Saturday, July 12, 2008

2008 Pac-10 Preview

Southern Cal
The Trojans look to make it 7 straight Pac-10 titles. Can anyone out west loosen their Florida State-esque stranglehold on the conference? The past 6 seasons, USC has gone an incredible 44-6 against Pac-10 foes. Amazingly, no team in that span has beaten the Trojans twice. Each of their 6 Pac-10 losses has also come by no more than 7 points. That is the epitome of dominance. Barring some miraculous seasons at Cal or Oregon, their run should continue in 2008.

In 2007, the Trojans had a very prolific offense, led by quarterback John David Booty. The Trojans averaged 435 yards per game (29th in the nation) and scored 32.6 points per game (34th in the nation). While the Booty-led Trojans didn’t live up to the standard set by Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Lendale White, they were still pretty good in their own right. Amazingly in 2008, the Trojans bring back only 4 offensive starters. Their leading passer (Booty), rusher (Chauncey Washington) and receiver (Fred Davis) are all gone, as well as 4 starting offensive linemen. The men replacing them are all blue-chip recruits, but the Trojans should suffer a decline in their offensive capabilities and may average under 30 points per game for the first time since 2001.

The defense, which ranked 2nd in the country in yards allowed per game (273), returns 7 starters in 2008. The unit should still be among the best in the Pac-10, but arguably the two best players (both from the defensive line) are gone. Lawrence Jackson, a defensive end who led the team with 10.5 sacks has departed and his partner on the line, tackle Sedrick Ellis (the Pac-10 defensive player of the year) is also gone. Those two players alone accounted for 19 of the Trojans 45 sacks (4th in the nation) last season. Despite the players Pete Carroll has recruited to fill the holes, the Trojans defensive line will suffer a small decline and the team will not get as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks from their front four.

Prediction: The Trojans have, not necessarily holes, but certainly inexperience at key positions (quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive line) in 2008. Still, the Trojans have won 6 Pac-10 titles in a row for a reason. I won’t be picking against them until someone finally knocks them from their perch. I don’t expect an undefeated conference record, but they do get their toughest Pac-10 foes (Oregon, Cal, and Arizona State) in Los Angeles in 2008. In non-conference action, the home against Ohio State will get the most pub, but the opener at Virginia, with so many new starters to integrate, could end up being a compelling game.

2007 marked the first time the Cal Bears had a losing record in Pac-10 play with Jeff Tedford as the coach. The Bears began conference play 2-0, but lost 6 of their last 7 to finish with a 3-6 record. The previous low-point under the Tedford administration was a 4-4 record in 2002 (his first season) and another 4-4 record in 2005. What happened? Why did the Bears suddenly collapse? As you can see, in the first 2 games, the Bears and their opponents (Arizona and Oregon) gained about the same number of yards, but the Bears were much more efficient, averaging 7/10ths of a yard more per play. They also had a fantastic turnover margin of +6. Over the next 7 games, the Bears continued to outplay their opponents on a down-to-down basis, manifested in the yards and yards per play totals, but they couldn’t stop turning the ball over. Most of those turnovers belonged to quarterback Nate Longshore who threw 11 interceptions over the team’s final 7 conference games. Entering his senior season, Longshore is no longer entrenched as the starter. He will be challenged by last year’s backup Kevin Riley. Riley posted a much better passer rating (174.64 to 123.01) in limited action and will get every chance to win the job. He took over for Longshore in the bowl and led the Bears to a comeback win over Air Force. Whoever wins the starting job will have a lot of new faces to throw and hand off to. The leading rusher, Justin Forsett (over 1500 yards) is gone, as are the top-4 receivers. Fortunately, 3 starting offensive linemen do return so protection should not be an issue. For the second season in a row, Cal should average under 30 points per game. However, if the quarterback can take better care of the ball, Cal should rise in the standings.

