All indications are that Southern California is going to run away with the Pac-10 title on its way to a third straight national championship. However, the football is a funny-shaped object that can take a lot of strange bounces – especially in places like Oregon, Arizona State and California.
Basically, though, this season is a race for second place, with as many as six teams in a position to come in first – I mean second.
Ranked first in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
With the Trojans atop every national preseason poll it isn't any wonder that they also are my favorite to win the Pacific-10 Conference. With 14 starters returning and four great recruiting classes to fill in the gaps, USC will be the most talented team on the field in every game. Whether the Trojans can get through that schedule without a loss and book a return trip to the national championship game may come down to how quickly a revamped coaching staff can come together.
Offensively, USC is led by the Heisman Trophy winner and best quarterback in college football – and those two are not always the same – Matt Leinart. Although Leinart is the Trojans' best leader, running back Reggie Bush probably is their best player. Bush can beat you as a runner, receiver, returner and, if you don't watch out, passer. Sensational LenDale White completes the best backfield duo in the land. Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and tight end Dominique Byrd make for another outstanding receiver corps.
If all that talent is not enough, the offensive line returns four starters and All-American Winston Justice, who was suspended last year. There is not a better group in the country. Scoring a lot of points should be easy for the Trojans, and with only five starters back on defense and a tough conference schedule, it may be necessary a few times.
The defensive front seven was hit hard up the middle with the loss of the two tackles and the middle linebacker. New faces will be replacing future NFL stars Mike Patterson, Lofa Tatupu and Sean Cody. Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker are back at the end positions and Dallas Sartz returns at linebacker. Sophomore linebacker Keith Rivers is going to be a great one, too.
The secondary also has holes to fill at corner and safety but should be able to lean on the experience of cornerback Justin Wyatt and strong safety Darnell Bing. Also, four years of outstanding recruiting classes should ensure that there won't be too much of a dropoff in the strength of this year's defense.
I know everyone thinks that coach Jeff Tedford is a miracle man and can do anything, but folks, this team – especially at quarterback – looks like a work in progress. Many assumed junior-college transfer Joseph Ayoob would come in and, just like Aaron Rodgers did after Kyle Boller, become an immediate star. Well, they were first-round draft choices, and their skills just aren't that easy to replicate. It became clear after spring football that Ayoob is not nearly as far along as Rodgers was when he arrived. He also doesn't yet have the arm strength or aptitude for the position.
Does this mean Ayoob won't do a good job for California? Absolutely not. But first he must compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Longshore for the starting job. It definitely appears to be a rebuilding instead of a reloading situation. The amazing thing is that in this "rebuilding year," I have the Bears finishing as the runner-up for the Pac-10 title.
Whoever earns the starting job will be handing off to one of the most talented backs in the conference. Last year, Marshawn Lynch averaged 8.8 yards per carry as a backup to 2,000-yard rusher J.J. Arrington. And the offensive line rivals USC. Center Marvin Philip was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, and tackle Ryan O'Callaghan was first-team all-Pac-10. But Cal must replace three of its top four wide receivers.
Defensively, only three starters return from a unit that ranked eighth in the country a year ago. The greatest concern is with the front seven's ability to stop the run. Only one starter returns among the line and linebackers who were the second-best run stoppers in football last season. The line is built around returner Brandon Mebane and 2003 starter Tosh Lupoi. Senior Ryan Foltz leads three new faces at linebacker. In the secondary the Bears welcome back rover Donnie McCleskey, who was injured last season, to replace all-conference pick Matt Giordano. Things look pretty good at cornerback with the returning starters Harrison Smith and Daymeion Hughes.
Overall, the Bears are not nearly as strong as they were last fall. However, USC is the only opponent that will be a prohibitive favorite against Cal, and if Tedford is able to work his magic on the quarterback situation again, the sky's the limit.
Coach Mike Bellotti has been the most successful coach in the Pac-10 over his 10 years at Oregon. That is why last year's 5-6 record was such a shock and why this year's team will get back to its winning ways.
Offensively, coordinator Andy Ludwig moved on and was replaced by former BYU head coach Gary Crowton, who brings with him the spread offense. Seven offensive starters return, led by quarterback Kellen Clemens, tailback Terrence Whitehead, wide receiver Demetrius Williams and tight end Tim Day. All four are seniors and extremely talented.
