Pac-10 Conference Preview
In a conference riddled with offensive firepower, USC, Cal and UCLA make it a top-heavy group
Aug. 16, 2007
By Bob Holtzman
Special to CSTV.com
CSTV's Pac-10 Preview
Say what you want about Washington State coach Bill Doba's job security, but there's no denying he's usually dead-on in his assessments.
Asked about the quality of returning quarterbacks in the Pacific-10 Conference and the impact nine returning triggermen will have on offenses, he admitted he hadn't realized how many were back, but the former defensive coordinator didn't mince words when discussing the offensive firepower of the conference.
"It's grass basketball," Doba said at the Pac-10 Media Day. "People throw the football.
"It makes the defensive coordinator's job pretty dang tough."
Quarterbacks like John David Booty, Nate Longshore and Alex Brink are going to give the Pac-10 an Arena League feel this season, but don't take it to mean defense is an afterthought. USC has an experienced defense with enough talent to leave crusty NFL scouts drooling on their cell phones. UCLA isn't a pushover under defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, who has the Bruins' defense playing like a bunch of kids who got tired of letting the bully take their lunch money.
"You cannot win without being good on defense," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.
That's probably why USC was a unanimous pick to win the conference title in the preseason media poll. Most Pac-10 football fans might tell you any game is up for grabs, but it looks like the conference could be a little top-heavy this season.
California and archrival UCLA are both poised to take on Pete Carroll's championship factory. UCLA knocked off the Trojans last season while
USC - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 7-2 Pac-10
Quarterback John David Booty is an early Heisman frontrunner after putting together an impressive Rose Bowl performance and earning All-Pac-10 honors last year. He'll clearly miss wide receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, both on to the NFL, and could hand off to as many as 10 running backs. Still, few doubt this unit won't be among the best in the land by the end of the season. RB Chauncey
Sam Baker is a returning All-America left tackle and guards Chilo Rachal and Drew Radovich are both returning starters, as well.
Tight end Fred Davis could battle with wide outs Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton for the team lead in catches this year. The Trojans like to use a fullback but multiple injuries at the position limited the offense's ability to run its two-back sets last season. Booty will benefit from a healthy Stanley Havili, as well as the addition of the shotgun to the playbook.
Returning 10 starters is usually a sign of a unit ready for a strong season, but at USC it's considered the makings of a national championship. Last year, teams averaged 15.2 points per game against this bunch and if that number goes down, the Trojans could earn a trip down to the Big Easy for the BCS Championship game.
There might not be a better defensive end in the country than Lawrence Jackson, who surprised some when he decided to return for his senior season. Sedrick Ellis and Fili Moala are run-stuffing tackles who make it difficult for any offensive line to establish a running game - and any tailbacks who get past the line might regret it. Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing make up the nation's most feared linebacking corps.
Coach Pete Carroll knows slowing down a good Pac-10 passing attack requires a serious pass rush, but he's got plenty of athletes in the secondary in case the quarterback gets the ball in the air. Junior Kevin Ellison and sophomore Taylor Mays are physical safeties while cornerbacks Cary Harris and Terrell Thomas are both experienced.
Carroll's bunch is the nation's preseason No. 1 team for good reason. As usual, it's more talented than most, if not every, team in the country. Plus, Carroll has proven himself to be among the best coaches in the nation, leading the Trojans to a 33-game win streak at the Coliseum. Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh called USC one of the best teams of all time at the conference's media day.
Of course, the Trojans do have a tough schedule - playing at
The Trojans hope to have their kicking game in place after the tragic death of kicker Mario Danelo, who fell off a cliff near his hometown of San Pedro during the offseason. Booty might not have an experienced bunch around him, but he can't complain about a lack of talent.
Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 9-0 Pac-10
In another part of the country,
"He's an experienced guy who has a great understanding of all of our positions and what we're doing,"
Tight end Craig Stevens is another experienced senior who has already earned all-conference honors twice in his career. Stevens is a standout blocker for the Bears, who will look to Justin Forsett to emerge as the next great
If Longshore is going to surpass the 3,021 passing yards he had last season, he'll need his offensive line to hold up, especially since he's not known for his mobility. Center Alex Mack, right guard Noris Malele and right tackle Mike Gibson are all returning starters.
Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory lost a trio of all-conference starters, including the conference's defensive player of the year, Daymeion Hughes. Senior defensive tackle Matt Malele is the most experienced returner with 21 starts in 33 career games. He dropped 23 pounds in the offseason and should be joined by Mika Kane in the middle.
Linebacker Worrell Williams, the younger brother of Broncos linebacker DJ Williams, is emerging as a leader for the Bears' defense. The secondary lost Hughes but returns sophomore cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, free safety Bernard Hicks and rover Brandon Hampton, who began his career as a walk-on running back before starting all 13 games last season on defense.
The Bears' hopes of a conference title and BCS bowl bid likely ride on the outcome of its last two games in October, when they travel to the Rose Bowl and Sun Devil Stadium to face UCLA and Arizona State. Win both of those and don't be surprised to see www.the1towatch.com emerging as one of the most popular Web sites heading into a Nov. 10 showdown with USC.
Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 8-1 Pac-10
UCLA - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 6-4 Pac-10
New offensive coordinator Jay Norvell takes the reins with plans to help the Bruins improve after finishing seventh in the conference with 23 points and 330.1 yards per game last season. Norvell assisted in
Running back Chris Markey believes he's faster than last season, when he rushed for 1,107 yards. He'll get a chance to prove it as the focal point of the run game. Coach Karl Dorrell declared Ben Olson the starter at quarterback in the spring although backup Pat Cowan was the one who led the Bruins over cross-town rival USC, which had won seven straight in the rivalry game.
Either way, the Bruins return 10 starters on offense, including offensive guard Shannon Tevaga. Wide receivers Marcus Everett and Brandon Breazell need to emerge as more consistent threats. Senior flanker Joe Cowan, Pat's older brother, is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury
It might sound bizarre, but go ahead and say it - UCLA has one of the best defenses in the country. Defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker might have been a question mark before last season but after coaching a Bruin defense that held foes to 19.9 points and 91.1 rushing yards per game, Bruins alumni Rob Reiner or Heather Locklear might nominate him for his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Losing defensive end Justin Hickman hurts but having Bruce Davis back after sharing the Pac-10 lead with 12.5 sacks last year dampens the blow. It doesn't hurt having tackles Brigham Harwell and Kevin Brown back to control the line of scrimmage, either. Former walk-on Christian Taylor is the unit's leader at middle linebacker.
The secondary returns all four starters in cornerbacks Rodney Van and Trey Brown and safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes. Plus, Alterraun Verner is back after being honored as co-freshman of the year in the Pac-10.
UCLA has been competitive but not a serious conference title contender during Dorrell's four years.
September is a big month with five games but October is when the Bruins will prove they're ready for the big time with games against Notre Dame and
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 7-2 Pac-10
Rudy Carpenter is the clear and definitive starter at quarterback and coach Dennis Erickson wants to make sure his junior quarterback isn't putting too much pressure on himself after suffering a turbulent year last season. Carpenter lost the starting job to Sam Keller, only to have then-coach Dirk Koetter change his mind a few days later. Keller left for
"I want Rudy to know he doesn't have to win every game," Erickson said.
Carpenter should feel as safe as a cub in its mother's den with all five starting offensive linemen back to protect him. Center Mike Pollak was an All-Pac-10 second-team pick last season and is one of five Sun Devil linemen who have already graduated, including left guard Robert Gustavis and right tackle Julius Orieukwu. ASU also has Zach Krula, who hasn't played since breaking his ankle against Northwestern Sept. 17, 2005, but is set to start at right tackle in front of Orieukwu. The line is adjusting to running more plays out of shotgun formations, but don't assume that means they'll have fewer opportunities to run block.
Ryan Torain is one of just three returning backs in the Pac-10 to run for over 1,000 yards with 1,229 yards. Torain and Keegan Herring are the league's top returning 1-2 punch as well. Carpenter will miss tight end Zach Miller but still has senior wide receiver Rudy Burgess and sophomore Chris McGaha back, although Erickson does consider this an inexperienced part of the team.
