2006 Pac-10 Preview

King of the hill, USC, appears to be somewhat mortal this season after losing two Heisman Trophy winners and a school record setting running back. Perception isn't always reality but nine other teams will give it their best shot at knocking them off the throne this season. For Pac-10 fans, September 2nd will reveal some answers as to who is a serious challenger for the conference title.

Several teams will be tested early and a win or a loss will set the tone for the remainder of the season. Must-see T.V. that Saturday includes: Washington State @ Auburn, USC @ Arkansas, California @ Tennessee, Arizona vs. BYU, and a rare first week conference tilt between Oregon and Stanford.

Here's how the other nine conference teams are shaping up going into the 2006 campaign:


Head Coach: Mike Stoops
2005 Record: 3-8, 2-6 Pac-10

Offense: 8 returning starters

Quarterback Willie Tuitama was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman last season. He appears to be a future star in the Pac-10, especially at his position. The talent surrounding Tuitama on offense is still a work in progress but receiver Mike Thomas was equally impressive last season, garnering Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. Syndric Steptoe was set to lead the receivers last season but was supplanted by Thomas. Steptoe returns for his senior season and will returns kicks/punts and give Tuitama another option on offense. The offensive line is led by two tackles with experience, Peter Graniello at left tackle and Tanner Bell on the right side. The ground game will be a point of emphasis in fall camp as the conference's ninth ranked rushing offense from last season will have a new feature back. Junior Chris Henry must step up now that Mike Bell is gone.

Defense: 9 returning starters

With both corners back, including All Pac-10 candidate Antoine Cason, the Wildcats are quietly optimistic about their defensive fortunes this season. Trailed only to Oregon last season in conference pass defense, Cason and Wilrey Fontenot are arguably the conference's top pair of corners. Senior Michael Johnson will be fine at the strong safety spot but free safety is vacated by the loss of Darrell Brooks. Brandon Tatum, a sophomore, is penciled in as the starter but JC transfer Nate Ness should be in the mix. Arizona's rushing defense must improve over last season's mark of allowing 183.7 yards on the ground, however. Only UCLA fared worse. All three starters at linebacker return, which should help as long as they stay away from injuries. The line is anchored by defensive end Marcus Smith, a senior back from a medical redshirt. The Cats finally have numbers for a rotation up front but the quality could improve if JC transfers Gabe Long and Louis Holmes can qualify. Long appears to be the long shot of the two but Holmes still has a few more weeks to enroll.

Outlook: A win over BYU in week one is a must win in order to keep a bowl game within sights. A loss may mean wading in treacherous waters as the first half of the schedule features a road trip to LSU and a visit from USC. Provided the Cats beat BYU, the chances of finishing with a better record this season stand pretty good as Washington visits Tucson. The middle of the schedule features four games, three of them on the road that will tell a lot. Trips to UCLA, Stanford, and Washington State and a home game against Oregon State are all games the Cats have a chance to win but the road has not been a friend to UA over the last few years. Keeping Tuitama healthy for a full-season will be a top priority.


Head Coach: Jeff Tedford
2005 Record: 8-4, 4-4 Pac-10

Offense: 7 returning starters

The key to success will most likely stand on the shoulders of a rebuilt offensive line. Three talented seniors were lost due to graduation. Junior running backs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett are more than capable of running the ball but how will the run blocking fare up front now? The Bears can probably still manage on the ground but the quarterback play will have to improve if a New Year's bowl is in their future. Cal ranked last in the conference in passing offense in '05, managing only 192.7 yards. Sophomore Nate Longshore is back from injury but a switch to a spread offense may open the door for senior Joe Ayoob. Whoever wins the job will have talented receivers as targets. Sophomore DeSean Jackson is a speedy playmaker and a star in the making. Junior Robert Jordan is a reliable pass catcher and can keep secondaries honest from collapsing entirely on Jackson.

Defense: 7 returning starters

The pieces appear to be in place for a solid defense from the Bears this season. The defensive line is stacked with 4 solid starters, most notably tackle Brandon Mebane. The senior can stop the run and is equally adept at getting into opposing backfields. Next to only USC, the Cal linebackers are all capable of making big plays. Senior Desmond Bishop is a brick wall in the middle and will be flanked by sophomores Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams and senior Mickey Pimentel. Both corners are back, seniors Tim Mixon and Daymeion Hughes, while Donnie McCleskey's rover spot appears to be the only notable vacancy on this side of the ball. Junior Brandon Hampton has the inside track at the starting spot.

