The Trojans of USC extended their conference championship streak to six last season, but overall the season was still considered a disappointment with two losses in Pac-10 competition. For the second season in a row, USC suffered multiple losses in the league after they had not lost more than one game within the conference for five consecutive seasons. The league also had California and Oregon rise to #2 in the national polls during the season, but both programs struggled down the stretch with Cal finishing at 7-6 and Oregon completing the year at 9-4. Overall, the league had six teams play in the post-season and with the lower tier programs showing improvement, that number potentially could increase in 2008.
Heading into the 2008 season, USC is once again the established favorite, but the gap between the Trojans and the rest of the conference has closed in the past few seasons. Teams with the greatest chance to unseat USC appear to be Oregon, California, and Arizona State, but all three must travel to the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The mid-level of the conference is highlighted by Oregon State, Arizona, and UCLA, three teams which have enough talent to earn post-season berths while the bottom tier appears to be a competition between Washington, Stanford, and Washington State. All three look to be improved, but still appear to be a year away from returning to bowl eligibility. Let’s take an in-depth look at how the conference race is shaping up heading into the season.
1. Key #1 is which of these three teams in the projected top tier of four will have the most stability at quarterback, USC, Oregon, or California? Arizona State is set with Rudy Carpenter, but the remaining three enter the fall with lingering questions at the most important position on the field. USC begins with Mark Sanchez who has seen minimal action and has Mitch Mustain looking over his shoulder, Oregon features a battle between Nate Costa and Justin Roper, while California has veteran Nate Longshore competing with Kevin Riley.
2. Key #2 is how the unbalanced schedule plays out in a league where every team plays nine conference games. USC, Oregon, Arizona State only have four conference home games while California, UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon State have the extra game within their own friendly confines. Looking at recent history, home field advantage has played a key role in past conference races, expect no difference this season.
3. Key #3 is which of the pesky projected middle tier teams will step up and play a significant role in the conference race. Arizona and Oregon State look to be the most dangerous, and Arizona hosts California, USC, and Arizona State while Oregon State hosts the same three teams in addition to Oregon. Expect a major upset by one of these two teams that will throw a curve ball into the conference championship chase.
OFFENSE: The Wildcat offense emerged last season with the newly installed spread offense imported from Texas Tech. Quarterback Willie Tuitama led the Pac-10 in touchdown passes with 28 and ranked second in yardage with 3,683. Tuitama has great weapons to work with again this season, beginning with the league’s top returning receiver in Mike Thomas and a rising star in tight end Rob Gronkowski. The offensive line returns four starters with a combined 86 starts, with the only concern being run blocking after the Wildcats finished last in the league in rushing offense.
DEFENSE: The Wildcats need to rebuild this unit after losing eight starters from a season ago. The main concern is a defensive line that loses all four starters and will rely on a converted fullback in Earl Mitchell to control the middle of the line. Even with the loss of both cornerbacks, the strength of the unit is a secondary that brings back both starting safeties, led by Nate Ness, the returning team leader with five interceptions. The corners are a concern, but Devin Ross looks to have great potential and he should help ease the transition as a first-time starter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This area is set and looks to be a major team strength. Kicker Jason Bondzio returns after connecting on 21 out of his 26 attempts last season. Returning first team Pac-10 punter Keenyn Crier had a huge sophomore season, averaging 43.7 yards per kick. Mike Thomas was excellent on kick returns last year and he will assume the additional role of returning punts this season. One area of concern are the coverage units, both which ranked in the bottom half of the league.
COACHING: Mike Stoops is heading into his fifth season in charge of the Wildcat program and this is a critical year for his tenure. Arizona has not been to a bowl since 1998 and the Stoops era could come to an end of the Cats miss out yet again on the post-season. Sonny Dykes was brought in last season to charge the offense and he did just that by developing the Pac 10’s second best passing attack and the highest scoring offense for this program since 2001. Mike’s brother Mark returns as the defensive coordinator for his fifth season and he has the major challenge in finding eight new starters.
SCHEDULE: If Arizona is thinking about the post-season, the Cats need to get out to a quick start with home games versus Idaho and Toledo before a tough challenge at New Mexico. Within the conference Arizona does play host to USC, Arizona State, and California, with the toughest road games being trips to Oregon and UCLA.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Last season as a true freshman tight end Rob Gronkowski reeled in 28 receptions while scoring six touchdowns. Expect even more out him this season as he is a tremendous blend of speed and power who will find plenty of space to run in the wide open Arizona passing game. If he takes the next step in his development, Rob should earn first team all Pac-10 honors and be one of the top tight ends in the nation.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Arizona finds themselves back in the post-season for the first time since the 1998 Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats ride a high powered offense and get off to a fast start on their way to a seven win season as Coach Stoops has established the program on solid footing for the future.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The rebuilding defense is a sieve and even the excellent Wildcat offense is unable to keep pace with a struggling defense. Arizona yet again falls short of the post-season, winning less than seven games for the tenth consecutive season. The lack of a post-season bid likely means the end of the Stoops era in Tucson after five disappointing seasons.
