Conference Breakdown: Ranking the Pac-10

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Conference Breakdown: Ranking the Pac-10
(Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.

In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last year’s win-loss record and my predictions for each team’s 2009 win-loss record.

Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast are dead-on. Or you can disagree. Whatever.

Part 10: Fittingly, the Pac-10

10. Washington State Cougars | Last Year: 2-11 | My 2009 Prediction: 2-10

There's nowhere to go but up this year as the Cougars were simply awful all the way around, winning just two games.
The offensive line allowed a conference-worst 43 sacks. Four different QBs played last year, combining for just four TDs to 21 interceptions. The overall offensive production was just 241 yards/game with 12.7 points/game—both also good for worst in the conference.
The defense wasn't any better, tying with Washington for the lowest sack total (16) in the conference, allowing a conference-worst 43.8 points/game, and giving up 443 yards of total offense to opponents.
All of these superlatives prompted second-year head coach Paul Wulff to proclaim, "We will be a much more competitive football team."

The Cougars do get back 15 starters, including their entire stable of RBs, top two QB's, eight of 10 offensive linemen, and five of their top seven tacklers on defense.

The schedule is rather difficult for the Cougars this year as none of their games appear to be sure wins.

The Cougars still have several question marks, and with their difficult schedule against teams all seemingly in better position, exceeding their two-win total from last year may be difficult.

The Cougars can, however, still make significant improvements this year and build towards next season.

9. Washington Huskies | Last Year: 0-12 | My 2009 Prediction: 3-9

If it weren't for Washington State, Washington would have been the worst team in the Pac-10 last year, as they failed to win even one game, making four straight losing seasons under former head coach Tyrone Willingham.

The stats on both sides of the ball were just above those of the Cougars, including just 13.3 points/game, 38.6 points allowed/game, 263 yards/game of total offense, and a whopping 452 yards/game given up by the defense.

Now, new head coach Steve Sarkisian, former offensive coordinator at USC, is starting with 18 returning starters—10 on defense and eight on offense—including QB Jake Locker (who missed most of last season due to injury) and the team's top three WRs.

There appears to be a lack of depth at RB as two players projected to share time have been ruled academically ineligible.

The defense, however, is in much better shape, with a solid defensive line and good LB unit led by Mason Foster, who totaled 105 tackles (12 for loss) last year.

The schedule will be difficult for the Huskies, starting at home against LSU and hosting USC two weeks later.

There appear to be only two must-win games, against Idaho and Washington State, but the Huskies will need to upset somebody to get to three wins.

If the Huskies can get an early upset win, it most likely won't be considered much of an upset if they do it again later in the season.

With seemingly stronger opponents up and down the schedule, a new coaching staff, and 14 straight losses, getting back to expecting wins won't happen right away, but give Sarkisian another year and the Huskies should make at least their first bowl appearance since 2002.

This year, though, it could get ugly.

8. Arizona State Sun Devils | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 4-8

Head coach Dennis Erickson has never had back-to-back losing seasons in his 21-year career as a head coach, but in order to keep the streak alive (the Sun Devils went 5-7 last year), he’ll have to rely on his defense to keep games close as there are question marks on offense.
The WR corps should be solid, but a starter at QB has yet to be named and there is only one with any game experience, but very little at that.
The run game ranked near the bottom nationally last year, averaging just 89 yards/game at a 2.9 yards/carry average. However, that should change this year as nine of the top 10 linemen return, seven of whom bring starting experience.

Despite only returning six, the defense looks to be the strength of the team. Leading this unit will be a solid group of LBs and senior DE Dexter Davis, who had 11 sacks last year, the most of all returning players in the conference.

The schedule starts out fairly easy with four of the first six games being very winnable, but it gets much more difficult the rest of the way.

Four wins shouldn’t be a problem, but it will be awfully difficult this year for the Sun Devils to get to six and become bowl eligible, let alone achieve a winning season.

7. Arizona Wildcats | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth this year in the Pac-10 by the media. While I don’t think they’ll fall that far, they certainly will be taking a big step back after losing QB Willie Tuitama, the school’s career passing leader.
Even with Tuitama last year, the Wildcats were very inconsistent, beating UCLA and Cal, but losing to Stanford, Oregon, and New Mexico.

The offense, which returns six, also loses its top WR, Mike Thomas, as well as a couple of three-year starters from the offensive line.

A replacement for Tuitama is uncertain at this point, but the new inexperienced QB will have the remainder of the receiving corps, including TE Rob Gronkowski, who finished 2008 second to Oregon State's Sammie Stroughter among all Pac-10 TEs and WRs with 67.2 yards/game.

A solid pair of RBs in Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin, who combined for 23 scores on the ground last year, also return.

The defense, returning seven, loses three of its top four tacklers, but should still be the strength of the team.

Arizona is a lot like several other teams in the Pac-10 this year in the sense that its success seems to hinge on whomever they find to replace their starting QB. This makes it difficult to determine what kind of record the Wildcats will compile.

