Mike Riley is back in town. It's a chance to see Steven Jackson punish someone not wearing orange. Though later non-conference games will accomplish this goal to a greater extent, it is some sort of measuring stick to see how this team has grown since last year. And finally, it's a great excuse to get together with some friends and see some football. As we've been painfully reminded through the winter, spring, and summer, these chances only come a few days a year.
So even though it may be a little more exciting if Ohio State was the team coming to town tonight, make the most of the matchup against the Hornets.
The conference title will be decided by the head-to-head matchups. I believe it's a four team race between UW, ASU, USC, and OSU. I think that though USC will be in the running, they will fall short due to their scheduling disadvantage and inexperience at the quarterback position. It is well known the correlation between Pac-10 success and experienced quarterbacks. I believe that the team, among these four, that gets the best play under center will be playing in Pasadena.
Washington and Arizona State have the conferences two best quarterbacks in Cody Pickett and Andrew Walter. Both were outstanding last year. Walter didn't start until the fifth game of the season last year and racked up crazy numbers, including a Pac-10 record 512 yards passing against Oregon. And not to be outdone, Pickett threw for more yards last year than anyone else in Pac-10 history.
Perhaps the biggest question for both the Huskies and the Sun Devils is whether they will be able to consistently run the ball. ASU finished 8th both in per game rush offense (89.0) and yards per carry (2.5), while UW was worse at 9th in both per game (74.5) and per carry (2.1). The lack of a running game was probably the biggest offensive weakness for both teams last year. ASU brings back its entire offensive line and all three members of its tailback by committee plan from last year. Washington also returns its starting running back in Rich Alexis, but they are hoping to get some help from Chris Singleton and redshirt freshman Kenny James.
Oregon State has a chance to be a player in the race, with both Washington and Arizona State coming to Corvallis, where Oregon State has lost just three times in the last four years, the best home mark in the Pac-10 over that stretch. Steven Jackson is the Pac-10's best back and is set to have a huge year behind what should be an improved offensive line. The defense may have a slight drop-off, but if Brandon Browner and Aric Williams stay healthy and perform as they have in spring and fall practice, the defense will be among the tops in the conference (along with USC and Washington State). The biggest key is Derek Anderson. He will determine how far the Beavers go this year. If he can make good decisions late in games and consistently make plays on the road, the Beavers will win the conference. Unfortunately, I think it will take another year of growth and development for Anderson to get to that point. He will make too many mistakes, and I like Washington to be the conference's top team.
Predicted Finish (Predicted records in parenthesis)
Washington (10-2, 7-1)
Arizona State (10-2, 6-2)
Oregon State (10-2, 6-2)
USC (9-3, 6-2)
Washington State (7-5, 4-4)
Oregon (7-5, 4-4)
UCLA (5-7, 3-5)
Cal (4-9, 2-6)
Arizona (2-9, 1-7)
Stanford (2-9, 1-7)
It would not surprise me to see any of the teams I have finishing with a losing record jump up into bowl contention. UCLA has a ton of talent, but I think they are a year from being a competitor. If Karl Dorrell gets them going right away, look out. Cal showed that they cannot be taken lightly by hanging with Kansas State last week. I would never rule out a Jeff Tedford-coached team. All signs point to Arizona being terrible again, but if Clarence Farmer returns to form, they could jump a few slots. Chris Lewis is looking to have a memorable senior campaign, but he'll be looking over his shoulder, with Kyle Matter ready to jump in if he falters.
This Week's Picks:
Oregon State 42, Sacramento State 6. Look for this one to be over early. Need I say more?
Cal 27, Southern Miss 20. If Cal can improve steadily on defense, they
have a good shot at winning some games. Their offense will be adequate, with
Tedford behind the scenes. The real question is whether they can stop anyone.
This will be a good test, but look for the Bears to prevail over the Golden
USC 23, Auburn 14. Auburn might be the most overrated team in the country. They have the potential to be a great team, but I think it might be a bit premature to call this team a top-10 team. They have a great group of running backs, led by Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, but they will have a great test going up against USC's rush defense. Shaun Cody, Kenechi Udeze, Omar Nazel, and Mike Patterson make up the Pac-10's best defensive line. I like USC to win this one.
Ohio State 31, Washington 27. I almost like the Huskies to get the upset in Columbus, but I just can't pick them over a team with as much talent and proven ability to win tough games as Ohio State. After the Fiesta Bowl and pretty much every other close game last year, I expect to see the Buckeyes pick up the win. With all the controversy surrounding Maurice Clarett, and even the Rick Neuheisal dismissal, these teams are surely ready to play a game. Look for Reggie Williams to have a dominant game, but it won't be enough.
Oregon 17, Mississippi State 13. Look for the cooling vests to make all the difference in this matchup. But seriously, I think the Ducks will be able to contain the Bulldog offense. If they can find a way to score some points, they will be victorious. Look for Kellen Clemens to get the nod at quarterback, although it might take a few games for that to get sorted out.
Arizona 31, UTEP 13. The Wildcats better enjoy this one, because LSU comes to town next week. Perhaps the biggest blow to the Wildcats was losing WR Andrae Thurman to academic problems. They do return their entire offensive line and get Clarence Farmer back from injury, but without Bobby Wade and Jason Johnson, they will have to prove they can pass the ball, before teams will play less than eight men in the box.
Washington State 35, Idaho 10. Matt Kegel begins this season with last year's Apple Cup hanging over his head. He has always had a ton of talent, but it remains to be seen whether he has the mentality to help his team win. Washington State has plenty of weapons still on offense, with Mike Bush and Jermaine Green. Their defense will be in the running for the best in conference. Losing OL Derrick Roche will hurt, but they do bring back 6'8", 315 pound Calvin Armstrong, another first-team all-conference player last year. If Kegel excels, Washington State could jump into the fray as a contender. He might want to get it together quickly, though, with trips to Notre Dame and Colorado following this game in Seattle.
Until next week .
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