Southern Cal has dominated the conference in recent seasons, winning 5 consecutive championships and compiling a Pac-10 record of 37-4 during that timeframe. The Trojans have set the bar high and raised expectations across the entire league as teams focus on trying to keep pace with the USC juggernaut. There was a glimpse of hope for other programs last season as USC lost 2 games in the conference for the 1st time in the past 5 seasons, falling to Oregon State, ending a 27-game conference win streak, and then to UCLA in the season finale. The conference sent 6 teams into the postseason in 2006 and has the potential to exceed that total this season.
Heading into 2007, the Trojans once again look to be the dominant force in the Pac-10 as the remaining 9 teams take aim at the Men of Troy’s conference supremacy. Leading the charge at USC is a UCLA program that looks to have been rebuilt into a national powerhouse and will unleash its best team under the direction of Karl Dorrell. The next group of teams is the tightly packed bunch made up of Oregon, California, Arizona State, and Oregon State, with all four expected to earn postseason berths. Both Washington and Arizona are on the upswing but still need to improve in a few key areas before joining the conference elite, though both are capable of making a run at a bowl bid. Washington State and Stanford look to be in rebuilding mode, focusing on developing talent for the future. Time to analyze the Pac-10 in detail in what shapes up to be a great season in the conference.
1. Key #1 is to find out if UCLA really is ready to challenge city rival USC for the conference title. The Bruins return 20 starters from the group that defeated USC in the season finale, but then fell asleep in the bowl game, falling 44-27 to Florida State. The Bruins will try their 4th offensive coordinator in 5 seasons in order to jump start an offense that ranked 71st in the nation last year.
2. Key #2 is in a league with experienced and talented QB’s littered throughout, which one out of the tightly bunched group is ready to step up and lead his team into the thick of the chase behind USC. UCLA returns 2 starting QB’s in Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan, as does Oregon with Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf. Arizona State features Rudy Carpenter, and Cal has Nate Longshore. The only league challenger needing to find a new QB is Oregon State, who replaces Matt Moore with Sean Canfield.
3. Key #3 is how will the unbalanced league schedule of 9 games will impact the conference race. USC, Arizona State, and Oregon get to host 5 Pac-10 contests, while UCLA, California, and Oregon State must take to the road in 5 conference games. In a league where the 2nd grouping of teams is this tight, that extra home game could make the difference of a few spots in the final conference standings.
OFFENSE: The Wildcats struggled to generate any type of consistent offense last season, finishing 9th in the Pac-10 and 115th in the nation at 252.8 yards per game. Big changes are in store for this group in 2007 as a new spread offense will be installed in the hopes of better utilizing the strengths of the units' 8 returning starters. Quarterback Willie Tuitama is back for his 3rd season behind center, and he struggled last season without time to throw the ball and with no threat of a running game. The entire offensive line returns as well, led by star Eben Britton, and major improvement will be needed from the front wall if Arizona is going to entertain any post-season hopes.
DEFENSE: The Wildcat defensive unit is one of the league’s best, ranking 4th in the conference in total defense and leading the league in turnover margin last season. The best player in the group is cornerback Antoine Cason who basically shuts down an entire side of the field with his blanket coverage. The other leader of this unit is linebacker Spencer Larsen, the team's leading tackler last season, and he will direct an experienced and quick group that will pose major problems for UA opponents. Defensive end Louis Holmes will be relied on to improve a pass rush that did not meet expectations last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The loss of kicker and punter Nick Folk makes this an area of concern this season. Jason Bondzio is the likely candidate to assume the place kicking duties, although he will receive a challenge from incoming freshman Alex Zendejas. Redshirt freshman Keenyn Crier will take over the punting responsibility after averaging 46.0 yards per kick in high school. Both of the return games remain wide open, with the leading candidates currently being either receiver Mike Thomas or defensive backs Devin Ross and Mike Turner. Inexperience is all over this group as numerous new faces will need to play key roles for this unit to maintain last year’s production.
COACHING: Mike Stoops is entering a critical time in Tucson, looking to lead the school to its 1st post-season berth since 1998, in his 4th year at the helm of the UA program. Stoops has set his sights on improving the sluggish Wildcat offense, bringing in new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes to install the spread offense. Dykes arrives in the desert after 2 years as co-offensive coordinator of the extremely successful Texas Tech offense.