MAKE OR BREAK: The week three trip to a strong New Mexico team is critical for the Wildcats post-season hopes. Arizona lost a tough 29-27 decision to the Lobos last season, and they may need to sweep their non-conoference foes if they have hopes of reaching the post-season. The defensive line will feature four new starters so the newcomers need to step in and play big if this Arizona team is going to reach its potential.
OFFENSE: The Sun Devils are loaded with skill position talent, beginning with quarterback Rudy Carpenter. The ASU signal caller is coming off a season where he finished second in the league in passing efficiency and he welcomes back three of his top four receivers to a lethal passing game. The question on this unit is the offensive line which returns only two starters, but that could be an upgrade after the line yielded 55 sacks last season. If this years unit can provide Carpenter with better protection, the result could be the top offense in the league.
DEFENSE: The ASU defense begins at the end positions with Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez, who together combined for 15 sacks last year. The ends will need to continue to dominate as the tackles are inexperienced and will be challenged on a regular basis by the opposition’s rushing attack. ASU struggled last season in defending the pass, ranking 61st in the nation while yielding 229 yards per game. The secondary brings back two starters in Troy Nolan and Omar Bolden, both all conference candidates who are a solid base to build on this season. The Devils have some big time talent, but need to be more consistent after fading towards the end of last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: In one of the greatest debuts in NCAA history, sophomore kicker Thomas Weber began his Sun Devil career by connecting on 24 out of his 25 attempts and winning the Lou Groza Award. Weber also took over the punting duties last season, averaging 39.3 yards per kick, but he needs to improve on his hang time. Kyle Williams is an excellent punt returner, while Chris McGaha is likely to take over the kick returning duties.
COACHING: Head coach Dennis Erickson had a great debut season in Tempe, leading his team to 10 wins and a runner-up finish in the Pac-10 conference. The strong year earned Erickson Pac-10 coach of the year honors, his third honor in the conference with three different schools. Rich Olson begins his second season as offensive coordinator after arriving from Miami, Florida, while Craig Bray returns as defensive coordinator.
SCHEDULE: ASU will need to start quickly with home games versus Northern Arizona, Stanford, and UNLV to begin the season. The third and final non-conference game is a huge one as the Georgia Bulldogs travel west for the first meeting between these two programs. In conferenc play, ASU travels to league challengers California and USC, then finishes the season on the road at rival Arizona. Highlighting the home conference slate are visits from Oregon and UCLA.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The key for this Arizona State team to take the next step is improvement in pass defense. Omar Bolden played well as a true freshman last year but this season he needs to become the leader of the unit. Bolden is talented and capable of becoming one of the top cornerbacks in the league and if he is able to shutdown an entire side of the field, the prospects for the ASU defense look to be much improved.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The talent level is still high but an improved schedule makes a nine win season a lofty goal for this years version of the Sun Devils. A second place finish in back-to-back seasons and a return trip to the Holiday Bowl would make for a succesful campaign. To reach their goal, the offensive line must take a huge step forward allowing Rudy Carpenter to work his way into the thick of the Heisman race as he directs the loaded ASU offense.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Rudy Carpenter continues to be pummeled after suffering more sacks than any quarterback in the nation last season and he is unable to make it through the entire season unscathed. The four game gauntlet of Georgia, California, USC, and Oregon beginning on September 20th is too much to overcome as the Devils fall in three of the four contests and a seven win season is the result.
MAKE OR BREAK: The October 4th trip to California sets up as a huge game for this team. ASU has lost three straight games in California and with a trip to USC looming the following week, and then a visit from Oregon, a win versus the Bears will be a huge step forward. The offensive line was a disaster last season and the coaching staff is adjusting the offense to better play to the groups strength. If the line can become a cohesive unit, the sky is the limit for a talented offense.
OFFENSE: The Bears have numerous questions which need to be answered in regards to the skill positions. The quarterback position remains unsettled as sophomore Kevin Riley may take over the starting role from veteran Nate Longshore, who had to miss the majority of spring practice due to injury. Whomever does emerge at quarterback will work with a receiving corps that lost its top five pass catchers and needs a star to emerge, but there is plenty of talent waiting to showcase their skills. Once the skill positions are settled, the players get to work behind one of the top offensive line in the nation, led by first team Pac-10 center, Alex Mack.
