Before I walk through my early predictions (I reserve the right to tweak these based on Fall camp injuries and eligibility outcomes) keep in mind the biases I have in evaluating college football teams:
1.) Historical performance most importantly the previous season. Filter that with injuries, turnover margin and schedule to project the coming year
2.) Returning talent. A combination of experience and talent based on previous AllP10 honors and recruiting rankings
3.) Big emphasis on the two lines. The biggest correlation to winning at the BCS level in college football is control of the LOS on both sides of the ball
4.) Schedule. Home field advantage especially in big games can be a difference maker
5.) Depth. Competition results in players pushing themselves and injuries are a part of the game
6.) Coaching. This is a constant and creates the tone and culture of a program. Bad coaches never win, average coaches only win on occasion, good coaches win more often than not and great coaches almost never have bad seasons.
This is an interesting year for the P10. USC isn't the obvious NC contender as they have been the past five years but they and Cal are clearly a notch above the rest of the conference. From third to ninth in the conference, it's going to be a dog fight. Injuries could be critical as teams like UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State are talented but thin.
With that long preamble, here's how I see the season going:
1.) Cal - Let's start on defense, where the Bears return nine starters. I count Mohammed as a starter as he was the teams leading tackler from the LB position last year and arguably their best all around linebacker.
The defense should be very salty in 2009 as a result of that returning experience. Especially as the strength of the group is up front with three studs in Alualu, Hill, and Jordan. The secondary will be among the nations best and the talent level everywhere is at an all time high in Berkeley.
Depth on the DL and LB are the only real concerns as the loss of Mohammed, Alualu or Jordan would be hard to overcome. Offensively, there is also reason for optimism although more guarded than on defense.
The Bears passing game can only get better as the OL gets needed depth and lots of returning experience and Kevin Riley returns all of his key receivers from last years and adds some needed young talent.
Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are both home run threats who can catch and run equally well out of the backfield. Beyond the needed improvement in the passing game, replacing Cameron Morrah at TE will not be easy and the loss of blocking fullback Will Tafuo is a hit to the running game.
The Bears need to prove that they can win in November against good teams and win road games against inferior opponents. The schedule is rougher than it looks at first glance. Back to back to back games early at Minnesota, vs. USC, and at Oregon will not be easy nor will P10 tilts on the road against improved UCLA and Stanford squads.
2.) USC - Too much focus is being put on the inexperience at the quarterback position. Aaron Corp will be in his third season for the Trojans and will be taking snaps behind the nation's best offensive line, a good group of wideouts including a potential AA and arguably the deepest corps of running backs in America.
While we may see more mistakes than normal and perhaps a late game breakdown on the road, this Trojan team is going to put up points, lots of them.
Defensively, they will take a step back from last years record setting group, but the talent and depth are as good as ever. If the DL and LBs can stay healthy and get good production from some unproven DTs and ILBs, USC will give up points very grudgingly.
The schedule is the Trojans biggest concern. Road tilts against Ohio State and Cal early in the year are going to be daunting. I actually see USC and Cal having identical P10 records with the edge to the Bears being a win in Berkeley in early October.
Were the two teams to play in LA or later in the year, I'm not sure my prediction would have been the same.
There's a BIG drop off after the Trojans and Bears but the next five teams are all good enough to go bowling and any one of them could end up in 3rd place.
3.) Arizona: This is a solid Wildcat team, with more talent and depth than at any time in the Stoops era. They could easily finish as high as third if they find a quarterback. There are plenty of playmakers on offense with two good tailbacks in Grigsby and Antolin and a solid corps of WRs return led by Dean and Turner.
Arizona also boasts the nations top TE in Gronkowski and they appear to have the makings of a serviceable OL. There will be a new starter at QB and neither of the candidates has any real experience. That's a potential challenge given the pass happy offense favored by OC Sonny Dykes.
However, Dykes had a good track record of breaking in new QBs at Texas Tech and is dealing with more highly touted recruits this time around. Defensively, this unit will not embarrass the defensive minded Stoops although it's not quite at the caliber of the elite P10 units.
They return all four lineman but the group is undersized with no real standouts. The back seven are better with an athletic LB crew and a tough secondary led by Devin Ross and Cam Nelson.
4.) UCLA: I see the Bruins making a big jump this year. Their defense will be as good as any in the P10 and their offense will improve at least enough to avoid scoring points for the opposition as they did throughout last year.
Their OL was atrocious last season as they started with concerns only to see the nations worst injury bug hit that position group. While the offense lacks playmakers, they have solid talent at WR, RB, and TE.
Their defense returns nine starters including arguably the conference's best DT in Brian Price and the best cover cornerback in Verner. Masking the Bruins melt down last year was their atrocious TO margin and loads of injuries. Their luck should change around injuries as TOs, leading to a bowl appearance this year.