SCHEDULE: The schedule presents major challenges for this program, with the road slate as tough as they come. Arizona opens on the road at BYU, and then travels to California, Oregon State, USC, Washington, and rival Arizona State in league play. A key schedule date occurs in week #3 when Arizona plays host to Mountain West challenger New Mexico.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Arizona is enjoying their 1st bowl trip since a 1998 Holiday bowl berth. The new offense fully utilizes the skills of quarterback Willie Tuitama and prevents him from taking the same level of punishment that he suffered last season, as he missed 3 starts and significant time in 5 games in total. The defense has potential stars in all 3 areas and carries the load as the offense gets its feet wet learning a new system.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The tough road schedule takes its toll on Arizona, with the Cats falling in all 6 contests, resulting in yet another season without a bowl bid. The offense does not pick up the new scheme as anticipated, and all responsibility falls on the defense's shoulders yet again this season. Tuitama continues to battle injuries as the offensive line struggles to keep defenders out of the backfield.
MAKE OR BREAK: The opener is a critical game for Arizona’s post-season hopes as the Cats pay a visit to BYU. A win in that one could launch UA to a 3-0 start before their Pac-10 opener at California. The offensive line has to make huge improvement to allow Tuitama time to find his talented receiver in Mike Thomas and to provide daylight for running back Chris Jennings. The key building blocks of the line are tackles Eben Britton and Peter Graniello, their leadership and development can be the difference to breaking the programs 8 year bowl drought.
OFFENSE: The potential and talent is here to make this one of the best offenses in the country as 10 starters return from last season’s group. Running back Ryan Torain will again be relied upon to power the Sun Devil running game, while Keegan Herring will provide additional spark to what looks to be the Pac-10’s best ground game. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter will take over a new quick three-step passing attack with the addition of the shotgun as he heads into his 3rd season as the ASU starter. The good news for Carpenter and Torain is the return of the entire offensive line that is loaded with seniors and a wealth of experience, and they should show major improvement.
DEFENSE: The new staff will install a 4-3 defense in the hopes of improving on last year’s scoring defense, which yielded 25.1 points per game and ranked 76th in the nation. The line must become more stout, and does have nice building blocks to work around in tackle Michael Marquardt and end Dexter Davis. The linebacking corps welcomes junior college transfer Morris Wooten to bolster a group that returns 4 of its top 6 players from last season. An area of concern remains a secondary that allowed more touchdown passes last season than any other Pac-10 team, with Josh Barrett the strength of the back four.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The key in this unit is to find a replacement for kicker Jesse Ainsworth, the starter for the past 4 seasons. The leading candidate looks be redshirt freshman Thomas Weber, who does have a strong leg and provided the staff with confidence with a strong spring practice. Punter Jonathan Johnson led a huge turnaround in the net average last season, making a huge improvement from 30.3 to 37.2 yards per kick. The loss of Terry Richardson leaves a gaping hole in the return game, but Justin Tryon is capable of providing the kick return group with a spark after averaging 41.2 yards on 5 returns last season, while Kyle Williams takes over the punt return responsibility.
COACHING: Beginning his 3rd stint as a Pac-10 coach is Dennis Erickson, who had previous stints at Washington State and Oregon State. He brings a strong resume to Tempe, with two national championships, two Pac-10 coach of the year honors in 1988 and 2000, and a career record of 148-65-1. Installing the new quick passing game will be offensive coordinator Rich Olson, who spent last season at Miami, while Craig Bray takes over as defensive coordinator, joining ASU after being a member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers staff last season.
SCHEDULE: The schedule looks to set up nicely for a good run for the Devils in 2007. The first 4 games are at home, including an interesting matchup with rebuilding Colorado on September 8th. The Pac-10 opener is at home versus Oregon State, and the Devils get a nice break in also hosting USC and California. A key two-game road trip is in the first 2 weeks of November when ASU travels to Oregon and UCLA.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....ASU parlays its 4 straight at home to open the season on a major roll and heads into their brutal November stretch at 8-0. Carpenter adapts quickly to the new offense and with a great set of running backs at his disposal, this unit turns into one of the best groups in the country. The defense improves just enough to allow the Devils to simply outscore their opposition.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Devils stub their toe against Colorado and fall in a key game versus Oregon State, failing to take advantage of their great early schedule. The Pac-10 looks tough this season, and if the defense does not show major improvement, a 6th or 7th place finish in the league is possible.
