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Pac-10 Preview, 2007
Richard Linde, 14 May 2007

The conference should field some strong teams this season, as it’s loaded with returning quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Except for Marshawn Lynch of Cal, nine of the ten top running backs return. Home games against BYU, Colorado, Tennessee, Utah, Navy, Notre Dame, Boise State, and Ohio State give the Pac-10 a chance to show its mettle.

On being pass happy: Throughout much of its history, USC has been stingy against the run. For that reason and because of all the talent in California, the conference was the first in the nation, from top to bottom, to develop strong passing teams -- this without parallel. In the seventies and eighties it embarrassed the ground-oriented Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, winning 16 of 18 games from 1970-1987. Historically speaking, that record alone says it plays some tough defense, too, the eastern mafia notwithstanding.

Out of that era came the legendary John Elway.

And in the spirit of that era, almost every team returns a starter at quarterback. John David Booty at USC is an early Heisman favorite. Coach Jeff Tedford at Cal is grooming Nate Longshore for stardom. Dennis Dixon at Oregon can win games with both his feet and arm. Can Alex Brink take WSU to a bowl, thus cooling coach Bill Doba's hot seat?

Washington struts out a new quarterback, Jake Locker, who fans are hoping will bring the Huskies back to the conference elite after surrendering its niche to ASC: Ambush, Sensationalism and Confusion. Locker's athleticism and mental acumen -- a strong arm, mobility, speed and leadership -- remind us somewhat of Elway.

USC’s dominance makes the whole conference stronger, the uniqueness of Stanford being an exception.

At the beginning of the season, USC will most likely be ranked number-one in the nation. Eighteen starters, including ten on defense, return for the Trojans.

Caveat: Because of the conference’s strength, USC will be hard pressed to win the conference, unless it improves its running game(68th in the nation) over the past season.

To rank the teams, we unshackled expectations and hope from some hardcore statistics (see the Table below); then we looked at each team's schedule, its coach's record and its returning starters.

Best predictor of all? In the Table below, the Trojans sit alone at the top, with six teams bunched together in the middle; three teams are clearly differentiated from the others at the bottom. Randomly ordering the middle teams and leaving the rest alone may be as good a predictor as any for 2007.

1.   1.  USC

2006: 11-2, 7-2 Pac-10

Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense, one punter.

Over the past two seasons, the Trojans have made Arkansas of the Southeast conference look like a high school team, embarrassing the Razorbacks 70-17 in 2005 and 50-14 last season. Arkansas’ 10-4 record last season included wins over vaunted Tennessee (9-4) and mighty Auburn (11-2).

The SEC must beat USC to prove to us that it’s the nation’s toughest football conference, and then, if it that should happen, the prestige will only last for a year. In particular, LSU needs to show that it can keep its local talent at home, away from USC. We’ll get to that later.

Entering his seventh season at USC, coach Pete Carroll (65-12, 42-7) has charisma, is a players’ coach, and is an excellent recruiter. For Washington fans, think Rick Neuheisel without the lightning rod and baggage. Neuheisel’s coaching demise was Carroll’s gain, for as conference neophytes, they once battled for conference supremacy, Mike Bellotti notwithstanding.

Scout.com ranks Carroll’s last four recruiting classes first, sixth, first, and second in the nation from 2004-2007, respectively. For UCLA fans, think John Wooden in the sixties and seventies as a basketball analogy. Like Wooden did, Carroll plucks the best from California, and cherry picks the other states for their prized PSAs. Entering freshman Joe McKnight out of River Ridge, Louisiana was ranked the number one running back in the nation by scout.com. Likewise, DE Everson Griffen, from Avondale, Arizona, was ranked number one at his position, as was C Kristofer O'Dowd out of Tucson..

Strengths: Shucks, mostly everywhere. Booty completed 61.7% of his passes last season and led the conference in total offense. If Booty were a running threat, the team would be the lights out favorite to win the national championship. Short of that, fielding a stronger running attack than last season will help bolster the odds.