Outlook: Cal should benefit from a favorable schedule this season as 7 games are at home. Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA, and rival Stanford are all home games for the Bears. A nationally televised win in Knoxville, TN in week one would do wonders for national perception and confidence to start the season. The road game at USC in mid-November could be for the conference title. Both teams should have solid defenses and it may come down to whoever has the best quarterback play by that time since they have similar questions at that spot heading into the season. Cal should be favored in road games at Oregon State and at Washington State midway through the schedule but trips to those two Northwest schools are never automatic wins.


Head Coach: Walt Harris
2005 Record: 5-6, 4-4 Pac-10

Offense: 10 returning starters

What's not to like about an offense that comes back almost completely intact? There are still areas that need improvement, however. It will all start up front as the offensive line returns all five starters but must improve in both pass blocking and run blocking. Protecting senior quarterback Trent Edwards will be most important as he has taken a beating over his career. Former receiver, Anthony Kimble and junior Jason Evans will handle the rushing duties. The modest ground game has made small strides over the last few seasons and must continue to improve. Last year's average of 92.3 yards on the ground ranked last in the Pac-10. Edwards will have two capable seniors to throw to in Evan Moore and Mark Bradford.

Defense: 6 returning starters

Babatunde Oshinowo's departure up front leaves some big shoes to fill for former Valley standout, Ekom Udofia. The tackle doesn't have much time to acclimate himself after coming off a redshirt year in '05. His play may very well be the key to the defense this season as the depth along the line is thin. Just how much will the linebackers have to help in run support? Udofia will join his older brother, Udeme, who can play at end or linebacker, depending on what set defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff uses. The secondary returns 3 starters, including both safeties Brandon Harrison and Trevor Hooper. Pass defense was not an area of strength last season as they allowed an average of 286 yards through the air.

Outlook: The Cardinal make their home debut in mid-September at a remodeled Stanford Stadium, designed in hopes of a better home field advantage since it will bring fans closer to the playing field. If the defense can stand up, Stanford may be a surprise team in the conference for a second consecutive season, considering the very low expectations. They'll get a shot to play the role of spoiler in week one when they visit Oregon in what should be a battle for 4 quarters. After coming up just short last season in the bid for a post-season berth, the Cardinal will have to work the same mojo in conference swing games like that to have a shot at playing over the Holidays.


Head Coach: Pete Carroll
2005 Record: 12-1, 8-0 Pac-10

Offense: 4 returning starters

After averaging 49.1 points per game last season, the Trojan offense will have feature some new faces in 2006. The loss of quarterback Matt Leinart is arguably the biggest hole to fill despite losing a once-in-a-generation type of player in Reggie Bush. Everyone knows Pete Carroll has stockpiled talent over the last few years but Leinart's leadership and calming influence in 4th quarter jams the Trojans occasionally found themselves in are intangibles that are not as easily replaced. John David Booty, a junior with limited experience, is listed as the starter but with freshman Mark Sanchez's re-instatement to the team, Booty will be pushed.

The offensive line still has talent despite losing Taitusi Lutui and Winston Justice. Ryan Kalil, at center, and left tackle Sam Baker return as starters. Star receiver Dwayne Jarrett hasn't been officially cleared to rejoin the team after an NCAA investigation into extra benefits but Carroll is hopeful the junior will be back and it's only a matter of when. Jarrett and flanker Steve Smith, a senior, lead a receiving group that is amongst the nation's best. Running back Chauncey Washington has been in the program for three years but has had eligibility issues to contend with. Other backfield injuries to Desmond Reed and Hershel Dennis will probably force the staff to take a serious look at playing one of the three incoming freshmen.

Defense: 6 returning starters

The defense, +21 in turnover margin in ‘05 may not be the best in the country but it's an opportunistic group capable of creating turnovers when they need them. Defensive end Lawrence Jackson is the top headliner in the trenches after recording 10 sacks last year. There's an embarrassment of riches at linebacker, where the Trojans are two deep with a ton of athleticism. Both senior Oscar Lua and sophomore Rey Maualuga are playmakers in the middle. Senior Dallas Sartz brings the most experience while Keith Rivers, a junior, can fly all over the field at the outside spot.