The Cal defense finished a rather bland 58th in yards allowed in 2007, permitting opponents to roll up 379 yards per game. However, in Pac-10 play (the most offensive of the BCS leagues), Cal finished a respectable 5th in yards allowed. The defense should improve in 2008, with 8 starters returning. The Bears must replace leading tackler Thomas DeCoud, but nearly all the other key contributors return. All 3 linebackers and 3 of 4 defensive linemen are back, making the front 7 very formidable. Look for Cal to improve upon the pedestrian 21 sacks (85th in the nation) they amassed in 2007.

Prediction: Sandwiched between their Pac-10 opener at Washington State, the Bears host the Big 10’s Michigan State and travel to College Park to take on Maryland out of the ACC. Kudos to the Bears for scheduling some living, breathing BCS teams (and even going on the road) in their non-conference schedule. The Bears should handle the Spartans at home, but the cross-country trip to Maryland will be very tough. In their final non-conference game, they host Colorado State. At worse, they should have a 2-1 record outside the Pac-10. In conference play, they have 5 home games, all of which are very winnable (Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, and Washington). On the road, they must face Southern Cal (a certain loss) and then 3 teams that they can realistically expect to beat (Washington State, Arizona, and Oregon State). They won’t win all 3 of those, but taking 2 is certainly within reason. Cal should be headed to the Holiday Bowl in late December.

It’s hard not to look back on 2007 as somewhat of a disappointment for the Ducks. If Dennis Dixon hadn’t gone down against Arizona, could they have finished off the Wildcats, Bruins, and Beavers and positioned themselves for a shot at the MNC? Ah, but we shall never know. Dixon did go down against Arizona, and his replacements failed to do much of anything until the surprising thrashing of South Florida in the Sun Bowl. Especially in line for some staunch criticism is quarterback Cody Kempt who started the game immediately after Dixon’s injury—a shutout at the hands of UCLA. Kempt’s stat line for that game? 6 completions in 23 attempts for 52 yards and 2 interceptions. Yikes. He missed his first 3 pass attempts against Oregon State the next week and was yanked in favor of Justin Roper. Roper posted decent numbers against the Beavers and again against the Bulls in the Sun Bowl, but the Ducks trounced South Florida thanks to the ground game. Jonathan Stewart went over 253 yards and averaged 11 yards per carry against the previously stout South Florida defense. Unfortunately for Roper or fellow sophomore Nathan Costa (the competitors for the starting quarterback job), Stewart’s days as a Duck are over. His 1700+ plus yards will be hard to replace. And don’t forget the Duck ground game that churned out 253 yards per game (6th in the nation) also loses Dixon. Roper is not athletic, but Costa does give the Ducks a dual threat under center. It will be interesting to see if the prototypical pocket passer or the more athletic speed guy wins the quarterback battle. Whoever wins the battle, will have the services of wide receiver Jaison Williams (another one!) and tight end Ed Dickson, the two leading receivers from 2007. The offensive line also returns 3 of 5 starters, so while the offense will certainly not be as prolific as last year’s version, it should remain in the upper tier of the Pac-10.

Defensively, the Ducks were very nondescript in 2007. They ranked 60th in the nation in total defense, allowing 382 yards per game. In Pac-10 play, they were 6th in yards allowed which was right at average last season. The defense was not going to win games by itself, but coupled with the Dixon led offense, it was good enough for a Pac-10 title. The best thing the defense did in 2007 was pressure the quarterback. The unit had 38.5 sacks (17th in the nation) for the season. The majority of those sacks, and 7 total starters return to the team in 2008. Led by senior defensive end Nick Reed (team-leading 12 sacks in 2007) the front 7 should once again be able to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks. Oregon’s defense will not rise to an elite level in 2008, but it should improve.