A likely situation this year is a "Team A beat team B, who beat team C, who beat team A" type of scenario.

Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, and even Washington all have the potential to beat each other on any given Saturday.

The middle of the Pac-10 should be pretty interesting this year, and Arizona looks like they could potentially go 8-4 or 4-8, but will most likely end up somewhere in the middle.

6. Stanford Cardinal | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

Jim Harbaugh enters his third year as head coach with his most experienced group yet as the Cardinal return nine on offense, eight on defense, and lose just 12 lettermen total.

The bright spot of the offense is senior RB Toby Gerhart, who had impressive stats last year, including 1,176 yards at a 5.4 yards/carry average and 15 scores.

The QB position is a question mark, but has some promise as redshirt frosh Andrew Luck has been getting rave reviews from his team after throwing for 352 yards with five TDs in the spring game.
The WRs are capable and there are a few solid TEs as well, but the success of the Cardinal this year may live and die with the QB play.

If Luck is as solid as his team thinks or if returning starter Tavita Pritchard can improve enough to retain his starting job, Stanford should certainly be good enough to earn its first bowl appearance since 2001.

Otherwise, opposing defenses will simply stack the box to stop Gerhart and force Stanford to beat them through the air.

The defense will be solid, but may not be good enough to build wins around.

The schedule is well-constructed and should give the Cardinal a lot of confidence heading into their conference schedule, as they have the opportunity to start 4-0 with games at Washington State, at Wake Forest, and at home against San Jose State and Washington.

The Wake Forest game should be a good litmus test of where Stanford stands. While I can see five wins for the Cardinal, I’m not sure where more wins will come from. Despite this, I have a feeling they’ll find their way to a winning season and a bowl.

5. Oregon Ducks | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5

After 14 seasons with the Ducks, head coach Mike Belotti steps down and is now the school’s athletic director.
Taking over is Chip Kelly, who has been the Duck’s offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, so the transition shouldn’t be as difficult for the team.

The Oregon offense boasted a pair of 1,000-plus yard RBs last season, of which LeGarrette Blount, who also had a 7.3 yards/carry average and 17 scores, returns.

Also returning to lead the offense is QB Jeremiah Masoli, who wasn’t spectacular as a passer last year, but was of the dual-threat variety as he rushed for 718 yards and 10 scores.

While the stars are certainly in line at the skill positions, the offensive line, lacking depth and experience, remains a big question mark. This unit loses several starters, including its top two to the NFL, and returns just four with any starting experience.

The defense returns just five, but has a couple of solid playmakers to lead, including senior DE Will Tukuafu, who tallied 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss last season.

Also returning is the dynamic duo in the secondary of senior SS TJ Ward, who led the team with 101 tackles last year, and senior CB Walter Thurmond, who had 13 pass defends and five interceptions in 2008.

The Ducks' schedule is arguably the most difficult in the Pac-10, starting off on the road against Boise State, who upset them last year, as well as at home against Utah, who went 13-0 last year.

I think the Ducks will be good enough this year to reach their fifth straight bowl game despite questions at the offensive line and a probable drop in offensive production.

However, with nine starters on offense and defense gone and a difficult schedule, the Ducks don’t look to be in a position to match their 10-win total of a year ago.

4. Oregon State Beavers | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 8-4

Over the last three years, the Beavers have not gotten off to a strong start, perhaps due to overly-ambitious scheduling.
This year, on the other hand, the Beavers have a good possibility of actually starting 6-0 before meeting USC at the Coliseum. I'm not saying they can’t beat the Trojans—they beat an even better Trojans team last year—but it will certainly be a far more difficult matchup than the first six.

The Beavers will at least have their offensive weapons in place with brothers Jacquizz and James Rodgers, their top skill players, who combined for over 2,500 yards of total offense and 22 TDs running and receiving last year.

QB Lyle Moevao returns for his senior season after posting 2,534 yards at a 59.3 percent completion rate as a junior. He’ll be without his top two wideouts, including NFL draft selection Sammie Stroughter, with no apparent replacement of the same caliber.

The offensive line also loses a few starters from the left side, which is a loss that could hurt.

The defense loses six of its top 10 tacklers and returns just three starters. Last year’s defense also only had three starters returning, but it managed to hold opponents to a respectable 312 yards of total offense per game and posted 39 sacks, matching Oregon for best in the conference.

However, the losses on the defensive line and secondary may be more significant this year, as the Beavers lose two NFL draft picks from the line, each with double-digit sacks, and three more NFL draft picks in the secondary.

If it weren’t for the serious questions on defense, I would project the Beavers to be a lot stronger and be able to potentially compete for a Pac-10 title.

However, if the defense could just match last year’s numbers, OSU could come close to double-digit wins again. Considering there are only three seniors on defense this year, the Beavers may find that task rather difficult.