5.) Stanford: The Cardinal are solid along both lines, return a stud running back and welcome a quarterback who I believe will be a multiple time AP10 performer.
Andrew Luck was one of those kids whose HS film was off the charts. He played for a prep team that gave him no pass protection whatsoever and still he was able to put up big time numbers.
His accuracy will remind you of former Cardinal and current Buffalo Bills starter, Trent Edwards, only Luck will have the benefit of playing behind an offensive line that is among the P10s best as well as Toby Gerhart's ability to force defenses to play the run first.
Defensively, Stanford returns eight starters including three on the DL. Ekom Udofia is the star here and he is a load at NT. The linebacker group and secondary lack elite athletes but they are smart and will rely on their more talented DL to occupy blockers and harass QBs.
Stanford's schedule is ideal with seven home games and road games against weak Washington State and Wake Forest teams.
6.) Oregon: Despite a plethora of offensive skill position talent and a good secondary, the Ducks are not at the level that saw them earn second in the P10 in 2008. They are rebuilding their offensive line and while the talent is there, it will take time for this group to master the zone blocking scheme required by Chip Kelly's offense.
Their defensive line is in worse shape as they lack experience and have virtually no depth. As good as Masoli and Blount are and as prolific as Kelly's scheme has been, without up front blocking on offense and some ability to slow teams down on defense, it could be a rough first year for Coach Kelly.
This will prove to be a bitter pill as the Ducks have real talent in their secondary with underrated FS TJ Ward and stud cornerback Walter Thurmond. But with no pass rush, this secondary will be hard pressed to slow down opposing offenses.
The schedule looks attractive but the road opener at Boise State could get ugly early and home games in September against Utah and Cal may be occur before the OL comes together, muting the Autzen advantage. I believe 2010 will be the Ducks year as they will return almost the entire team and their last two recruiting classes have been strong.
7.) Oregon State: The Beavers face similar challenges to the Ducks along both offensive and defensive lines but have less talent behind them. That and the fact that the Civil War is in Eugene this year is all the separate the two Oregon teams.
While Mike Riley is a superior coach and a tremendous talent evaluator, this year will be a rebuilding one for his strong program. The offensive line is a key and keeping that group healthy will be vital not only for opening up holes for returning P10 offensive MVP Jacquiz Rodgers but in finding time for two solid QBs in Moevao and Canfield.
Defensively, OSU will take a step back. Stephen Paea is a future NFL player and he'll have adequate support on the DL with Ben Taylor and Kevin Frahm but this group lacks last years pass rushing skills and overall depth.
The LB crew will be solid with Kristick and Pankey leading the way but losses in the secondary alongside a less effective pass rush will result in the Beavers having to win more shootouts than normal
8.) Arizona State: The Sun Devils are going to hope their defense can score a lot of points off turnovers this season as the cupboard is awfully bare on offense. Their OL is on paper, the conference's weakest, they have no proven quarterback or tailback and only one offensive player who qualifies as a threat, that being WR Chris McGaha.
As many questions as their are on offense, that's how good their defense could be. Dexter Davis is a ferocious pass rusher and Lawrence Guy is a stout DT against the run. The LB crew is the best in the league and the secondary features two solid players in Bolden and Carr.
The schedule doesn't help as they host the conference's two best teams, taking away what might have been easier wins against the rest of the conference. There is simply not enough offense for this team to finish higher.
9.) Washington - This prediction belies the tremendous improvement this team will have in 2009. The Huskies are going to be a vastly improved team but their murderous schedule will not allow them to adequately reflect it.
Jake Locker is back and healthy and coming off a strong Spring showing. For all of the possible impact new HC Sarkisian can have, none is greater than with his talented QB. Sark is a proven QB coach and in Locker he has someone with all the tools. While Locker is not surrounded with much talent, there is plenty of experience.
The OL should be better as will the play at RB and WR. Defensively, this team lack speed and depth although EJ Savannah and Mason Foster will scare some teams from their LB positions. Still, a schedule which includes LSU, Notre Dame not to mention road games against OSU and UCLA will be tough to overcome.
10.) WSU - The Cougars are at a two decade low in terms of talent and depth. While they return 15 starters and are likely to feel more comfortable in the second year of HC Paul Wulff's regime, the horses just aren't there.
Their offense has some skill talent with running backs Tardy and Montgomery and WR Jeshua Anderson and the OL returns four starters but this is not a talented group. The QB situation is not clear with neither Lopina nor Lobbestael inspiring much confidence.
The defense returns seven starters including LBs Mattingly and Bland but not much else. Speed is real missing ingredient with this squad as is size as neither of their projected DTs goes more than 285lbs.
If WSU can somehow avoid injuries and the offensive line unit can overachieve they may surprise a few folks. The middle of the P10 just feels too tough for them to make much progress.
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