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Aug. 9, 2006
By Jason Owens
Special to CSTV.com
Jason Owens is a freelance writer for CSTV.com, covering various collegiate sports. E-mail here!
For the first time in recent memory, the Pac-10 isn't a race for second place behind USC. But, if you ask the preseason pollsters, it's still the Trojans' to lose. With a slew of skill players gone, there will be a lot of new faces suiting up in
The obvious questions start in the backfield. How do you replace two Heisman Trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush? Simply, you don't. But while it's unlikely two more Heisman winners come out of this year's USC backfield, there's plenty of talent, led by John David Booty, the likely starter at quarterback. An injury early in his career opened the door for Leinart to play, but now the highly-touted quarterback will get his chance to lead the Trojans. That is, if he holds off Mark Sanchez, a redshirt freshman who came in as the nation's top-rated quarterback out of high school.
They'll have the luxury of playing with perhaps the most dangerous receiving corps in the nation, led by Biletnikoff Award favorite Dwayne Jarrett, who is on pace to break a number of USC and Pac-10 receiving records in only his third year. The only question mark is Jarrett's eligibility. The NCAA looked into some payment issues with an apartment he shared with Leinart last season, but it looks doubtful that it will affect his playing time.
On defense, the Trojans return two experienced linemen, one of the most talented set of linebackers in the nation and what Carroll calls the biggest and fastest secondary he's ever had.
So, despite all the question marks around USC entering the season, the Trojans look like a legitimate conference favorite and BCS threat. Just don't be surprised to see some speed bumps along the way.
Since finishing 1-11 in 2001 for a fifth straight losing season, Cal has firmly entrenched itself as a Pac-10 power. The Golden Bears are now looking for their fifth consecutive winning season under Jeff Tedford and have a legitimate shot at dethroning USC. Everything starts with Marshawn Lynch, their much-hyped Heisman Trophy candidate at running back. The junior tailback gained 1,246 yards last season despite missing two games with a broken finger and finished strong with a 194-yard, three touchdown performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The big question mark is who will be handing the ball off to Lynch. Redshirt sophomore Nate Longshore is the favorite since returning from an ankle injury that knocked him out for the entire season halfway through last year's opener. He'll have competition from Joe Ayoob, who started nine games in Longshore's absence, but completed a pedestrian 49.2 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The offensive line is a question mark too, with three starters gone from last year's line.
The Golden Bears return a lot of talent on defense, led by first-team All-Pac-10 tackle Brandon Mebane.
With their eyes on the Pac-10 championship and maybe even more,
The Ducks enter 2006 on the heels of a surprising 10-2 campaign keyed by the Pac-10's top defense and a potent spread offense attack. They've lost some key players, but return a bevy of talent that should keep them toward the top of the conference standings.
All five starting offensive linemen return to anchor an offense full of talent and question marks. Dennis Dixon is the full time starter after a shaky stint filling in for an injured Kellen Clemens at the end of last season. A powerful and fast Jonathan Stewart heads a two-headed running attack with Jeremiah Johnson, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry in limited action as a freshman. With an experienced receiving corps, the Ducks have a lot of potential on offense.
On defense, the biggest need is replacing both starting cornerbacks from last year's squad -- a big void with no easy answers as fall practice starts. Veteran safeties J.D. Nelson and Patrick Chung will anchor the secondary and the defense as a whole.
As usual, offense will be the focus with Dirk Koetter's and Arizona State. The first thing Koetter needs to do is settle on a quarterback. He has a unique and enviable problem of having two all-conference caliber quarterbacks on the roster. A legitimate NFL prospect and first-team preseason All-Pac 10 in a number of publications, Sam Keller is the favorite for the job coming off a stellar season cut short by injury. Through seven games, Keller threw for 2,165 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions before suffering a hand injury. Seems like a no-brainer start, right?
Well, on his heels is the nation's leader in passing efficiency for 2005. Rudy Carpenter took over for the injured Keller as a freshman and completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 2,273 yards, 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions. That all added up to a staggering 175.01 efficiency rating.
Whatever happens, Koetter has said he will not play with a rotating quarterback.
"I think a two-quarterback system can work depending on the quarterbacks you have," Koetter said. "It won't work with these guys."
