College Football Predictions

Pac-12: Ranking the Ds That Will Bring Quarterbacks to Tears in 2011

Kristian SiutaCorrespondent IIMay 22, 2011

Pac-12: Ranking the Ds That Will Bring Quarterbacks to Tears in 2011

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    GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 10:  Cameron Newton #2 of the Auburn Tigers has a pass blocked by the Oregon Ducks during the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 10, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jonathan Fer
    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    We have all heard the banter before, “The Pacific Ten Conference doesn’t play any defense!” That phrase is typically uttered from die-hard fans from the Southeastern Conference or the Big Ten.

    Although to the majority of college football enthusiasts east of the Rocky Mountains believe that phrase to be spoken truth, or simple fan-on-fan crime. But in reality, the new Pac-12 Conference is loaded with great defenses to combat with the high-flying offensive attacks on the West Coast.

    As the book closed on the 2010 season, four teams from the newly formed Pac-12 ranked in the top 25 in total defense.

    Believe it or not, the flagship program was the California Golden Bears, followed closely by newcomer Utah, Stanford, and national championship participant Oregon. 

    Perhaps the saying, “Defense wins championships” is only a myth, since Jeff Tedford’s Bears missed out on a bowl invitation for the first time since 2002.

    But these numbers are indicators of how the 2010 season unfolded. For each team, 2010 is history, the focus is on the task at hand: Conquering 2011.

    Perhaps the saying, “Defense wins championships” is part of a dying breed in college football, as no-huddle spread offenses sweep the nation, but a stout defense remains at the foundation of any elite team.

    After matriculation took a toll and new recruits arrived in the Pac-12, which team will grab the torch and be feared by offenses from coast to coast?

Washington State Cougars: Dormant or Now the Conference Doormat?

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    Stanford's Owen Marecic running over a pair of Cougar defenders.
    Stanford's Owen Marecic running over a pair of Cougar defenders.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Anytime a team gives up 430 points in a single season, success, and more importantly, victories will be hard to come by. After all, Washington State has not reached a bowl game since 2003, when the Cougars beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl.

    In Pullman, pedestrian results turned into horror-struck afternoons watching the crimson and grey.

    Wazzu has tallied only three bowl subdivision victories in the last three seasons. All of the lopsided 66-3, 69-0, and 65-17 losses shook up the championship mentality of the 90s and early 00s.

    Many fans in the Palouse feel the Cougars are headed in the right direction under fourth-year coach, Paul Wulff. The Cougars did not appear as overmatched as 2008 and ’09, and the WSU beat a conference foe—not named Washington—for the first time since 2007.

    Another reason to believe in an upswing in the Palouse is due to returning leadership on both sides of the ball, including quarterback.

    Wulff returns the top three Cougar tacklers from 2010 led by senior Alex Hoffman-Ellis.

    2011 might be a coming of age season for Paul Wulff and the Cougars. In fact, Wazzu’s top three tacklers from 2010 are returning.

    The leader of the defensive unit is none other than linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a 6’1”, 241-pound senior that totaled 81 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions.

    A stat line like that will have pro scouts salivating, no matter what school you play for.

    Although WSU finished the 2010 season with 58 touchdowns conceded, along with 467 yards per game, the talent and experience on defense was lacking compared to Hoffman-Ellis.

    Both Deone Bucannon and Tyree Toomer made at least 65 tackles last fall, but neither player was a linebacker or defensive lineman.

    Bucannon and Toomer made their tackles deep in the secondary, and typically in chasing fashion.

    If the Cougars are going to find the success that has escaped WSU in recent memory, defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Jody Sears will continue to implement a more attacking defense for the progressing young ‘Cougs.

    Washington State wants success and victories badly, but the coaches can’t hold anything back for a positively moving football program.  

    Two wins last season is a step in the right direction, but the offense carried WSU last season. Perhaps in 2011, the Cougars will make strides on the defensive side of the ball. 