Prediction: Outside the Pac-10, the Ducks have a walkover against Utah State, a dangerous road test at Purdue, and a very sexy showdown with Boise State in Autzen Stadium. The game against Boise State may well determine if the Broncos can qualify for a BCS bowl in 2008. In conference play, the Ducks have only 4 home games, and they must face Southern Cal, Arizona State, and Cal on the road. Even if they lose all 3 of those games (likely), the Ducks should be able to steal a roadie against either Washington State or arch-rival Oregon State and post a winning record in the league.

After posting a pathetic offensive showing in 2006, during which they averaged only 253 yards per game (115th in the nation), the Wildcats poached offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech to resuscitate their dying attack. They still couldn’t run the ball at all (77 yards per game—114th in the nation), but they passed for over 300 yards per game and jumped to 67th in the nation in total offense. However, their total offense was still below average, especially for the Pac-10. In Pac-10 play, they were 7th in yards gained, ahead of only Oregon State, UCLA, and Stanford. If a bowl bid, and a saved job, are in the works for 2008, the offense must continue to improve.

The good news is that offensive improvement could very well happen in 2008. Only a solitary starter from the 2007 team (left tackle) is gone. The quarterback, running back, and top-4 receivers are all back for more in 2008. The quarterback, Willie Tuitama, took a real shine to the new offense in 2007. His passer rating of 134.23 (39th in the nation) was nearly 20 points higher than his rating in 2006 (114.33). Tuitama also displayed surprising durability, a real concern since he missed parts of 6 games in 2006. If Tuitama can maintain and the running game can rise from the abyss the Arizona offense will continue to improve in 2008.

On the other side of the ball, things don’t look quite as rosy. In 2007, the defense, like the offense was the 7th best in the Pac-10 in terms of yards. They return a paltry 3 starters in 2008. 7 of their top-9 tacklers and 75% of their total sacks (19.5 of 26) are gone. A major rebuilding effort will be in order. Thankfully, the offense should be able to keep the team in most games.

Prediction: Arizona does benefit from 5 Pac-10 home games in 2008. Unfortunately, one of them is against Southern Cal. If they can steal a road game at Stanford, and hold serve at home (easier said than done with Cal also on the home slate), they could finish with a winning record in conference play. Outside the league, they host Idaho and Toledo. They should roll over Idaho, and while the Toledo offense may give them problems, they should be able to outscore the Rockets. A winning record in the regular season will likely come down to the 3rd non-conference game at New Mexico. The Lobos shocked the Wildcats in Tucson last season, so this is definitely not a sure thing. While researching Arizona, I came upon an interesting little statistical nugget. If only they could play all their games in November.

Arizona State
After never quite being able to get over the hump in the Dirk Koetter regime, the Sun Devils finally made it in 2007. Under first year head coach Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils rolled out to an 8-0 start and by season’s end were co-champions of the Pac-10. The Sun Devils were somewhat exposed in the last 5 games when they faced 3 ranked teams (Oregon, Southern Cal, and Texas), and lost all 3 games. Contrast that to their first 8 games when they faced only one ranked foe (Cal). The Sun Devils are due for some regression in 2008, but they will remain a solid Pac-10 team.

Despite their solid credentials (7 conference wins, 10 wins overall, 8-0 start, etc.), the Sun Devils were a mid-level Pac-10 team last season. In conference play, they were 6th in yards gained and 4th in yards allowed. The Sun Devils were able to win such a high percentage of their conference games because they had the best turnover margin (+7) in Pac-10 play, and because they won the close ones. Arizona State was 3-0 in one-score games in 2007, defeating Washington State, UCLA, and Arizona by a combined 10 points.

In 2008, the offense returns 6 starters, including quarterback Rudy Carpenter (145.09 passer rating in 2007—18th in the nation), leading rusher Keegan Herring, and leading receivers Chris McGaha and Michael Jones. 3 starting offensive linemen are gone, but that may be a godsend for Carpenter as the Sun Devils allowed 54 sacks (117th in the nation) last season. All in all, the offense should be at about the same level as last season.

