1. USC Trojans
Projected Record: 12-0 (9-0)
Key Players: QB John David Booty, RB/KR C.J. Gable, RB Stafon Johnson, WR Patrick Turner, WR Vidal Hazelton, TE Fred Davis, T Sam Baker, G Jeff Byers, DE Lawrence Jackson, DT Sedrick Ellis, LB Rey Maualuga, LB Keith Rivers, LB Bryan Cushing, S Taylor Mays, CB Terrell Thomas, S Kevin Ellison
Newcomer: RB Joe McKnight
After a disappointing 11-2 season— yes, disappointing by USC standards—the Trojans return 15 starters (including 10 on defense) on a fully-loaded team.
The biggest issue facing the SC offense is probably how to distribute enough touches to satisfy its gifted athletes.
John David Booty (61.7 percent completion rate, 3,347 yards, 29 TDs, 9 interceptions) returns as the starting quarterback with the intention of following Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart as a Heisman winner. Booty will have plenty of targets, including NFL-prototypes, WR Patrick Turner (6’5”, 220 lbs.) and TE Fred Davis (6’4” 245).
Supporting the passing game will be a much-improved running game. USC has ten running backs on scholarship, including the quick C.J. Gable, the explosive Stafon Johnson, the powerful Allen Johnson, the workhorse Chauncey Washington, and the spectacular freshman Joe McKnight.
Needless to say, USC will not have problems keeping everyone fresh. The O-line is anchored by All-American tackle Sam Baker.
The veteran defense returns 10 starters. USC has the best front seven in the country. Senior DE Lawrence Jackson is healthy and looks to return to his form of sophomore year, when he had 10 sacks. All three linebackers stand up for Nagurski Award consideration.
The only glaring hole for USC may be the secondary, which still boasts top-tier defensive backs Taylor Mays and Terrell Thomas.
Final verdict: Last year, the inexperienced run game proved costly for the Trojans. With more experience, and a few talented freshmen pushing for playing time, this should not be a problem. The losses of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith hurt, but the offense could be even more potent with Turner and Vidal Hazelton. This USC team looks potentially as good as the Matt Leinart-led team of a 2005. If the Trojans beat Nebraska in Lincoln and Cal in Berkeley, it will set up a rematch with cross-town rival UCLA with a BCS championship bid hanging in the balance—just like last year. UCLA pulled off the upset in 2006. Expect payback this time around.
2. UCLA Bruins
Projected Record: 10-2 (8-1)
Losses: at Utah (9/15), at USC (12/1)
Key Players: QB Ben Olson, RB Chris Markey, WR Brandon Breazell, WR Joe Cowan, G Shannon Tevaga, DE Bruce Davis, DT Brigham Harwell, LB Reggie Carter, LB Christian Taylor, CB Trey Brown, S Chris Horton, S Dennis Keyes, P Aaron Perez
Newcomer: DT Brian Price
With all the attention given to its crosstown rival, UCLA always seems to fly below the radar.
This year, Westwood may have something to talk about.
Returning 20 out of 22 starters on a team that upset USC, Head Coach Karl Dorrell has some momentum coming into this season. On offense, a healthy Ben Olson (former High School All-American) looks to supplant the incumbent Patrick Cowan at quarterback.
Whoever starts will get to throw to the quick, elusive Brandon Breazell and the big, sure-handed Joe Cowan. The return of Chris Markey for his senior year brings stability, although there isn’t much depth behind him. He’ll get help from a big, physical interior line.
The Bruins defense will be one of the best in the country. All-American end Bruce Davis led Division I-A with 12.5 sacks. The linebacker corps is smart and quick. The secondary is the best in the conference, led by Trey Brown and Chris Horton.
The kicking game may be an issue after the graduation of mainstay Justin Medlock.
Final verdict: The only team to hold USC under 20 points on offense was UCLA, which let up three field goals. This team has a championship-caliber defense—and 10 wins is a real possibility. The only question is whether the offense can keep up. Don’t rule out potential slips against Utah, Oregon State, Notre Dame, or Cal in the early going. The USC game might be in the program’s most important in some time.
