Our fearless Blogcritics sports editor Matt Sussman just gave me the call: I'm going to be giving you a weekly dose of fact and fiction (i.e. opinion) every week regarding Pac-10 football. Therefore, we are kicking things off with a conference preview.
Before getting into predicted order of finish (the only real way to preview anything – don't let people tell you otherwise), let me just say something about the conference. People are calling this a "down year" or (if they are inclined to be optimistic, positive types) a "rebuilding year" out West. Not so, I say.
USC doesn't rebuild, they reload. Cal is poised to pull off another huge year like they did in 2004. Oregon is loaded. Oregon State is the definition of "solid." Arizona State lost Sam Keller but inserts Rudy Carpenter at quarterback and will continue to throw up points. Mike Stoops is taking over at Arizona and will revamp the defense to go with an exciting offense. Even the bad teams like Stanford and Washington State loom as exciting spoilers equipped with elite playmakers. So don't sleep on the West in 2006.
Yes, the SEC is loaded as always. Indeed, the Big East has some exciting players and teams (especially West Virginia). And the national title certainly has a good chance of coming out of a conference with "Big" in the title (Texas and Ohio State being the leading candidates). This is all true. However, the football is going to be exciting on the West Coast as well. You heard it here first.
Now, on to the preview (in order of finish) …
1. USC. It feels like everyone is looking for a reason to pick someone else in the Pac-10. As you learned above, I think there are plenty of good teams out west, but that doesn't mean I'm going to write off the Trojans. Yes, they lost three of the best offensive players in school history. No, the cupboard is not bare.
This story tells it all: Chauncey Washington was recruited along with Reggie Bush and LenDale White and was considered to be the most complete back of the trio. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for everyone else, it turns out), Washington ran into academic problems each year at SC and only now is eligible and ready to get his shot. Supposedly, the man is a monster. Sadly, trouble continues to find Chauncey as he's being held up with a bum hamstring. Considering that USC lost Bush and White last year and is not getting last year's third-string tailback Desmond Reed back in time for the season opener, you would think that Trojan coaches, players, and fans would be freaking out to see its top running back go down with an injury.
Maybe at every other school, but not here.
Instead, people seem downright giddy that Washington is out, because it means that freshman studs like C.J. Gable and Stefon Johnson will be unleashed on the world of college football. I'm telling you, the talent here is frightening.
John David Booty was the top rated quarterback in his high school class and takes over the reins for Matt Leinart (who, you might remember, was deemed to be an inadequate replacement for Carson Palmer – we all know how that turned out). If his back gives him trouble, they have Mark Sanchez waiting, who, yes, was the top rated quarterback in his draft class. Not bad. At receiver they have Dwayne Jarrett, who is on his way to becoming the greatest receiver in school history, senior star Steve Smith, and Patrick Turner, who is thought to be even more talented than Jarrett. They have possibly the best offensive and defensive lines in the country. I'm telling you, they are loaded.
If USC can avoid disaster at Arizona on September 23, they should head into a November 11 showdown with Oregon at 8-0. They get Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame in consecutive contests, but they are all at home and by then, this team should be a juggernaut. I have them going 12-0, surviving the new nine-game conference schedule, and once again playing for all the marbles.
2. California. I've heard people question the Bears, but there is a lot to like here. Their overall record may suffer because of early season tests at Tennessee (what a great opening weekend game that should be) and at home against Minnesota, but they should go into their Pac-10 opener against Arizona State a proven team. They get to host Oregon and don't play USC until November 18, which can allow for a lot of things to happen. There is an outside chance that Cal and SC could be sporting identical 10-0 records when they meet in the Coliseum with the conference crown on the line.
Why am I so optimistic about Cal? For starters, they have arguably the best running back in the country in Marshawn Lynch. Despite playing through injuries last year, Lynch averaged 6.4 yards per carry and looms as a solid Heisman candidate in '06. He could replicate J.J. Arrington's 2,000-yard season of 2004. Even better news for Cal is that quarterback Nate Longshore is back behind center. Not only is he an upgrade over Joseph Ayoob, but Longshore also prevents converted fullback Steve Levy from taking any snaps. There is no better way to waste an all-world talent at receiver like DeSean Jackson than to have a fullback throwing him the ball. With things squared away under center, the Bears will be able to unleash a pro-style offense that features at least two receivers (Robert Jordan – not to be confused with the lead character from Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" – being the other) and two backs (Justin Forsett is behind Lynch) that will be playing on Sundays in the near future.