Senior Fred Davis leads a talented group of tight ends, with Anthony McCoy expected to have a breakout season. Chauncey Washington will lead a chorus of running backs, in the personage of Desmond Reed, Herschel Dennis (where have we heard that name before?), Emmanuel Moody. C. J. Gable, and Allen Bradford. Stanley Havili rushed for 100 yards during the final spring scrimmage.

The linebacker corps is the most impressive position unit on the team.

Look for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to place more emphasis on running the ball.

Questions: Replacing the late Mario Danelo, place-kicker David Buehler needs to work on his accuracy and consistency. Can a young, but talented receiving corps replace the firepower of departed wide receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith?

Stats for improvement: USC was next to last in the conference in net punting, sixth in rushing offense, last in opponent penalties, and seventh in red zone defense.

Biggest area for improvement: rushing offense

2. UCLA

2006: 7-6, 5-4

RETURNING STARTERS: 10 offense, 10 defense, punter

Coach Karl Dorrell (29-21) enters his fifth season with the Bruins; he’s taken the Blue to four-straight bowls, albeit losing three of them. Integrating three new offensive coaches, including coordinator Jay Norvell, may give Dorrell some challenges with his offense.

Strengths: Returning 21 starters should help mesh the new coaches with their offense. The fact that the Bruins’ rush defense ranked ninth in the nation last season may partially explain their lack of offense in the spring game, rather than laying fault on the new coaches. The defense posted seven sacks and held the running game to mostly short yardage. Coming off of injury last season, Ben Olson completed 7 of 16 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. Olson was named the starter over Pat Cowen, both of whom are redshirt juniors.

Questions: Albeit the defense is good, but the offense must improve in the fall. Can the Bruins make it two in a row over ‘SC, this time playing in the Coliseum? A victory over Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl would give impetus to Dorrell’s career and help with recruiting.

Stats for improvement: The Bruins finished seventh in four categories: scoring offense, pass efficiency, third down conversions and total offense. They need to cut down on penalties, being the penultimate team in the league last season.

Biggest area for improvement: offense, offense, offense

3.   3. CALIFORNIA

2006: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-10

RETURNING STARTERS: 8 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists

Entering his sixth season at Cal, Jeff Tedford (43-20) figures to keep the Bears on the same track with the league’s elite, having once brought them back from oblivion. Tedford handed the Trojans their only loss of the 2003 season and has a 5-0 record over arch rival Stanford. Known as a groomer of NFL quarterbacks, Tedford has an excellent student in QB Nate Longshore. Longshore, as a sophomore, was second in the conference in passing efficiency last year, posting a nifty number of 141.6.

The Golden Bears should be potent on offense, but in a rebuilding mode on defense. Nevertheless, the offense struggled in the spring game. "It was a pretty poor day offensively," Tedford was quoted as saying. "We didn't play the number one guys very much. We didn't execute very well and I wasn't happy with the way the quarterbacks controlled the offense."

Unofficially, Longshore completed 10 of 15 passes for 139 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. TB James Montgomery, who once committed to Washington in the recruiting process, ran 8 times for 45 yards, including a 30-yard TD scamper.  A strong receiving corps will be led by DeSean Jackson, who, incidentally, led the nation in punt returns last year, returning four for touchdowns. He also caught 59 passes for 1,060 yards -- 18 yards per reception -- with nine touchdowns.

Justin Forsett is being counted on to pick up the slack left over from the departure of the conference’s leading rusher last season, Marshawn Lynch. On defense the Bears must replace CB Daymeion Hughes and five of the front seven.

Stats for improvement: In 2006, Cal was seventh in rushing defense and eighth in total defense, ninth in pass defense and eighth in bludgeoning sacks. Remarkably, the Bears were second in red zone defense and scoring defense.

Biggest area for improvement: defense, defense, defense.