MAKE OR BREAK: The September 22nd game versus Oregon State has huge conference implications as ASU looks to be battling the Beavers for a place in the league’s upper tier. The entire defensive secondary will play a key role in deciding the fate of this season, and the return of Chris Baloney from injury is needed to stabilize the field opposite Justin Tryon. An improvement from 9th place in the Pac-10 pass efficiency defensive rating is critical to this team’s success.
OFFENSE: The Bears return 8 starters to a group that cranked out 32.8 points per game last year, ranking 1st in the Pac-10. The driver of this strong unit is quarterback Nate Longshore, and he has one of the most exciting talents in the nation at his disposal in wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who is capable of going the distance any time he touches the football. Taking over for star running back Marshawn Lynch will be Justin Forsett, who has averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his Bear career and is a potential star.
DEFENSE: There are questions that need to be answered after 6 starters depart from last year’s group. The strength of this unit will be a linebacking corps directed by Zack Follett, who will be moved inside to take over as a run stuffing force. The line loses 3 starters and needs to be rebuilt around tackle Matt Malele. The inexperience on the line raises concerns on how the Bears will stack up against the league’s top rushing games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: When discussing the Bears' special teams, the conversation must begin with DeSean Jackson, who averaged 18.2 yards per return and scored 4 touchdowns, as he was named 1st team All-American in the return game. Both kickers are back as Tom Schneider will be the place kicker after a 15 for 20 season, and Andrew Larson will handle the punting after averaging 42.6 yards per kick. The kick return unit is open, with Justin Forsett possibly stepping in yet again for Lynch.
COACHING: Jeff Tedford begins his 6th year in charge of Cal, and he has built this program into a national power in that short time span, winning 43 out of 63 games. Tedford has also taken Cal to 4 consecutive bowl games, the 1st time ever in the history of Bear football, and has twice been named Pac-10 coach of the year in 2002 and 2004. One change in the staff is the promotion of Jim Michalczik to offensive coordinator, but Tedford remains in control of the offense and calls the plays.
SCHEDULE: Nothing like jumping into the fire right out of the gate as the Bears have revenge on their mind when Tennessee heads to Berkeley on September 1st. Cal does host USC this season, and its toughest stretch looks to be a 4 game group that sees the Bears travel to Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona State, with a home date versus Oregon State mixed in on October 13th.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Bears finally break through and earn the school's 1st ever BCS bowl berth in a 10 win season. Forsett takes over for Lynch and the running game does not miss a beat, while Longshore and Jackson play pitch and catch as one of the nation’s best duos. The young defense is loaded with talent and follows the veterans' lead as the Bear stop troops develop into a solid unit.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Cal falls for a 2nd straight season in the opener to Tennessee and high expectations are quickly deflated. The Bears struggle with a tough road schedule and end their season in the middle of the Pac-10 race. The defensive line is unable to step up and Cal yields too much yardage on the ground, providing opposing QB’s with plenty of time to pick apart the Bear secondary.
MAKE OR BREAK: Worthy of mention again is the opener with Tennessee simply because the Cal faithful and team are so focused on gaining revenge after the Vols squashed Cal’s title hopes in week #1 last year. In conference play the 2nd game at Oregon looks huge, as the home team has won the past 4 games in the series. Justin Forsett will be relied upon to lead the ground game, and the job looks to be his alone in his final season on the Berkeley campus.
OFFENSE: The Ducks utilize a spread offense that struggled last season as both quarterbacks (Dixon and Leaf) were mistake prone, combining for 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions on the season. Even with the mistakes, Oregon led the Pac-10 in total offense at 423.3 yards per game and 29.5 points per contest. To take some of the pressure of the QB’s, Oregon will focus on getting more carries for star running back Jonathan Stewart and his back-up Jeremiah Johnson, who combined for 20 touchdowns last season. The line returns 3 of 5 starters, highlighted by Max Unger, and should provide ample room for the running back combo to shine yet again.
DEFENSE: Nice experience returns for the Ducks as 7 starters are back to build on last season’s group that finished 3rd in the conference in yards allowed but 9th in points allowed as offensive mistakes impacted this group's results. The strength of this unit is a secondary that returns 4 players with starting experience, including Pac-10 honors candidate Patrick Chung at the rover position. A concern is the run defense, an area where Oregon struggled last season, as the defensive line must become tougher for this group to improve on last year's results.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game has questions that need to be answered with Matt Evensen assuming the place kicking responsibilities after only connecting on 5 of his 12 career attempts. The punting belongs to Josh Syria, who transferred to Eugene from Wofford College and has demonstrated a strong leg in practice. The return games are major team strengths with Patrick Chung handling punts and Jonathan Stewart being one of the nation’s best kick returnees at 28.1 per attempt.