Oregon State Beavers: Stephen Paea Is Not Coming Back...What's Next?

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    PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 27:  Stephen Paea #54 of the Oregon State Beavers loses his helmet as he tackles Tyler Gaffney #25 of the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 27, 2010 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Oregon State was one of only four teams in the Pac-10 last year to allow at least 401 yards per game and concede 42 or more touchdowns on defense. Those numbers typically do not reflect a competent and physical Mark Banker defense, but by season's end, the Beavers ranked 86th in nation in total defense. 

    Although head coach Mike Riley has increased the difficulty of the Beavers non-conference competition over the years, OSU's defense was virtually nonexistent in the early stages of 2010. 

    The Beavers hit the gridiron to face Texas Christian, Louisville and Boise State in the first three weeks and came away with a 1-2 record. Increasing the competition was supposed to prepare the Beavers for a grueling Pac-10 slate last season, but OSU's defense was merely attempting to survive. 

    Louisville and TCU compiled 453 yards each in the first two meetings, while Boise State exceeded that mark with 469 yards of total offense. 

    Oregon State waited until conference play to hold an opponent under 400 yards. Yet even through victories and losses the defensive totals were staggering. 

    Arizona put up 541 yards of total offense, along with Washington, Stanford, and in-state rival Oregon all posting offensive outbursts of 470 or more yards of total offense. 

    Perhaps, the most shocking moment of the season came when Washington State beat the Beavers in Corvallis. The loss alone was traumatizing, but the Beavers allowed WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel to pass for 157 yards and run for 80 while scoring a touchdown. 

    Riley's Beavers were booed by the home fans after being outgained 214-124 by the Cougars at halftime. By the end result, the boos continued through the night. 

    Unfortunately, those boos might continue through the 2011 season. After all, the Beavers had a number of playmakers on defense that consistently managed to find the ball. However, those ball hawks have graduated, and moved on to bigger and better things. 

    No longer will Oregon State have the luxury of two stout defensive tackles in Stephen Paea and Brennan Olander. It also doesn't help that the Beavers will need to replace their best pass-rusher, Gabe Miller. 

    Replacing three-fourths of your starting defensive line will be difficult, then again, the results with the next level talent left OSU sitting at home for the holidays, instead of playing football. 

    Mark Banker will need to replace two stud linebackers in Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey. Both players finished the season as top five tacklers on defense while combining to make 150 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception and three fumbles. 

    Oregon State has plenty of holes to fill on defense with big names moving onto the NFL, but the results with the student-athletes on campus were far from desirable. 

    Maybe fresh blood is all the Beavers need to succeed in the Pac-12 on defense? 

    For now, no offensive unit in the conference is shaking in their boots when approached by the Beavers.

UCLA Bruins: New Coordinator. New Leaders. Different Results?

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    KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 12: Rahim Moore #3 and Alterraun Verner #1 of the UCLA Bruins celebrate at the end of the game against the Tennessee Volunteers on September 12, 2009 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Bruins beat the Volunteers 19-1
    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The days of fearing the UCLA Bruins are long gone. Even during the heyday of the 90s, the UCLA defense was far from dominating. The offensive prowess of Terry Donahue and Bob Toledo packed the Rose Bowl crowd with routine. 

    Now, with Rick Neuheisel at the helm in Westwood, the Bruins are searching for an identity. 

    After DeWayne Walker left his defensive coordinator post with the Bruins in 2008 for the New Mexico State head coaching position,UCLA's defense has been much maligned by fans and media members. 

    After Waker left, so to did the swagger. 

    The days of UCLA scoring 50 or more points came and went with the head coaching carousel of past season. Instead, the defensive unit is getting touched up for 55 and 60 points in primetime competition. 

    Without a doubt, it was time for a coaching change. A new leader of the defense has come in to preserve the prestige of UCLA. 

    First-year defensive coordinator, Joe Tresey, is responsible for restoring the luster in Westwood, and more importantly, protecting the sanctity of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. 

