...An additional look into the conference from a different perspective...
For the first time since Arizona and Arizona State joined the conference in 1978, teams in the Pac-10 will play every single team in the conference this fall. That means there will be no in-conference “misses” that could potentially influence the crowning of a Pac-10 champion. Because the NCAA has raised the number of allowable regular season games to 12 and with the Hawaii rule in effect (any team traveling to the islands for a contest will not have that game count against its total regular season number of matches), Oregon State will actually play 14 games should they should make a bowl game this year. That’s only two away from a full NFL regular season!
Perhaps as exciting as the news of a full slate of conference games is the fact that there are no new head coaches for the first time since the year 2000. This will produce many intriguing matchups throughout the fall, as each coach will have had at least a full season to implement their overall game plans. In 2005, the Pac-10 also set a record for average attendance in all home stadiums with 57,470 counted at each contest. Not only that, the wide-open nature of the Pac-10 race has fans even more excited for what the 2006 season holds. Let’s take a look at what each team has to work with as we head into the fall.
Third-year coach Mike Stoops is primed for a breakout season in 2006. Strong recruiting classes and a wealth of returning talent, not to mention 2005’s top four receivers catching passes from sophomore QB Willie Tuitama, make this Wildcat team a strong candidate for the Pac-10’s most improved squad. With only three wins last year and having had a strong chance at five more, this team is hungry to come out in 2006 and prove their critics wrong.
Speedy WR Syndric Steptoe, who doubles as the Wildcats’ best punt and kick returner, leads an Arizona offensive attack that also makes use of the tight end position. The weakness on the offense is in the run game with the major loss of Mike Bell, the Wildcats’ most productive runner in 2005. Senior RB Chris Henry is the returning rushing leader with only 34 carries all of last season and only two career TD’s to his name. The Wildcats must find more ground production, so look for incoming frosh RB Derke Robinson to make an impact early in the season. The defense brings back 9 starters with a lot of junior and senior leadership. The secondary is one of the best in the conference led by junior CB Antoine Cason and senior safety Michael Johnson.
The Arizona schedule is favorable with four of the first five games at home in Tucson. The road is not as kind having to travel to UCLA, Oregon and LSU. However, with some of its tougher opponents having to make the trek to the desert, the Wildcats should put up a decent record in the Pac-10 this year, which shouldn’t be hard considering winning four or five games would be a marked improvement already.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils finished 2005 tied for fourth in the conference. After a strong start, the middle of the season saw the team struggle to get a win amidst finding a replacement for injured QB Sam Keller. Soph QB Rudy Carpenter helped the Sun Devils finish last year strong, going 4-1 over their final five games. Coach Dirk Koetter looks to improve a defense that allowed 468 yards per game last year as ASU makes a run at the 2006 Pac-10 crown.
Even with the loss of WR Derek Hagan to the NFL, this Sun Devil offense brings back most of the components from a unit that was second in the nation last fall in total offense at 519 yards per contest. Now with two capable QB’s, senior WR Terry Richardson and junior WR/TB Rudy Burgess will be seeing the ball a lot this fall. If the receivers are covered, Sun Devil QB’s won’t have a problem dumping the ball off to TE’s Zach Miller and Jamaal Lewis, who combined for nearly 1000 yards and 9 TD’s on just 60 catches last season.
Defensively, only four starters return, but the unit is led by leading tackler safety Zach Catanese, who had 107 stops last year. If the defense is going to improve, incoming freshmen and other untested veterans will have to step up to the challenge early on as three of four games are on the road against Cal, USC, and Colorado after a couple easy out-of conference contests to start the season.
California Golden Bears
Despite a strong start and an 8-4 overall record last season, the Golden Bears also finished tied for fourth with three other teams as all four of their losses were to conference foes. The Bears also lost three of those four games by less than a single touchdown, not including a game they lost by only a field goal to Oregon State. The return of 16 starters, whom accounted for almost all of Cal’s offensive productivity, bodes well for a team that also has a favorable schedule on their side.
The Bears lose three dominant offensive lineman in Marvin Philip, Aaron Merz, and Ryan O’Callaghan, but Heisman candidate RB Marshawn Lynch looks to be even more productive than his 10 TD’s and 1246 rushing yards last season. Lynch will have the running of junior RB Justin Forsett and the knowledge that five of the top six receivers from 2005 are returning to this years’ offense on his side as well. The defense returns eight starters from a unit that led the Pac-10 in scoring defense (21.2 ppg), including leaders DT Brandon Mebane and CB Daymeion Hughes, but must deal with the loss of Donnie McLeskey.