COACHING: Mike Belotti is the veteran of the Pac-10 coaching group, entering his 13th year in charge of the Quack Attack, compiling a 97-48 record in that timeframe and leading his team to 10 bowl appearances. An interesting addition to the staff is offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who arrives in Eugene from New Hampshire, where he directed one of the most potent offenses in Division 1-AA in his 7 seasons there.
SCHEDULE: The Ducks always compile a top-notch schedule, and highlighting this year’s out of conference slate is a visit from Michigan on September 8th. Surrounding that game are two interesting home contests versus Houston and Fresno State. Oregon does have 5 Pac-10 home games with USC paying a visit on October 27th and arch-rival Oregon State heading to Autzen Stadium on December 1st. Oregon only has to take to the road on consecutive weeks on one occasion this season, with mid-November visits to Arizona and UCLA.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Oregon takes advantage of their 5 conference home games and rebounds in a big way, winning 9 games and playing a significant role in the Pac-10 title chase. The running combination of Stewart and Johnson is lethal, new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly improves the passing game's efficiency, and the offense again leads the conference in total yardage. The 5 man secondary plays shut down coverage and challenges USC’s unit for the best group in the Pac-10.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Ducks continue to make critical mistakes on offense and repeat last year's dismal -10 turnover margin, resulting in the team finishing at .500, well below the talent level of this group. The star power at running back is not fully utilized again as Stewart is too good of a talent to not get the ball at least 20 carries per game.
MAKE OR BREAK: A visit from California in the Ducks' 2nd conference game will play a huge role in how the Pac-10 race will shake out. Cal and Oregon are in the mix of teams chasing after USC, and Autzen Stadium provides a nice lift to the Ducks' fortunes in this game. The QB play of Dixon and Leaf must improve; reducing the number of interceptions by half would be a nice start.
OFFENSE: There is one major question in regards to this group that returns 8 starters, and that question is at quarterback. Expected to get the call is Sean Canfield, a kid with great size and a good arm, and who almost received the call last season when Matt Moore struggled early. Canfield will have at his disposal a great set of skill players in running back Yvenson Bernard (Pac-10 1st team) and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (Pac-10 2nd team), in addition to one of the best lines in the league.
DEFENSE: The Beaver defense remains centered around one of the best linebacking corps in the Pac-10. The backers are asked to do a little of everything in the defensive game plan, and led by Derrick Doggett, they do all of those things well. Three starters return to a secondary that ranked 7th in the conference in 2006 and will need to build on the experience of last season to tighten up their coverage. Overall, the potential is here to make this one of the league’s best units.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The 1st name to mention here is kicker Alexis Serna, who made 22 out of 29 kicks last season, including a long of 58 yards. For his tremendous season, Serna was named a 2nd team All-American and is one of the best in the nation at his position. Kyle Loomis returns to handle the punting duties after a strong freshman season in which he averaged 41.3 yards per kick. Sammie Stroughter is one of the nations top punt returners, averaging 15.7 yards last season and returning 3 punts for touchdowns, while Coye Francies is a solid kick returner, as is Gerard Lawson.
COACHING: Mike Riley is in his 2nd tenure as head coach at Oregon State and has continued to build upon the framework that he laid in his 1st stint which began in 1997. Originally, Riley inherited a group of players that were recruited to play the wishbone, and he quickly changed the offense and has made the team a tough out in Pac-10 play, compiling a 38-34 overall record. He remains heavily involved in the offensive game plan as he handles the play calling, even though there is an offensive coordinator on the staff in Danny Langsdorf.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is manageable, beginning with a home date versus Utah, then a visit to Cincinnati, before returning home to face 1-AA Idaho State. The Pac-10 road schedule presents a major challenge as the Beavers head to USC, California, Oregon, Arizona State, and Washington State.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Oregon State sweeps their 3 non-conference games and makes their way through the tough road schedule with the potential to win 8 or 9 games. Quarterback Canfield meets the huge expectations that have been placed on his shoulders, and combined with Bernard and Stroughter, the Beaver offense develops into a team strength. A defense filled with playmakers comes together, and the Beavers unleash one of the conferences toughest groups.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Beavers have a challenge right out of the gate with a visit from Utah followed by a cross-country trip to Cincinnati. If Canfield is not yet ready for prime time, these two games can be dangerous, and this season can quickly fall apart with an 0-2 start and end without a postseason berth.