DEFENSE: Cal is likely to switch to more of a 3-4 look this season due to major questions along the defensive line and strong depth at the linebacker position. The line is experienced, but yielded way too many yards on the ground last season as the Bears ranked 68th in the nation in rush defense. The linebacking corps is loaded and is one of the best units in the Pac-10, led by anchor Zack Follett. Five players return with starting experience in the secondary, led by cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, a tremendous athlete who can shutdown one side of the field. If the defensive line can step up, this unit has the potential to be one of the best in the conference.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bear special teams are inexperienced with the only returning starter being kicker Jordan Kay. Jordan connected on only 13 of his 20 attempts and was extremely inconsistent from beyond 30 yards. Punting duties belong to freshman Bryan Anger, who had an excellent spring and should be a fixture at the position for the Bear for the next four years. Aiming to replace star punt returner DeSean Jackson will be Syd’Quan Thompson whle Shane Vereen will be counted on to handle the kick return responsibilities.
COACHING: Entering his seventh season at Cal, Jeff Tedford is looking for answers to last season’s collapse as his Bears recorded the second lowest win total in his tenure. Tedford has given up his play calling duties, bringing in coordinator Frank Cignetti, who arrives at Berkeley from the San Francisco 49ers, where he coached the quarterbacks. Bob Gregory remains in charge of the defense and he has directed one of the Pac-10’s best defenses in his six year tenure.
SCHEDULE: The Bears always assemble a challenging non-conference slate and this season is no different as Cal opens at home by hosting dangerous Michigan State. Two weeks later they travel cross country to battle Maryland in the schools first ever meeting before returning home to finish the out of conference schedule by hosting Colorado State. Within the Pac-10, the Bears host contenders Arizona State and Oregon, but must travel to league favorite USC, a team that has handled Cal in four straight games.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The Bears need to find a top target to take over the leadership role in a depleted receiving corps. That leader could very well be freshman Michael Calvin, who established himself as a starter after a strong performance in spring ball. Calvin is a tall target who is already drawing comparisons to former Cal star Sean Dawkins, so look for him to take over as the number one target this season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Bears settle on a quarterback early in fall practice and the brand new skill position talent steps up to stabilize a rebuilt offense. The loaded defense plays to its potential and the Bears bounce back after a disappointing end to the 2007 season to fashion a nine or ten win season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The inexperience on offense clearly shows as the seven new starters need time to develop. There is too much talent on the defense for this team to fall to far, with a six win regular season being the worst case scenario in a well balanced Pac-10.
MAKE OR BREAK: Circle the October 4th battle with Arizona State as a critical game for the Bears. ASU ended Cal’s 4 game winning streak in the series last year and the Bears need to win this one at home if they maintain Pac-10 championship hopes. With the Bears leading returning receiver being tight end Cameron Morrah, wide-outs Nyan Boateng and Michael Calvin must step in and provide downfield options or this offense will be one dimensional and easy to defend.
OFFENSE: The Ducks major question heading into the season is which quarterback will earn the starting nod on opening day. The leader currently appears to be sophomore Nathan Costa, who was injured in spring football, but if healthy he is the best fit for the spread offense. The running back stable is loaded led by Jeremiah Johnson, a veteran who is coming off an ACL tear, but has averaged over six yards per carry in his career. Keep an eye on junior college transfer LaGarrette Blount, a pounding runner who is the perfect change of pace from Johnson. The Duck line is a veteran group and is one of the top units in league, led by center Max Unger.
DEFENSE: The Oregon defense is anchored by one of best secondaries in the nation, highlighted by first team Pac-10 safety Patrick Chung and the starting cornerback duo of Walter Thurmond and Jairus Byrd. The defensive line features stars at the end positions in Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu, who combined for 16.5 sacks between them last year. The key question is finding suitable replacements for the two graduated tackles, otherwise opponents will find room to run against the Duck defense. Jerome Boyd leads an experienced linebacking crew which will be geared to stop the run as the new tackles earn their stripes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Two senior kickers highlight this unit with Matt Evensen handling the place kicking and Josh Syria taking care of the punting. Evensen had a strong 2007 season, connecting on 16 out of his 20 attempts, including five out of eight from beyond 40 yards. Syria averaged 41.7 yards per punt and earned honorable mention all Pac-10 honors. The return game is another story as both starters need to be replaced, with Andre Crenshaw taking over kick return duties while Jeff Maehl takes care of punts.
COACHING: In terms of wins and experience, Mike Bellotti is the dean of Pac-10 coaches as he prepares to enter his 14th season at the helm of the Duck program with 106 career wins. The remainder of the staff stayed intact with the key element being second year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. Bellotti hired Kelly from New Hampshire and he immediately transformed the Duck offense and quarterback Dennis Dixon into a powerful unit last season. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti remains in charge of the defense for the tenth consecutive season.
