The buzzword for this year's Pac-10 season could be "transition." With four new head coaches, and potentially up to seven new starting quarterbacks, the whole conference will be trying to find itself and forge a new identity. Every Saturday could be like Christmas morning for Pac-10 fans, and there's no telling what will be under the tree.
Unfortunately, this could mean a decline in the quality of football up and down the conference, especially early in the season. And with the ambitious non-conference schedules that every Pac-10 team will face this year, that also probably means that every college football pundit will break their necks to badmouth the conference at every opportunity. I'm already bracing myself for it.
But while things could get a little ugly in September, the Pac-10 race is shaping up to be as wild and wacky as ever. Not as wild and wacky as a night with Mike Price, mind you, but probably just as mind-numbing and perhaps every bit as entertaining.
Does this mean that the Pac-10 won't have two BCS teams for the third time in four seasons? Right now, I don't have the foggiest idea. Fortunately, there's only one way to find out, as we'll all watch another Pac-10 season unfold before our very eyes.
By the way, just for reference, let's see how my predictions for last season shook out…
|MY 2002 PREDICTIONS||2002 PAC-10 RESULTS|
|1||Washington State||1||Washington State||(7-1 in Pac-10, 10-3 overall)|
|3||Washington||3||Arizona State||(5-3, 8-6)|
|5||Stanford||5||Oregon State||(4-4, 8-5)|
|6||Oregon State||6||cal||(4-4, 7-5)|
|10||Arizona State||10||Arizona||(1-7, 4-8)|
Hey, I got the champ and the runner-up right…isn't that the important thing anyway?
Anyway, without further ado, as of 2:51 pm on August 19, 2003, here are my predictions for the upcoming Pac-10 teams…
Last year: A nightmare on the field, and even worse off of it. Any time the players try to stage a coup on the head coach, it obviously can't be considered a successful year. They still found a way to beat cal, though.
This year: John Mackovic and the Wildcats will be looking to put last season's shameful events behind them. A few wins would help, but there are plenty of pitfalls that might prevent Arizona from becoming a contender. Nic Costa and Ryan O'Hara are duking it out at the quarterback spot. While both have shown some things during spring and fall drills, it remains to be seen how they will react when it kicks off for real. It might not matter who is taking snaps if the offensive line doesn't rebound from a brutal season in which they allowed a staggering 52 sacks. Not much went right for the Arizona defense, as the Wildcats allowed almost 162 rushing yards per game. There is some good news in Tucson, though. Corners Michael Jolivette and Gary Love will be a big test to opposing quarterbacks. WR Andrae Thurman is a dangerous, dazzling receiver. But the best news concerns the return and reinstatement of RB Clarence Farmer. A knee injury cut short his season, and a suspension cut him out of spring ball altogether. But Farmer still has over 2,200 career rushing yards under his belt and has the ability to regain his status as one of the best running backs in the conference.
Player to watch: Farmer. Any chance the Wildcats have of breaking out of the Pac-10's cellar rests largely on his legs.
Schedule: The Wildcats start the year with three straight home games, but two of those games are against LSU and Oregon. Road trips to West Lafayette and Pullman could also be troublesome. But November could be a real doozy. UA will finish the season with games against Oregon State in Corvallis, Washington, U$C, and Arizona State at Tempe. By the way, in the last four seasons, Arizona is just 2-14 in Pac-10 home games. It gets worse—they have lost 11 straight conference games at Arizona Stadium.
Big question: How long until Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood is introducing his old buddy Mike Price as the Wildcats' new head coach?
Last year: The ever-sympathetic NCAA upheld its postseason ban on the Bears, preventing Jeff Tedford from taking cal to a bowl appearance in his first season at Raspberry Ravine. That still doesn't taint Tedford's turnaround from an unspeakably putrid 1-10 under Tom Holmoe to a competitive 7-5 in 2002. The eye-opener came in East Lansing, where the Bears sent the Spartans into a permanent tailspin. Not only did they beat Washington for the first time since the earth cooled, but they also reclaimed The Axe. Damn.