MAKE OR BREAK: The conference opener at ASU is huge for a tightly matched group looking to finish in the upper tier of the Pac-10 standings. Running back Yvenson Bernard will be relied on even more this season in an effort to take the pressure off of Sean Canfield, and that is really saying something because Bernard carried the ball 296 times last season in addition to catching 43 passes. If Bernard is slowed for any reason, the OSU offense could grind to a halt.
OFFENSE: Another college football season, another Heisman candidate at QB for USC. This year it is John David Booty, who combines a strong arm and poise in the pocket to direct one of the nation’s top offensive units. The next great SC wide receiver looks to be Patrick Turner, who becomes the main man this season after the star combination of Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett have taken their game to the NFL. The talent at running back is scary, and it is just a matter of figuring out who will be the feature back of the group, with Chauncey Washington the expected starter after leading the Trojans in rushing last season.
DEFENSE: This is the best collection of defensive talent for any team in the nation, and this group has the potential to be absolutely dominant. Leading the way is the nation’s best linebacking corps featuring All-American candidates in Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing. Not too far behind is a defensive line also deep with talent, with the top players being Lawrence Jackson, who was a 3rd team All-American last season, and Sedrick Ellis, who is an immoveable object at nose tackle. The secondary returns all 4 starters, plus welcomes back 2005 starter Josh Pinkard, an embarrassment of riches all around.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The unfortunate off-season death of kicker Mario Danelo opens the position for David Buehler, who has 1 field goal in his USC career. Punter Greg Woidneck is back and he struggled last season, finishing 9th in the conference with a 38.3 average. The return units are more stable with C.J. Gable handling the kickoffs quite well and Desmond Reed taking care of the punt returns. Reed only averaged 5.4 yards per return last season, so additional production will be expected in 2007. Overall, this group has by far the most questions to be answered in the fall semester.
COACHING: Head coach Peter Carroll has built this USC program into a recruiting machine, which has translated into a 65-12 career mark and 2 national championships after 6 seasons. Under Carroll’s direction, SC has won 5 consecutive Pac-10 titles and finished in the top 4 of the Associated Press final national rankings for 4 straight seasons. A couple of changes to the staff this year will see Steve Sarkisian promoted to offensive coordinator replacing Lane Kiffin, and John Morton comes on board as receivers coach and passing game coordinator.
SCHEDULE: One thing is for sure, USC welcomes any challenge and always puts together one of the nation’s best schedules. After an opening lay-up versus Idaho, USC will travel to Nebraska to face the Huskers in a great inter-sectional battle. As always, USC will play Notre Dame, this year at South Bend, looking for their 6th straight win in the series. The toughest stretch of the conference season looks to be the final 3 games as SC visits California, Arizona State, and then ends at home versus rival UCLA.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....USC will be spending January 7th in the Louisiana Superdome playing in the BCS national championship game. This team has the best collection of talent in the nation, and if everyone plays to their potential, this could be the best USC team of their recent run. The defense is the best in the country and the offense is not far behind.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Trojans get tripped up in a couple of their road challenges, with 10-2 being a worst case scenario; anything less than 10 wins would be disastrous. The kicking game continues to struggle, and if a game comes down to a late field goal attempt, the Trojans will be relying on a kicker with little experience.
MAKE OR BREAK: There looks to be a great chance that the December 1st game with UCLA could have major national championship implications for both teams. USC will be looking for revenge after the Bruins knocked SC out of the national title chase last season with their 13-9 upset win, while UCLA has their best collection of talent in recent memory. Kicker David Buehler will carry a huge load on his back having to replace Danelo, and he appears to be the one major unknown heading into the 2007 season.
OFFENSE: There is nowhere to go but up for this group after averaging 10.6 points per game last year and ranking 118th in the nation in scoring and total offense. In the hopes of sparking additional production in 2007, the Cardinal will switch to the West Coast offense that will take this unit into more of an up-tempo mode. Stanford does return their top 10 pass catchers from last season, and they will again work with quarterback T.C. Ostrander, who played in 6 games last year. The top 3 running backs also return and should provide more of a spark to a running that game that only was able to generate 65 yards per game last season.
