Well dear readers and fans, here it is… all apologies for the lengthy delay. There were many factors preventing this printing from going to press, distractions as varied as Spring Football practices, vacation, yard work, and women… Who, incidentally, are the devil.
Ah, but I digress. Let there be no further delay…
#6 Arizona Wildcats
The John Mackovic era enters year number two in Tucson, Arizona. Critics of Mack's wonder how exactly he's expected to perform in the top echelon at Arizona when he consistently headed up underachieving teams at the University of Texas, which often has more talent than some NFL franchises.
OA tends to agree. I haven't seen anything from John Mackovic that has impressed me, and watching the ESPN series "The Season" on Arizona football left me even less impressed with Mack. The thing the Mack does have going in his favor, however, is the employment of Larry MacDuff, who may very well be the best defensive coordinator in the Pac 10.
Pac 10 followers remember (and probably not so fondly) UA's Desert Storm defenses of the mid 90's. MacDuff was the architect of that unit, employing his Double Flex Eagle scheme-quite a headache for opposing OC's and even more so, for opposing signal callers, particularly inexperienced ones. The scheme employs a great deal of misdirection and blitzes coming from different positions in order to create confusion and chaos.
After a breif stint in the No Fun League with the NY Giants-and a successful one at that-MacDuff returned to the UA last year to begin rebuilding Arizona's formidable defense.
This year, the Wildcat defense returns 6 starters, including the outstanding ILB Lance Briggs, who led the 'Cats in sacks last year with 6.5 and tackles with 93. Briggs may be one of the top two or 3 linebackers in the Pac 10, with an outstanding combination of speed, quickness, and instincts and will again be the anchor of this unit. The defensive line experienced some losses to graduation, but due to the somewhat sub-par play of this unit last year, I don't see this as necessarily a negative. Solid DT Young Thompson returns to anchor the DL and coaches are very high on JC DE Andre Torrey, who is a pass-rush type end. In the secondary, standout DB Michael Jolivette returns after snagging 5 picks last year. Jolivette may well best be remembered in the state of Oregon as the guy who was nearly decapitated by Wesley Mallard at Autzen 2 years ago in one of the most viscious (and illegal, I might add) hits in recent memory.
The offense is returning 9 starters and two very serious stars in Bobby Wade and Clarence Farmer. Farmer is my pick for the best RB in the Pac 10, a shoo-in for All-Pac 10 honors. Big, strong, fast, and devastating, Farmer is destined to play on Sundays, and his production certainly won't be harmed by a solid OL returning 3 starters including the outstanding Makoa Freitas. Bobby Wade returns as another All Conference candidate after racking up 882 yards last year despite being the only real receiving threat for the Cats last year and facing a lot of scrutiny from opposing defenses.
At QB, Jason Johnson returns and comes through spring ball as the clear starter, though there was some question as to whether Aloha High School product Nic Costa could compete for the starting position before spring scrimmages. Johnson put those questions to rest with a good spring performance.
Arizona certainly ranks as a team that could surprise, though my gut tells me that the Mack factor will keep the Wildcats from the upper half of the Pac 10.
#5 Oregon Ducks
Okay, duckfan. Let the screaming begin.
How could you rank Oregon in the middle of the Pac, we have Barney errr Jason Fife returning after 3 years in the system, we've reloaded, it won't be a down year, Onterrio Smith is the best RB in the Pac 10 BLAH BLAH BLAH.
I'll give Mike Belotti credit for one thing: no one does consistently more with less than Belotti, and the ducks consistently win the close games. Bounces just always seem to go your way if you're a duck.
So I may very well be wrong to let Oregon slide to number 5 in the Pac 10… but I'll say this: If any other team than the ducks had just sent the heart and soul of their team to the NFL as the #3 pick overall and lost HALF their starters to graduation, you can bet they would be in the bottom third of the Pac, not dead in the middle.
Oregon returns 5 starters to the offensive side of the ball, including speedster Samie Parker, who racked up 748 yards last year. WR, return specialist, and blown call benefactor Keenan Howry also returns for the ducks. Howry is an elusive receiver with outstanding hands who runs great routes and consistently performs in clutch situations for the ducks, and will provide a nice, reliable target for Fife. Fife steps up as the heir apparent to the spot vacated by Heisman Trophy candidate Joey Harrington, and looks to possess all the physical tools to be successful as a Pac 10 QB, lacking only experience and seasoning in game-type situations. You can't talk about Oregon's offense without mentioning Onterrio Smith. Smith is a beast, there is no other way to explain it. A freakishly strong runner with incredible speed, Smith will be the number one focus of every defensive coordinator when facing Oregon on the gridiron. Watch to see teams stack the box and try and test Jason Fife's arm all year long.
