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in conference history. Head coach Pete Carroll left for the NFL. An NCAA investigation into the shennanignas of former tailback Reggie Bush during the 2004 & 2005 seasons resulted in vacated wins (including their national championship), a loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons, a two year bowl ban, and four years probation. Former USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin created more controversy when he jumped ship after only one year at Tennessee to become the Trojans new head coach.
The good news is that USC is still loaded with talent. Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkely showed tremendous maturity as a true freshman last season and is set for a big year. Junior Marc Tyler emerged from a ultra-talented group of tailbacks to win the starting job, while senior receiver Ronald Johnson will look to stretch defenses. With Kiffin at the helm, this unit will be much improved over last season. On the other side, a battle tested defensive front will look to protect an inexperienced secondary under new coordinator Monte Kiffin.
The biggest issue facing the Men of Troy is the loss of mystique after losing four conference games, including blowouts at the hands of the Ducks and the Cardinal. No one in the Pac-10 fears the Trojans, and the swagger that existed under Pete Carroll during the Bush-Leinart years appears to be gone. On the other hand, the sense of injustice the players feel after the bowl ban may result in a team of angry blue-chippers with something to prove.
Mike Riley has built a perennial Rose Bowl contender in Corvallis. But to do it again, the Beavers must overcome the loss of all conference quarterback Sean Canfield. Riley will hand the keys to the offense over to Ryan Katz, a mobile, strong-armed sophomore who appears to have all the tools, but no experience. Fortunately for Katz, he inherits a veteran O-line and the most dynamic playmaking duo in the country. Tailback Jacquizz Rodgers may well find himself in New York for the Heisman ceremony, while his brother James keeps defenses honest with his speed on the fly sweep and the deep ball.
The Beaver defense, which was fairly pedestrian last season will need to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive tackle Stephen Paea is a beast in the middle who should get enough attention to free up defensive ends Gabe Miller and Taylor Henry. Linebacker, which has traditionally been a strength for the Beavs is now area of concern with injuries and departures taking their toll. The secondary should be solid if there is improvement on the defensive front. The Beavers success ultimately lies with Katz. If the Beavers can avoid another lousy start and Katz can get some confidence early, the Beavers will be tough to stop. But an unforgiving schedule that begins with road games against TCU and Boise, and ends with USC, Stanford and Oregon will keep them out of the Rose Bowl.
The loss of Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart (1,871 yards, 28 TDs) means sophomore sensation Andrew Luck will throw the ball more. That won't be a problem. Luck exhibited extraordinary poise as a freshman, repeatedly making clutch throws to keep his team alive. But he will need more consistency out of this receivers to win games. Meanwhile, coach Jim Harbaugh will try to replace Gerhart's production by committee with senior Jeremy Stewart getting the start.
The defense will be a problem. When Gerhart pounded away at opposing defenses, wearing them down and eating up the clock, the Cardinal defense rested. Harbaugh won't be able to reproduce that. Even when they had that luxury, the Cardinal still gave up the second most yards in the conference. Harbaugh will try to compensate by switching to a 3-4 scheme that's more aggressive and takes advantage of his personnel. If the defense is shored up, the Cardinal will take advantage of a favorable schedule and challenge for the league title.
Before the dismissal of Jeremiah Masoli, this team was a national title contender. The Ducks won't be able to replace his toughness and playmaking ability, but with all the weapons they have, they may not have to. Sophomore Darron Thomas brings athleticism and moxie to the position. As a true freshman, he was thrown into what appeared to be a blow out loss to Boise, and threw three touchdown passes to nearly bring the Ducks back. He'll get help from a group of fast, lanky receivers led by sure-handed Jeff-Maehl. In the backfield, there's an abundance of riches with speedsters LaMichael James (6.7 yards per carry last year) and Kenjon Barner. Did I mention all five starters return to an offensive line that may have been the best in the conference last season?
The Ducks will once again field a somewhat undersized, but really fast defense. Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair head up a defensive line that led the league in sacks last year. Senior linebacker Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger will plug the holes while a deep, battle-tested secondary tries to keep Pac-10 receivers in check. In a conference loaded with offense, the Ducks appear to be the only team with enough steam on defense to slow opponents down, and that will be the difference.