    UCLA won three games at the Rose Bowl last fall, and none of those victories came against a winning team. Victories against Houston, Washington State and Oregon State will not strike fear in any competitor in a BCS conference, let alone the Mountain West. 

    Without a doubt, a change was necessary in some capacity. The defense said goodbye to two future NFL stars in Rahim Moore and Akeem Ayers. 

    However, that does not mean the Bruins will take a step backwards. Excluding Ayers and Moore, the Bruins return five of their top seven tacklers from a season ago. 

    Tony Dye, the 5'11", 205-pound senior leader of UCLA's defensive unit, totaled 96 tackles last season opposite of Rahim Moore. Since Dye's first action in 2008, the Corona native has progressed each season. 

    On top of Dye's 96 tackles last fall, he also led the Bruins with nine pass break ups and ranked fourth in the Pac-10 in tackles. 

    Although Dye was impressive as a tackler, a safety should never be a team's leading tackler.

    Akeem Ayers ended the season with a respectable 68 tackles, but he was not a pure linebacker. 

    Joe Tresey will have the ability to mold returning prototypical linebackers Pat Larimore, Sean Westgate, Jordan Zumwalt, as well as a healthy Steve Sloan. Those names might not carry the same flare as Ayers or Moore, but each one is tough, physical and determined to restore the pride for the Bruins. 

    Whether that pride or luster is restored in time for the 2011 season, is yet to be determined. After all, the Bruins have a lot of work to do to improve on their 95th ranking in total defense from a season ago. 

Colorado Buffaloes: Hello, We Are New Here

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    BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Shane Vereen #34 of the California Golden Bears runs against Curtis Cunningham #50 of the Colorado Buffaloes at California Memorial Stadium on September 11, 2010 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The Colorado Buffaloes are the first newcomers to the Pac-12 to make the list. Although many opposing offenses had plenty of success against Colorado, the 2011 season brings a new fortune and a revamped coaching staff. 

    Jon Embree leads a new staff following Dan Hawkins' midseason dismissal. Embree is a Colorado alumnus, so the fire inside the big man will be ever-burning for the Buffaloes. 

    Embree brought the passion to Boulder almost instantaneously, once he began assembling his coaching staff. Including Embree, five coaches on his inagural staff graduated from Colorado. 

    Even more impressive, Embree managed to hire away much-esteemed coaches Bobby Kennedy (wide receivers and recruiting coordinator at Texas), Greg Brown (defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Arizona), and Mike Tuiasosopo (defensive line coach at Arizona).  

    With a new set of voices to instill the "Colorado way," new players will have to fill in the gaps on a defense that ranked 82nd in total defense last season. It will not get any easier either, as the Buffs have to replace both starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown, who were selected in April's NFL draft. 

    The 2010 Buffaloes allowed 45 touchdowns on the season and relinquished an average of 400 yards per contest. However, those numbers reflected the competition Colorado faced in the Big 12.

    With new scenery in the Pac-12, as well as the fast-paced offensive juggernauts, a defensive makeover was necessary.  

    Greg Brown will be the mastermind behind the glaring changes in Boulder. After all, when Brown departed Tucson, AZ, the Wildcats had a top 25 rushing defense. 

    Perhaps even more important for Brown, the Wildcats returned to the top 25 in the polls for the first time in over a decade.

    Embree will be looking for similar success from Brown and Tuiasosopo, but right now, the Buffs will be content with a bowl invite. Three-straight seasons have ended in disgust and defeat at the hands of Nebraska.

    Although the Nebraska Cornhuskers are not on the Buffs' schedule in 2011, the schedule isn't exactly full of cupcakes. The Buffaloes will play 13 games, including a trip to Hawai'i to begin the season, as well as a road trip to the "Big Horseshoe" against Ohio State. 

    The good news is Colorado has eight players returning on defense, including Curtis Cunningham and Will Pericak as defensive tackles (48 career starts combined), as well as bone crunching linebacker, Jon Major. 

