After USC was supposed to be the best team ever last season (just ask Jim Harbaugh), they did the unthinkable and lost two games. Oh well—they still won the Pac-10 and thrashed Big Ten co-runner-up Illinois in the Rose Bowl. This season, while the Trojans should win an unprecedented seventh consecutive conference title, that’s about all that can be expected.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez played unreliably in a relief role for the injured John David Booty last season. Tailback U, however, will churn out several talents this year, including sophomore Joe McKnight. That’s a good thing, because USC’s receivers aren’t as scary as in previous years. There’s plenty of talent on defense, particularly among the linebackers and the secondary.
The Trojans are as solid a BCS lock as any team in the country. Win their September 13 battle with Ohio State, and they’ll be in the drivers’ seat to South Beach, where they won a national title four years ago.
2. Arizona State
Believe it or not, Arizona State won the Pac-10 in 2007. You probably didn’t hear about it because they had to share it with a certain team from Los Angeles. In 2008, with a veteran quarterback, a generally friendly (conference) schedule, and the one and only Dennis Erickson at head coach, the Sun Devils look to emulate the successes of last season.
Rudy Carpenter is probably the best overall returning quarterback in the league, and he’ll have help from an equally gifted receiving corps in Michael Jones, Kerry Taylor, and Chris McGaha, among others. Running backs Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance should also provide a powerful one-two punch.
The Sun Devils have seldom been known for their defense, and the back seven needs to be rebuilt and replaced in order to keep up with the high-powered offenses in the Pac-10. A home win against Oregon would assure them second place and a return trip to the Holiday Bowl—or better.
The Ducks started the season like a runaway freight train—toying with Michigan, winning a thriller against the Trojans, outlasting Arizona State—and ended with a spectacular wreck. Quarterback Dennis Dixon went down against Arizona, and the Ducks lost their last three regular season games before pulling together in the Sun Bowl.
Naturally, the number one issue in Eugene is at quarterback. It could be Sun Bowl winner Justin Roper, or maybe Nate Costa, who is coming off a knee injury. Where the Ducks are strong is at tailback, thanks to Jeremiah Johnson and junior college transfer LaGarrette Blount.
Traditionally, the Ducks’ biggest liability has been defense, which hasn’t been able to stop anybody since about 2002. This year’s problems will be the linebackers, who suffered last year due to injury. The secondary, led by Patrick Chung, looks solid.
After a head-scratching trip to West Lafayette, Indiana, we should know where the Ducks stand. A brutal conference slate that includes trips to USC, Arizona State, and Cal should keep hopes grounded in reality. Expect a third-place finish and a trip to the Holiday or Sun Bowl, depending on where the Sun Devils end up.
There’s no question the sturdy Golden Bears were the conference’s most disappointing team last season, particularly after such a strong start. After beating Oregon, many were picking the Bears as a surprise participant in the national championship picture. Then October hit and the Bears lost six of their last seven.
There should be enough talent and experience on the roster to avoid a similar slide. However, there’s also enough of each at the top of the conference to keep the Bears from performing too well.
Senior Nate Longshore knows he has to play better in 2008, but injuries and inconsistent play have limited his prior performance. The Bears lose a tremendous talent with the departure of receiver DeSean Jackson, but Jahvid Best should step up at tailback. What works in Cal’s favor is an experienced and talented defense.
If California can stay consistent, a trip to the Sun or Emerald Bowl may be in their future.
The poster children for underperformance year in and year out in the Pac-10 have been the UCLA Bruins. The Sons of Westwood hope that will change with alum Rick Neuheisel at head coach and the experienced Ben Olson behind center.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Norm Chow—yes, that Norm Chow—will run the offense, although they do lose a lot of talent among the wideouts. Running back Kahlil Bell is also a talent, if he can stay healthy.
The defense is rock solid with defensive tackles Brigham Harwell and Brian Price, as well as plenty of talent among the linebackers and secondary. This should help the Bruins win many of the winnable games they managed to lose in previous years.
They’ll get an early test—albeit out of conference—from a double whammy of Tennessee and BYU (the latter in Provo). They also travel to Oregon, California, and Arizona State before they play the Trojans at the Rose Bowl.