  4. Oregon

2006: 7-6, 4-5 Pac-10

Starters back: 7 offense, 5 defense

Fifty-six-year-old coach Robert Michael Bellotti (97-48), the dean of Pac-10 coaches, better known as Mike, is in his thirteenth year at Oregon and has made ten bowl appearances out of the last twelve years. In 2001, the Ducks, 11-1 on the season, were ranked second in the country. As a prominent figure in the Border War, he’s gone 7-4 against Washington and, at times, has raised the ire of Washington fans.  

Strengths: New offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, formerly of I-AA New Hampshire, would like to augment the spread with a two-back offense that features Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson. Johnson and Stewart were among the top-ten leading rushers in the conference last season.  Otherwise, the spotlight will be on senior QB Dennis Dixon, who finished sixth in the conference in passing average per game and fourth in total offense. Dixon is backed up by the capable Brady Leaf, who rushed twice for four yards and was 7 of 11 for 70 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. “Brady Leaf did what he does best, which is to be cool and composed under pressure,” said Bellotti.

The Ducks led the conference in total offense last season and finished third in total defense.

Questions: The defense, which is solid in the secondary, needs to replace five of seven starters up front.

Stats for improvement: Oregon needs to improve on its red zone offense (seventh in the conference) and its red zone defense (sixth in the conference). Its turnover margin was next to last, as were its rushing-defense and scoring-defense numbers.

Biggest area for improvement: Rushing defense.

4.   5. OREGON STATE

2006: 10-4, 6-3 Pac-10

OSU returns 7 offensive and 8 defensive players along with 2 specialists.

Head coach Mike Riley, 53, has agreed to a six-year contract, carrying through the 2012 season, with a rollover for every season the Beavers make a bowl game.

This season, if Riley gets the one-year extension on his contract by becoming bowl eligible against Washington in his penultimate game of the season, you might say, in a way, that his contract is "Ty-ed" to Ty Willingham's performance.

Going into the Washington game with a 2-3 record last season, the Beavers finished out the season 7-1 after beating the Huskies 27-17. In their last two games of 2006, they beat Hawaii in Honolulu and squeaked by Missouri in the Sun Bowl.

Strengths: The truculence, meanness and push of the offensive line, with only one starter, LT Adam Koets, missing from last year. The number two rusher in the Pac-10 last year, Yvenson Bernard (100.5 yards per game) will close out his career this fall. All three starters are back at receiver, including Sammie Stroughter who led the conference in pass receptions per game in 2006.

Questions: Can the Beavers fill voids at tight end, strong safety, and left tackle, while replacing two faces on the defensive line? Who will be the starting quarterback, sophomores Sean Canfield or Lyle Moevao? In the spring game, Canfield completed 17 of 30 passes for 224 yards and one touchdown with one interception, while Moevao was 13-for-28 for 168 yards and one touchdown.

Stats for improvement: rushing offense (eighth), this in the face of Bernard’s rushing stats.  

5.   6. ARIZONA

2006: 6-6, 4-5 Pac-10

RETURNING STARTERS: 7 offense, 10 defense, 2 specialists

After two consecutive 3-8 seasons, head coach Mike Stoops (12-22, 2004-present) went 6-6 last season, and seemingly is poised for one more breakout season thanks to 10 starters who return on defense. Last season, Arizona posted rankings of third and fourth in scoring defense and total defense, respectively.

New offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, is considered a master of the spread formation. The Wildcats averaged just 16.6 points and 253 total yards per game in 2006 and finished 115th in the nation in total offense. Texas Tech, in comparison, ranked third nationally in passing (363 yards), seventh in total offense (439.5) and 16th in scoring (31.5).

Yet, all in all, the defense should be the hallmark of the Wildcats’ 2007 season. Right? Whoops, the UA offense ran 93 plays for 551 yards in the spring game and rushed 23 times for 129 yards. The expected starting quarterback Willie Tuitama was 24 of 39 passing for 292 yards, 2 interceptions and 2 touchdowns. In conference play last season, Tuitama’s pass efficiency number, 114.3, was good for seventh in the conference; he eclipsed that number in the spring game with a 131.10 performance.

Stoops calls cornerback Antoine Cason the nation's best cover corner.