    Both starting safeties Ray Polk and Terrel Smith will be needed from the onset of 2011. As everyone knows, the West Coast is the spot for the offensive showcases. 

    The California Golden Bears gave the Buffs a sneak peak last season at what Pac-12 life has in store for Colorado, as Dan Hawkins saw his job slipping away with each of the 52-points Cal scored last September. 

    The 52-7 score could be a preview, or a new look Buffalo squad will take the field with intensity in '11

Washington Huskies: All Bark and No Bite

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 11:  Linebacker Mason Foster #40 of the Washington Huskies celebrates with Willis Wilson #29 after tackling quarterback Ryan Nassib #12 of the Syracuse Orange and causing a fumble on September 11, 2010 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Once the University of Washington hired Steve Sarkisian two seasons ago, big things were imminent for the Huskies, it was only a matter of when. The offensive guru was in place with "Sark" and an active quarterback with Jake Locker

    Now, Locker is in the NFL and will not be coming back to strap up his chinstrap and lead the Huskies to a comeback victory anytime soon. 

    A new leader will take over under center. However, this is all about defense. With Locker deeply entrenched in the NFL, the defense will be even more valuable to earn victories in 2011. 

    Perhaps even more alarming than losing Locker, the defense lost their emotional and physical leader on the gridiron, middle linebacker Mason Foster. 

    In 2010, Foster totaled 161 tackles, including 104 coming by way of the solo variety. Foster was more than just a playmaker for the Huskies, at times, he appeared to be the only athlete on the field for the purple and gold. 

    No longer will that be the case. Gone are Foster's 161 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. Foster is not the only hole defensive coordinator Nick Holt has to fill. 

    Three of Washington's four leader tacklers are no longer apart of the Husky football program. Foster leads the pack, along with fellow linebacker and All-Pac-10 member, Victor Aiyewa, and strong safety Nate Williams, who finished the season with 105 tackles 3.5 sacks, and one fumble forced.

    Unfortunately for Husky fans, Washington ended the 2010 season ranked 84th in total defense with Mason Foster and company intact. 

    With the major losses taking affect immediately, the Huskies could see themselves even further down the national rankings in total defense come January.

    Although, the Washington defense is still dominant at the point of attack with Alameda Ta'amu returning along side outside linebacker Cort Dennison. 

    The Huskies may not be as strong as 2010 in terms of talent, but the athletes Nick Holt starts each Saturday may be more mentally prepared to find the football each and every play for Washington. 

Arizona Wildcats: Fresh Faces in Tucson Attempt to Duplicate Success of '10

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05:  Defensive ends Brooks Reed #42 and Ricky Elmore #44 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrate after stopping the USC Trojans on the final play on December 5, 2009 at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. Arizona won
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Arizona will not have the luxury of relying on two athletic, yet overpowering rush defensive ends next season. Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore had plenty of experience battling each week against top-tier offensive linemen. 

    Leadership up front on the defensive line will be missed this season, as well as the 29.5 sacks Elmore and Reed compiled the last two seasons. 

    Although the Wildcat defense ranked 36th nationally in total defense, the losses, both in terms of personnel and coaching are far too much for a young team to overcome. 

    Arizona's most experienced defensive lineman is a sophomore, with nine career starts. And the defensive linemen carrying the responsibility of replacing Elmore and Reed have zero career starts between the four possible replacements. 

    So, to say that the Wildcat defense is youthful, is an understatement. 

    However, it is not all bad for the Wildcats moving forward in 2011. Although the defensive line is inexperienced, the strength of Arizona's defensive unit is the secondary. 

    Arizona might have the most inexperienced defensive line in the conference, but the secondary in Tucson boasts 61 career starts between four players. 

    The two seniors, Robert Golden and Trevin Wade are the highlight reel performers, that can not only make a game-changing play in the air, but also pack a powerful punch in the tackling department. 