This year: Kyle Boller is in the NFL. Joe Igber has no eligibility left. Most of last year's defense? Gone. About the only person left from last year's squad is Jeff Tedford. But all the departures mean that there are plenty of holes that desperately need to be filled in order for the Bears to get back to respectability. Junior QB Reggie Robertson has been named the starter for this weekend's season opener, but how long can he hold off juco transfer Aaron Rodgers? Not only is RB Adimchinobe Echemandu (formerly known as Joseph Echema) battling knee problems, he's also trying to fend off Marcus O'Keith and J.J. Arrington. The Bears should be fine at receiver with Johnathan Makkonen and Geoff MacArthur leading the way, but who will get them the ball? On defense, the only two known quantities are DT Lorenzo Alexander and CB James Bethea. That's it. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory will have more than a few sleepless nights while he tries to figure out how to mix in nine new faces everywhere else.
Player to watch: CB Tim Mixon. The redshirt freshman had an outstanding camp, and Old Blues are praying that his head-turning play continues into the season.
Schedule: Season openers don't get much rougher than Kansas State at Arrowhead Stadium with the nation watching. Southern Miss and Colorado State come to Berkeley; both went to bowls last year. The Bears have to travel to Utah and Illinois, who both are both coming off disappointing seasons. U$C and Oregon State are cal's first two conference opponents (both of those games are in Berkeley). November will be critical, with back-to-back road games in Tempe and Eugene, a visit from the Huskies, and Big Game at Stanford. At least the Bears don't have to play Wazzu this year.
Big question: Is Jeff Tedford a miracle worker?
Outlook: To be a Rose Bowl contender, you need a proven quarterback, a good running game, and a stout defense. When it comes to those areas, the Bears are a perfect 0-for 3. Good coaching can only go so far…at some point the personnel has to be there, too.
8. Washington State
Last year: Even though Wazzu posted back-to-back ten-win seasons for the first time in school history, it was still a "what-if" year for the Cougars. As in, what if Jason Gesser hadn't suffered an almost Theismann-like injury in the Apple Cup? What if the officials had ruled QB Matt Kegel's triple-overtime throw an incompletion instead of a lateral pass recovered by the Huskies? What if Mike Price (who has his own set of what-if questions to deal with) hadn't been splitting time between Pullman and Tuscaloosa while the Cougs prepared for the Rose Bowl? What if Gesser had been anywhere near healthy against the Sooners? It's a shame that the way last season ended will tarnish how the 2002 Cougars, arguably the best in school history, will be remembered.
This year: Long-time assistant, first-time head coach Bill Doba takes the reigns on the sideline. Long-time backup, first-time starter Matt Kegel gets his only shot at becoming the latest in a long line of fine Wazzu quarterbacks. Gesser aside, that tradition is full of big lugs who stand in the pocket and fling the ball all over the place, and Kegel looks the part. WR Devard Darling hauled in 54 passes last season; he'll be counted on to fill the holes left by Mike Bush and Jerome Riley. Between DE Isaac Brown, OLB Will Derting, and CB Jason David, the defense features some good players, but they lost two great ones in Rien Long and Marcus Trufant. The Cougs enter another season without a proven middle linebacker. Depth is a major issue on both sides of the ball.
Player to watch: RB Jermaine Green. He may be the Pac-10's best running back you've never heard of.
Schedule: It could be an ugly September for the Cougs: at Notre Dame, at Colorado, home against New Mexico, and at Oregon. Road trips to U$C and Washington also loom in the distance. Oregon State has to come to the Palouse, and Arizona State visits in mid-November.
Big question: What happens to this team if they go 0-for-September?
Outlook: I'm not sure Bill Doba has the personnel to match that schedule. Looks like the schedule makers picked the wrong year not to put cal on the itinerary.
Last year: Let me make a deal with you…if you guys act like last year never happened, I'll act like last year never happened. Alright? Alright.
This year: Much of the offseason focus was on the offense and what it could do to improve in 2003. Personnel-wise, Stanford has to account for the losses of Teyo Johnson and Kwame Harris, who both defected to the NFL. Teyo's departure stung a little bit, but Kwame's exit was a devastating blow to an offensive line that was not that experienced and not very deep to begin with. Quarterback is still a bit of a question mark, with Chris Lewis trying to fend off Trent Edwards. But Stanford has some weapons at the skill positions. RB Kenneth Tolon has shown flashes, WR Luke Powell is as electrifying as they come, and between Brett Pierce and Alex Smith (who was the offense's lone bright spot last year), the Card is loaded at tight end. Meanwhile, the defense has the chance to become one of the Pac-10's best. Oshiomogho Atogwe switches to free safety, cornerbacks Stanley Wilson and Leigh Torrence have a year of experience under their belts, and the front seven is developing into a stout unit. The defense will be counted on heavily to keep opponents in check while the offensive line and quarterbacks get settled. Much like last year, the success of this team will depend on how the offense handles the blitz and whether the defense can get to the quarterback.
