After finishing only .500 in the league in 2002, it appears the Washington Huskies have the most talent of any PAC 10 team returning. However, after the dismissal of head coach Rick Neuheisel this summer, there are of course questions of how the team will respond on the field to the new head man. Eight starters return on each side of the ball from last year's 7-6 team that lost the Sun Bowl to Purdue, meaning that there is returning experience that can help compensate for the loss of a coach. Senior QB Cody Pickett is one of the best in the nation; he threw for almost 4,500 yards and 28 TDs in 2002. WR Reggie Williams, a junior, is one of the top receivers in the country; he caught almost 100 passes for over 1,400 yards in 2002, hauling in 11 TDs. Leading rusher Rich Alexis is also back, though he only ran for about 700 yards in '02. The schedule starts out with a couple of Big Ten games, a road trip to Ohio State and a visit from Indiana. Road trips in the PAC 10 to UCLA and Oregon State won't be easy, nor will visits from Southern Cal, Oregon, and Washington State. There isn't a game on the schedule Washington can't win, though the trip to Ohio State certainly looks very difficult. The PAC 10 will be hard to run through unbeaten, so I say the Huskies drop one decision, most likely at Oregon State or UCLA.
Southern California had a great 2002 season behind the arm of QB Carson Palmer. The Trojans finished the season 11-2 following a thrashing of Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Six starters return on each side of the ball this year. A new QB will have to be found, but he will certainly have two good targets to throw at: sophomore Mike Williams (1,200+ yards and 14 TDs) and senior Keary Colbert (1,000 yards and 5 TDs). USC will also have to find someone to run the ball after the departure of both Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas. The defense returns the top two tacklers and seven of the top eleven from 2002. A road trip to Auburn opens the schedule before BYU and Hawaii, both powers in their respective conferences) visit LA. The conference slate opens with two tough road tests, at California and Arizona State. A trip to Notre Dame falls right before a visit to Seattle to battle the Huskies. The season wraps up favorably with back-to-back home games to end the season: UCLA, Oregon State. I expect the Trojans to go 2-2 out-of-conference and to drop at least two and probably three conference games, most likely to Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon State. USC should grab a decent bowl game this year.
After a disappointing 5-6 season in 2001, the Oregon State Beavers rebounded nicely in 2002 to win eight games and lose just five, including their Insight Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. Nine offensive and six defensive starters return in 2003 for Mike Riley's first year back at Oregon State, his third overall. Junior QB Derek Anderson and junior RB Steven Jackson are the team leaders on offense. Anderson accounted for over 3,300 passing yards in 2003, as well as 27 TDs (2 rushing). Jackson, likely the top RB in the PAC 10, ran for almost 1,700 yards last season on his way to 15 TDs. The team's top WR, James Newson, also returns. The senior caught 74 passes for over 1,200 yards last year en route to 12 TDs. The team's other three leading receivers, as well as Jackson's and Anderson's backups, all return for the 2003 campaign. Three of the top four tacklers from 2002 return, including LB Richard Seigler, a possible all-conference selection. The Beavers must go to Fresno State for the second time in three years, and it will again be a very tough test. The other non-conference games should all be in the win column for OSU. The conference slate begins with a pivotal home game with Arizona State, a game that should have plenty of offensive fireworks. The Beavers play the two Washington teams back-to-back, first hosting UW and then visiting WSU. The schedule wraps up with two tough games on the road: Oregon and Southern Cal. The Beavers should do absolutely no worse than 3-1 in non-conference matchups but probably will win all four. Every game on the PAC 10 schedule is winnable, but I see the Beavers dropping two or three of these, most likely coming from this group: ASU, Washington, at Washington State, at Oregon, at USC.
Arizona State burst back into the bowl picture in 2002 after falling to 4-7 in 2001. The Sun Devils return nine offensive and seven defensive starters from the team that dropped a very close decision to Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl. QB Andrew Walter, a junior, is one of the top QBs in the country after throwing for almost 4,000 yards and 28 TDs in '02. There's a three-headed monster at RB, with senior Mike Williams (482 yards / 7 TDs), Cornell Candidate (493 yards / 7 TDs), and Hakim Hill (318 yards / 6 TDs), not to mention FB Mike Karney, one of the best in America. WR Shaun McDonald, a finalist for the top WR award last year, is gone, but three of the top five pass-catching targets are back. On defense, Terrell Suggs, a monster a DE, is gone, but seven other starters do return to help fill the void. ASU's first tough test comes at Iowa, a BCS team from a year ago, and that is followed about a month later with a trip to North Carolina. In between are games at Oregon State and at home against Southern Cal and Oregon. That five game stretch is followed by a trip to UCLA, making up a six-game run that's got to be one of the toughest in the country. An even .500 would be acceptable in that span, and anything better would be great. The Sun Devils should not lose more than four games the entire season, but I'm going with a 9-3 mark overall.