SCHEDULE: The Duck schedule sets up as one of the tougher slates in the country, highlighted by five conference road games. Oregon is unlucky enough to have to travel to USC, Arizona State California, and then end their season on the road against arch-rival Oregon State. The season opener is a home date with Washington with the only back-to-back conference home games occurring in November when Stanford and Arizona visit. The non-conference slate is tricky as well with a trip to Purdue and a home date with Boise State being the key dates.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Junior college transfer LaGarrette Blount has already raised expectations in Oregon after his performance in spring football. Blount arrives from East Mississippi Community College and has already drawn comparisons to former Oregon star Ruben Droughns with his physical running style. Expect Blount to provide the perfect change of pace from Jeremiah Johnson as the Ducks focus on developing a strong running game as the new quarterback becomes comfortable behind center.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Ducks are loaded with talent and if a solid quarterback emerges from the competition this team is capable of winning ten games and claiming a Pac-10 championship. The top notch defensive unit plays as big as its talent and even though the offense is not quite as potent as last season, the improved play by the defenders carry this team into the nation’s top ten.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The same problems continue from last season after the Ducks lost Dennis Dixon for the season and the offense collapsed. The road schedule, which features trips to Purdue, USC, Arizona State, California, and Oregon prevents this team from reaching its potential as the Ducks fall into fourth place in the Pac-10.
MAKE OR BREAK: Although the offensive gameplan will be tweaked a bit this season, quarterback Nate Costa’s health is critical to this teams success. The Ducks will focus more on the running back combination of Jeremiah Johnson and LarGarrette Blount, but Costa is the best fit for this offense and it is critical that he is behind center. If the Ducks maintain Pac-10 championship hopes, their October 4th trip to USC is a must win. Oregon won last season at home to end a three game losing streak to the Trojans and a repeat performance may launch the Ducks into the national championship picture.
OFFENSE: The Beavers like to rush the ball and expect nothing new this season, even with the loss of the school’s second all-time leading rusher in Yvenson Bernard. Redshirt freshman Ryan McCants is expected to start and he has the OSU fans excited about his potential. There are major concerns at quarterback with both Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao returning after the duo combined to throw 21 interceptions versus only 11 touchdowns last year. The strength of this group is a receiving corps that welcomes back star Sammie Stroughter after he missed almost the entire 2007 season due to injuries and personal issues. Keep an eye on James Rodgers, a playmaking talent at receiver who will see much more of the football this season.
DEFENSE: OSU had the nation’s best rushing defense last year, but the Beavers lost the entire front seven to graduation. The rebuilt line will be focused around defensive end Victor Butler, who had 10.5 sacks last season, while not starting a single game. Two highly regarded junior college transfers will be relied on in the middle to handle the rush defense in Stephen Paea and Simi Kuli. The strength of this team will be a secondary which features seven players who have started games, led by second team Pac-10 performer in cornerback Brandon Hughes. Expect opponents to work the Beavers on the ground to avoid throwing against the talented backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The graduation of Alexis Serna forces the Beavers to find both a new punter and kicker. Handling the kicking duties will be Justin Kahut, who drilled two kicks beyond 50 yards in the spring game. The punting responsibility is still in question with redshirt freshman Kyle Harper battling Western New Mexico transfer Sean Sehnem. Sammie Stroughter was one of the top punt returners in the nation in 2006, so his return is a welcome site. Taking over as the main kick return threat will be James Rodgers, who averaged 24.4 yards on his five returns last year.
COACHING: In his second stint at OSU, Mike Riley enters his sixth season having built one of the most consistent programs in the Pac-10. Over the past two years, the Beavers trail only USC in conference record, but Mike’s biggest challenge awaits with many new faces in the starting line-up. Riley handles the play calling duties but has Danny Langsdorf as his fourth year offensive coordinator while Mark Banker returns for his sixth season in charge of the defense.
SCHEDULE: OSU has put together one of the more challenging slates in the Pac-10, highlighted by a non-conference schedule which features trips to Penn State and Utah and a home visit from Hawaii. In conference play, the Beavers do host USC, Arizona State, California, and Oregon, with their toughest road trip appearing to be November visits to UCLA and Arizona. The season opener is interesting as Oregon State travels to Stanford for a Thursday night battle, especially considering the Beavers have lost their last five road openers.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The return of Sammie Stroughter will have a huge impact on the Beaver offense and special teams. Stroughter is a tremendous talent who had 74 receptions for 1,293 yards in 2006 while also returning three punts for touchdowns. With the inconsistent play at starting quarterback the addition of Stroughter will greatly help whoever emerges at quarterback as opposing defenses must keep track of where Sammie is on the field at all times.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Beavers return to the post-season for a third consecutive season and win seven games in what is considered a rebuilding year. OSU has the second fewest returning starters in the league, making a mid-level finish a nice building block for this program heading into 2009.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The stuggles continue behind center as the Beavers cannot find a quarterback who makes the passing game a legitimate threat. With a defense rebuilding after losing eight starters and a challenging non-conference schedule, OSU falls below .500 overall after winning 19 games in the prior two seasons.