DEFENSE: The Cardinal welcome back 8 starters to this group, which struggled almost as much as the offense last season, finishing 97th in the nation in total defense. There is experience to build on up front as 7 players return with starting experience in the front wall. Stanford will look for major improvement out of a defensive line that was run over last season as they will switch to a 4 man front and rely heavily on returning starters Udeme and Ekom Udofia to disrupt opposing offenses. The strength of this group is the corners with 3 players back that have starting experience.
SPECIAL TEAMS: All 4 key players in this unit return to build upon their 2006 campaigns. Kicker Aaron Zagory struggled last season, connecting on 8 of 13 kicks while missing 2 of 15 extra points. Punter Jay Ottovegio was solid last season as the Cardinal finished 5th in the Pac-10 in net punting. The return game will look for major improvement out of Chris Hobbs in the punt return game (5.6 yards per return) and Jason Evans in returning kicks (21.8 yards per return).
COACHING: There is a new face on the Cardinal sideline as Jim Harbaugh comes to “The Farm” after spending the past 3 seasons as the head coach at 1-AA San Diego, where his teams compiled an impressive 29-6 record. Harbaugh’s 1st order of business is installing the West Coast offense with a group that struggled in every aspect of the game last season. Key hires joining Harbaugh are his offensive coordinator David Shaw, following Jim from San Diego, and defensive coordinator Scott Schafer, who spent the past two seasons in charge of the defense at Western Michigan.
SCHEDULE: The Cardinal have assembled a tough schedule for a team just looking to get a couple of wins as they rebuild. The out of conference slate features 3 teams that played in bowls last season in San Jose State, Texas Christian, and Notre Dame for an 11th consecutive year. The opening week begins conference play when UCLA visits Palo Alto and ends in its usual fashion as Stanford hosts California, looking to end a 5 game losing streak to the Bears.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Cardinal win 3 games and show major improvement from the 1st week to the end of the season as they become familiar with Harbaugh’s new system. T.C. Ostrander makes a huge leap in development under the new staff and he does have an experienced receiving corps to work with to dramatically improve on last year’s offense.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....With a schedule this tough, a winless season is the worst case scenario for Stanford. The current lack of players that are a good fit for Harbaugh’s offense result in the offense matching last season’s lack of production, and an improved defense is not able to overcome the stumbling offense.
MAKE OR BREAK: A key game for the Cardinal is on September 15th when San Jose State visits Stanford. The game is after a week off and is the most winnable non-conference game on the schedule, with SJSU winning 35-34 last season in a wild affair. The Cardinal need a win in this one for a confidence boost heading into a tough conference stretch with games against Oregon, Arizona State, and USC. T.C. Ostrander is critical for this team and will need major improvement after completing only 45.6% of his passes and tossing 3 touchdowns compared to 5 interceptions.
OFFENSE: The focus for the Bruins in 2007 will be improving an offense that ranked 7th in the Pac-10 and needs to develop a more consistent passing attack. This year’s group returns 10 starters, including two quarterbacks with starting experience in Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan, who combined for 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. The star of this group is running back Chris Markey, who rumbled for 4.9 yards per carry last season and developed into a receiving weapon, catching 35 passes. Markey will run behind an offensive line that returns 4 starters and should be able to post even bigger numbers in 2007.
DEFENSE: The defensive unit is loaded with talent and returns 10 starters to one of the conference's best units. The star of this group is defensive end Bruce Davis, who registered 12.5 sacks last season, tying for the conference lead in that category. Davis teams up with Brigham Harwell as leaders of a stout defensive front line. The linebackers look just as strong, as the unit returns all 3 starters and is very deep with another 2 players returning with starting experience. Strong safety Chris Horton is the conference's best at that position and he is a tackling machine and disruptive force in a strong secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The key for this group is to find a replacement for All-American kicker Justin Medlock, with the likely starter being Kai Forbath, a redshirt freshman who will be making his Bruin debut. Aaron Perez returns and will handle the punting duties after ranking 4th in the conference last season with a 42.6 average. The return game is all set with Terrance Austin and Ryan Graves back to handle punt returns while Derrick Williams and Jeremy McGee provide a strong duo to return kicks.
COACHING: Karl Dorrell heads into his 5th season in Los Angeles and he has assembled the top group of talent in his tenure. Karl has compiled a 29-21 record overall and was named the 2005 Pac-10 coach of the year, a season that saw UCLA win 10 games. There has been major turnover in the staff with 3 new assistants coming on board, the biggest name being Jay Norvell, who assumes the role of offensive coordinator after a 3 year stint directing the offense at Nebraska.