    Golden and Wade are multipurpose players. For a young defense, players that are always in the right spots becomes contagious. The youngsters will need to follow the lead from the senior-laden secondary in Tucson. 

    Mike Stoops knows that his team cannot replace the productivity of Elmore and Reed as leaders and pass rushers, but there is still talent at the back end of the Arizona's defense. 

    However, having talent in the secondary is useless if the quarterback has hours to seek out a desired receiver. That's the dilemma Arizona Wildcat fans will be faced with next season. 

    After all, every quarterback feared the Wildcats defense in 2010. Now, it appears the defense will be feasted upon in the new Pac-12.

California Golden Bears: Bite the Loss of Their Star Trio

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 16:  Matt Barkley #7 of the USC Trojans eludes the rush of Cameron Jordan #97 of the California Golden Bears during the first quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 16, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Har
    Harry How/Getty Images

    California was a defense that got a rise out a lot of opponents last season. Typically, the offense in Strawberry Canyon is feared  by the opposition, but Clancy Pendergast's defense was more than serviceable in 2010. 

    In reality, the Bears ranked 19th in the country in total defense by season's end. However, those stats will be hard to replicate with the tremendous losses on all levels of the Golden Bears defense. 

    First, it will be nearly impossible to replace NFL draft first-round pick Cameron Jordan, not just because he posses elite talent, but his 62 tackles and 5.5 sacks always seemed to occur when Cal needed a defensive stand. 

    If it wasn't Cameron Jordan making the big play when needed, it was either safety Chris Conte or linebacker Mike Mohomed making the stop. Between the two players, the Golden Bears will be missing 167 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions. 

    Conte and Mohamed were the consistent rocks on the defensive side. After losing Desmond Bishop, Zack Follet, and Syd'Quan Thompson before the 2010, a drop off was expected, but Conte, Jordan, and Mohamed led the charge for the conference's best defense. 

    Replacing the talent from 2010 and filling in leadership voids will be impossible, but two players have already taken control. 

    Safety Seaon Cattouse has already picked up the pieces following graduation. The senior has witnessed the leaders before him, and the examples the set for the younger teammates. Leading vocally is imperative, but Cattouse leads with his shoulder pads. 

    In his first season as a starter, Cattouse, totaled 59 tackles, 1 sack, and one interception. Those are pretty good numbers for a junior, but a senior captain is all over the game film, no matter where the ball is. 

    Maybe that will be Cattouse, but Mychal Kendricks began to assume the role of the next great Cal linebacker last season. Plays are there to be made with each snap of the ball, Kendricks was next to the football with routine. 

    As a linebacker, Kendricks crept up to the line of scrimmage more often than not to harass the quarterback. Teaming up with Cameron Jordan, Kendricks totaled 66 tackles along with 8.5 sacks for 57 yards lost, one interception, and three forced fumbles.  

    Kendricks looks the part, and fits the mold of past greats like Desmond Bishop and Scott Fujita, but with even more speed. 

    That recipe, along with the returning abilities of defensive backs Marc Anthony and D.J. Holt will be affective in the pass-happy Pac-12, but will the Bears have enough strength on the defensive line to compete for the poll position?

USC Trojans: This Isn't Your Dad's USC Trojans or Even the Troy from 5 Years Ago

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    HONOLULU - SEPTEMBER 02:  Defensive and Recruiting Coordinator Ed Orgeron of the University of Souther California Trojans leads the team to the edge of the tunnel before the start of the Trojan's season opener against the Hawaii Warriors at Aloha Stadium
    Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

    USC was the football school of the decade. Every team across the country wanted to emulate the USC Trojans. Now, a completely different story is being told in Los Angeles.

    The immediate future of the football program is not definite. No one knows if USC can even participate in the postseason for a second straight season. Certainly, this is not your grandfather's USC Trojans.