MAKE OR BREAK: Either Lyle Moevao or Sean Canfield must improve if the Beavers are going to achieve a higher level of success this season. The season opener on the road at Stanford is a critical game, especially with the Beavers lack of success in road openers in recent years. A conference battle with an improving and dangerous Stanford program is a critical game in the conference race, especially with a cross-country trip to Penn State looming in week #2.
OFFENSE: The biggest question entering the season for USC has been answered as Mark Sanchez was named the starting quarterback in spring football. Sanchez did have three starts last season in a relief role, but results were mixed as he tossed five interceptions versus seven touchdowns. Mark will work behind a rebuilt offensive line that has to replace four starters, but does return a veteran leader in Jeff Byers. The running back corps is loaded with talent and numerous players are expected to see action, highlighted by the leading returning rusher in Stafon Johnson. The new star of the group is likely to be sophomore Joe McKnight, who will see his touches greatly increase this season.
DEFENSE: The Trojan defense is loaded with talent, beginning with one of the nation’s best linebacking corps. The leader of the unit is Pac-10 first team performer Rey Maualuga who is the Trojans top returning tackler and sacker. The secondary is also loaded, highlighted by the dynamic safety combination of Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays. There are six players with prior starting experience in the backfield, so expect opposing quarterbacks to have nightmares trying to figure out how to attack this group. The one question is on the defensive line after stalwarts Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson took their talents to the NFL. There is plenty of talent to choose from and expect tackle Fili Moala to take over as the new star of the group.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kickers return with David Buehler handling the place kicking and Greg Woidneck taking care of the punting. Buehler made a strong debut, connecting on 16 of his 19 attempts while Woidneck needs to improve his average after SC finished ninth in the conference last year in net yardage. Expect to see a huge improvement in punt returns with Joe McKnight being more comfortable in the role after struggling in his first season. Ronald Johnson is back to take care of the kick returns after a strong season with a 24.8 average.
COACHING: Pete Carroll has fashioned an impressive 76-14 overall record in his seven seasons in charge of the USC program. He has led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 championships, winning two national championships along the way as one of the nation’s most dominant programs. Nick Holt enters his third season as the defensive coordinator while Steve Sarkisian is back for his second season in guiding the offense, offering stability to a position that saw three coordinators in the prior three seasons.
SCHEDULE: USC always takes on all challengers and this year is no different. The season opener is a trip to Virginia for the two programs first ever meeting, followed two weeks later by an Ohio State visit to Los Angeles. The final non-conference game is the yearly battle with Notre Dame, as USC looks to extend their six game winning streak over the Irish. In Pac-10 play, the Trojans play host to top challegers Oregon, Arizona State, and California, with their toughest road trips appearing to be a Thursday visit to Oregon State and the season ending battle with UCLA.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Joe McKnight arrived at USC with tremendous credentials and fanfare as a high school star. Although his freshman season was good, he is capable of much more as evidenced by his season ending performance versus Illinois in the Rose Bowl. In that game, McKnight had 125 yards rushing on 10 carries and added another 45 yards through the air. Joe will see time at running back, wide receiver, and as the punt returner as his touches of the football are expected to be dramatically increased as he assumes a Reggie Bush role in the offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Trojans claim their seventh consecutive Pac-10 championship and are lining up on January 8th to compete for the national championship. Anything less than a national title is a disappointment for the USC faithful as the Trojan cupboard is fully stocked with talent and expectations remain sky high.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Trojans stumble agaist Ohio State as quarterback Mark Sanchez is yet to feel comfortable directing the offense. Another loss or two in Pac-10 play results in an end to USC’s conference domination, but this team is far too talented to slip past second place. USC has not lost more than two games in a season since 2001, so a 10-2 record is the result when expectations are unfulfilled.
MAKE OR BREAK: The September 13th battle with Ohio State has huge national championship implications in what is the trendy pick for game of the year. A win at home over the Buckeyes sets up the Trojans for yet another championship run. Quarterback Mark Sanchez was solid last year, but he will need to reduce his mistakes and play better if this USC team is going to reach its goals.
OFFENSE: The Cardinal offense struggled last year, ranking 107th in the nation in total offense and 105th in scoring. The quarterback position is open with last year’s starter Tavita Pritchard returning, but he will have to hold off new challengers in Michigan transfer Jason Forcier and freshman Alex Loukas. Additional production will be needed from a rushing attack that ranked ninth in the Pac-10 last season, with the top four rushers returning to energize the unit. The offensive line struggled in all aspects last season, but does return three starters led by second team Pac-10 member Alex Fletcher at center. This unit still has a ways to go, but there is clearly more talent than last season, so production should be improved.