The Trojan secondary have struggled with injuries over the last couple of seasons and lost a veteran in Darnell Bing. Josh Pinkard can play both safety and corner and will be counted on more this season as there isn't a wealth of experience here. Terrell Thomas and Kevin Ellison are both coming off of knee surgeries. The Ting twins, Brandon and Ryan, are no longer in the program, leaving depth issues at safety if Pinkard is called back to duty at corner.

Outlook: It's hard to imagine the Trojan offense not taking a small step backward, at the very least, with the loss of Leinart, Bush, and White. SC should be more balanced, however, with a core group back on defense. Will all of the off-season problems for the program have any effect on team performance? The schedule is suited for another Pac-10 title run as games against Cal, Arizona State, and Oregon are all at home but the trickiest part of the schedule will be in the month of September. Three away games (@ Arkansas, @ Arizona, and @ Washington State) and one home contest against Nebraska await a rebuilding SC offense. All four are winnable but it's unclear what effect the loss of that much offensive leadership and experience will have as they head out on the road early on.

Under Carroll, the Trojans typically get better as the season progresses so if they can avoid the early season trap games then they should still be in the race for the conference title when November rolls around, when Oregon and Cal come to town.


Head Coach: Karl Dorrell
2005 Record: 10-2, 6-2 Pac-10

Offense: 5 returning starters

Like their counterparts across Los Angeles, the Bruins are also replacing a host of talent that moved on to the NFL. The quarterback derby appears to be getting most of the attention as the highly sought after Ben Olson will finally make his debut. Olson will have to do without tight end Marcedes Lewis, and distribute the ball amongst a small handful of receivers that have experience but lack any game breakers. Senior Junior Taylor is back after an early season injury in '05 and will join Joe Cowan, 35 receptions last season, as the starting pair of receivers.

Running back Chris Markey was a capable back-up to Maurice Drew and will finally get the starting nod as a junior. Markey, Co-MVP of last year's Sun Bowl, will anchor a ground game that shouldn't see too much of a drop off provided that the offensive line can hold up. Junior Shannon Tevaga is the leader of the group that lost three starters from a year ago.

Defense: 6 returning starters

The Bruin defense was horrendous last season, particularly the run defense. An average of 232 yards per game were given up on the ground. Three linebackers, most notably Spencer Havner, have graduated. Strong side linebacker John Hale has some experience and will join senior Eric McNeal, who has playing experience but in the secondary. The defensive line has had a string of bad luck with injuries over the past few seasons so if starters Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell stay healthy, production at tackle should be better.

Defensive end Justin Hickman, 5.5 sacks in 2005, can also be productive provided he also stays away from injuries. The secondary has a fair amount of experience returning despite losing Jarrad Page, a four year starter. Juniors Trey Brown and Dennis Keyes will start at corner and free safety, respectively.

Outlook: Only three assistants from last year's Sun Bowl team return and both coordinators are new. The home opener against Utah should be a good early season test for a new-look offense. If the Bruins win that one, they could very well start out with a 5-0 or 4-1 record before playing Oregon. The schedule is back loaded with most of their toughest opponents in October and November, which include roadies to Cal, Arizona State, Oregon, and Notre Dame. That may be a good thing considering the Bruins will be breaking in a new quarterback but it may prove to be too much to handle.

UCLA should be eligible for a bowl game again but must secure wins at home over Oregon State and Washington State, sandwiched in between road games over that brutal second half schedule, in order to give themselves some breathing room late in the year as other teams will be looking for that magical sixth win.


Head Coach: Mike Bellotti
2005 Record: 10-2, 7-1 Pac-10

Offense: 7 returning starters

Junior quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf got a head start on '06 when Kellen Clemens went down last season with an injury. Dixon is more of an athletic quarterback, capable of making plays with his feet, and is listed as the starter heading into fall camp. Leaf will probably see some action off the bench as Bellotti has shown he doesn't mind playing both. They both will have the luxury of lining up behind a line that returns all five starters, including senior center Enoka Lucas. Bellotti is excited about heralded running back Jonathan Stewart, promising a prominent role in the offense for the sophomore this season after losing Terrance Whitehead to graduation. Two key receiving targets in '05 were also lost in tight end Tim Day and 1,000 yard receiver Demetrius Williams. Senior Dante Rosario and junior Cameron Colvin are hoping to fill the void at the two positions.

