Pac 10 Preview
by Lenny Del Genio
Our previous conference preview was on the ACC and focused in on a potential sleeper team in North Carolina largely because other than Clemson (who always lets everyone down) there was no clear cut choice on who would be crowned champion at the end of the regular season. That is not the case in the Pac 10. Like the Big 10, which we will be covering next, the Pac 10 has one team that stands above the rest, in this case (and this should come as no shock) Southern Cal. What's really interesting is that on Sept 13 in Los Angeles, the Trojans will play the team that's head and shoulders above the rest in the Big Ten, Ohio State, in what is largely being considered a de facto semifinal for the BCS Title Game.
We say that because it is highly probable that both the Trojans and Buckeyes will run the table in their respective leagues, meaning the winner of the early season showdown is likely to be unbeaten at year's end (remember neither the Big Ten or Pac 10 plays a Conference Championship Game). The first bit of major news in handicapping this game came late last week when USC QB Mark Sanchez was diagnosed with a dislocated kneecap. Remember a similar "home and home" series that Ohio State played with Texas several years back. Quarterback play was crucial in those two games where the host lost each time. Ohio State had benched Troy Smith for the 2005 meeting in Columbus and wound up losing 25-22. The following year, when the teams met in Austin, Texas QB Colt McCoy was in way over his head in the first big game of his career. Do not be suprised folks to see Jim Tressel's team storm into the Coliseum and come away with an outright victory.
Back to the Pac 10. USC winning this conference is just about a foregone conclusion these days. After all, they have won the conference each of the last six seasons. Under Pete Carroll, there is no rebuilding, only reloading. Last year, they won the conference despite drawing all the major challengers to their throne on the road. This year, they get all of them (see below) on the road, so look for the Trojans to overcome losing a league-high 26 letterman while returning only 11 total starters. Losing guys named Palmer and Leinart was certainly a bigger blow than the loss of John David Booty. This program has finished in the top 5 each of the last six seasons and no other school can make that claim. USC was arguably the best team in the country when we hit the bowl season last year as they ended the regular season by winning at Cal, then walloped Arizona State the following week, then rival UCLA in the reg season finale and finally they obliterated Illinois in the Rose Bowl, 49-17. Last year, they outgained conference foes by a 157 yards/game, which was 92 yards better than the #2 team, Oregon. If this team loses more than one game this year, the campaign will be termed a colossal failure.
For the past several seasons, Southern Cal has had several challengers to its throne, namely Oregon, Cal and Arizona State. All three are likely to experience "down years" in 2008. Do you remember how Cal began last year 6-0 and climbed as high as #2 in the polls? Neither do most Bears fans as the team stumbled to a stunning 6th place finish in the standings at 7-6! The good news for Coach Jeff Tedford is that they get 5 league home games, including both Oregon and ASU. Oregon also had National Title dreams washed away last year (QB Dixon injury), and this year must play every team we've mentioned so far on the road. Still, the Ducks may have the neccessary talent to pull off a 2nd place finish. Arizona State, believe it or not, actually shared the Pac 10 title with USC last year after racing out to an 8-0 start, but things ended badly with awful losses to the Trojans and Texas in the Holiday Bowl. They must place five road games within league play this season and have preseason #1 Georgia on the non-conference slate.
Here's what you need to know about the rest of the teams in the league:
One team to keep the proverbial eye on is Arizona. Coach Mike Stoops (Bob's brother) is on the hotseat and will be fired with another mediocre year. Despite returning only three starters on the defensive end, the Wildcats only lose a league-low 17 letterman. They get to host USC, Cal and Arizona State. This program became a part of the conference in 1978 and since that time is the only team with no Rose Bowl appearances. That factoid won't change after this year, but Stoops should get to a bowl and finish in the upper half of the Pac 10 standings.
UCLA has fallen on hard times. They lose to cross-town rival USC almost every year now (with the exception of '06) and fired former head coach Karl Dorrell following last year's 24-7 setback. The Rick Neuheisal era got off to a dubious start when both QB's, Dave Cowan and Ben Olsen, were injured in spring practice. Both may be lost for the entire season (Cowan definitely is). Making matters worse for the Bruins is that they return just nine starters. The non-conference schedule includes both Tennessee and BYU.
Oregon State is always an interesting commodity under Mike Riley. The Beavers have a tremendous homefield advantage, winning 43 of 55 at Reser Stadium since 1999. Their 12 league wins over the last two seasons trails only USC. However, some bad news for this year is that on defense they lose the ENTIRE front seven to graduation! Only UCLA has fewer returning starters. Road trips to Penn State and Utah, both of whom are top 15 teams, also loom. The good news is that USC, Cal, Oregon and Arizona State all must come to Corvallis, so that home mark will be put to the test.
Washington has won a league-low six Pac 10 games over the past three seasons, but there is plenty of reason for excitement with sophomore QB Jake Locker, who set a new rushing benchmark for Pac 10 signal callers with 986 yards rushing in his freshman season.
Guided by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford engineered the biggest upset from a pointspread perspective last year (Michigan vs. Appalachian State was non-lined in most places) when they beat then #1 USC, 24-23, as 41-point dogs. Still, the Cardinal finished 3-8 in league play. They should be improved in '08, but how can they not considering they have been outgained by more yards per game than any Pac 10 school in each of the previous six seasons?
Washington State has a new coach in Paul Wulff, who comes over from FCS Eastern Washington where he was named Big Sky Coach of the Year eight different times. It should be a long year in Pullman as most of the Cougars winnable league games have to be played on the road.
Remember that Pac 10 teams play a round-robin league schedule with nine conference games each. No other league can lay claim to that. Also, many of the schools also play three BCS schools on the non-conference slate, meaning that many Pac 10 teams have some of the hardest schedules in America.