SCHEDULE: The Bruins have also put together a challenging out of conference schedule, highlighted by a visit from Notre Dame on October 6th, with Mountain West foes BYU and Utah completing the schedule. Key dates in Pac-10 play are December 1st as UCLA travels cross town to battle USC, November 24th when Oregon heads to LA, November 10th as ASU visits, and October 20th when the Bruins host California.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Bruins enter the final week of the season unbeaten heading into their game versus USC with a berth in the national championship game on the line. The healthy return of Ben Olson sparks a solid offense into becoming a great offense, and the experienced offensive line allows for running back Chris Markey to have a huge season. The defense is one of the best units in the country led by an overpowering defensive line.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The offense does not improve as expected and a potential great season quickly turns into a disappointment with the Bruins winning 7 or 8 games and heading to another mid-tier bowl appearance. A repeat of last year’s 16 touchdown and 14 interception ratio from the quarterback position constantly puts the Bruin defense in bad field position, robbing the unit of its great potential.
MAKE OR BREAK: The finale at USC looks to have potentially huge implications, not only within the conference but on the national scene. UCLA broke a 7 game losing streak last season as they shutdown the high-powered Trojan offense. Worthy of mention again is quarterback Ben Olson, who has great potential and was off to a good start last season before injury ended his season prematurely in their game with Arizona. He holds the key to what has the potential to be a strong offense.
OFFENSE: The Huskies offense will be focused around a couple of major young talents that this program can build around for the next few seasons in quarterback Jake Locker and running back J.R. Hasty. Locker redshirted last season and won the job in the spring with his great combination of arm strength and his scrambling ability. Hasty has not played in two seasons after sitting last year due to academics. He was a huge recruit out of high school and can provide the running game with a much needed shot in the arm. Good news for Hasty and Locker is the return of 3 starters on the offensive line that is much more experienced and capable this season.
DEFENSE: Injuries decimated this group last season as the Huskies ranked 95th in the nation and 9th in the Pac-10 last season. The defensive line returns 4 starters with experience, led by all-star candidate Greyson Gunheim at defensive end, who is a disruptive force on the front line. A concern is a secondary that loses a great deal of experience and could be vulnerable to the top passing attacks that make their home in the Pac-10. This group should show improvement but still needs to plug some major holes before becoming one of the conferences better units.
SPECIAL TEAMS: There is no experience at kicker on the Husky roster with Ryan Perkins and freshman Erik Folk battling for the starting assignment. Junior college transfer Jared Ballman heads to Seattle after averaging 40.8 yards per punt last season and looks to claim the punting assignment. Anthony Russo is likely to take over punt return responsibilities, while Roy Lewis is back to handle kick returns, needing to improve on his 18.8 yard average.
COACHING: Tyrone Willingham enters his 3rd year of his UW resurrection project and he clearly has this program on the rebound as he took the Huskies to 5 wins last season after only earning 2 wins in his inaugural season in Seattle. Willingham has 30 years of coaching experience and he has raised the expectation bar with the Husky faithful, a group that became accustomed to challenging for Pac-10 championships.
SCHEDULE: The Huskies have put together one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedule in the nation this season. Beginning with an out of conference schedule that features 2 of the nation’s top 5 from last season in Boise State and Ohio State, while the opener is a trip to Syracuse and the season concludes with a road trip to a very dangerous Hawaii team. Following those 3 to open the season, the Huskies then open Pac-10 play with a trip to UCLA, a visit from USC, back on the road to Arizona State, and then home for Oregon. There are no breathers in the initial 7 games of the season, and UW will need a few major upsets to make it back to the post-season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Washington finds a way to win 2 of their non-conference games, and 4 Pac-10 games, but the overall schedule just looks to imposing to project a bowl bid this season. The fresh faces in the skill positions, Locker and Hasty, develop during the season and set the Husky program up for major success in the near future. The defense remains healthy this season and led by a good defensive line, it keeps the Huskies in games as the offense builds.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Huskies get swept in their non-conference schedule and end the season battling Stanford to stay out of the basement in the conference. Any time a team is relying heavily on two players at quarterback and running back, and neither has taken a collegiate snap, there is room for concern on the offensive side of the ball. With a schedule that begins so tough, the confidence level could be crushed by the time conference play even kicks off.