3. California Golden Bears
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2)
Losses: at UCLA (10/20), USC (11/10)
Key Players: QB Nate Longshore, RB Justin Forsett, WR/PR DeSean Jackson, T Mike Gibson, C Alex Mack, DT Matthew Malele, LB Zack Follet, LB Worrell Williams, S Thomas DeCoud, CB Syd’Quan Thompson
Newcomer: RB/KR James Montgomery
Is this the season Cal finally contends for a national title?
For a few years now, the Bears have had the tools to make a run. Each year, they falter under the pressure.
It’s hard to imagine this program hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1958.
In 2007, Cal boasts the nation’s most dynamic player in DeSean Jackson, a star wide receiver who’s also dangerous in the return game. He’ll have strong-armed quarterback Nate Longshore throwing to him.
Emerging from under Marshawn Lynch’s shadow will be 5’8” RB Justin Forsett, one of the most underrated players in the Pac-10.
Last year, the defense was often exposed through the air, with several freshmen and sophomores playing key roles in the secondary. The lack of a pass rush by the front four also hurt.
The same will be true this year, especially with the departure of Lott Trophy-winner Daymeion Hughes. Freshmen corners Darian Hagan and Charles Amadi will take their lumps against some of the better quarterbacks in the country.
Final verdict: Jeff Tedford’s squad still has the same inadequacies that plagued it a year ago: a below-average defensive line and an inexperienced secondary. Cal also has a history of not playing big in big games. Contests against Oregon, UCLA, and USC will go a long way towards determining Cal’s fate.
4. Oregon Ducks
Projected Record: 7-5 (5-4)
Losses: at Michigan (9/8), California (9/29), USC (10/27), at Arizona (11/15), at UCLA (11/24)
Key Players: QB Dennis Dixon, RB/KR Jonathan Stewart, RB Jeremiah Johnson, WR Jaison Williams, WR Garren Strong, T Max Unger, T Geoff Schwartz, LB A.J. Tuitele, S/PR Patrick Chung, CB Jairus Byrd, CB Walter Thurmond
Newcomer: DE Kenny Rowe
Coach Mike Bellotti’s primary concern will be at quarterback, where the inconsistent senior Dennis Dixon looks to improve on his stellar junior year.
He’ll be pushed by backup senior QB Brady Leaf (brother of Ryan Leaf).
The running game should alleviate some of the pressure—Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson make quite a tandem for the Ducks. If Stewart’s ankle is healthy, he’ll have a monster some.
The wide receivers are all highly-coveted recruits, but have had issues holding onto the ball. They have the potential, just not the consistency.
The defense lost a few key players. Linebacker A.J. Tuitele will need to be the anchor in the middle, as the line may continue to have problems rushing the QB. The secondary should make up for it—rover Patrick Chung and corner Jairus Byrd are potential game-breakers.
Final verdict: Oregon has a relatively favorable Pac-10 schedule, playing Cal, USC, and rival Oregon State at home in Autzen Stadium. However, the team also has to travel to the Big House to play Michigan and to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA. This program goes as the quarterback goes. When Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and Kellen Clemens rose to prominence, the Ducks flourished. Dennis Dixon (or Leaf) will need to make a similar jump. Otherwise, welcome to the Las Vegas Bowl.
5. Oregon State Beavers
Projected Record: 7-5 (4-5)
Losses: UCLA (9/29), at California (10/13), at USC (11/3), at Washington State (11/17), at Oregon (12/1)
Key Players: QB Sean Canfield, RB Yvenson Bernard, WR Sammie Stroughter, G Roy Schuening, C Kyle DeVan, LB Derrick Doggett, LB Joey LaRocque, CB Keenan Lewis, CB Brandon Hughes, K Alexis Serna
Newcomer: DB David Ross
Coach Mike Riley will probably institute a dual quarterback rotation with the strong-armed pocket passer Sean Canfield and the mobile Lyle Moevao.
Regardless of who’s on the field, the QB’s two primary responsibilities will be handing off to All-Pac-10 running back Yvenson Bernard (2,648 rushing yards, 25 TDs for career) and throwing to All-American receiver Sammie Stroughter (74 rec., 1,293 yards, 5 TDs in 2006).
Aside from UCLA and maybe USC, Oregon State has the best group of linebackers in the conference. They will need to continue to stifle the run, as the secondary has had its troubles defending the pass.