If Erickson is going to turn ASU into a legitimate title contender in the conference and on the national scale, this is where he needs to make his biggest footprint.
"The best defense is probably going to win the conference," Erickson said.
If it's true, the Sun Devils have plenty of work to do to compete for the league title. Last season, ASU surrendered 326 points in conference games, more than every team except
Six starters are back from a unit that didn't have one first- or second-team all-conference defensive player. Safety Josh Barrett, defensive tackle Michael Marquardt and cornerback Justin Tryon were all-conference honorable mention and should be back in the starting lineup, barring injuries. Sophomore defensive end Dexter Davis had six sacks last season and an improvement on that performance would make a serious impact.
Junior college transfer Morris Wooten is expected to start at middle linebacker while sophomores Travis Goethel and Mike Nixon both return with starting experience. Senior Robert James is expected to start in the 4-3 defense on the weak side.
It's probably not a matter of if, but a matter of when Erickson puts ASU at or near the top of the Pac-10. He's a proven winner with a pair of national championship rings from his time at Miami and Pac-10 Coach of the Year trophies with his name next to both
Regular Season Prediction: 7-4 Overall, 5-4 Pac-10
The Beavers are the only Pac-10 team without a returning starter at quarterback. Sophomores Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao are engaged in a vis-à-vis encounter for the right to replace Matt Moore. Both have spent time with the first-team offense during the early part of camp, and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf didn't deny sharing the top spot shows potential. It appears to come down to not only ability but personality. Canfield is a laid-back surfer type while Moevao is an upbeat leader who played defensive end in high school.
Both will be overshadowed by the Beavers' running game, which features Yvenson Bernard, the top returning rusher in the conference after gaining 1,307 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The 5-foot-9 senior can add to those totals while following an offensive line with four returning starters. Left guard Jeremy Perry earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last season while center Kyle DeVan is back after a second-team nod last year. Right guard Roy Schuening and right tackle Andy Levitre were both named honorable mention.
When Canfield or Moevao do go to the air, they'll both probably start their progressions with wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who led the league in receiving yards with 1,293 and was considered an All-America second-teamer for his punt returning skills after he returned three for touchdowns.
The Beavers didn't win too many games with defense last season but it shouldn't be a problem this season.
Defensive tackle Curtis Coker and defensive end Jeff Van Orsow are both back up front as well as William `Akau'ola Vea, who is the oldest player in the Pac-10 at 26. The secondary will miss Sabby Piscitelli but shouldn't be in too much trouble with free safety Al Afalava as well as cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes back in starting roles.
Coach Mike Riley was starting to feel a little heat when the Beavers started last season 2-3 with blowout losses at Boise State and at home against California. But instead of flinching, the Beavers turned a pair of road wins at
Riley needs to see a quarterback emerge as the starter between Canfield and Moevao before the idea of splitting time settles in at
Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-5 Pac-10
The Ducks quacked in opposite directions last season, opening the season 4-0 before losing their final four games. If they're going to return to the conference title conversation, it's going to begin on the ground, with running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson. The pair of juniors helped Oregon lead the Pac-10 with 182.2 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground and with those two, nobody would blame Oregon for adopting Woody Hayes' "Three yards and a cloud of dust" philosophy. Returning starting tackles Max Unger and Geoff Schwartz should open some holes.
The quarterback situation could have been thrown for a loop when projected starter Dennis Dixon signed a minor league contract to play baseball for the Atlanta Braves organization this summer. Some thought it would reopen a quarterback controversy between
Both would be pinpointing 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver Jaison Williams and senior Brian Paysinger. Williams caught 68 balls for 984 yards last season, and set the school record with five 100-yard receiving games.
Seven starters is a good nucleus for defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and three of them, cornerback Jairus Byrd, rover Patrick Chung and cornerback Walter Thurmond, were named all-Pac-10 honorable mention. Byrd and Thurmond, who were also named freshman All-America, should give opposing receivers a serious challenge as the Ducks attempt to lead the conference in pass defense for the third year in a row. Chung is the team's top returning tackler after delivering 84 stops last season.