MAKE OR BREAK: The opener at Syracuse becomes a huge game as the following 4 weeks consist of Boise State, Ohio State, UCLA, and USC. It would be a huge lift for the Huskies to travel across country to get a win before beginning their brutal stretch of games. The offensive line that returns 3 starters and 8 out of its top 10 from last season must step up and play big to assist in the development of Locker and Hasty. Getting solid play out of the front 5 will help this offense to make a major improvement over last season.
OFFENSE: The Wazzou offense will be centered on a top-notch passing game directed by quarterback Alex Brink, who tossed 19 touchdown passes last season. Brink will have a nice combination to work with in receivers Michael Bumpus and Brandon Gibson and tight end Jed Collins. For the aerial attack to reach its full potential, the running game must become more of a threat this season with Dwight Tardy leading the way after a 667 yard, 4 touchdown effort of last season. The line now returns 3 starters, with the recent dismissal of guard Andy Roof, to help pave the way for Tardy and to keep Brink upright.
DEFENSE: The Cougars will shift back to a 4-3 defense, hoping to utilize the strength of the group, a defensive line that returns 3 starters led by tackle Ropati Pitoitua. The line must play strong because there are major questions surrounding the linebacking corps and the secondary, groups that return a total of 2 starters. WSU finished last in passing defense in the conference last season, and there looks to be a potential repeat of that performance with an inexperienced group looking for leaders to emerge.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking duties look to be taken over by Romeen Abdollmohammadi, who is expected to replace last year's starter Loren Langley who struggled last year, missing 6 of 13 attempts. Darryl Blunt was solid at punting, averaging 41.4 per kick, while Michael Bumpus is back to handle the punt return duties. Bumpus will need to improve on his 5.5 average, good for 8th in the conference last season. The kick return duo of Charles Dillon and Derrell Hutsona returns and like the punt return game will look for additional production out of these two, who finished last in the conference in 2006.
COACHING: Bill Doba had a tremendous 1st season at Wazzou, leading the Cougars to a 10-3 record and a top ten national finish. The team has slid since that time and Doba enters his 5th season with a career mark of 25-22 and looking for his 1st bowl bid since his debut season. He adds the role of defensive coordinator to his head coaching responsibilities this season after the departure of Robb Akey to become the head coach at Idaho.
SCHEDULE: Wazzou opens with a tough trip as they head to crazy Madison to battle Wisconsin before returning home to host winnable non-conference foes in San Diego State and Idaho. The Pac-10 opener is USC and the toughest stretch for the Cougars looks to be a mid-season run of games versus Arizona State, at Oregon, UCLA, and at California. The season concludes with the annual rivalry game with cross-state rival Washington.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Cougars rebuild enough to return to the .500 mark and make their way back into the postseason after a 3 year absence. Tied with UW with a league low 12 returning starters and with 5 conference road games, winning 6 games would be a great building block for this program. The pass defense shows significant improvement, and WSU is able to show marked improvement over last year's 7th ranked conference defense.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The defense continues to struggle with only 5 returning starters and a secondary that does not adjust to the new coverage schemes as the Cougars battle their way to simply stay out of the conference cellar. WSU only hosts 1 of its 1st 5 games at Pullman so a slow start is likely and the team’s bowl hopes can be dashed by mid October.
MAKE OR BREAK: A key game for this Cougar bunch will be a September 29th visit to Arizona, a game that WSU must win to have a chance at earning a bowl bid. Wazzou will be coming off a game at USC the week prior to Arizona, and the following two weeks after are games against Arizona State and at Oregon, emphasizing just how critical the UA game will be for the season. The key to an improved offense will be the running of Dwight Tardy, as he was solid last year and will be relied upon more heavily in 2007. There is little depth behind Tardy so he must carry the majority of the running load this season.
Overall the Pac-10 looks to be a league loaded with powerful offenses, led by a talented crop of quarterbacks that will challenge defenses on a weekly basis. The teams that have the strongest defensive units can separate themselves from the rest of the conference, with USC and UCLA appearing to have the best groups, setting up a predicted conference title bout on December 1st. Bowl locks look to be USC, UCLA, Oregon, California, Arizona State, and Oregon State. Keep an eye on Arizona and Washington, as these two teams have significantly upgraded their talent base and are looking to end long bowl droughts, 8 years for the Wildcats and 4 years for the Huskies.