    But there are few schools in the nation that have the tradition and illustrious history on the defensive side of the ball, like the USC Trojans. The names that outfitted the cardinal and gold uniforms of the past are unparalleled. 

    No more Keith Rivers, Rey Maulaluga, Troy Polamalu, or Junior Seau. The Trojans will rely on the likes of DaJohn Harris, Devon Kennard, Chris Gallipo, and Nickell Robey to lead the men of Troy in 2011. 

    Fans in Los Angeles might take a reserved role until these athletes perform on the big stage. After all, the Trojans defense ranked 83rd out of 120 schools in total defense last season. So, a wait and see approach is certainly valid. 

    In addition, the Trojans gave up 30 points in four of their five losses and six of USC's 13 regular season games. For USC, defense led to victories, no matter who was taking snaps under center.

    Perhaps the first game of the season was glimpse of what was to come for the USC defense, as the Hawai'i Warriors scored 36 points in the opening game. 

    In the past two seasons, USC has allowed 45 points or more three times, losing each contest in blowout fashion. 

    During the 2010 season, the Trojans gave up at least 500 yards against Hawai'i, Washington, and Oregon, while giving up at least 400 yards against Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State. 

    The defense rarely looked dominant against the Pac-10's best passers, and even looked foolish against opposing rushing attacks. 

    Perhaps the drop in production was due to a new system imposed by Monte Kiffin, but even still, the Trojans continue to have the best athletes across the conference. 

    Is the clock winding down on the dynasty in Downtown L.A.? Right now, the clock approaching midnight. 

    Then, it might be curtains for Kiffin and USC's dominant dynasty. 

Utah Utes: New Territory with New Blood

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    SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 6: Derrick Shelby #90 of the Utah Utes hits Ed Wesley #34 of the TCU Horned Frogs during the first half of an NCAA football game November 6, 2010 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Ima
    George Frey/Getty Images

    The Utah defense is difficult to judge. In 2010, the Utes finished the season rated 20th in the country in total defense. However, those numbers were based on Utah's schedule in the Mountain West Conference. 

    Everyone on the West Coast knows the Mountain West is not the Pac-10, or more importantly, the Pac-12. 

    Ending the season with a 319-yard average and giving up just 29 touchdowns on defense is impressive. Now, the Utes will have to prove their worth to 11 other schools to be considered the best in the conference. 

    Perhaps that is easier said than done, since the Utes will be forced to replace five starters on defense, including three of four starting defensive backs.

    Entering a new environment is always difficult, but coming to the Pac-12 with inexperienced defensive backs might spell "Doom" for the Utes.

    Although scoring more points is the name of the game, at some point during the season, Utah will rely on the defense to make a stop or two. Doubt might creep into their mind, because no one on their roster gone the distance in a Pac-12 conference game. 

    The Utes might have been a solid defense in the Mountain West in the past, but the offenses on the West Coast are a completely separate demon.

    Shutting down New Mexico, Colorado State, and Wyoming is cute for your schedule and stats, but that caliber of opponent is meant for non-conference games in September, no the Pac-12.

    At this point, Utah appears to be in for a rude awakening with fresh blood across the defense, and more importantly, across the line of scrimmage. 

Stanford Cardinal: Moral Victories Are Gone, the Cardinal Are in It to Win It

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    PALO ALTO, CA - OCTOBER 09: Sione Fua #92 of the Stanford Cardinal celebrates after he sacked Matt Barkley #7  of the USC Trojans at Stanford Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Stanford surprised many media analysts across the country last season. A run at the national championship and an appearance in the Orange Bowl was not in the cards at the onset. Many pictured an above average season with maybe nine wins, which would have delighted fans on "The Farm". 

    Instead, Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck led the Cardinal to 12 wins and their best football season in the modern era. 

    Now, Harbaugh has taken over the reigns at another prestigious Bay Area football post with the San Francisco 49ers. 

    Stanford wasn't just Andrew Luck passing the ball all over the field. The Cardinal had the 24th best defense in the country last fall under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. 