DEFENSE: The story was much the same on the defensive side of the ball where the Cardinal ranked 98th in the nation in total defense. Nine starters are back, including all three at linebacker, led by star Clinton Snyder, a playmaker off the edge. Snyder played a key role in leading Stanford to an 11th place national finish in sacks generated as the Cardinal registered 38 on the season. The defensive line, led by end Pannel Egboh and tackle Ekom Udofia, looks to be improved and should be the best in years in Palo Alto. The secondary returns four players with starting experience, but this group needs help from the front seven in generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kickers need to be replaced, so this area is a huge concern entering the season. Expect to see David Green handling the punting duties and also possibly kicking duties, after he arrived on “The Farm” as one of the nation’s most highly regarded kicking prospects in 2007. Aaron Zagory will challenge Green for kicking responsibility, after starting in 2006 and hitting on eight of his thirteen attempts. Return duties are in good hands with Chris Hobbs taking care of the punts and Doug Baldwin handling the kicks. Additional production is expected from Hobbs after he averaged 6.8 per return last year, ranking ninth in the Pac-10.
COACHING: Jim Harbaugh arrived at Stanford last season after two tremendously successful seasons at San Diego. Harbaugh is an energetic young coach, who is quickly rebuilding this program and he has already greatly improved the talent level and the excitement surrounding this team. Returning as offensive coordinator is David Shaw while new co-defensive coordinators take over this season in Ron Lynn and Andy Buh. Lynn brings an impressive NFL resume to Stanford, spending time as a defensive coordinator with the Chargers, Bengals, and Redskins.
SCHEDULE: The out of conference schedule presents a challenge to Coach Harbaugh’s gang as the Cardinal travel to Texas Christian and Notre Dame and play host to San Jose State. Within conference play, Stanford hosts Oregon State on a Thursday night opener, and must travel to Arizona State, Oregon, and California. November 15th should be a fun day in Palo Alto as USC pays a visit, looking for payback after Stanford ended the Trojans 35 game home winning streak last year.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Although not currently listed as the starting running back, keep an eye on Toby Gerhart. In limited action last year due to injury, Gerhart flashed his potential with a 140 yard performance on twelve carries, announcing his arrival in the running back competition. The starter Anthony Kimble is a dependable back, but Gerhart brings more potential and flash to the position and he should breakthrough this season and establish himself as the future for the Cardinal rushing attack.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Cardinal settle on a quarterback and the offense makes significant strides after struggling last season. Stanford continues to build for the future and reach five wins with the post-season in sight for 2009. With seven road games, reaching a .500 record seems like a stretch, but with sixteen returning starters this team is capable of making some noise.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Stanford was beaten soundly in six Pac-10 games last season so even improvement in this team may not show up in the win column. There remain questions surrounding the skill positions, although the talent is there it is unproven and a tough opening schedule does not allow the group to come together. The Cardinal stumble yet again and finish with less wins than in 2007, completing the season in last place in the Pac-10.
MAKE OR BREAK: If the Cardinal have hopes of playing in the post-season, the November 1st game at home versus Washington State may decide their fate. Stanford was pummeled last season at WSU and it looks these two teams will be battling to emerge from the bottom tier of the conference. Stanford had only thirteen touchdown passes in 2007, that number needs big improvement and there are three candidates vying for the number one slot in Pritchard, Forcier, and Loukas. Whoever emerges from this battle must carry the offense on his shoulders.
OFFENSE: The Bruin offense struggled with injuries and inconsistency last season, ending the year ranked 99th in the country in total offense. The injury bug has already hit again as quarterback Patrick Cowan tore his ACL and is done for the season, while Ben Olson missed spring due to a broken foot, leaving junior college transfer Kevin Craft as the potential starter in the opener. With the question marks at quarterback expect running back Kahlil Bell to get plenty of carries and he has the potential to be one of the top backs in the Pac-10. The offensive line is a huge concern, with only one starter returning, and eight of its top ten linemen having never taken a snap on the line.
DEFENSE: The defense has to replace six starters from last season, including All-American defensive end Bruce Davis. The Bruins will rely on a strong linebacking corps, led by Reggie Carter, who assumes the middle linebacking position. The defensive tackles are strong, especially with the return of Brigham Harwell, who was lost early last season due to injury. The secondary lost three starters, but do have a strong base to build around in cornerback Alterraun Verner, the team’s top returning tackler. The remainder of the backfield is full of question marks as opposing quarterbacks should be able to work downfield against this inexperienced group.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is one of the top units in the nation, led by kicker Kai Forbath. Kai connected on 25 of his 30 attempts last year, including hitting all five of his kicks from beyond 50 yards. Aaron Perez returns to handle the punting after a season which saw him average 43.2 yards per kick and finish second in the conference in net punting. Punt return duties will remain with Terrence Austin, but kick return responsibilites remain open and will be decided in fall practice.
COACHING: UCLA made one of the biggest moves in the off-season in bringing Rick Neuheisel back to the college game. Neuheisel spent this past season as the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and has previous head coaching experience at both Colorado and Washington, where he compiled a 66-30 career record. The coordinators are top-notch with Norm Chow giving up his coordinator position with the Tennessee Titans to assume the same role at UCLA, while DeWayne Walker returns for his third season as the defensive coordinator.