Coaching changes usually provide for instability, so this keeps the Bruins at fifth. The Emerald or Hawaii Bowl looks plausible.
6. Oregon State
It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish—at least that's how the Beavers have played in recent years. Stumbling starts in 2006 and 2007 gave way to remarkable stretch runs. They even won in Eugene last year for the first time since 1993.
In order to repeat their late-season heroics, the Beavers must first solidify the quarterback position—Lyle Moevao or Sean Canfield—and then find a way to replace the awesome talent of Yvenson Bernard at tailback. The best news offensively is that Sammie Stroughter is back for a senior season, thanks to a medical redshirt. The defense is experienced, particularly in the secondary.
Ultimately, the Beavers are a mid-level power in the Pac-10, and they face a brutal schedule: at Stanford, at Penn State, Hawaii, USC, and at Utah to start the year. If the Beavers can maintain their usual late-season form, they should be off to Hawaii or Las Vegas.
In year five of Mike Stoops’ tenure, it’s now time to put up or shut up—or rather, pack up. The brash and high-profile head coach hasn’t taken his team bowling in his four seasons, and he may need to do just that to stay in Tucson.
There’s enough talent, on offense and particularly at quarterback, to get it done. Second-year starter Willie Tuitama leads a spread offense that should rack up passing yards and score plenty of points. The passing game should be exciting, but the running attack has been pretty non-existent for about the past decade.
That doesn’t even begin to talk about a defense which lost just about everybody from last season. The Wildcats know they can’t simply make like the NBA’s Suns and win games consistently by outscoring people.
Arizona should be on the bowl bubble this year. If they can’t stop teams defensively, Mike Stoops might be looking for work next season.
Many are still debating which upset was more shocking last season: Division I-AA Appalachian State’s victory over Michigan, or 40-point underdog Stanford’s shocker at USC.
Coach Jim Harbaugh probably doesn’t care. In his first season, Harbaugh won four games, including the upset at the Coliseum and The Big Game against Cal. This year, Harbaugh hopes to improve and compete for a bowl slot, which probably won’t happen.
Quarterback Tavita Pritchard beat USC last season, but his position is by no means certain. What does appear certain is tailback Anthony Kimble, who will share a deep backfield. Nine returning starters on defense should help too.
The rest of the conference is simply too dangerous—and the non-conference schedule, which includes away games with TCU and Notre Dame, too imposing—for the Cardinal to field a winning side. Give it time.
If there’s a seat warmer than Mike Stoops’ in Arizona, it belongs to Washington’s Tyrone Willingham. Washington’s resources are too plentiful, and their alumni too demanding, for the Huskies not to be successful, much less competitive—and they simply haven’t been under Willingham’s watch.
It certainly won’t be any easier in 2008 as the Huskies have to go to Oregon before getting visits from BYU and Oklahoma to start the year.
Willingham will point to sophomore quarterback Jake Locker as a major reason why his team will improve this year, but he can’t do it all by himself. Just about the entirety of last year’s offense—including tailback Louis Rankin and receivers Anthony Russo and Marcel Reese—is gone. The Huskies do return what was just about the world’s worst defense, but they are getting a new defensive coordinator.
Ty Willingham is convinced his Huskies are better than last year’s record indicates. If he wants to stay in Seattle, this year he’ll have to prove it.
10. Washington State
It wasn’t long ago that the Cougars were where the Trojans are now. In fact, Washington State got the bigger half of the 2002 Pac-10 title, clinching their second Rose Bowl bid in six seasons. Things just haven’t been the same since Mike Price’s controversial departure from Pullman.
Bill Doba took them to the postseason in 2003, and they’ve not been back since. He’s gone now too, and it’s up to new man Paul Wulff to breathe some life into what was once a consistent top-tier program. It won’t happen this year, because, quite simply, the cupboard is bare.
At quarterback, a dependable replacement for Alex Brink has yet to be found. Maybe it’s senior Gary Rogers, who will have a few experienced targets this season. Similarly, the defense is experienced—one underclassman in the expected starting lineup—but just not very good.
The schedule doesn’t do them any favors either—Oklahoma State in Seattle, California, and a road game at Baylor could conceivably make for an 0-3 start. A November 29 trip to Hawaii is as close as this team will get to a bowl.