Defensively, the most important change has been in attitude. Look for defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to get back to a much more aggressive attacking style of play. The Ducks return all four defensive backs which will allow them to play tight man coverage and blitz linebackers, much like they did so successfully in the mid-'90s. Up front Oregon has one of the most dominant linemen in the Pac-10 in 338-pound Haloti Ngata, and Devan Long had 15 tackles for loss last season. The only concern on defense is finding two new linebackers to go with returning starter Anthony Trucks.
Another change is an increased emphasis on special teams. To make a statement to his players and coaches, Bellotti has assigned each assistant coach a responsibility on special teams to get everyone involved.
I really like the Ducks' schedule, too. There are no big hurdles in the non-conference schedule, and the games with USC, Cal and Oregon State all are at Autzen Stadium. With a more wide-open spread offense, an attacking style of defense and emphasis on the kicking game, look for Oregon to go bowling for the eighth time in the last nine years.
If last year's Sun Bowl performance by junior quarterback Sam Keller is any indication of the kind of year he is going to have, Arizona State will have one whale of an offense. Replacing an injured Andrew Walter, Keller threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-23 victory over Purdue.
There is exceptional talent at every skill position on the offense, starting with wide receiver Derek Hagan. He's on track to become ASU's all-time leading receiver. If defenses try to double-cover Hagan, Keller only needs to look for wide receiver Terry Richardson or tight end Zach Miller. Both are coming off stellar seasons along with returning starting tailback Rudy Burgess, who not only is a speedy runner but also an outstanding receiver.
In spite of all this talent, the greatest strength on offense is the line. Four starters return, including all-Pac-10 first-teamer Grayling Love, who moves from guard to center. Brandon Rodd returns to guard, where he started before injuring his knee going into last season.
If Keller stays healthy ASU will have one of the best offenses in America.
The defense has more holes to fill. The Sun Devils gave up 207 points in their last six regular-season games. New coordinator Bill Miller hopes to end that trend, but the Devils must replace all-conference safety Ricardo Stewart, second-team all-Pac-10 lineman Jimmy Verdon and linebacker Justin Burks.
Linebackers Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams provide great leadership, and Jordan Hill and Kyle Caldwell return on the front wall. The secondary brings back safety Josh Barrett and corner Josh Golden, who will receive immediate assistance from transfers Darren Ware, Chris Baloney and Keno Walter-White.
This is the most talented team that coach Dirk Koetter has had at Arizona State. Although there are two monster games in the first five weeks against LSU and USC, I wouldn't be surprised if, by season's end, Arizona State is fighting for runner-up conference honors and a chance at a New Year's Day bowl.
Coach Karl Dorrell is 12-13 after his first two seasons with the Bruins, and he will feel some pressure this year to get this program into the top two or three teams in the conference.
The likelihood of that happening depends largely on what transpires at the unstable quarterback position. Returning starter Drew Olson is coming off ACL surgery and might not be completely ready, although he is sharing first-team snaps as of now. If he isn't ready, then look for highly touted BYU transfer Ben Olson (no relation) to get the nod. The ex-Cougar hasn't played in a game since his senior year of high school in 2001 (one redshirt year at BYU and two years of missionary work), and one suspects he would be quite rusty if forced into action. The best scenario would have a healthy Drew Olson starting and Ben Olson ready if needed.
The running game again should be strong, with Maurice Drew leading a stable of good running backs. Marcedes Lewis is one of the best tight ends in the country and is athletic enough to line up out wide as well. Wide receiver Junior Taylor has the job of replacing UCLA's all-time leading receiver, Craig Bragg.
Defensively, the Bruins could not stop anybody on the ground last year, giving up 210 yards per game. With five of the front seven back, this number should go down dramatically. Linebackers Spencer Havner, who last year led the Pac-10 in tackles, and Justin London are the heart and soul of the group. Strong safety Jarrad Page is the lone starter returning in the secondary.
With Oklahoma and USC on the schedule, two losses are inevitable, but eight wins looks like a real possibility.
There are all kinds of questions with the Oregon State offense coming off last year's 7-5 season. First, the Beavers must find a way to fix their one-dimensional attack which was seventh in the nation last year in passing and dead last in rushing. But there is uncertainty at both quarterback and running back, and the offensive line remains inconsistent.
UCLA transfer Matt Moore has the edge at quarterback, but sophomore Ryan Gunderson has remained in the hunt. They will be throwing to one the most productive receivers in the country, Mike Hass, who set school records for receptions (86) and receiving yards (1,379) last season. Joe Newton is one of the league's better tight ends.