Next year could be a different story, though.

3. UCLA Bruins | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 8-4

It was anything but pretty in Pretty Ricky’s (Rick Neuheisel) first season as the Bruins’ head coach, considering his team won just four games, lost 44 starters due to injury (sixth highest in FBS), and ranked near the bottom nationally in several statistical categories.
Last year’s team was hindered from the onset when just six total starters returned, two of whom were from the offense.
This year’s team, on the other hand, returns 16, including nine from the offense.

The QB play can only be better than last year’s as two starters were injured and third-stringer Kevin Craft tossed 20 interceptions. Craft has now lost his starting job in favor of redshirt frosh Kevin Prince, whose transition should be helped by a much-improved offensive line, a good stable of RBs, and four of the top five WRs returning.

The defense should be vastly improved from last year’s, which only returned four starters. This year's version has playmakers at every level, such as senior CB Alterraun Verner, who was No. 1  in pass defends last year in the Pac-10 with 20, including two interceptions.

The schedule is not bad as four of five conference road games are very winnable.
There’s a big test for the Bruins in game two when they travel to Tennessee to take on the Volunteers, who no doubt have payback on their mind as they were upset last year in the Rose Bowl to start the season.

Depending on the QB play (a familiar story in the Pac-10), the Bruins could easily wind up 9-3, but at the very least, they’re a much-improved, more experienced team and will get back to a bowl game this year.

2. California Golden Bears | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Had it not been for the sub-par passing game (190 yards/game), Cal might have actually had their first outright PAC-10 title since 1958. 
This year could reveal a similar story as returning QB Kevin Riley, who has started 15 games over the last two seasons, has yet to reclaim his starting position.
Despite the question mark at the QB position, the offense returns seven, including its brightest star, Heisman hopeful Jahvid Best. In 2008, Best led the PAC-10 in both rush yards/game with 131.7 and 15 scores and in yards/carry, with a ridiculous 8.1 average. 
Best will have to run behind an offensive line that replaces three-year starting RG Noris Malele and first-round NFL draft choice, C Alex Mack.
There’s no real go-to WR threat as no one from the corps topped 30 receptions or 500 yards last year. 
The defensive line returns a couple of good stars and there are two more in the secondary, including CB Darian Hagan, who had 18 pass defends last year, and first-team All-PAC-10 CB Syd’Quan Thompson, who also had 18 pass defends. 
The schedule is fairly difficult with three toss-up road games at Minnesota, Oregon, and UCLA. The Golden Bears do benefit from getting a home game with USC—the team that has kept them from the conference title in the past and the one standing in the way this year as well. 
Like all but a few PAC-10 teams this year, the success may rely on finding an answer to the QB position. If the pass game improves, Best could have another solid year, helping make the Golden Bears a very dangerous team.

1. USC Trojans | Last Year: 12-1 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

If ever there was a season for another Pac-10 team to unseat the mighty Trojans from their perennial conference crown, it would be this year.
That’s not to say it’s going to happen, as there doesn’t appear to be another team loaded and balanced enough to do so. 
Nonetheless, the Trojans' offense returns nine, but like so many other Pac-10 teams this year, lacks a proven and experienced passer. The Trojans certainly have several very highly-touted recruits, however the projected starter, QB Aaron Corp, recently suffered a cracked bone in his left leg, which may put true frosh Matt Barkley at center stage. 
Make no mistake about it, Barkley is going to have an outstanding career as he’s the real deal, but it may not all come together this year. Just ask Terrelle Pryor what it’s like to play with the big boys as a true frosh. 
The rest of the skill players are in place with WRs Damian Williams and Ronald Johnson, not to mention a ridiculous amount of talent in the backfield, including Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, and CJ Cable, each of whom had at least 600 yards and a five yards/carry average or better.
The offensive line is deep and talented, so the new QB will get the time needed to work and the rush numbers should remain high. 
Although the question marks for the Trojans have not been very big over the last seven seasons as they have won seven straight conference titles, the biggest question mark this year is on the defensive side of the ball, where they return just three starters—their lowest total during that same span. 
The Trojans lose their entire starting LB corps, which included their top three tacklers in 2008, to the NFL. The Trojans also have their least experienced defensive line in years.
The secondary returns six of its top eight, including FS Taylor Mays, who is the type of DB similar to former Ohio State CB Malcolm Jenkins—his stats might not be eye-popping, but he makes opposing offenses plan around him. 
Overall, the defense will be good, but don’t expect the same nine points/game allowed and 222 yards/game of total offense allowed from last season. 
The schedule may be the toughest it’s been for the Trojans, considering their losses and four difficult road games, including Ohio State, Cal, Notre Dame, and Oregon.
The Trojans do get Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA—the three teams that have taken turns beating them over the past three seasons—at home this year.
I think the Trojans will have another fantastic season, but will drop two games, including one to Ohio State, on their way to an eighth-straight conference title.

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