Player to watch: LT Kirk Chambers. If he goes down, it could be all over.
Schedule: There is bad news: the slate is frontloaded with difficult road games (BYU, Washington, U$C), they have to go to both Oregon schools, and Arizona has been left off the schedule. But there is good news, too: the slate is backloaded with home games (Arizona State, UCLA, cal and Notre Dame all come to The Farm in November). Stanford also has two bye weeks, one before the trip to Provo, and the other between the plane rides to Seattle and South Central.
Big question: When will the offense finally live up to the hype?
Outlook: This should be a more competitive team, especially on defense. Whether Stanford's improvement on the field translates into improvement in the standings might be a different story. (Prove me wrong, fellas!)
Last year: The Bruins' season could have taken a serious turn for the worse after Cory Paus suffered a career-ending injury in a tough loss at cal. Instead, UCLA went on a three-game winning streak, including a victory at Husky Stadium. But just as quickly, UCLA went in reverse, as they lost big to U$C and Washington State. Bob Toledo was given the boot, Karl Dorrell was ushered in, and in between the Bruins' assistant director of academic services led them to a bowl win.
This year: Last season ended with Drew Olson and Matt Moore playing quarterback by committee. Both were pressed into action, and both had their moments, but overall, both played like freshmen. Moore has the stronger arm, while Olson might be the more complete player. Who steps under center for the Bruins in their season opener is anyone's guess. But once Dorrell gets all that squared away, he should be good to go at the skill positions. Despite his size, tiny Tyler Ebell proved to be a workhorse at running back. Craig Bragg is a fine possession receiver, and Tab Perry is a real weapon. On defense, outside linebackers Brandon Chillar and Spencer Havner will key the front seven, and Matt Ware is the Bruins' lockdown corner. A middle linebacker would be nice, though. So would a bit more experience on the offensive and defensive lines.
Player to watch: RT Ed Blanton. At 6' 9" and 330 pounds, he won't be hard to miss, but his progress (or lack thereof) could dictate the success of UCLA's offensive line.
Schedule: Twelve games in twelve weeks, and they have to hit the ground running. They open with a trip to Boulder, and two weeks later they face the Sooners in Norman. The conference schedule has some highlights (the Bruins will host Washington, Arizona State, and Oregon) and some lowlights (a November 8 date in Pullman, they have to go to South Central). This might be as good a year as any to miss Oregon State.
Big question: Will this be the year Tab Perry finally plays up to his otherworldly potential?
Outlook: If the Bruins stay healthy and get good quarterback play, they could be the Pac-10's dark horse.
Last year: Everything started off pretty cool, as Oregon won their first six games. But Andrew Walter and the Sun Devils rode out of town with an improbable comeback win, and the Ducks went into a tailspin, going 1-6 down the stretch. Mike Bellotti had some excuses, namely inconsistencies at quarterback and a putrid defense (in their six losses, the Ducks allowed an average of 41 points), but Oregon fans didn't want to hear it. Seven wins isn't good enough in Eugene anymore.
This year: Jason Fife and Kellen Clemens continue to battle for the starting quarterback's gig, and a besieged secondary returns. Those question marks remain, but a new one has arisen at tailback. Bellotti has to choose between three candidates. Ryan Shaw had 22 carries last season, Chris Vincent is a redshirt freshman, and Terrence Whitehead started three games and ran for 132 yards against Stanford. Whitehead should win that battle, but Shaw has been coming on strong lately. Defensively, Igor Olshansky will try to anchor the line while moving from tackle to end. Injuries have slowed Bellotti's process of choosing his starting linebackers, but Kevin Mitchell is a given at the weakside spot. Corners Aaron Gipson and Steven Moore, rover Marley Tucker, and safety Keith Lewis all return to form the Ducks' secondary. That's good news in the sense that they're all back, but it also could be bad news considering how poorly that unit performed last season.