3. Oregon State. If it wasn't for USC and Cal being so loaded, I might be riding OSU all the way. I really like what the Beavers have going down in Corvallis. Mike Riley is one of the best coaches in the game, they have almost the entire offensive line back, and they feature one of the best running backs in the country in Yvenson Bernard. Haven't heard of him? You will. The Beavers are becoming a regular tailback factory and Bernard could be the best one yet (high praise, considering the school has produced Ken Simonton and Stephen Jackson as their last two stud backs).
The best news for Oregon State is that they have a great shot at going 3-0 in their nonconference games and then they get all the toughest conference games at home. Seriously, it is amazing. They host Cal, USC, Arizona State, and Oregon, which is downright crazy. That gives them a great chance at splitting those contests and taking the rest of the slate, which would be good for 7-2 and third place in the conference. If quarterback Matt Moore can improve upon his horrendous 11-19 TD/interception ratio, the Beavers could really make some waves this year. I know it is a bit of a stretch, but I've got them going 10-3 and playing in a pretty legit bowl game.
4. Oregon. Let me get one thing straight: I really like Oregon and think they are an elite team. The problem? They just have way too many tough road games to compete for the conference crown this year. They are the exact opposite of OSU as they go on the road to play USC, Cal, ASU, and the Beavers. How are they possibly going to win even three of those four games? I've got them going 1-2 in the first three contests and then losing the Civil War game, leaving them – at best – with three conference losses. Which is a shame, because I think the Ducks are a quarterback away from being really, really good. Sophomore stud Jonathan Stewart is going to be one of the biggest breakthrough backs in the country and they have experience and depth on both sides of the ball, not to mention solid coaching and pretty sweet uniforms. Alas.
5. Arizona State.. It is all about scoring points here. The Rudy-to-Rudy (QB Carpenter to WR Burgess) connection will rival Whoever-Is-Throwing-To-Dwayne-Jarrett as the best passing duo in the conference and Keegan Herring is an underrated back. However, can the Sun Devils stop anyone? I think they will on some nights and absolutely won't on others. Which seems to add up to a fifth place conference finish.
6. Arizona. Here is everyone's sleeper in the conference. Unfortunately, I think they are a year away. The Wildcats will face early season tests by hosting BYU and traveling to LSU. Then they open the season against USC. Granted, if you have to play USC, you want to play them early, but this looks like a probable loss for the 'Cats, which could leave them 1-3 before they even get going.
After that contest, the Wildcats should be able to go on a nice run in the middle of the season, but they have a tough slate down the stretch. Their final three games have them hosting Cal, traveling to Oregon, and then hosting in-state rival Arizona State. Quarterback Willie Tuitama will make things more exciting in the desert this year, but the Wildcats are going to have to wait at least a year before returning to the heyday of Teddy Bruschi.
7. UCLA. The Bruins still have talent, but I can't see them winning more than four games in conference play. It isn't going to be easy to replace a starting quarterback, running back, and tight end. Especially when the coaching staff is among the worst in the conference. Sorry, but it's true. There are some amazing head coaches in the Pac-10, but Karl Dorrell isn't one of them. I see UCLA getting off to a 3-2 start before going 1-6 the rest of the way.
8. Stanford. Year in and year out, Stanford bores me. This year is no exception.
9. Washington State. The Cougars have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Jason Hill, but not a lot else. They lost stud running back Jerome Harrison (availing himself nicely in Cleveland), they have a coach under fire for his inability to recruit, and they don't have nearly enough defense to stop the high-powered offenses in the conference. Enjoy watching Alex Brink throw TD passes to Hill, but don't expect many W's.
10. Washington. At least between the Huskies and Gonzaga, my home state is good at basketball these days, because my how the mighty have fallen on the gridiron. It seems like just yesterday UW was a national powerhouse. What happened? Well, I will tell you. There are a lot of theories floating around out there about scandals and coaching changes and a variety of other possibilities, but the simple fact is that Pete Carroll arrived at USC. You see, for years the Huskies were living off of players from Southern California (seriously, look up almost any UW star from the 90's – I promise that over three-quarters of them were from the L.A. area) until Carroll came to town and started winning those recruits back to USC. In 1996 UW would be starting C.J. Gable at tailback, Patrick Turner at receiver, and half of SC's defense. Now? They don't have any of those guys. So there you have it. This probably deserves its own column at some point.