Key to the performance of the Oregon offensive machine will be the play of a young offensive line and Fife's ability to perform under pressure.
Defensively, Oregon returns 6 starters. The questions that loom large are how the ducks are going to replace Steve Smith and Rashad Bauman, who were arguably the best pair of corners, collectively, in the Pac 10. Last year the ducks were extremely successful with their 9-in-the-box strategy with Bauman and Smith out on islands. Though the ducks did rank very low in terms of statistical passing yards allowed, don't be deceived. Oregon also produced a high rate of turnovers, which is typical of a gambling type of defense. Without outstanding play from the secondary, this scheme simply won't work and Aliotti will have to make some adjustments. DB Steven Moore, who played nickleback last year, will figure largely into this equation. Also gone is lightening quick LB Wesley Mallard, who led the team in tackles last year with 111. Rover Keith Lewis will emerge as the leader of this defense in Mallard's absence, and the dependable S Rasuli Webster will also figure big this year.
The bottom line for Oregon is that their defense is going to give up more yards and produce less turnovers this year, a key to their success in close games last year. Without Captain Comeback at the helm for the conference's most consistent program, there is just plain going to be some drop off for a year or so.
#4 Washington Huskies
The Washington Huskies are arguably the most dominant program in the Pac 10 over the last 20 years or so. Even after losing Marcus Tuiasosopo and virtually the entire offensive line, the Huskies still found a way to finish in the upper third of the conference, seemingly against all odds.
Love him or hate him, carp about his whining, improper recruiting tactics, guitar singing, rafting trips, or his sweater vest, Rick Neuheisal can coach. The conference's first million dollar man continues to amaze as he puts together another outstanding squad for the Huskies' campaign in 2002.
UW returns a very respectable 8 starters to the offensive unit this year, including 4 or the starting 5 OL, starting QB Cody Pickett and the freakishly talented Reggie Williams for his sophmore year at WR. As a true freshman, the 6'-4" Williams hauled in receptions totalling 973 yards, and if he doesn't top 1000 yards this year, I'll be nothing less than shocked. Enjoy him while you can, Dawg fans… my money is that this kid will go to the pros after this year. Also returning at WR is Paul Arnold, a converted RB who is very dangerous in the run after catch facet. Arnold has nice hands and provides a good second option as defenses focus on Williams. Gone is absurdly talented TE Jerremy Stevens, though Stevens wasn't much of an impact last year. Kevin Ware and Joe Toledo both look primed to step up at TE.
A lot of pundits seem to think that finding a decent running back will be key for UW's success this year… but not this one. UW has a very respectable running back in Rich Alexis, and a good alternative in Braxton Clemen, who missed almost the entire season last year with a broken collarbone. The problems with getting the running game going last year had more to do with ineffective run blocking and Cody Pickett's arm strength, as he played most of the year with a separated shoulder. Hard to throw the deep ball with a separated shoulder. With a more experienced offensive line and Pickett's shoulder nicely recovered, UW's offensive woes won't even be an issue.
In fact, UW's offense looks downright dangerous this year… certainly one of the best in Pac, arguably one of the best in the country.
Defensively, the Huskies are in another boat altogether. Washington returns just 3 of the front 7 and 5 starters total on the defense this year. The departed Larry Tripplett leaves a HUGE hole in the front 7 that must be filled. ILB Ben Mahdavi, who led the team with 85 tackles and 5 sacks last year returns for his senior year to lead the unit, along with OLB Kai Ellis, a legitimate pass rush threat. What really concerns me is that the secondary returns just 2 starters from the 2001 squad which was so porous against the pass last year. Roc Alexander led the team in interceptions in 2001 with 4, but still hasn't quite proved himself as a good enough cover guy despite the four picks. Worse, the UW didn't get any help in the secondary during recruiting, so it could be a long year for the Husky defense.
It's not that the Huskies don't have talent. But one of the biggest knocks on Neuheisal by critics is that he appears to be enamored with the highly touted recruits rather than finding guys who fit his system-one of the mantras of recruiting is that you go get guys who fit into your system. Hard to do, critics charge, if you don't really have a system.
Could be a lot of shootouts with the Huskies this year, especially late in the year. If the defense steps up and comes together as a unit, you could see a conference title for the Huskies. Still, with the questions defensively, I have a hard time selecting Washington in my top 3… which is why they're #4.
Next up: OrangeAttack's third, second and first picks for the Pac-10.
Link: Pac-10 Preview: Part I