John Roberts College Football

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the Pac Ten

USC has won back-to-back national titles (according to the AP Poll) and is considered the strong favorite to win a third consecutive title this year. The rest of the Pac Ten has taken a beating because of this. It is popular opinion that USC plays nobody each and every year as they run through their schedule and their weak conference to the national championship game. If you were not paying attention, you would think that USC plays a schedule full of Cal Poly and Tennessee-Chattanooga rather than teams like Washington, California, and Arizona State. While the Pac Ten may not be the best conference in the world, it is a conference that is far more than just USC.

1. USC (11-1, 7-1)- The Trojans start with Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at quarterback. The difference between last year and this year is that this year Leinart will actually have experienced receivers to throw the football to. Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are now experienced and one of the better pass catching duos in the country. The offensive line returns four starters and should once again be solid. Throw in that Reggie Bush might be the starting tailback this year and there is little room to believe that this offense is not one of the tops in the country. LenDale White (last year's starting tailback) also returns and should see plenty of playing time. They did lose offensive coordinator Norm Chow, but that may not make much of a difference with all the talent on this offense. The defensive line returns just two starters and even lost back up Manuel Wright to the NFL Supplemental Draft. That makes it questionable whether or not the Trojans will be successful stopping the run this year. The linebackers also lost two All Americans, but with players like Keith Rivers ready to step in, things still look pretty bright. The secondary, which was the weakest spot in the defense a year ago, returns two starters, including Darnell Bing, a big strong safety. The Trojans have to play five of their first seven games on the road with trips to Hawaii, Oregon, Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Washington and a trip to California in November. Home dates include Arkansas, Fresno State, and UCLA. That schedule looks like their should be one slip up somewhere along the way, but one slip up may get them back to the national championship game.

2. UCLA (9-2, 6-2)- The Bruins played very well against USC last year, but followed that up with a whimper against Wyoming in their bowl loss. That was a microcosm of the Bruins season. Their wild inconsistency should improve this year. Drew Olson returns at quarterback, but he will be pushed hard by Ben Olson (no relation), a former #1 recruit who went to BYU and hasn't played football in three years. Maurice Drew is one of the more underrated running backs in the country. He is speedy. Chris Markey provides very valuable depth at that position. Marcedes Lewis is one of the better tight ends in the conference. Junior Taylor is the team's leading returning receiver, and Marcus Everett and Joe Cowan both are up and coming stars. The offensive line returns three starters and should be a solid group. The defensive line should be vastly improved over a year ago because of experience. With three starting defensive linemen returning, lead by Kevin Brown and Justin Hickman. The linebackers are lead by the excellent duo of Justin London and Spencer Havner. The secondary is very deep for the Bruins. They should be one of the better units for the defense. Last year, the Bruins defense ranked 106 in total defense. If they are to get into the Pac Ten title chase, that must improve. The Bruins will be on display on September 17 when they host Oklahoma. They also get California, Orgeon State, and Arizona State at home. The toughest road trip of the year is at USC on December 3, but no other road game looks too tough. This is a team that has a nice schedule and plenty of experience and could be one of the real surprises this year in college football. If they are not, Karl Dorrell might want to start looking for another job.

3. Arizona State (9-2, 6-2)- The key to the Sun Devils season could be the continued development of quarterback Sam Keller. He shined in the come from behind win over Purdue in the Sun Bowl. He was subbing for the injured Andrew Walter, who has since graduated. If Keller continues to shine, the Sun Devils could be explosive. Terry Richardson, Derek Hagan, and Moey Mutz are all excellent receivers. Plus, the offensive line returns four starters and should give Keller plenty of time to throw. The question is if they can find a running game. Loren Wade, the former number one running back, was charged with first degree murder in the spring, so the job is falling to Rudy Burgess and possibly Randy Hill. The defense will be lead by two senior linebackers, Jamar Williams and Dale Robinson. They are both solid. The defense is lead by Emmanuel Franklin at safety, and R.J. Oliver, coming off of a medical redshirt, at corner. The defensive line is a real weak spot. There is not much depth and only two real good players on the line. Kyle Caldwell and Jordan Hill each recorded seven sacks a year ago. The trip to LSU on September 10 should be very interesting. The trip to Oregon State on September 24 and the home dates with USC (October 1) and Oregon (October 8) could decide the fate of the Pac Ten season. A November 12 date at UCLA is also huge. The fact is, other than on the defensive line and at running back, this team looks loaded. Remember the last time a two time defending national champion came into Tempe? It was Nebraska in 1996, and they left with a 19-0 loss and the Sun Devils went on to go undefeated in the regular season and narrowly lost the Rose Bowl that, if they had won, would have given them the national title. Are Sun Devil fans in for another ride like that one?