Stats for improvement: In 2006, the ‘Cats finished in the bottom half of the conference in 14 of 24 categories.

Biggest area for improvement: offense. Enter the Dykes’ era at UA.

7. 7. ARIZONA STATE

2006: 7-6, 4-5 Pac-10

RETURNING STARTERS: 10 offense, 6 defense, punter

Coach Dennis Erickson (148-65-1) replaces Dirk Koetter (40-34, ASU), who, after six seasons at the helm was given his walking papers by athletic director Lisa Love. Born in the Cradle of the Coaches (Snohomish County), Erickson has coached at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami and Oregon State.

With ten returning starters on offense, the Sun Devils should acquit themselves nicely on most offensive snaps, but they are leaning heavily on three junior college transfers (DE Luis Vasquez, DE Eric Tanner and MLB Morris Wooten) to bolster the defense. Former Washington wide receiver coach Eric Yarber, lured to ASU by Erickson, managed to lure RB Jarrell Woods, who is out of West Los Angeles College, Erickson’s way.  TB Ryan Torain, third in the conference in rushing, returns for his senior season. Behind a veteran offensive line, Torain is expected to eclipse his 2006 mark of 1,229 yards -- sans injury of course. 

Fourth in conference in passing efficiency, Rudy Carpenter (133.7) returns for his senior season. The potency of the running game and the introduction of the shotgun should give Carpenter time to find an array of improved receivers, namely SL Rudy Burgess, FL Chris McGaha, and SE Mike Jones, Jr. Also, sophomores Kyle Williams and Brandon Smith will buttress the corps of wide receivers.

Stats for improvement: scoring defense (seventh), pass offense (seventh), turnover margin (seventh), pass defense efficiency (ninth), penalties (tenth), red zone offense (eighth), red zone defense (eighth) and sacks against (ninth). 

Most important area for improvement: Defense

6.   8. WASHINGTON

2006: 5-7, 3-6 Pac-10

The Huskies return 6 on offense and 7 on defense

This, the third year of a five-year contract at Washington, is the time for Coach Tyrone Willingham (7-16, UW) to burst the bubble of mediocrity that has encapsulated his first two years at the Dub. The Huskies need to go to a bowl in a big way; otherwise, Tyrone, as he is called, will be on the hot seat. One local writer has speculated that assistant coach Jim Mora Jr. of the Seahawks may be on the short list of capable replacements should Willingham falter somewhere along the line. At Palm Springs, I told Willingham that we fans would cut him some slack because of his tough schedule. “Just win,” he replied, in earshot of school president Mark Emmert.

Strengths: Willingham has named redshirt freshman QB Jake Locker as the starting quarterback despite Carl Bonnell’s performance in spring practice and the fact he replaced Isaiah Stanback as starter when he fell to injury last season. Bonnell, a senior with 7 starts, had the better of it in the spring game, completing 8 of 15 passes, for 127 yards and 3 TDs.  Locker, who was clearly under wraps, went 4 of 8, for 37 yards, one TD and 1 interception; he posted a passing efficiency rating of 106.15; Bonnell’s was 190.45. Bonnell’s rating of 145.8 for the 2006 Apple Cup is considered an excellent number.

But Locker (6-foot-3, 220) is a phenomenon in the weight room, is an outstanding leader, is one of the fastest members of the team and will do an imitation of Marques Tuiasosopo on the playing field when asked.  Fans are calling him the Huskies’ savior and have dubbed him "Montlake Jake."

The Huskies are loaded at wide receiver, have speedy linebackers (although they must replace Scott White and Tahj Bomar), and will field a plethora of talent on the defensive line.

Questions: They abound. A couple of notable players need to lose some weight and gain some strength, according to Ted Miller of the Seattle P-I. The offensive line must replace two outstanding guards, Clay Walker and Stanley Daniels. Last season, the five starters on the OL played on almost every snap, the upshot of that being  the Huskies failed to give their backups some OJT, with a couple of minor exceptions. Daniels, who signed a free agent contract with the Rams, rode shotgun for freshman Ben Ossai at the important left tackle position.