Defensively, the Sun Devils bring back 7 starters from what was basically an average Pac-10 defense. Bookend linemen, Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez (15 combined sacks in 2007) are perhaps the two most important players. Like the offense, the defense should remain at about the same level as the 2007 unit.

Prediction: The Sun Devils stay in the desert for all their non-conference action, hosting Northern Arizona, UNLV, and in one of the best non-conference matchups (at least on paper)—Georgia. Remember in 2005, the Sun Devils nearly knocked off an LSU team ranked in the top-5 before falling 35-31. A 2-1 non-conference record is the likely worst case scenario. In conference play, the Sun Devils have only 4 home games and the road schedule features 2 almost certain losses (Cal and Southern Cal). With some regression in turnovers and fortune in one-score games, look for the Sun Devils to fall to the middle of the Pac-10.

Oregon State
Guess which team has the second best record in Pac-10 play over the last 2 seasons. Since this is under the Oregon State team preview, chances are you guessed right. Amazingly, the Beavers started out 0-2 in Pac-10 play in both 2006 and 2007, before rallying to win 6 of their last 7 conference games both seasons. No team in the nation has won 19 games in a quieter fashion over the past 2 seasons. Can the Beavers continue the best sustained run of relevance in their history under Mike Riley?

The Beavers won games last year thanks to their front 7. Opponents averaged only 71 yards per game on the ground (tops in the nation) and a meager 2.06 yards per rush (again tops). That number is buoyed by the 41 sacks they collected (10th in the nation), but even without the sacks, the line still held its own against opposing runners. Unfortunately, the front 7 has been decimated by graduation. The entire starting front 7 is gone. The top two-sack men, defensive ends Slade Norris and Victor Butler (combined 19.5 sacks in 2007) are back. However, those two were situation players as evidenced by their 41 combined tackles (nearly half were sacks!). Look for a significant drop off from the Beavers run defense. Last season, only Southern Cal allowed fewer yards in Pac-10 play. In 2008, the Beavers should fall to the middle of the Pac-10 in defensive acumen.

And thank goodness for that outstanding defense in 2007. Because the offense, outside of the running of Yvenson Bernard (over 1200 yards in 2007), was among the worst in the Pac-10. Only the M*A*S*H unit at UCLA and the moribund offensive attack of Stanford gained fewer yards in Pac-10 play. The two-headed quarterbacking monster of Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao helped the Beavers compile a passer rating of 103.90 (114th in the nation). This season, the offense returns 7 starters, including the aforementioned platoon of below average passers. The biggest loss is Bernard who topped 1000 yards on the ground in 2005, 2006, and 2007. However, the Beavers do welcome back wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. Stroughter had nearly 1300 yards receiving in 2006, but Stroughter played only 3 games in 2007, catching a scant 15 passes. If he can approach his 2006 form, either Canfield or Moevao could see improvement in their passing statistics. Overall, it will be hard for the offense to be as bad as last season. However, no one will confuse them with their high-powered brethren in Eugene.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule for the Beavers is fairly daunting. They travel to Beaver Stadium to take on Penn State, host Hawaii, and travel to Salt Lake City to take on a very dangerous mid-major in Utah. 2-1 is the best case with that schedule, and 1-2 may be a more realistic expectation. The Beavers do catch some breaks in the conference schedule, with 5 homes games. Unfortunately, most of the teams they face at home are all among the best in the conference—Southern Cal, Cal, Oregon, and Arizona State. Depending upon how they do outside the league, the Beavers could be back in a bowl for the 6th time in 7 seasons, something unheard of in Corvallis a decade ago.

The Bruins have a new head coach which always brings eternal optimism. Will that optimism be justified or is UCLA in for another season in the 6-7 win zone (6 of the last 8)?