4. Oregon (6-5, 4-4)- The Ducks returns some of the best talent at the skill positions in the conference (outside of USC, of course). Kellen Clemens has proven that he is a solid quarterback. Demetrius Williams has shown off his speed and pass catching ability at receiver. Tim Day has shown how solid of a tight end he is. Terrence Whitehead has been an explosive runner. Jonathan Stewart may push Whitehead for starting time. The line is the real question mark. Only two starters return on the line, and the other three spots could be filled with freshman or junior college transfers. This could be an ugly line. The defense is lead by the defensive line that features Devan Long and Haloti Ngata. Long does a superb job of getting to the quarterback (7.5 sacks a year ago) and Ngata is run stopper. The secondary is also very deep. J.D. Nelson returns at safety and Aaron Gipson is a shutdown corner. The linebackers are the lone weak spot. Anthony Trucks has plenty of experience and will be called on to lead the linebacking unit. The Ducks are always tough in Autzen. They need to be this year with Fresno State, USC, California, and Oregon State all coming in. A couple of years a top rated Michigan team came into Autzen and left with a loss that cemented the Ducks home field advantage as one of the better ones in the country. Of course, last year, home losses to Indiana, Arizona State, and UCLA hurt that image. This team has the potential to pull off an upset at home over USC on September 24 and get into Pac Ten title contention, but they also could lay an egg and have a losing record this season. The Ducks are one of the more intriguing teams in the Pac Ten.

5. California (7-4, 4-4)- The Bears have proven that they can play at a top level despite their bowl loss a year ago. The quarterback situation could prove interesting, but Coach Jeff Tedford has proven that he can mold young quarterbacks. Joseph Ayoob is a junior college transfer, but has a big arm and should put up huge numbers in Tedford's system. Robert Jordan is the only returning receiver with any experience. He caught 29 passes a year ago. Marshawn Lynch is the team's top running back. He was only a freshman a year ago, but showed signs of brilliance a year ago when he averaged 8.8 yard per carry on 71 carries. The offensive line returns four starters, including two first team All-Pac Ten selections from a year ago in Marvin Philip and Ryan O'Callaghan. The defense was decimated by graduation. The line could be lead by junior college transfer Nu'u Tafisi. Brandon Mebane is the lone returning starter on the line. The linebackers are looking for able bodies to fill in in key places. Ryan Foltz is the leading returning linebacker. Junior college All-Americans Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel could be the key to the linebacking unit. The secondary is the deepest position on the defense. Donnie McCleskey was an All-Pac Ten selection two years ago before an injury sidelined him last year. Harrison Smith and Daymeion Hughes, along with back up Tim Mixon, provide a capable core of cornerbacks. The schedule opens up with Sacramento State, at Washington, Illinois, at New Mexico State, and Arizona, which should be five easy wins for the Bears. The junior college transfers will have their feet wet. Then the Bears must go to UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford over the second half of the year, plus host USC, Oregon State, and Washington State. Not an easy finish. But if the talent develops early in the year and the confidence gets rolling, there is no reason to believe that this team can't do big things...maybe even bigger than they did last year.