The defensive secondary is thin, given the departure of S C. J. Wallace and CB Dashon Goldson.

The punting/kicking game looked iffy during the spring. An injury at quarterback, on the offensive line or at the tailback position could be devastating—especially, at tailback, lest Dawg fans see big TE Johnie Kirton doing an imitation of 'SC's incomparable, popular Sonny Byrd.

Stats for improvement: Last season, the Huskies finished in the bottom half of the conference in 22 of 29 statistical measures. If the Huskies don’t turn those numbers around, they will be hugging the Tree at the bottom of the pack. Because of the irksome questions dogging the Dawgs, the Pac-10 media gaggle won’t show them much love when they meet in August.

Biggest area for improvement: increase the scoring output by at least 7 points per game and decrease the scoring defense by at least 3 points. Sounds easy, but it won’t be.

9.   9. WASHINGTON STATE

2006: 6-6, 4-5 Pac-10

RETURNING STARTERS: 7 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists

Bill Doba (25-19, 2003-present) enters his fifth year as head coach of the Cougars. Last season, Tyrone Willingham of Washington knocked him out of a bowl game with his victory in the Apple Cup. Although he was the 2003 Pac-10 co-coach of the year, some of the media are saying that he’ll be on the hot seat unless he takes the Cougs to a bowl game this season.

The defense was ahead of the offense in the spring game, where it registered five sacks, a pair of interceptions and held the offense under 200 total yards.

The offense appears good to go though. Senior QB Alex Brink’s (PE of 133.1, second in total offense) passing will be augmented by the running of sophomore RB Dwight Tardy (667 yards). He can throw to WR Michael Bumpus (fifth in receptions per game) and WR Brandon Gibson (sixth in yards per game).

Six players on defense need replacing, including three of four spots in the secondary and the top two from last season, defensive end Mkristo Bruce and strong safety Eric Frampton.

Stats for improvement: Scoring offense and scoring defense (both sixth), pass defense and kick returns (both tenth), total defense (ninth), pass defense efficiency (sixth), red zone offense (ninth) and kick coverage (tenth).

Biggest area for improvement: Defense (81st in the nation last season).

10.10. STANFORD

2006: 1-11, 1-8 Pac-10

RETURNING STARTERS: 7 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialists

Jim Harbaugh (29-6, University of San Diego) takes over the head coaching duties in 2007, replacing Walt Harris.

QB Trent Edwards is gone and the offense needs three new linemen. Although eight starters return on defense, three of its best players are gone.

Stanford is looking to the future. Dual threat quarterback Jason Forcier is transferring from Michigan and will enroll at Stanford in the fall. A redshirt sophomore, Forcier says T. C. Ostrander is the guy at quarterback.  He says he learned a lot from Chad Henne at Michigan and he wants to do the same with Ostrander. Forcier won’t be able to play until the 2008 season, due to NCAA transfer rules. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Ostrander (94.3 PE last season) struggled in the spring game and the running back position was thin. Harbaugh, though, was encouraged by the defensive play.

Stats for improvement: Stanford finished in the bottom half of the conference in 24 of 29 statistical categories.

Biggest area for improvement: The whole enchilada.

---------------

Table. Offensive and defensive (national} statistics for 2006. TO=total offense; TD=total defense; RO=rushing offense; RD=rushing defense; PEO=pass efficiency offense; PED=pass efficiency defense; AVG=Average.

Predictor for 2007: Leave the red and purple teams alone, then randomly order the black teams.

Team TO TD RO RD PEO PED AVG
USC 21 20 68 9 30 20 28
UO 9 42 14 78 76 28 41.2
UCB 12 91 33 47 32 50 44.2
ASU 42 51 27 39 47 71 46.2
OSU 45 59 81 29 33 46 48.2
WSU 25 81 67 31 42 58 50.7
UCLA 71 35 63 9 81 49 51.3
UW 74 95 69 66 95 74 78.8
UA 115 49 110 42 107 62 80.8
SU 118 97 115 117 94 60 100.2

 

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