With the Pac-10 preseason media poll being released tomorrow at Pac-10 media day, I thought I would share my picks. This is a very difficult year to figure out the pecking order of the conference. More so than ever, the Pac-10 appears to be USC followed by everybody else. I basically see the conference broken down into four parts: 1) USC; 2) second through fourth place, with Arizona State, Oregon and Cal vying for those spots; 3) fifth through eighth place, with Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona positioning themselves within that group; and 4) Stanford and Washington State bringing up the rear.
1. USC. You can throw out all the analysis you want, but it bascially comes down to this: Duh.
Despite heavy losses in personnel, the Trojans once again appear to be untouchable. Yes, they have lost scores of talent to the NFL, but as we all have learned, Pete Carroll has stockpiled his program with such an embarrassment of riches that he simply can plug the holes with more NFL-caliber talent. Plus, even though they are tied for the third-fewest returning starters in the conference, the Trojans still have plenty of talent coming back. USC could have one of the best linebacking corps and secondaries in the country, which may help offset an offense that could be a work in progress with Mark Sanchez making the adjustment to starting quarterback. Still, the Trojans are loaded at running back. Their receivers are more of a question.
2. Arizona State. I make this pick grudgingly, because I thought the Sun Devils were vastly overrated last season. Sure, they went 10-3 and 7-2 in the Pac-10, but part of that was enhanced by a weak nonconference schedule and the fact they played eight of their 13 games at home. Arizona State’s two best wins were over Cal and Oregon State, and they came at Sun Devil Stadium. The Sun Devils lost their toughest tests to USC, Oregon and Texas in the Holiday Bowl, and only the Oregon game was competitive.
All that being said, I have ASU in second place because there simply may not be any other team better. If nothing else, the Sun Devils have the most returning starters in the conference and an experienced quarterback in Rudy Carpenter. ASU will get a stiff test fairly early on when it hosts Georgia on Sept. 20.
3. Oregon. We all saw what happened when the Ducks lost Dennis Dixon last year. Well, guess what, folks? He’s not coming back. Neither is running back Jonathan Stewart, who was the 13th pick in April’s NFL draft. Dixon was headed for the Heisman Trophy and the Ducks were possibly headed for the BCS title game before a knee injury finally took Dixon down against Arizona. The Ducks ended up losing three in a row before righting the ship with a blowout over South Florida in the Sun Bowl.
Justin Roper, who threw four touchdown passes in the 56-21 win over S. Florida, will compete with highly-regarded Nate Costa for the right to replace Dixon full-time. But there are other questions. Jeremiah Johnson, who excelled as Stewart’s backup, is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery. Oregon also looks pretty thin at receiver.
But with center Max Unger leading the way, Oregon has a terrific offensive line. And the Ducks defense has playmakers such as defensive end Nick Reed and strong safety Patrick Chung. The Ducks could fall to fourth but probably no further than that.
4. Cal. The Bears may be the biggest mystery in the Pac-10, much of that because of the second half of last season. Yes, Cal lost a good chunk of personnel on the offensive side of the ball, but that may have been easier to overcome had the Bears fulfilled that talent and kept the program’s momentum going into this season.
By most accounts, the Bears have rid themselves of the cultural problems they experienced last season. That in itself can help make up for the loss of their talented trio of receivers as well as tailback Justin Forsett. The biggest questions are whether the Bears can get consistent production from its green group of receivers, and if Jahvid Best is ready and healthy enough to become an every-down back. There’s no doubt the offensive line once again will be strong, and although Cal is unsettled at quarterback, that may be a good thing. Whoever wins the quarterback competition this fall likely will head into the season pretty well, because Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley should really push each other.
The hunch here is that Cal’s defense will be a lot better than last season. The switch to the 3-4 base defense will allow the Bears to really make the most of their talented linebacking corps, and some of Cal’s young down lineman played well in the spring and look ready to make an impact.
If some of Cal’s questions are answered, there’s no reason to think the Bears couldn’t finish as high as second place. There’s also no reason to think they’ll finish right here in fourth.