Final verdict: The Beavers are coming off of a 10-4 season. However, the Pac-10 has improved and OSU may have some issues defending the pass, as well as replacing Matt Moore at QB. Away games at Cal, USC, and Washington State will all be tough ones to win. Expect Oregon State to go bowling, though.
6. Arizona State Sun Devils
Projected Record: 7-5 (4-5)
Losses: Oregon State (9/22), California (10/27), at Oregon (11/3), at UCLA (11/10), USC (11/22)
Key Players: QB Rudy Carpenter, RB Ryan Torain, WR Kyle Williams, WR Rudy Burgess, C Mike Pollak, T Brandon Rodd, DE Dexter Davis, DT Michael Marquardt, CB Justin Tryon, S Josh Barrett
Newcomer: CB Omar Bolden
Coach Dirk Koetter is gone after the flip-flop fiasco at quarterback. (The benched Sam Keller eventually transferred).
Experienced and well-traveled Dennis Erickson steps into the head role, and brings with him a spread offense.
After a disappointing sophomore season, QB Rudy Carpenter will look to repeat his freshman year, in which completed 68.4 percent of his passes along with 2273 yards, 17 TDs, and only 2 INTs.
Carpenter still lacks a premier receiver to throw to, but WR Kyle Williams has potential. The running game features senior Ryan Torain, a slightly under-the-radar pro prospect who’s big and agile.
On defense, the Sun Devils have a weak front seven, which teams with strong run games will exploit. The secondary isn’t much better, but features a top pro prospect in 6’2”, 220-pound safety Josh Barrett.
Final verdict: Like several of the top Pac-10 teams, the Sun Devils have a prolific offense. However, the ASU defense is lacking playmakers—and it will show against the cream of the crop. Still, this team has enough talent to go to a bowl.
7. Arizona Wildcats
Projected Record: 6-6 (3-6)
Wins: at BYU (9/1), Northern Arizona (9/8), New Mexico (9/15), Washington State (9/29), Stanford (10/20), Oregon (11/15)
Key Players: QB Willie Tuitama, WR/PR Michael Thomas, T Eben Britton, T Peter Graniello, G Joe Longacre, DE Louis Holmes, LB Ronnie Palmer, LB Spencer Larsen, CB Antoine Cason
Newcomer: TE Rob Grankowski
Mike Stoops is on the hot seat in Arizona.
After three seasons, the coach has a combined record of 12-22. With 18 starters returning in 2007, expectations are high in Wildcat Nation.
The pressure starts at quarterback, where junior Willie Tuitama needs to fulfill his potential. Tuitama will rely on the speedy 5’8” receiver Mike Thomas as his primary target.
RB Chris Henry left early for the NFL, but he didn’t produce much at Arizona and shouldn’t be missed too dearly.
The Arizona defense could end up as the best in the conference outside of Los Angeles. The D returns 8 seniors, including stud end Louis Holmes and the best cornerback in the country, Antoine Cason.
Former defensive coordinator Stoops will keep the ‘Cats in games with this unit.
Final verdict: Don’t expect too many shootouts with this Arizona team. To get to a bowl game, the ‘Carts will have to show some consistency on offense; the D is good, but it can’t hold every opponent under 20 points.
8. Washington State Cougars
Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6)
Wins: San Diego State (9/8), Idaho (9/15), Stanford (11/10), Oregon State (11/17), at Washington (11/24)
Key Players: QB Alex Brink, RB Dwight Tardy, WR/PR Michael Bumpus, WR Brandon Gibson, G Bobby Byrd, C Kenny Alfred, DT Aaron Johnson, DT Ropati Pitoitua, S Husain Abdullah
Newcomer: C Grady Maxwell
QB Alex Brink and WRs Michael Bumpus and Brandon Gibson are very solid, experienced players—but they don’t have much of a supporting cast.
The running game sputtered last season as Dwight Tardy and DeMaundray Woolridge never got on track behind an ineffective line.
Bobby Byrd is an all-conference candidate at guard, but he’s best at pass protection.
The Cougar run defense is good, featuring interior linemen Aaron Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua. The passing defense, however, is horrible.
WSU finished 2006 as the 108th-ranked team in the country, giving up an astounding 243.1 yards per game through the air. Senior safety Husain Abdullah will hope to reverse this trend in ’07.