The UCLA Bruins went 8-5 in 2002 and finished tied for fourth in the PAC 10. Seven starters from each side of the ball return to the team that knocked off New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl last season. QB Cory Paus will have to be replaced, but the team's top three leading rushers all return. Four of the top five WRs are also back for the 2003 campaign. RB Tyler Ebell ran for almost 1,000 yards as a freshman last year while scoring 10 TDs. Craig Bragg led all WRs with almost 900 yards and 8 TD catches. The defensive secondary is led by two all-conference candidates, junior CB Matt Ware and sophomore SS Jarrad Page. The out-of-conference schedule is one of the toughest anywhere, as the season starts off with a trip to Colorado, followed by a visit from Illinois, and then another trip to the Big XII, this time to Oklahoma. The Bruins get to host Washington, California, Arizona State, and Oregon in LA and also have very winnable road games at Arizona and Stanford. UCLA should go 2-2 out-of-conference and be able to at least four games in the league, with five and even six being possible.
Led by the co-Offensive Player of the Year in the PAC 10, QB Jason Gesser, the Washington State Cougars won ten games while only losing three last season, including a 20-point decision to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Although Gesser has moved on, six offensive and seven defensive starters return for the 2003 season. Among those on offense is RB Jermaine Green, a senior who rushed for over 800 yards and 9 TDs last year. Matt Kegel, who threw for 211 yards on 40 passes last season, is likely to start at QB this season. WR Devard Darling will be his top target. Darling caught 54 passes for 800 yards and 11 TDs in 2002. The defensive line should be good this season for WSU. Erik Coleman, the leading tackler last season, returns, but he is only one of two of the top five tacklers returning from 2002. Non-conference road games at Colorado and Notre Dame will be extremely tough, as will the PAC 10 opener at Oregon. The Cougars must also take conference trips to Southern Cal and Washington. I expect WSU to split the non-conference matchups and be right around the .500 mark in the PAC 10, possibly one game above.
The Oregon Ducks started off the season well in 2002 by winning their first six games before winning only one of their final seven games and finishing the season with a blowout bowl loss to Wake Forest and finishing the season 7-6. Eight offensive and six defensive starters return from last year's team for the 2003 campaign. RB Onterrio Smith has bolted to the NFL. Both QBs, sophomore Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife are back. Fife threw for 24 TDs last year, while Clemens threw just 2. WR Samie Parker actually had a better year than Keenan Howry in 2002, with 724 receiving yards and 8 TDs. On defense, three of the top four and six of the top eight tacklers return. The DL combo of Olshansky and Ngata will be hard to penetrate but must be backed up with better secondary play than the Ducks showed last season. A road trip to Mississippi State will be interesting and pivotal to both teams to start the season. Michigan visits Eugene in non-conference play before a trip to Utah rolls around in early October. The Ducks must go to Arizona State, Washington, and UCLA, all of which will be tough contests. Washington State and Oregon State both travel to UO, but again, those won't be easy. I see the Ducks splitting their four non-conference games picking up about four or five wins in PAC 10 play, finishing right around .500 overall.
The California Golden Bears had a superb 7-5 season in 2002 in what was Jeff Tedford's first year in Berkeley. Only six offensive and two defensive starters return this year, however. Leading rusher Joe Igber is gone, as is QB Kyle Boler who threw for 28 TDs last year. Two of the top three WRs from '02 do return, though. On defense, each of the top four tacklers are gone. The Bears travel to Kansas State to open the season before hosting Southern Miss and Colorado State. Trips to Utah and Illinois follow, giving Cal one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation. I wouldn't expect the Bears to win more than two of those games. Cal then gets their first two PAC 10 games at home, hosting USC and Oregon State. Three of the last four games of the season are on the road, however, with trips to Arizona State, Oregon, and Stanford set around a visit from Washington the next-to-last week of the season. More than three wins in the PAC 10 will be tough for Tedford and the Bears this season; a .500 overall record would be very, very impressive with this unfriendly schedule.
After finishing tied for ninth in the PAC 10 last season, Stanford and Arizona appear to be fighting for not being last again this season. The Wildcats went 4-8 last year and return seven offensive and six defensive starters to this year's team. The top three leading rushers, including senior Clarence Farmer, all return, but QB Jason Johnson has moved on. Three of the top five tacklers on defense are back for the 2003 campaign for head coach John Mackovic. The schedule features tough out-of-conference games against LSU and TCU in Tucson, as well as a trip to Purdue. I don't see the 'Cats approaching .500 overall or in the conference this season. The Cardinal must replace eight starters on offense and three on defense after last year's 2-9 season. Both QBs from last year, Chris Lewis and Kyle Matter, return for 2003, but leading WR Teyo Johnson has departed. Ten of the top eleven tacklers are back this season as well. The non-conference slate sends the Cardinal to BYU while also bringing in Notre Dame to end the season. With only eleven games, Stanford would need a .500-plus record to be bowl eligible, which won't happen this season. Another season like last year's can be expected.