Last season, injuries and general suckitude led the Bruins to give significant playing time to 4 quarterbacks. Those gentlemen combined to complete only 47.6% of their passes (116th in the nation). The fact that the Bruins were able to win 6 games (an amazing 5 in Pac-10 play) and nearly upset BYU in the bowl game is a testament to the Bruin defense. The defense allowed 343 yards per game (29th in the nation), and in Pac-10 play, only the uber-strong Trojans and run-stuffing Beavers were better. Unfortunately, that unit loses 6 starters in 2007, including the top-3 tacklers and leading sacker, defensive end Bruce Davis (12 sacks in 2007). The Bruin defense will regress in the first season of the Rick Neuheisel-era.

Of course, while the defense will likely get worse, the offense will almost certainly get better. While the unit returns only 5 starters, and must replace 4 starting offensive linemen, their injury luck cannot be as bad as last season. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job, either incumbent Ben Olson or JUCO transfer Kevin Craft, will certainly put up better numbers than last season.

Prediction: The Bruins should be a little better on offense, and a little worse on defense, and thus end up about where they were last season. In non-conference play, the Bruins host Tennessee on Labor Day night, in a game that could very well kick-start the Neuheisel-era. In their other two games outside the league, they travel to BYU and host Fresno State. A 2-1 record, or perhaps even 3-0, outside the league is very feasible. However, inside the Pac-10 the Bruins should remain a mid-level team.

Washington State
A 4th straight non-winning season got Bill Doba his walking papers. His replacement is Paul Wulff. Wulff fashioned a 53-40 record with 3 playoff appearances in 8 seasons at Eastern Washington. He posted only 1 losing season in his tenure and knows about the culture in Pullman, having played offensive line here in the 1980s.

Last season, only Oregon gained more yards against Pac-10 foes than the Cougars. Led by quarterback Alex Brink, the offense gained 435 yards per game (28th in the nation). However, the team only scored 25.7 yards per game (73rd in the nation), thanks to poor starting field position. The team gained only 19.34 yards per kickoff return (97th in the nation) and 6.50 yards per punt return (95th in the nation). If those special team numbers can improve a little, the Cougar offense could be nearly as productive even with the loss of Brink. Brink’s replacement is senior Gary Rogers, who has thrown all of 52 passes in his first 3 seasons. Rogers will have 4 starting offensive linemen returning to protect him and the team’s leading receiver (Brandon Gibson) to throw to.

Defensively, the Cougars were mediocre to bad in the last 4 seasons of the Doba regime (54th, 108th, 81st, and 87th in total defense). 8 starters are back in 2008, and the only significant loss is safety Husain Abdullah (leading tackler in 2007). After Abdullah, the rest of the top-9 tacklers are back. The Cougars defense should see some improvement in 2008, and may field the best unit since the last bowl season in 2003.

Prediction: Even if they don’t qualify for a bowl game, the Cougars will end the season in Paradise, as they travel to Hawaii in the last regular season game. Besides Hawaii, the Cougars take on Oklahoma State (in Seattle), Portland State, and travel to Baylor. Each game is winnable, but it’s unlikely the Cougars can take all 4. Best case scenario is probably 3-1. In conference play, the Cougars have 5 home games, but 3 of those come against the league’s top teams (Southern Cal, Oregon, and Cal). Still, with a little bit of luck and some better play on special teams, the Cougars could be back in a bowl game for the first time in 5 seasons.

Since he shocked the world, and set expectations a little high, with a 10-3 record (8-0 start) in his first season at Notre Dame, Tyrone Willingham has not enjoyed much success. To be fair, Willingham inherited a Washington team coming off a 1-10 season, but that cumulative winning percentage of .373 would not be considered a success at many places. Can the Huskies break through in Willingham’s 4th season and get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2002?