6. Oregon State (7-4, 4-4)- The quarterback situation could be interesting for the Beavers. Ryan Gunderson and Matt Moore both have some playing time in the Pac Ten and should be able to step in. The loss of Derek Anderson does hurt the Beavers, because he was a good leader and threw for a ton of yards. But, he also threw a lot of costly interceptions. The double edged sword that was Anderson is now gone. The running game ranked dead last (117) in rushing last year. Yvenson Bernard is expected to be the starter. He is the leading returning rusher from a year ago, when he had six carrie for twenty yards. The offensive line may be the strength of the offense, and they may need to be. With three returning starters and a host of talent, the Beavers offensive line looks fairly solid. The receivers are lead by Mike Hass. Anthony Wheat-Brown, Marcel Love, and tight end Joe Newton also have significant playing experience and a ton of big play ability. The defense will be lead by the linebackers, which may be the best overall linebacker unit in the conference. Keith Ellison, Trent Bray, and Chaz Scott are all seniors and all have a load of potential. The secondary will need to get some quick experience, but if they do, Keenan Lewis, Gerard Lawson, Edorian McCullough, and Aaron Miller all have potential to be the shut down corners that Oregon State is known for. Sabby Piscitellihas five interceptions a year ago. The defensive line is fairly solid as well. Ben Sigert and Joe Lemma return on the line, while Alvin Smith and Sir Henry Anderson have gotten enough playing time in the past to be prepared to step up in their senior seasons. The Beavers open the season with Portland State, but then things get tough. Boise State and Arizona State come calling, sandwiching a road game at Louisville. A home date with Washington State is followed by road games against California and UCLA. A 1-6 start is not out of the question. Things then ease up with Arizona, Washington and Stanford, followed by the Civil War at Oregon. How solid is the program? Are they prepared for a major drop off this season? Or are they reloading for another bowl run?

7. Stanford (6-5, 3-5)- The offense is lead by two capable quarterbacks, Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander. Edwards got hurt at the end of last year, opening the door for Ostrander. The offensive line returns five starters, but only one senior. This group has potential to be very solid. Edwards or Ostrander will be protected well, which will give them time to throw the ball to Evan Moore, Mark Bradford, and Justin McCullum. These guys have the potential to become one of the better receiving groups in the conference. The running game will be lead by J.R. Lemon, who continues to show flashes of brilliance, but nothing that can be sustained. The defensive line will start Julian Jenkins, Babatunde Oshinowo, and Casey Carroll, but there is little depth beyond that. The linebackers will be lead by Jon Alston, who recorded 9.5 sacks a year ago. T.J. Rushing and Brandon Harrison return in the secondary. This unit will have a lot to prove after the loss of three seniors. Last year, the Cardinal played USC, Notre Dame, Oregon, Arizona State, and Oregon State all very tight...and lost by a combined 22 points to those five teams. Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, California, and Notre Dame all come to Stanford this year, so new coach Walt Harris will have a chance to prove himself in front of the home crowd. Win the close games, and this team could be looking at a bowl season instead of a losing record.

8. Washington State (5-6, 2-6)- The Cougars need to find the answer at quarterback. Josh Swogger and Alex Brink both started and played significantly last year. Swogger is the current leader to be the starter, but if he doesn't play well or gets hurt again, Brink could step in. The offensive line returns three starters and should be a fairly solid unit. That could give the quarterback time to find Jason Hill, who had over 1000 yards on just 45 catches a year ago. The running game will be lead by Jerome Harrison, who had 900 yards a year ago, including a 247 yard effort against UCLA. The defense will need to get a consistent pass rush this year, which puts the pressure on the defensive line. Mkristo Bruce, Aaron Johnson, Ropati Pitoitua, and Adam Braidwood could give other teams fits on the defensive line. Will Derting returns at linebacker. He's one of the better linebackers in the country and always seems to step up in big games. The secondary is not deep, but Alex Teems and Eric Frampton both return back there. Teems had two interceptions a year ago. The Cougars play a soft out of conference schedule to get themselves ready for road trips to Oregon State, California, and USC in the conference, along with the road trip to Washington for the Apple Cup. The offense is good enough to put a ton of points on the board, but the defense could struggle unless the defensive line develops as anticipated and if Derting can find some help.