Wazzu hasn’t had a decent special team corps in years.
Final verdict: Washington State certainly has a few good players, but as an overall team, they’re lacking. Head Coach Bill Doba will be on the hot seat if he doesn’t bring this team to a bowl game in 2007.
9. Washington Huskies
Projected Record: 3-10 (2-7)
Wins: Boise State (9/8), Arizona (10/27), at Stanford (11/3)
Key Players: QB Jake Locker, RB Louis Rankin, WR/PR Anthony Russo, T Chad Macklin, DE Greyson Gunheim, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, LB Dan Howell
Newcomer: RB J.R. Hasty
The Huskies were 5-7 in 2006, and they probably won’t do any better this year.
Redshirt freshman QB Jake Locker beat out the senior Carl Bonnell for the starting position. Locker was Tyrone Willingham’s prized recruit, and is viewed by some to be the savior of the program.
Locker will go through his growing pains, but has a pass-blocking line in front of him that averages 324 pounds.
The defense will need to improve against the pass (the Huskies allowed a little over 240 yards per game through the air). Defensive linemen Greyson Gunheim and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim should help the pass rush.
The Huskies special teams will struggle.
Final verdict: Washington has one of the tougher schedules in the country, with out of conference games against Boise State, Ohio State, and Hawaii. The Huskies continue to get better under Willingham, but their record may not show it this year. Expect a significant improvement in the win column in 2008.
10. Stanford Cardinal
Projected Record: 1-11 (0-9)
Win: San Jose State (9/15)
Key Players: QB T.C. Ostrander, RB Anthony Kimble, FB Emeka Nnoli, WR Mark Bradford, WR Richard Sherman, DT Ekom Udofia, LB Clinton Snyder, CB Wopamo Osaisai
Newcomer: QB Kellen Kiilsgaard
Veteran quarterback T.C. Ostrander will attempt to lead this Cardinal offense.
Ostrander has a decent supporting stable of receivers in Mark Bradford, Richard Sherman, and Evan Moore. However, the rushing attack only managed to 65 yards in 2006.
This may be an especially one-dimensional team, as Stanford figures to be behind in many of its contests.
The defense is poor, ranking 117th against the run last year. The Cardinal do have a promising DT in Ekom Udofia, who figures anchor the line for years to come.
Final verdict: Jim Harbaugh has already irked several members of the college football community—and brings to mind such other nuisances as Steve Spurrier. The difference is that Spurrier’s teams have often been national title contenders, while the present Stanford team is one of the worst programs of the major conferences. Looking to improve from a 1-11 season, the Cardinal will have a target on their back. Expect Pete Carroll and USC to run up the score.
All-Pac 10 Conference Team
QB – John David Booty, Sr., USC
RB – Yvenson Bernard, Sr., Oregon State
RB – Jonathan Stewart, Jr., Oregon
WR – DeSean Jackson, Jr., Cal
WR – Sammie Stroughter, Sr., Oregon State
TE – Fred Davis, Sr., USC
OL – Sam Baker, Sr., USC
OL – Shannon Tevaga, Sr. UCLA
OL – Alex Mack, Jr., Cal
OL – Max Unger, Jr., Oregon
OL – Bobby Byrd, Sr., Washington State
DE – Bruce Davis, Sr., UCLA
DT – Sedrick Ellis, Sr., USC
DE – Louis Holmes, Sr., Arizona
DE – Lawrence Jackson, Sr., USC
LB – Keith Rivers, Sr., USC
LB – Rey Maualuga, Jr., USCLB – Zack Follet, Jr., Cal
CB – Antoine Cason, Sr., Arizona
CB – Trey Brown, Sr., UCLA
S – Josh Barrett, Sr., Arizona State
S – Taylor Mays, So., USC
K – Alexis Serna, Sr., Oregon State
P – Aaron Perez, Jr., UCLA
KR – Jonathan Stewart, Jr., Oregon
PR – DeSean Jackson, Jr., Cal
Pac-10 Offensive MVP: WR/PR DeSean Jackson, Jr., Cal
Pac-10 Defensive MVP: DE Bruce Davis, Sr., UCLA
Pac-10 Newcomers of the Year: QB Jake Locker, Washington and RB Joe McKnight, USC