Defense: 6 returning starters

The Oregon defense finished atop the Pac-10 in total defense last season, led by a secondary that had a wealth of experience and a monstrous defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata. Ngata's presence on the line won't be easy to replace as he consistently drew double teams. Senior Matt Toeaina moved outside to end in the spring and it's still unclear if he will remain there since it's a wait-and-see game at tackle. The depth behind tackles David Faaeteete and Cole Linehan is a little shaky. The linebackers should be fine with two senior starters back, Brent Haberly and Blair Phillips. The secondary boasts the return of a good safety combination in Patrick Chung and J.D. Nelson but there will be two new corners this season. The last time the Ducks started over at corner, receivers had a field day.

Outlook: The Ducks should be bowling again but the question is where. With an ambitious schedule that includes trips to Cal, Arizona State, USC, and Oregon State, and a home game against Oklahoma, it's hard to consider the Ducks a serious contender for a BCS game but anything is possible. A return trip to San Diego and the Holiday Bowl may happen if they knock off the Devils, another outside contender with similar landmines on the road, with two weeks to prepare for the game.


Head Coach: Mike Riley
2005 Record: 5-6, 3-5 Pac-10

Offense: 8 returning starters

The recent announcement that Marcel Love and Ruben Jackson are in jeopardy of being ineligible this fall puts the receiving depth in jeopardy as Oregon State looks to replace record-setter Mike Hass. Luckily, tight end Joe Newton is back from a pre-season injury that kept him out all of last season. Junior Anthony-Wheat Brown caught 40 balls for 3 touchdowns last season and is the top returning target at receiver.

Matt Moore enters his final season at quarterback after throwing for over 2,700 yards last season. The senior must improve his decision making, however, if the Beavers are going to play in the post-season. Moore's 11 touchdowns to 19 interceptions last season simply won't cut it. The signal caller has no excuse not to improve as he will benefit from an offensive line that returns intact and a running back that ran for over 1,300 yards last season behind him. Bernard can catch well out of the backfield as well. A back-up must emerge this season as he was worn down by season's end last year after having to play through injuries.

Defense: 7 returning starters

2005 was a tale of two defenses for the Beavers. They led the league in rushing defense but continuously gave up big plays through the air, which led to the conference's worst pass defense last season. 31 passing touchdowns were given up by the Beavers in '05. Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker are hoping that the return of all four starters in the secondary will mean a big improvement over last season. Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis cut their teeth as freshman corners in a pass happy league. Sabby Piscitelli will anchor the unit as a senior and brings a ton of experience with him.

Things don't look so bright at linebacker, where the departures of Trent Bray and Keith Ellison leave some holes to fill. Junior Derrick Doggett has some experience and should be aided by the addition of JC transfer Joey LaRocque. The good news for the defensive line is that both ends, Joe Lemma and Jeff Van Orsow, are back but the line lost both starting tackles. The Beavers are hoping that returning experience at the end spots will mean an improved pass rush as they tied with Arizona State last season by registering the fewest sacks in the league with 22.

Outlook: Picked to finish 7th by the media, the Beavers can surprise some people this season as long as quarterback Matt Moore shows visible improvement. That's not a total long shot considering he's experienced and will be running the same offense--a first in his collegiate career (due to a transfer and a change in offensive coordinators). A somewhat friendly schedule means the Beavers have a decent shot at a bowl game. Idaho visits in late September, offering up a storyline on the side that will mark the first trip back to Corvallis for former head coach Dennis Erickson.

The Beavers should start out at 2-1 or 3-0 if they can grab a win on the road at Boise State. Pivotal games that will decide bowl eligibility are away games at Stanford, Washington, and Hawaii.


Head Coach: Tyrone Willingham
2005 Record: 2-9, 1-7 Pac-10

Offense: 6 returning starters

Offenses that have a tough time putting up points typically don't fare well in the Pac-10 and that was the story for the Huskies last season. Washington averaged only 21.5 points per game in 2005 when at least six other conference teams averaged 32 points or better. Quarterback Isaiah Stanback returns for his senior year and will likely shoulder most of the load on offense. Stanback can make plays with his feet, which may be a good thing as left guard Stanley Daniels is the lone returning starter on the offensive line. The running back position is in a bit of a quagmire, depth-wise, since freshman J.R. Hasty is academically ineligible this fall. That meant moving Shelton Sampson from corner back to his original position to bolster depth.