Player to watch: WR Samie Parker. Not only does his playmaking abilities drive defenses nuts, he's the only given on offense right now.
Schedule: Last year the Ducks started with four straight home games. This year's slate isn't as favorable. Oregon begins the season in steamy Mississippi State, and two weeks later they head to the desert to play Arizona in the Pac-10 season opener. The Ducks host this year's Civil War, and U$C isn't on the schedule, but they have to travel to Tempe, Seattle, and Pasadena.
Big question: What happens to Bellotti if Oregon wins "only" seven games again?
Outlook: With all the questions they have right now, it's hard to pick the Ducks to do big things in 2003.
Last year: The Trojans partied like it was 1979, reeling off eleven wins, recording a major bowl victory, and landing the Heisman Trophy winner (at quarterback, no less!). After losing in overtime to Washington State and barely beating cal the following week, U$C put it all together, winning its final seven games by an average of almost 24 points.
This year: Led by OLB Matt Grootegoed and the defensive line (already christened "The Wild Bunch II"), the Trojans' defense should be one of the most rugged units in the country. Sophomore WR Mike Williams will play on Sundays in 2005. Fellow WR Keary Colbert is no slouch, either. Alex Holmes is the Pac-10's best tight end who doesn't play for Stanford. Yep, the Trojans just about have it all…except a quarterback. Matt Leinart has looked good during fall drills, and it's likely that he'll be named the opening-day starter over Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance, and Billy Hart, but he may not have the experience to take the Trojans back to BCS-bowl levels.
Player to watch: RB Reggie Bush. The true freshman is looking so good in fall drills that some already think that U$C should clear some space on their Heisman Trophy mantel. Not that Trojan followers aren't given to exaggeration or hyperbole or anything like that…
Schedule: The season-opener at Auburn will be a big test, but October will be critical, with road trips to Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Washington on the docket. Intriguing home games against BYU and Hawaii round out the non-conference schedule. The Trojans do have a favorable finish, though: UCLA at home, a bye week, and then Oregon State at home.
Big question: Does Brad Otton have any eligibility left? And can that damn band please quit playing those same damn songs over and over and over again?
Outlook: In a quarterback-driven conference, U$C's only glaring weakness might be the one that costs them a Pac-10 title.
3. Arizona State
Last year: After Dirk Koetter finally settled on Andrew Walter as his quarterback, the Sun Devils took off, winning four of their next five games, including an eye-opening win at Oregon. They did stumble a bit down the stretch, losing three of their final four games, but they gave Kansas State all they could handle in the Holiday Bowl. This was the Pac-10's surprise team last year.
This year: For the Sun Devils, it's all about Andrew Walter. That would have been true even if WR Shaun McDonald and DE Terrell Suggs were still in Tempe, but their departures have enlarged Walter's share of the spotlight. But there's more here than just number 16. While the nation watches Walter, they'll also get to know his wideouts. Skyler Fulton and Daryl Lightfoot will be Walter's main go-to guys, while sophomore Derek Hagan might have the brightest future of any Sun Devil receiver. Mike Williams will be complemented ably by Cornell Canidate (Trung's bro). On defense, Jason Shivers and Riccardo Stewart return to man their safety positions. But the trouble spot on defense is linebacker, where Koetter needs to fill both spots in his 4-2-5 scheme. Sophomores Jamar Williams (one career start) and Barton Hammit (zero career starts) are the likely candidates. That inexperience may have some opposing running backs chomping at the bit to play the Sun Devils.
Player to watch: You mean besides Walter? DE Jimmy Verdon. Without Suggs, Verdon will assume the bulk of A-State's pass-rushing chores.
Schedule: They play twelve games in twelve weeks, but overall it seems pretty favorable. Washington isn't on the schedule. Aside from a trip to Iowa, their non-conference schedule isn't that intimidating (home games against Northern Arizona and Utah State, a plane ride to North Carolina). U$C, Oregon, and Arizona all visit Sun Devil Stadium, but A-State has to go to Corvallis in their Pac-10 opener and to Pullman in mid-November.
Big question: Can a shuffled offensive line, especially sophomore LT Chaz White, keep their prized quarterback upright?