SCHEDULE: There are no breaks in this schedule, with home visits from Tennessee and Fresno State and a road trip to BYU making up the non-conference schedule. This will be the Bruins third game with BYU in a little over a year as the teams split their two games a season ago. UCLA does host USC and Oregon State, but face tough road trips to the remaining top programs in Oregon, California, and Arizona State.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....One of the best pieces of news that Coach Neuheisel received during the off-season was that defensive tackle Brigham Harwell was granted an additional year of eligibility. Harwell went down early in the year with an injury but is now healthy and ready to anchor the middle of the Bruin line. With three seniors lost from last years group, Harwell will be relied on to be the run stuffer and to be the leader of the front line. He has the talent to be an all-league defender and his presence will greatly help the Bruin defense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Bruins find a quarterback who remains healthy for the entire season and Norm Chow works his magic in developing a strong passing attack. Kahlil Bell also fulfills his immense promise after suffering a season ending injury last year and he becomes a key element in the offense. The schedule is loaded, so a seven win season and a mid-tier bowl looks to be the best case scenario as Neuheisel begins the rebuilding process.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Ben Olson is not ready to open the season behind center and the responsibility falls to Kevin Craft. The offense struggles behind an inexperienced offensive line and the defense which replaces six starters is not yet ready for prime time. The Bruins lose all three non-conference challenges and fall short of a .500 record in Pac-10 play, missing out on the post-season for the first time in six years.
MAKE OR BREAK: If the Bruins are to continue their post-season run, UCLA will likely need to find one win in a tough non-conference schedule. The September 27th visit from a dangerous Fresno State team looks to be the most winnable and by the fourth game of the season, the Bruins should have key position battles settled and the team focused. Kahlil Bell is critical to this teams success as he was on his way to a 1,000 yard season last year before being injured. With the unsettled situation at quarterback, Bell will be relied upon to carry the offense and he is talented enough to do just that.
OFFENSE: The clear leader of the Husky offense is quarterback Jake Locker, the schools leading returning rusher and passer. Locker was named the Pac-10 freshman of the year, as he accounted for 27 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards of total offense. The offensive line returns three starters but suffered a big loss in the spring when leader Juan Garcia suffered a foot injury and will miss at least the first half of the 2008 season. The bad news is that the Huskies lost their top five receivers while the good news is that the current crop of wide outs is talented, but experience is at a minimum.
DEFENSE: The UW defense was a disaster last season, ranking 103rd in the nation after giving up 446 yards per game. The concerns begin on the defensive line where three starters have left, leaving behind Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a two-year starter at defensive end. The rest of the line is void of experience which means Te’o-Nesheim is likely to face a double team all season. Providing help to the front line is star linebacker EJ Savannah, the teams leading tackler and a potential all Pac-10 performer. Three starters return to a secondary that struggled last season, but is much more experienced and capable of containing opposing passing attacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kickers are back after being solid last season with Ryan Perkins doing the place kicking and Jared Ballman handling the punting. Perkins was 15 out of 20 last year, while Ballman averaged 40.9 yards per punt. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman place kicker Erik Folk, who has a huge leg but was injured last season. He is now healthy and could easily unseat Perkins during fall practice. The return duties both remain open heading into the fall, with starters likely to remain unnamed until mid-August.
COACHING: Tyrone Willingham is heading into his fourth season in charge of the Husky program and he has little to show for his initial seasons of work. Washington is 11-25 during his enture and has not played in a bowl since the 2002 Sun Bowl, resulting in the Husky fans being quite restless. Willingham likely needs to reach the post-season if he has hopes of returning for a fifth season in Seattle. The offensive coorinator is Tim Lappano who has been with Willingham all three seasons, while a new defensive coordinator takes over in Ed Donatell, who joins the staff after spending last season with the New York Jets.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is brutal for a team looking to fight their way into the post-season. The non-conference slate features home visits from BYU, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame, as Washington is looking for its first ever win over the Fighting Irish. Within the Pac-10, UW hosts Oregon State and Arizona State, but must travel to Oregon, USC, and California. Overall, the one piece of good news is that Washington does host seven home games.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Washington needs playmakers on offense and they may have found their answer in true freshman Chris Polk. Chris is a versatile player who will likely spend time at both running back and wide receiver as the Husky staff works to build the offense around their potential star. Expect to see him get plenty of touches beginning in the season opener and he is capable of providing the perfect complement to Jake Locker and opening up the Washington offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Quarterback Jake Locker greatly improves his accuracy as a passer and becomes one of best dual threat quarterbacks in the nation. Locker works well with his newest weapon in Chris Polk and the Huskies finally break through in close games after struggling in tight contests over the past few seasons. UW reaches the .500 mark overall on the season and ends a five year bowl drought.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....A brutal conference opener at Oregon and two tough non-conference games that follow in BYU and Oklahoma have the Huskies off to an 0-3 start. The defense continues to struggle during the rebuilding process and the Huskies end the year with only three wins and the schools fifth consecutive losing season.