Oregon State is gaining quite a reputation for playing some of the best defense in the conference. Last year's group ranked in the top 20 nationally. The strength of this year's defense is at linebacker, led in the middle by senior Trent Bray, who recorded a league runner-up 122 tackles last season. He will be sandwiched between two other returning senior starters, Keith Ellison and Chaz Scott. Tackle Ben Siebert will be the leader up front. The secondary returns only one starter, strong safety Sabby Piscitelli.
How Oregon State fairs in early non-conference games with Boise State and Louisville will go a long way in determining whether the Beavers can make it back to a small bowl.
After going 10-3 and upsetting No. 5 Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, coach Bill Doba's Cougars dropped to 5-6 in his second season. Much of this could be attributed to the loss of quarterback Josh Swogger with a broken bone in his foot after leading Washington State to a 3-3 start. Swogger, a 6-foot-5 pocket passer with a strong arm, returns this year along with eight other starters on offense. Backup Alex Brink, who started five games last year, also is ready to go.
Junior Jason Hill, the most valuable offensive player last season, leads a solid group of receivers who must do a better job of catching the football. Jerome Harrison returns at running back after rushing for 900 yards last season, including 247 against UCLA. But both tackles must be replaced.
Defensively, Washington State returns five of its front seven, and the defensive line will be much improved. Middle linebacker Will Derting needs to stay healthy because when he does he is one of the best in the country. The secondary will have three new faces; who will line up at cornerback opposite Alex Teems?
On special teams, punter Kyle Basler is one of the best in the nation, but the field-goal duties remain uncertain.
With a nice non-conference schedule, Washington State should be able to ride its offense to a winning season and a small bowl if the secondary can adequately plug a few holes.
It is truly amazing how bad Washington got in such a short period of time. Last year's team had the worst scoring offense in the country and committed more turnovers (42) than any other team. The defense was torched for more than 30 points per game. They struggled through two different kickers, and Sean Douglas had four punts blocked.
So Ty Willlingham may have fallen into the perfect situation. Any decent coaching at all ought to be met with instant results. And Willingham is not going to make the mistakes of a first-time head coach. Having coached at Stanford and Notre Dame, he should know what needs to be done to right this ship. He also should bring much-needed discipline to the organization.
The most important thing on offense is to find a quarterback. Going into the fall, junior Isaiah Stanback looks to have the edge over Oregon transfer Johnny DuRocher. Stanback is an exciting runner who improved his passing skills in the spring whereas DuRocher is a more conventional drop-back passer. If the quarterbacks can cut down on turnovers and returning starter Kenny James and breakaway threat Louis Rankin can provide a running game, the offense will be vastly improved.
Nine starters are back on defense, and Washington could have one of the best front sevens in the conference. Defensive tackle Manase Hopoi is a stud up front and led the league in tackles for loss last season. In the pass-happy Pac-10 the secondary is the biggest concern; both corners are new.
There is only one way to go at Washington and that's up, but a bowl trip this year is a little too much to expect.
Second-year coach Mike Stoops found out last season that turning around the Wildcats was going to be a lot more difficult than turning around Oklahoma. However, after winning two of his last three games, including a huge upset of rival Arizona State, Stoops is seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. He even has his players believing they can make it to a bowl game this year.
The spread offense didn't come easily last year – the Wildcats ranked next to last in the nation in scoring. Quarterback Richard Kovalcheck will be much better with a year's experience under his belt. The receivers need to step up because you can't be successful in the spread without some guys who can make big plays.
The defense, which returns nine starters, gave up 25 points per game last year, and if the offense had offered any help at all early on the Wildcats might have won a few more games. Although Arizona gave up a ton of passing yards, the secondary has become a strength with two good cover corners and veterans at both safety positions.
If Arizona's non-conference schedule didn't include Utah and Purdue I might agree with Stoops' prediction of a bowl game this season. Instead, I think there will be one more year of growing pains before that happens.
After a successful stint at Pittsburgh where he led the Panthers to five bowl games in the last five years, Walt Harris now takes over the struggling Stanford program. With a strong reputation for developing quarterbacks and high-powered offenses, the Cardinal faithful are hoping for a quick turnaround for their program. But it's going to take time.
Nine starters return on offense and if Harris can perform his magic on quarterbacks Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander, the offense will see immediate improvement. All five linemen return to help the transition, as do an experienced group of wide receivers.
The defense wasn't bad last season, only giving up 21 points per game, and if Stanford has any hopes of improving on last year's 4-7 record this trend will need to continue. However, the schedule is formidable, with only one sure W on the slate in UC Davis.