    However, Fangio joined Harbaugh with the 49ers, and his insight will no longer be utilized for the Cardinal. 

    The players Fangio mentored like Shane Skov, Chase Thomas, Delano Howell, and Michael Thomas are all returning. Skov and Thomas are two of the best tackling linebackers in the conference as the duo combined for 154 tackles, 15 sacks, 1 interception, and three forced fumbles. 

    Skov and Thomas were so affective tracking down ball carriers due to the work ethic of nose guard Sione Fua.

    Fua, along with Riachard Sherman, couple as the two biggest losses moving forward from the 2010 roster.

    Although Fua only totaled 23 tackles in 13 starts, the Encino, CA, native caused havoc in the backfield consistently, totaling 4.5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss.

    Fua is only one man on the defensive line, but his presence elevated Stanford's defense to the top 25 from 55th nationally in 2009. Fua can't take all of the credit, but he does deserve a nose guard's share. 

    After starting 35 games in Palo Alto, the only concern for Stanford is how to replace Fua? 

    Having a defensive end/defensive tackle in redshirt senior Matt Masifilo eases a coach's mind, but the end result will be decided on the gridiron. 

    Last season, Stanford's squad surprised more than one analyst on their way to top five finish in the polls. With six returning starters on defense, the Cardinal will not sneak up on any opponent in 2011. 

    Although Skov and Thomas might be the two scariest defenders in the conference, even they won't ambush opposing offenses. 

    The word is out. Now can the Cardinal repeat their performance?

Arizona State: Devilish Defense Drives Opponents to Tears

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    TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 02:  Runningback Keola Antolin #2 of the Arizona Wildcats rushes the football against Eddie Elder #2 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the college football game at Arizona Stadium on December 2, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Arizona State has been the talk of the Pac-12 Conference since the 2010 season ended. New uniforms, new athletic department branding and new goals have been set in Tempe. 

    High expectations have been set for the Sun Devils, but how realistic are they? 

    After all, Dennis Erickson's squad only won six games last season and four before that. So, to be honest, not many teams are shaking in their boots when facing the Sun Devils. 

    That was then, back when the offensive scheme was a constant turnover or sack waiting to happen. 

    Perhaps offense is the reason why ASU's defense ranked 36th nationally in 2010, due to inordinate amount of turnovers for the Sun Devils.

    If defense wins championships, the offense can't give the championship away, either.

    Although the Sun Devils defense held the Stanford offense to their lowest scoring output of the season, as well as forcing the Oregon Ducks to punt 11 times, in those same games, ASU's opponents managed to score just enough to earn the victory. 

    In most cases, a mental error or a boneheaded penalty closed the book on the Sun Devil's fate. 

    Without a doubt, the player that referees pointed to as the culprit was Vontaze Burfict. 

    If there is one player in the conference that will bring you to tears, it is Burfict. At 6'3" 252 pounds, he is the fastest sideline to sideline linebacker in the conference, if not the country.

    His speed appears scary, but the moment his pads hit the ball carrier, the last thought anyone has is about Burfict's speed. 

    At times he allows his emotions to take control, but the latter part of 2010 and the 15 workouts during the spring showed the maturation process with Burfict. 

    In addition, Burfict is only 20-years-old.  By the time the first Pac-12 game is played, Burfict will be 21-years-old, and leading one of the nation's scariest defenses. 

    Burfict is major reason why ASU finished the 2009 season with the best rushing defense, and continued that in 2010. 

    But if you believe ASU's defense is Burifct and ten other "no namers", you are mistaken. ASU utilizes a 4-3 base defense, and the two linebackers that flank Burfict are just as athletic and physical. Perhaps it is because Brandon Magee, Shelly Lyons, and Burfict have played with each other since they were 15 and 16-years old. 

    The trio even negotiated their jersey numbers last fall to 6, 7, 8 with little respect for the offenses.

    But the Sun Devils are more than just a linebacking corps.