Fifth year head coach Jeff Tedford must settle on a starting QB, and that won’t be easy with last season's initial starter, sophomore Nate Longshore, back in the picture to accompany talented JC transfer Joe Ayoob and Steve Levy, who helped the Bears finish the season strong with wins over Stanford and BYU. Playing Tennessee to open the season on September 2, the new QB will need to display his leadership and gain the respect of the talented Bears offense early in camp. After the Volunteers, these Bears will only have to see the road four more times all season long.
The Ducks return a fantastic offensive line this fall, but much new and unproven talent will surround the line. The situation was the complete opposite last year, as skill position players returned around a young offensive line. The Ducks lose all of their most talented offensive stars in WR Demetrius Williams (10 TD), RB Terrence Whitehead (679 yards, 4 TD), and TE Tim Day (215 yards). The defense has to replace superstar DT Haloti Ngata and explosive DB Justin Phinisee, part of a corps that led the Pac-10 in total defense in 2005. The good news is that senior DT Matt Toeaina and sophomore DB Patrick Chung return to lead a senior heavy defense into the offense oriented Pac-10 race.
Pac-10 coaches will keep a close eye on who emerges as the Ducks’ new QB, as they each have different styles. The athletic Dennis Dixon is capable of scrambling for major yardage if his play breaks down, while junior QB Brady Leaf has the arm strength and composure to deliver from the pocket. With talented receivers like James Finley and Cameron Colvin returning, in addition to the emergence of TE Danta Rosario, the QB battle should be quite interesting. At RB, the Ducks are eager to see how bruiser Jonathan Stewart does in his sophomore campaign.
The Ducks face out-of-conference powers Oklahoma and Fresno State early in the season and must travel to USC, Arizona State, and California before concluding the season with a trip to Corvallis to face rival Oregon State. If the Ducks want to be as successful as last season’s 10-2 team, the defense must step up and give the young offense plenty of time to gel and make mistakes.
Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State starts the 2006 season with 4 of its first 5 games in Corvallis but will have to finish the season with 3 of its last 4 on the road. With all of the tough conference opponents having to come to them, the Beavers look to improve upon the 5-6 record of last season. Led by senior QB Matt Moore and the return of leading rusher RB Yvenson Bernard, the Beaver offense should be as high-powered as any in the Pac-10. Even with the loss of Biletnikoff winner Mike Hass, as a second year starter, Matt Moore will be able to hook-up with junior WR Anthony Wheat-Brown and 2004 starter Marcel Love.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Beavers are led by senior safety Sabby Piscitelli but must find adequate replacements for two solid linebackers in Keith Ellison and Trent Brey. Even with all four members of the secondary returning, the Beavers need to improve a defense that allowed 33 points per game and finished second-to-last in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency defense. Look out for senior PK Alexis Serna, who made 23 field goals last season. With the combination of a strong returning offense and the opportunity to get settled in with a home friendly schedule, the Beavers could make some noise in 2006.
The Cardinal head into coach Walt Harris’ second season with the excitement of a new stadium but won’t know what to expect in terms of team production. Stanford’s personnel loses are limited and the returning players are laden with experience, but this was a team that was inconsistent at best throughout the 2005 season. A loss to UC-Davis and close wins at WSU and Arizona were book-ended with two heart-breaking losses to rival Cal and then to Notre Dame to close the season.
The offense is led by senior QB Trent Edwards who looked brilliant at times last season and threw 17 TD passes. This season, with a healthy receiving corps, the Cardinal passing attack is one to be reckoned with. Senior WR Mark Bradford is primed for a big year after leading the team with 6 TD last season. Also catching passes will be 6'7" WR standout Evan Moore, who has recovered from an injury suffered early last year. Although the rushing game returns 4 of the teams top 5 backs from a year ago, the unit finished last in the Pac-10 with just 92 yards a game. Incoming freshman RB Toby Gerheart, California high schools’ all-time leading rusher, should see early-season action.
On defense, the Cardinal may have lost three outstanding players in CB T.J. Rushing, tackle Babatunde Oshinowo, and LB Jon Alston, however, seniors Udeme Udofia, Trevor Hooper, and Mike Silva lead a group loaded with experience into the 2006 season. Stanford must face opponents on the road 7 out of 12 times this year.