5. Oregon State. This is where the next level of the conference begins, and although the Beavers lost eight of the 11 starters from their successful defense last year, they should still be strong on that side of the ball. The bigger uncertanties are at quarterback and running back. Like Cal, OSU goes into camp with a quarterback competition on its hand. Sean Canfield improved as last season went on but then went down with a shoulder injury. Enter Lyle Moevao, who started the final four games and led the Beavers to four wins, including a 21-14 victory over Maryland in the Emerald Bowl.
The bigger problem is at running back, where the Beavers must replace All-Pac-10 second team pick Yvenson Bernard, who was the rock of the offense the past couple of years. OSU is short on experience as Bernard has been the guy who has been carrying the bulk of the load in the running game.roughter
The good news for the Beavers is they get back wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, an explosive playmaker who sat out last season with personal issues followed by a kidney injury.
6. UCLA. Remember last season at this time when the Bruins were supposed to challenge Cal for second place in the Pac-10 and make a run at a BCS berth? Much has changed since then. Karl Dorrell is out as coach and that senior-laden team has dispersed, putting new coach Rick Neuheisel in a rebuilding mode. The bigger problem is that much of core talent that is coming back is either injured or coming off injuries, so question marks abound.
Quarterback Patrick Cowan is already out for the year after tearing his ACL during spring practice, and Ben Olson broke his foot the very same day Cowan was injured. Olson is supposed to be ready by training camp, but UCLA doesn’t exactly have a good track record in recent years of keeping its quarterbacks healthy. And that will be even more of a concern this season because the offensive line is extremely raw.
Top returning running backs Khalil Bell and Raymond Carter each are recovering from knee surgery. Reports are that Bell is recovering nicely and should be ready to go by the start of the season. The Bruins have decorated freshman Aundre Dean at the ready if need be. The receivers will probably be average at best. Defensively, the Bruins lost end Bruce Davis to the NFL but still have a quality inside tandem up front in Brigham Harwell and Brian Price.
7. Arizona. The last couple of years, some pundits made the Wildcats out to be a team ready to break out and move up to the upper echelon of the conference. We’re still waiting for that to happen, and I don’t think this year is going to be any different.
Yes, the Wildcats will put up points with quarterback Willie Tuitama running offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes’ spread offense, but they will continue to give up points, maybe even more this year after the loss of NFL draft picks Antoine Cason and Spencer Larsen. Coach Mike Stoops doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the Wildcats are going to suddenly rise to the top. This year likely will be his last in Tucson.
8. Washington. This may be the last time you see the Huskies predicted so low in awhile. Coach Tyrone Willingham is stockpiling his program with top recruits, but those players still are too young to make a run into the upper tier of the conference. The question is whether whomever Washington’s new athletic director is will allow Willingham to stick it out and see if he can harness that young talent into a conference contender. For now, it will be about experience and taking lumps against a brutal nonconference schedule that includes games against BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame (all at home). Mr. Excitement, quarterback Jake Locker, should continue to get better and get on the same page as his talented young receivers.
As for the defense? Did we mention that Jake Locker is exciting? Defensive coordinator Kent Baer was fired after last season, but former NFL coordinator Ed Donatell may not be able to do much better with what is currently on the roster.
9. Stanford. Either Stanford or Washington State could go 9 and 10. Does it really matter? That’s like arguing over who was worse last year, the Raiders or 49ers? The Cardinal seems to have more upward mobility, with a pretty solid defense and a couple of talented young quarterbacks battling for the starting job. Stanford was beset by injuries to its running backs last season, and we’re not sure how good they were to begin with. Whomever is quarterbacking likely will have to get the ball in the hands of potential playmaker Richard Sherman as much as possible.
10. Washington State. It’s going to be a cold fall in the Palouse. Alex Brink, one of the more underappreciated quarterbacks in the country, is finally gone after what seemed like a 12-year career at WSU. Seldom-used fifth-year senior Gary Rogers takes over, but there is some question whether he is equipped to run new coach Paul Wulff’s spread ofense. Wide reciever Brandon Gibson may be the Pac-10 best-kept secret, so that will help Rogers make the transition. Running back Dwight Tardy has potential, but is coming off an ACL surgery.
So there you have it. We’ll see what the panel of media thinks tomorrow. I’ll be there and provide plenty of information.