    ASU boasts the best pure pass-rusher in the conference with true sophomore Junior Onyeali. In brief action as a freshman, Onyeali earned All-Conference honors, as well as being named Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year, an award Burfict won a year earlier. 

    If not for senior cornerback Omar Bolden injuring his knee, ASU's defense would consist of the top pass-rusher, linebacker and cornerback in the conference. 

    However, Bolden appears to be sidelined for at least five months, and may not return at all. Without Bolden, the Sun Devils are without the conference's lone unanimous all-defensive team member. 

    The depth behind Bolden is certainly not abundant, but Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor have played in big conference games before with much success. The players behind Carr and Irabor, might raise a few eye brows.

    For other teams, Bolden's loss would end hopes of a dream season. In Tempe, eight other returning starters can shoulder the burden in the Valley of the Sun, as well as Burfict taking over the leadership role. 

    ASU might not be the most publicized team across the country, but if the season that players envision, actually unfolds, Burfict in Co. will be among the best and most feared defensive units in the nation. 

    Until then, nobody should second guess Burfict. 

Oregon Ducks: The Champs Are Still Crowned Until They Are Unseated

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    EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 04: Linebacker Casey Matthews #55 of the Oregon Ducks (L) and free safety John Boyett #20 of the Oregon Ducks (R) gang up to tackle running back Demond Dennis #1 of the New Mexico Lobos in the first quarter of the game at Autzen Sta
    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Oregon won the conference outright in 2010. The Ducks had the best record, as well as the best offense, and best scoring defense. 

    When the statistics are broken down like that, a conference champion is easy to determine. Well, that is of course, if were having trouble reading the Ducks 72-0, 69-0, and 60-13 scoring lines already. 

    Chip Kelly has transformed Oregon's football program from a respectable northwest team into a national media darling. His offense is eccentric, while his defense doesn't give up an inch. 

    And when the defense does lose steam, they manage to take the ball away in style. 

    No team in the Pac-10 last season gave up less touchdowns than Oregon, and no one possessed the football less than Oregon. Oregon had the talent last year to beat anyone, except Auburn. 

    This upcoming season might be different. 

    Oregon is forced to replace star linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, as well as defensive linemen Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair, Zac Clark, and shutdown corner Talmadge Jackson.

    Filling the voids of three all-conference performers will be a challenge coordinator Nick Alioti will manage. After all, the Ducks two leaders in the secondary remain intact. 

    Both John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant will anchor the Ducks' secondary and bark out signals for the newcomers on defense. 

    Finding suitable replacements for Matthews and Paysinger will be a much tougher task. However, Alioti began piecing together a unit last fall that consisted of Michael Clay, Boseko Lokombo, and Josh Kaddu. 

    In minimal gametime, the trio totaled 110 tackles and 2.5 sacks. 

    But the Pac-12 will be viewed as a "pass happy" conference, and in the past coaches have followed suit. For that reason, Oregon is the top rated defense in the conference. 

    No other team in the conference can run out four defensive backs with more experience that Oregon. 

    During the 2010 season, the Ducks intercepted 21 passes. The conference leader in interceptions was Cliff Harris, a junior to be. Harris hauled in six picks, while returning one all the way for a touchdown.

    In addition, returning is Harris' specialty. He was named an All-America returner by every media publication possible, and that is not a joke. If there is an Oregon punt or kick return record he doesn't hold, Harris will soon claim the top spot. 

    Normally, the defense is content with the opposing offense punting. The Ducks continue to work on every single down, trying to enhance the margin of victory. 

    Although the Ducks are not the strongest or most physical defense in the conference, each team is scared to play Oregon. Not only can they score at will on offense, but their defense ends all hope of a close game. 

    Whether it is John Boyett, Eddie Pleasant or Cliff Harris, there is good possibility the Ducks will be light up the scoreboard, again, on defense. 

    Just look for the 55 to zero score on Saturday nights this fall.

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