With a veteran offensive line and talented backs, offense won't be an issue for the Sun Devils, despite some question marks at wide receiver. The problems start on defense. ASU returns just four starters from last year's squad. But as Koetter said, "When you're ranked 113th [actually 114th] in the nation on defense, that may not be such a bad thing."
Head coach Karl Dorrell raised the expectations in Westwood with last season's 10-2 campaign, the first 10-win campaign for the Bruins since 1998. While UCLA is headed in the right direction, another 10 wins in 2006 isn't likely.
The Bruins must replace the huge voids left by star quarterback Drew Olson, running back Maurice Drew and tight end Mercedes Lewis. Highly-touted BYU transfer Ben Olson will take over the reins behind center while junior Chris Markey will get most of the carries. With no major receiving threats, the offense will likely take a step back from last year's potent squad.
Combined with a defense that returns from ranking 113th in the nation, the Bruins could be looking at a step back this season. They'll have a tough litmus test off the bat with Mountain West power Utah coming to town in the season opener.
The Wildcats are 3-8 in each of Mark Stoops' first two seasons and Wildcat fans are looking to see some progress. It could come this season, as Stoops' recruiting classes become the face of the program. But there are still a lot of questions entering the season.
Sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama is the full-time starter after showing promise in leading the Wildcats to upsets over UCLA and
The star of the team is junior cornerback Antoine Cason, a popular pick for all-conference honors. He leads a strong secondary expected that may be the best unit on the team. Overall, nine starters return on a strong, deep defense that could start begin to mirror the defensive prowess that defines Stoops as a coach.
Fifteen starters return from a team that finished a disappointing 5-6 last season, including all five offensive linemen and quarterback Matt Moore. The UCLA transfer will have to be more consistent after throwing 19 interceptions in his first year as a starter. That may be tough with no known commodities at wide receiver following the loss of the team's career leading receiver Mike Hass.
Expect the Beavers to run the ball a lot with all-conference candidate Yvenson Bernard, who ran for 1,321 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
All four starters return in the secondary, the strongest unit on defense. The front line lost both starting tackles from a unit that struggled to begin with in 2005, and there are several new faces in the linebacker corps.
The key for the Beavers will be to hold on to the ball. Turnovers killed them last season and their defense isn't strong enough to keep them in games.
Washington State will have from the start with an opening game at SEC favorite Auburn. Coming off a 4-7 season, a poor showing at
Alex Brink is capable of big games at quarterback and posted a decent 24-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first year starting last season. He'll have star receiver Jason Hill to connect with after combining for 62 receptions for 1,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The big question mark on offense is at running back after losing Jerome Harrison, who exploded for 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Nobody appears ready to take over in the backfield.
The offense will have to carry the team, as the Cougars return a defensive unit that finished 106th in country. While the defensive line is experienced, the linebacker corps is shallow and the secondary may be the worst in the Pac-10.
The biggest news with Stanford football is its new stadium, which coach Walt Harris spoke at length about during Pac-10 media day. And while the team returns an offense with potential, the stadium may be the best news for the Cardinal - at least for 2006.
Quarterback Trent Edwards is the bright spot, returning for his senior season after being named team MVP. He threw for 17 touchdowns and 7 interceptions before being injured in the season finale. Mark Bradford is also back after leading the team in receptions to give Edwards a go-to target.
The good news at running back is last year's two leading rushers are back for 2006. The bad news is that Jason Evans and Anthony Kimble combined for fewer than 600 total yards and 4 yards per carry last season.
With little experience returning from a defensive unit that finished 105th in the nation last season, the Cardinal don't look on their way to their first winning season since 2001.
Well, they've got a high profile coach. That's about all that can be said about Washington in 2006. Expectations are low in
Quarterback Isaiah Stanback is one of the team's best athletes and a strong threat to run the ball. Willingham will look to have Stanback carry the ball more this season as well as improve on his rate of 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions from last year. The receivers and running backs are capable, but far from spectacular, and the offensive line lost five key players from last season.
Things on defense may be worse. The defensive line is undersized, the linebackers are inexperienced and the secondary returns from giving up more than 3,000 yards passing last season. In other words, it's still rebuilding territory for Willingham at