Outlook: If Suggs had stuck around, they might have been my pick to win it all. As it is, Walter still puts this team in position to do some very good things in 2003.
2. Oregon State
Last year: After outscoring their four non-conference opponents 190-49, the Beavers ran into a Pac-10 buzzsaw and dropped three straight games. Then RB Steven Jackson took over, QB Derek Anderson regained his confidence, and the Beavers soon found themselves at the Insight Bowl.
This year: Dennis Erickson's abrupt departure to the 49ers opened the door for the return of Mike Riley, who actually started the Beavers' rise to respectability in the late 1990s. He picked a good time to return. Jackson, arguably the Pac-10's best running back, had a brilliant finish last season, averaging over 178 rushing yards in OSU's final five regular season games. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Derek Anderson is the next Ryan Leaf, and I mean that as a compliment. If Reggie and Mike Williams weren't hogging all the headlines, folks would notice that WR James Newson is pretty good, too. The defense is led by senior MLB Richard Siegler, who has started every game since he stepped on campus. It's hard to have a more sturdy and dependable anchor in the secondary than veteran FS Mitch Meeuwsen. His leadership back there will be counted on, because all of the cornerbacks on Oregon State's fall roster have just one career start between them. There also might be a bit too much youth for Riley's liking on both lines.
Player to watch: Siegler. Until further notice, he is the Pac-10's best individual defender.
Schedule: After a couple years of loading up on non-conference creampuffs, the Beavers have some balance. Sure, they'll have a couple of tune-ups (Sacramento State and New Mexico State, both in Corvallis), but they'll also have a couple of grudge matches (Boise State and at Fresno State). Washington and Arizona State have to come to Corvallis, but the Beavers will have to finish up strong with road games at Oregon and U$C to end the season.
Big question: Riley can take a program from unspeakably bad to marginally good, but can he take one to BCS levels?
Outlook: There's a lot to like here. Oregon State can run, throw, and defend. If the Beavers catch on fire during the season, look out.
Last year: The Huskies rollercoaster season began and ended with controversial games. The infamous "12th man" cost UW a win at Michigan in the season opener, but a disputed lateral pass from Matt Kegel in triple overtime of the Apple Cup preserved a Huskies win. In between, the defense looked like it couldn't tackle anyone throughout the month of October, but they righted the ship in November, helping the Huskies end the regular season with three straight wins. But the real rollercoaster ride took place during the offseason, as Rick "Who, Me?" Neuheisel flirted with the 49ers, displayed some mad bracketology skills, and was shown the door by athletic director Barbara Hedges in a long, bitter soap opera.
This year: Enter Keith Gilbertson, the Washington offensive coordinator who figured to spend the rest of his career as an assistant. But unlike his previous head coaching situation, Gilbertson inherits a team with some major talent. All eyes will be on QB Cody Pickett and WR Reggie Williams, as they form the country's most lethal pass-catch combination since Husak-to-Walters. Those two make the Huskies a Rose Bowl contender by themselves. But whether UW actually ends up in Pasadena will be dictated by whatever progress they make in the running game. In fact, the Huskies' defensive deficiencies and their inability to run the ball were the very reasons why Pickett and Williams were forced to light up opposing secondaries week in and week out. Cornerbacks Derrick Johnson, Roc Alexander, and Chris Massey will be charged with the task of improving the Huskies' pass defense, which ranked eighth in the Pac-10 last season. An improved pass rush from the front seven would also help out greatly.
Player to watch: RB Rich Alexis. If he returns to 2001 form, the UW offense could be close to unstoppable.
Schedule: How's this for a measuring-stick game to start the season: a visit to Ohio Stadium, home of the national champion Buckeyes. Fortunately for the Huskies, the rest of their non-conference slate features home games against Indiana, Idaho, and Nevada. The Pac-10 could be decided on October 18, when the Huskies go to Oregon State. But after that, the Dawgs have a very favorable finish: home games against U$C and Oregon, road games to Arizona and cal, and the Apple Cup in Seattle.
Big question: Will Gilbertson keep the ship steady despite all the turmoil that surrounded this program over the summer?
Outlook: In a transition year for the conference, Pickett and Williams might be enough to take the Huskies all the way to Pasadena.
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