Junior defensive end Nick Reed appears on the cusp of a big season after tallying 3.5 sacks last year. Linebacker A.J. Tuitele is the team's most natural playmaker, scoring two touchdowns last season and his experience and instinct are going to be needed if
Stewart called the team "hungry" at Pac-10 Media Day, which is to be expected since the Ducks haven't won since Nov. 4 of last year. The offense has been handed over to Chip Kelly, who spent the past seven seasons at
Kelly would do himself and
Defensively, the secondary is in good shape but it becomes irrelevant if the Ducks continue to let teams run for nearly 150 yards per game.
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 4-5 Pac-10
Coach Mike Stoops told reporters in the spring he's not a miracle worker, but maybe he thinks Sonny Dykes will be as the Wildcats' new offensive coordinator transitions this unit to the spread offense. Dykes gets the keys to an offense that averaged a measly 16.6 points per game and finished ninth in every major offensive category in the conference. Quarterback Willie Tuitama threw just seven touchdown passes in 211 attempts last season. Dykes came from Texas Tech, which routinely throws for seven touchdowns in one game.
Tuitama is one of nine returning starters, including the entire offensive line, which features tackles Eben Britton, a freshman All-America, and Peter Granville. Tuitama will miss Syndric Steptoe, his favorite receiver last year, but Mike Thomas returns and while he had five fewer catches, he actually gained more yards than Steptoe.
The running game won't be forgotten in the new offense but tailbacks Chris Jennings and Xavier Smith will need to prove they can catch the ball if they want to touch it on a regular basis.
While the offense failed to have a single player earn first or second-team All-Pac-10 honors, the defense returns its first-team pick, cornerback Antoine Cason, as well as second-team selections, defensive end Louis Holmes and linebacker Spencer Larsen.
Holmes might be the most well-known lineman but he's not the only one with experience. Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson are both senior tackles while defensive end Jonathan Turner also started last year.
It's almost hard to fathom it has been nearly a full decade since Arizona capped the best season in school history with a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. Since that 12-1 season the Wildcats are on their third coach and haven't had a better record than 6-6. Stoops led
It doesn't help matters that Arizona opens at BYU but if it wins there, it should be undefeated heading into Pac-10 play at 3-0 and with four winnable home conference games, Stoops could have his breakthrough bowl season.
Keep in mind all of this is only possible if serious improvements are delivered from an offense ranked No. 115 out of 119 teams in total offense last year. If not for Stanford,
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-6 Pac-10
Coach Bill Doba expects Alex Brink's third year as starting quarterback for the Cougars to be his best yet.
"[He] is about to break every school record this year," Doba said. "He knows more about this offense than I do." Doba wasn't joking either as Brink looks to expand on last season when he threw for 2,899 yards and 19 touchdowns.
His top target is senior slot receiver Michael Bumps, a speedy 6-footer who caught 60 balls last season. Brandon Gibson is also back after making 49 grabs for 731 yards and the pair can really expand the field for
Three starting linemen are back, including senior guard Bobby Byrd, a 6-foot-7, 316-pounder, sophomore center Kenny Alfred and junior right guard Dan Rowlands. Sophomore running back Dwight Tardy was the leading freshman rusher in the conference last season.
Doba added the defensive coordinator duties to his plate this season.
"I had more fun this spring coaching the linebackers and coordinating the defense than I've had in all four years," he said. Doba said he has good players but is concerned about the secondary which has one lone returner, free safety Husain Abdullah.
Calling defensive tackles Ropati Pitoitua (6-foot-8, 291) and Aaron Johnson (6-foot-7, 317) massive does them an injustice. The Cougars will miss defensive end Mkristo Bruce and will need defensive end Lance Broadus to showcase his athleticism. Middle linebacker Greg Trent should emerge as the defensive leader.
Doba even played along when a reporter suggested it would be a slow start for the Cougars.
"A loss to
Unfortunately, the defense has too many holes to manage the bevy of talented quarterbacks in the Pac-10.
Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 2-7 Pac-10
Washington will turn over the reins of the offense to sophomore Jake Locker, who beat out last year's part-time starter, Carl Bonnell, in spring practice. ASU coach Dennis Erickson called Locker the best he's seen coming out of high school and he'll need to live up to it for the Huskies to reach their first bowl game since 2002.