Know who the leading returning rusher in the Pac-10 is? Here’s a hint, he’s not a running back. Among Pac-10 players, Jake Locker finished 5th in rushing with 986 yards. The 4 running backs who finished ahead of him will not be back in 2008 (including Louis Rankin, the leading rusher for the Huskies in 2007). While Locker was an excellent runner in 2007, he struggles throwing the football. Locker completed only 47.3% of his passes, and as a team, the Huskies completed only 46% of their throws (117th in the nation). Locker completed more than 50% of his throw in only 4 of 13 games, and was over 60% just once—in the opener versus Syracuse. With a year of experience after being thrown to the wolves as a redshirt freshman, Locker should see his completion percentage climb above 50% for the year, but he will likely still be a below average passer, at least based on accuracy. However, his legs should allow him to remain entrenched as the starter and help the Husky offense continue to improve.

However, if the Huskies are to have any chance at a bowl bid in 2008, the defense must improve. Only Stanford allowed more yards in Pac-10 play last year, and for the season, they finished 103rd in the nation in total defense, permitting 446 yards per game. If we remove the 3 games against offensively challenged Syracuse (114th nationally in yards per game), Stanford (107th), and Oregon State (78th), the Huskies allowed 502 yards per game. The Huskies have not finished better than 95th in total defense in Willingham’s 3 seasons. The defense is not likely to significantly improve in 2008. 6 starters return, but outside of defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (8.5 sacks in 2007), there is a dearth of playmakers—the team-leader in interceptions, Mesphin Forrester, had 2 last season. No one else had more than 1. Normally a team that only intercepted 11 passes would stand a very good chance of creating significantly more turnovers the next year. However, while they only intercepted 11 passes, they gained 24 turnovers, which was actually about average (59th in the nation).

Prediction: The non-conference schedule features all home games, but each will be very difficult. BYU, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame all travel to Husky Stadium, and it’s likely the Huskies will not be able to win more than one of those games. In conference play, the Huskies have 5 road games and figure to be underdogs in each one (Oregon, Arizona, Southern Cal, Washington State, and Cal). 2008 looks to be another losing year for Willingham and company.

The overall record may have been better, but the underlying performance was still the worst in the Pac-10. Stanford had the worst offense in Pac-10 play (about 51 yards per game worse than 9th place UCLA) and the worst defense (only about 7 yards worse than 9th place Washington State). The Cardinal were outgained in all 9 of their Pac-10 games. On the season, the only teams they were able to outgain were San Jose State and Notre Dame. Don’t be fooled by their 4-8 record, the Cardinal have a long way yet to go.

On offense, Stanford returns 7 starters from what was the worst unit in the Pac-10. Tavita Pritchard, who split time at quarterback with TC Ostrander, returns to lead the offense. Pritchard posted an abysmal passer rating of 97.45 last season, and will need marked improvement to become a below-average passer. Pritchard’s top pass-catcher, Richard Sherman, and the team’s leading rusher, Anthony Kimble, also return meaning the offense should be a bit better in 2008. Still, while improvement is likely, the Cardinal should remain at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 in terms of offense.

The Cardinal defense returns 9 starters, including 3 of the top-4 tacklers and may avoid the moniker of the league’s worst defense in 2008. Led by the linebacking duo of Clinton Snyder and Pat Maynor (14 combined sacks in 2007), the Cardinal did manage to tackle opposing quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage 37.5 times in 2007 (20th in the nation). When they were not able to get to opposing quarterbacks, the secondary struggled. The Cardinal permitted opposing quarterbacks to post a pass efficiency rating of 134.30 in 2007 (84th in the nation). If the secondary can show some improvement (3 starters are back), the Cardinal could rise to the middle of the conference heap in defense.

Prediction: Besides their evisceration of San Jose State, the Cardinal won their other 3 games by a combined 9 points. The non-conference schedule includes the same 3 teams as last season (San Jose State, TCU, and Notre Dame), only now 2 are on the road (TCU and Notre Dame), instead of Palo Alto. Plus TCU and Notre Dame figure to be improved over their 2007 versions. In conference play, the Cardinal have 5 road games, and one of their home games will include an angry and out for revenge Trojan squad. The Cardinal may improve performance-wise, but will fail to match last year’s win total.

Predicted Records:

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