MAKE OR BREAK: If the Huskies harbor any hopes of reaching .500 and earning a bowl bid, they will likely need to find a win in their first three games. The most likely break comes in week two against a tough and talented BYU team, but the Cougars must come to Seattle. Jake Locker is the key to this teams fortunes, as he is the only known quantity on the offensive side of the football. If he goes down during the season the UW offense will be crippled.
OFFENSE: The Cougar offense was great at churning out yardage last season, but not great at scoring points, ranking 73rd in the nation in points per game. Gone is the schools all-time leading passer in Alex Brink, and his replacement will be senior Gary Rogers, who has attempted 52 passes in his Cougar career. The good news for Rogers is that he will have first team Pac-10 receiver Brandon Gibson at his disposal. Gibson reeled in 67 passes for 1,180 yards last season and he is a true deep threat. Leading rusher Dwight Tardy is back but more production is needed from him as he runs behind an offensive line that returns four starters and should be the best Cougar line in years.
DEFENSE: The Cougars are installing a 4-3 defense this season in the hopes of improving on last years results, which saw Wazzou finish 85th in the nation in total defense. The star of the group is end Andy Mattingly, who played linebacker last season, but he will be move to defensive end in 2008. The three linebackers are all experienced seniors, led by Greg Trent, who enters his fourth season as a starter. The pass defense struggled the entire 2007 season and it looks like a repeat performance may be in store for 2008. With question marks surrounding all positions in the secondary, this unit will see plenty of passes heading their way in what has the potential to be a long season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicking duties appear to belong to El Camino Community College transfer Patrick Rooney, while punting remains in the hands of Reid Forrest. Both the punt and kick return units struggled last season so the loss of both starters may actually be an upgrade. The starters currently remain unsettled but the coaching staff is debating using star wide-out Brandon Gibson to give the group a jump start.
COACHING: Entering his rookie season in charge of the WSU program, Paul Wulff had brought excitement and intensity to the Pullman campus. Wulff spent eight successful years as the head coach at Eastern Washington and is an alumnus of Washington State. Coming with Wulff from EWU is offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, who will implement a no huddle offense in the hopes of providing a spark to the struggling program. The co-defensive coordinators are Chris Ball and Jody Sears, with Ball returning for a third time to the WSU staff while Sears spent the last five years as defensive coordinator at Eastern Washington.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is manageable, and is highlighted by an opening weekend battle with Oklahoma State in Seattle. The remaining non-conference games are trips to Baylor and Hawaii and a home visit from Portland State. The conference heavyweights travel to WSU as the Cougars host California, Oregon, and USC, with their toughest road challenges being trips to Arizona State and Oregon State.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Andy Mattingly spent last season playing at linebacker and is the teams leading returning tackler. The staff will move Mattingly to defensive end this season and focus his efforts on attacking the quarterback. The Wazzou secondary is full of questions, so the need to get to the quarterback early and often is critical if this defense is going to show improvement. Expect an increase in Andy’s sack total and a decrease in his tackles as he assumes his new role, a role that he should excel at and make an even greater name for himself.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....WSU matches their last season win total of five. This will be a year of transition for the Cougars with new offensive and defensive schemes being implemented. There are a few winnable non-conference games, and if the team can pull an upset or two in Pac-10 play, consider the year a success in coach Paul Wulff’s debut season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The transition to the no huddle, spread offense is not a smooth one and the Cougar offense struggles to put points on the scoreboard. The running game remains non-existent and the entire offensive load falls on new quarterback Gary Rogers. The final result is that WSU ends the year in last place in the Pac-10 and only can muster two or three wins in a long season.
MAKE OR BREAK: Brand new starting quarterback Gary Rogers steps into a tough situation as he will be the top guy for the first time in his Cougar career. Rogers is taking over for the school’s all-time leading passer and is doing so in his final year of college ball while learning a brand new offense. His success or failure in the system will go a long way on deciding the fate of the WSU season. The November 22nd battle with rival Washington looms large, as the Cougars have won three of the last four and the Huskies may be especially motivated by playing to save their coaches job. A win by WSU would be a huge statement that this program is the top program in the state and is not going to be down for long.
Looking ahead to the season, the Pac-10 is an inexperienced league over all in terms of returning starters, with Arizona State bringing back the most returnees. That being said, the talent in this league has been upgraded significantly in the past few seasons, so the conference race is shaping up to be a good one. USC again enters the season as the favorite, with superior talent across the board, but the Trojans should not sleep on Oregon, Arizona, State, or California. Oregon State, Arizona, and UCLA have enough talent to be pesky players in the championship chase, while Washington, Stanford, and Washington State will look to demonstrate improvement and showcase that their programs are pointed in the right direction for the future.