Junior college transfer Marcel Reese, a 6-foot-4 specimen, is going to be Locker's top target while four others, including returning starter Anthony Russo, are battling for the other spot. Russo could end up in the slot, which some are calling his natural position. Michael Gottlieb might be the returning starter at tight end but Johnie Kirton is a tremendous athlete who should see the field.
Tackles Ben Ossai and Chad Macklin are huge returners - literally. Ossai is a 6-foot-6, 300-pound sophomore at left tackle while Macklin is 6-foot-8, 300. Center Juan Garcia returns as well, so all three linemen should be ready to open holes for running back Louis Rankin.
The secondary will miss cornerback Dashon Goldson, who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by
Linebacker Dan Howell was named the team's most improved player last year and is expected to continue to grow as a player and lead this unit.
All four defensive linemen are returning starters, which normally would be considered a good thing, but the Huskies gave up 379.3 yards (139.2 rushing) and 25.9 points per game last year. Defensive end Greyson Gunheim, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound senior, led
Willingham showed significant progress last season and if not for an injury to quarterback Isaiah Stanback, the Huskies might have finished over .500 and spent the postseason playing a bowl game. Instead, the Huskies lost six of their last seven, ending the season with a 35-32 victory at
To make matters worse, the schedule is the equivalent of the Iditarod, with
Regular Season Prediction: 4-8 Overall, 2-7 Pac-10
Stanford - 2006: 1-11 Overall, 1-8 Pac-10
The Cardinal figures to show marked improvement under coach Jim Harbaugh with nine returning starters. Quarterback T.C. Ostrander grew up going to games at Stanford and now gets a chance to hook another young boy on the excitement of playing in
Seven seniors start for Stanford, including 6-foot-7 wide receiver Evan Moore and his counterpart, Mark Bradford, who missed most of last season due to injury. Senior running back Anthony Kimble will share backfield duties with Toby Gerhart, who is the all-time
Stanford breaks in two new offensive guards while center Alex Fletcher and tackles Allen Smith and 6-foot-7 behemoth Chris Marinelli are all back in the starting lineup. Senior kicker Aaron Zagory and punter Jay Ottovegio are both experienced seniors, but Harbaugh clearly hopes to keep Zagory busier than Ottovegio.
Harbaugh explained at Pac-10 Media Day his plan to win would be built around the defense. So he moved Erik Lorig from tight end to defensive end and has Austin Yancy starting at free safety after he made 16 catches at wide receiver last year. Harbaugh probably wishes he could have implemented this play with All-Pac-10 first-team linebacker Michael Okwo, who is now in the NFL, but there are still three linebackers with starting experience. Plus there's always 6-foot-5, 270-pound Tom McAndrew, a linebacker so big, running backs wish they'd run into a brick wall before being tackled by him.
Senior Udeme Udofia is one of the three returning starters and he'll be joined by his brother, nose tackle Ekom Udofia. Defensive ends Chris Horn and Pannel Egboh must generate a consistent pass rush for Stanford to show any improvement.
Losing safeties Brandon Harrison and Trevor Hooper hurts but returning senior cornerbacks Wopamo Osaisai and Tim Sims gives defensive coordinator Scott Shafer something to work with in the secondary. Osaisai was named to the All-Pac-10 first team as a special teams player.
Harbaugh looked more like a politician than a coach at the Pac-10 Media Day. It might be by design as Stanford has a serious hole to dig out of after last season. Harbaugh said he wants to make sure his players do three things - play hard, play hurt and play to win. He'll probably get all three this season but it doesn't mean Stanford is ready to actually win.
Ostrander won't stand out in a conference loaded with excellent quarterbacks and Stanford finished last in every offensive category last season as its offense ran at an equivalent pace to the fuel economy of a Humvee. The defense wasn't much better, giving up over 31 points and nearly 400 yards per game. At least the Cardinal has its first four games at home. Too bad three of those are against conference opponents with more talent and the fourth is against
Regular Season Prediction: 2-10 Overall, 1-8 Pac-10