Fresh off an exciting win over Northwestern in the Sun Bowl and the best season in the Karl Dorrell era, the Bruins look to duplicate their success from a year ago with brand new players. The losses of Maurice Drew, Drew Olson, and Marcedes Lewis will greatly affect an offense that was able to score nearly 40 points a game last year. Highly touted prospect QB Ben Olson will have to get acquainted with his receiving corps early, but a strong group should make that task easier. The return of junior RB Chris Markey should also take some pressure off the passing game.
The Bruin defense must find a way to re-tool quickly with the loss of its entire dominant linebacking corps made up of Justin London, Spencer Havner, and Wesley Walker. The secondary also bids farewell to Jarrad Page and Marcus Cassel. The defensive line returns with more experience and looks to be the strength of the Bruin unit, although some of the lingering members are from a group that gave up 232 yards a contest and 29 TD on the ground.
UCLA gets to play 4 of its first 5 games at home but then must make two consecutive road trips to Oregon and then Notre Dame. The Bruins also must pay visits to Arizona State and Cal this season but will have the luxury of playing USC at home, along with 6 other home matches.
USC averaged a school-record 49 points per game in 2005 and seeks to replace two Heisman trophy winners responsible for much of that production. Gone are Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Lendale White, Fred Matua, Winston Justice, and Taitusi Lutui from a squad that put up nearly 580 yards a game. Only senior flanker Steve Smith and Biletnikoff candidate Dwayne Jarrett return amongst skill players, in addition to offensive line holdovers. Junior TB Chauncey Washington will handle the ball out of the backfield, while unproven but highly touted junior QB John David Booty will lead the team.
The Trojan defense must replace most of its secondary and half of its defensive line but is in great shape with talented linebackers. The depth at LB is incredible, and look for sophomore Rey Maualuga to become a household name this year. A talented crop of incoming defensive stars also provides depth at all positions as the defense tries to keep teams at bay while the brand new offense gels.
USC returns the fewest starters of any team in the conference, yet many experts expect the Trojans to have a great season following several highly successful recruiting classes. With a schedule that includes road games at UCLA, Arkansas, and Arizona, the Trojans expect to return to the top of their perch soon. A loss in the national championship game might be considered an accomplishment for most teams, but the Trojans would rather see it as a disappointment as they begin the quest once again for another Pac-10 crown.
The Huskies don’t lose much in terms of experience, but those who were on the team last year must face the fact that they went 2-9 in 2006, with one of the wins coming against Idaho. Senior QB Isaish Stanback will be throwing passes to senior WR Sonny Shackleford and junior WR Anthony Russo. Louis Rankin also returns at RB, but the offense from a year ago only averaged 21 points per game. On defense, although nearly all of the starters return and many with significant experience as juniors and seniors, don't forget that this defensive unit allowed 31 points per game last fall.
On the bright side, there isn’t much room to do worse when you’ve gone 2-9, and the second year into coach Tyrone Willingham’s tenure should reveal a marked improvement. The road won’t be easy as the Huskies must travel to play the toughest team in the conference, not to mention an out-of-conference test against Oklahoma in Norman the second week of their season.
With perhaps the toughest schedule of any team in the Pac-10, the Huskies will need to rely on some luck to have a shot at contending in the conference. With one of the better recruiting classes in recent years, UW looks to be on the right track.
Washington State Cougars
On paper, it would seem the Cougars have a lot of work to do to improve from last seasons’ 4-7 record. However, at closer look, the tale of the tape would reveal that in 5 of their 7 losses last year, the Cougars were defeated by 4 points or less, usually by nothing more than a field goal. With returning junior QB Alex Brink and senior WR Jason Hill, the WSU offense is capable of putting up big numbers. Speedy athletes like DeMaundray Woolridge and Michael Bumpus also gives the offense tremendous options.
Defensively, the Cougars have to replace their starting corners, but a talented group of linebackers and both returning safeties should do the trick for a while. DE Mkristo Bruce led the Cougars in tackles for loss the last two seasons and looks to be a force this year as well. With a solid front seven, this may be the year that this squad turns the corner. Look for the Cougs to be in a bowl game at year's end.
Although WSU starts the season with a tough assignment having to travel to Auburn, three of the next four games are at home, and the Cougars may have the most attractive conference home schedule of all with USC, Cal, Washington, and Oregon all having to make the trek to the Palouse.