Louis Rankin, a junior, and senior Kenny James have been hit with injuries but appear to be healthy going into pre-season drills. The receiving group was hit hard, as well. Duke transfer Chancellor Young was set to go but was also deemed an academic casualty. That leaves a shaky depth behind senior Sonny Shackelford due to the transfer of Craig Chambers, the team's second leader in receptions a year ago, to Montana.

Defense: 8 returning starters

The Husky defense was a middle-of-the-road entry last season. Nothing horrendous but nothing special either. The most glaring deficiencies, however, were in the red zone and in creating turnovers. The line may be a little better with three starters returning. Junior defensive end Greyson Gunheim led the team in sacks last season with 5. Two big contributors at linebacker are now gone, Joe Lobendahn and Evan Benjamin. Senior Scott White returns to start on the inside but has consistency problems. The secondary may be strength as three starters are back, including Dashon Goldson, who has moved from safety to corner. Strong safety C.J. Wallace is the top returner in tackles from last season with 86 stops.

Outlook: Willingham's job at Montlake doesn't seem to be getting any easier these days with the recent academic casualties that were announced. The non-conference slate is difficult since the Huskies play at Oklahoma and receive a visit from Fresno State. The only probable win on paper at this time seems to be against San Jose State in week one.

A win could possibly come against Oregon State and Stanford at home. Like most rivalry games, the Apple Cup is never a gimme for either team but this year's contest will take place in Pullman. Fortunes will probably ride on Stanback and the rest of the offense. A repeat of last year's anemic offense will produce another one or two-win season.


Head Coach: Bill Doba
2005 Record: 4-7, 1-7 Pac-10

Offense: 7 returning starters

The nation's leading rusher last season, Jerome Harrison, has moved on but the Cougars feel they have enough in sophomore DeMaundray Woolridge and JC transfer Derrell Hutsona. Last week, Wazzu learned that their other JC signee at running back, J.T. Diederichs, was an academic casualty. As long as injuries don't mount in the backfield, the Cougar offense should be fine with the core group back from last year. Quarterback was a big position battle a year ago at this time but Josh Swogger has transferred, leaving junior Alex Brink with a firm hold on the starting job.

Brink hasn't provided the flash of a Willie Tuitama but has a nice supporting cast around him that, combined with another year of seasoning, should spell more consistency in 2006. The line is bolstered by both tackles, Bobby Byrd and Charles Harris, returning. Senior receivers Jason Hill and Chris Jordan are a tandem that will be overshadowed by their counterparts at USC and Cal but can be just as productive. Hill is one of only two 1,000 yard receivers in the conference returning this season. Junior receiver Michael Bumpus also doubles as a dangerous punt returner.

Defense: 7 returning starters

Like Oregon State, another school that typically fields a decent pass defense, last year was a dismal outing for the secondary. An average of 289 yards per game were surrendered through the air. Senior corners Tyron Brackenridge and Don Turner will be on a short leash if they don't improve fast. A couple of JC transfers and a talented freshman, Kerry Maddox, will be waiting in the wings. At least both starters in the middle will back, strong safety Eric Frampton and free safety Husain Abdullah.

Frampton led the team in tackles last year with 87. Linebacker Will Derting was a rock for the Cougar D but was often injured over his career, which now makes the transition smoother. Greg Trent takes over for Derting in the middle. The linebacking unit should be a strength with Scott Davis on the strong side and Steve Dildine opposite at the weak spot. Defensive end Mkristo Bruce is an All Pac-10 candidate after leading the team in sacks last season with 10. Defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua is back from a leg injury. If he holds up, they'll have a nice two deep on the interior of the line.

Outlook: Picked to finish eighth by the media, the Cougars are seemingly underrated from an early season standpoint. An ambitious road trip to Auburn kicks off the season but Wazzu gets conference heavyweights USC, Cal, and Oregon all at home this season. Wazzu is usually pretty salty at home no matter who the opponent is so an upset somewhere on the schedule would come as no surprise. In all 4 home losses last season (to Stanford, UCLA, ASU, and Oregon), the Cougars came up only a field goal short. The only blowout of the season came on the road at the hands of USC. If they can win both road trips to Stanford and Oregon State, WSU should be looking at a bowl game again. If defensive coordinator Robb Akey can work some magic on his pass defense, the Cougars can be the conference's most improved team and a darkhorse for a possible Sun Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl bid with their schedule.

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