9. Arizona (4-7, 2-6)- Richard Kovalcheck took firm control of the starting quarterback spot for the Wildcats when he lead them to a stirring 34-27 win over arch rival Arizona State on the day after Thanksgiving a year ago. The Wildcats hope that trend continues. The offensive line returns three starters, which should help give Kovalcheck time to throw. Syndric Steptoe returns at receiver, and junior college transfer B.J. Vickers could open up the field. That would be good for the running game, which never could get going last year without some serious passing threats. Mike Bell still ran for 950 yards a year ago, and looks prepared for a breakout season this year. The defense needs to improve on its 101 ranking in passing defense. That could start with pressure up front. Marcus Smith and Lionel Dotson will be asked on to step up their game, and junior college transfer Byron Smith could be a key to the team. The linebackers are young and the starters will be determined sometime before the beginning of the season. The secondary is actually a strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return in the secondary. Antoine Carson intercepted four passes a year ago and appears destined for greatness. Coach Mike Stoops believes that Darrell Brooks is one of the best safeties in the whole country. He is the team's leading returning tackler with 73 tackles. The defense is pretty good for the Wildcats, so now the offense needs to step up. If the Arizona State game at the end of last year was any indication, this team could make a huge step forward this year, and possibly even contend for a bowl game. Road trips to Utah, California, Arizona State, and USC are extremely difficult. Home games with Purdue, Oregon, and UCLA mean that a bowl game is really going to have to be earned this year. The Wildcats might still be a year away from truly becoming a serious Top 25 threat. But they're coming.

10. Washington (3-8, 1-7)- It is amazing how far things have fallen at Washington. Tyrone Willingham comes in looking to clean things up. Isaiah Stanback and Johnny DuRocher are the players most likely to start at quarterback, but do not count out Casey Paus. The receivers are not a superb group, but Chris Chambers provides some breakaway speed. The offensive line returns four starters along with Joe Toledo, who is expected to be a monster on the line. This is a real strength for the Huskies. The running game appears to be a strength. Kenny James is the returning starter, but Louis Rankin is a solid back up and could be the starter by the end of the year. James Sims is also a good fullback option. The defensive line could be the key to the team. Manase Hopoi, Mike Mapuolesega, and Greyson Gunheim are all returning starters and all look to improve on last season. Jordan White-Frisbee, a former starter, may be demoted, but adds nice depth to the line. The linebackers feature Evan Benjamin, Scott White, and Joe Lobendahn. These three could be one of the better trios in the conference. The secondary is a weak link, with little to no experience at cornerback. The Huskies should be improved under Willingham. How much is the question. On September 24, Notre Dame comes calling in a nice reunion of Willingham and his old school. A win there, and the Huskies could become one of the surprises of the early season. They also get USC at home, but a win there seems unlikely. The secondary must develop and someone has to step up at quarterback. Until that happens, this team ranks as the worst in the Pac Ten.

ALL PAC TEN

Offense
QB Matt Leinart, USC
RB Reggie Bush, USC
RB Maurice Drew, UCLA
WR Mike Hass, Oregon State
WR Dwayne Jarrett, USC
TE Marcedes Lewis, UCLA
OL Ryan O'Callaghan, California
OL Marvin Philip, California
OL Sam Baker, USC
OL Mike McCloskey, UCLA
OL Winston Justice, USC

Defense
DL Manase Hopoi, Washington
DL Haloti Ngata, Oregon
DL Kyle Caldwell, Arizona State
DL Frostee Rucker, USC
LB Will Derting, Washington State
LB Spencer Havner, UCLA
LB Trent Bray, Oregon State
DB Justin Wyatt, USC
DB T.J. Rushing, Stanford
DB Antoine Carson, Arizona
DB Darrell Brooks, Arizona

Specialists
K Alexis Serna, Oregon State
P Tom Malone, USC
KR Marshawn Lynch, California
PR Reggie Bush, USC

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