I'm in the process of writing up every team's strengths and weaknesses for TheBootleg.com's 2008 opponent previews, like I have for two or three seasons now. New for this year, I have also crunched a ton of numbers that will be accompanied by some very cool graphs (and very cool-looking graphs, thanks Microsoft Excel), to give Stanford fans more of a statistical understanding of last year's Pac-10, and who might surprise in this year's Pac-10. (Sorry, folks, it ain't going to be us.) Stay tuned for all that between now and the actual start of the 2008 college football season, but the bottom line is, I've done the research, I was dead-on a few times last year (judge for yourself below) and I know as much as I'm going to about this year's Pac-10, so here goes nothing.
Like I wrote at this time last year, one of my biggest pet peeves is that every fan base thinks its team will improve each upcoming season, and the media, from the national magazines and ESPN to local newspaper beat writers to the bloggers all play along, offering reasons why your school will be better in 2008.
However, and I'm sorry to be Debbie Downer, but there are only so many wins to go around. (45 in the Pac-10, and about 800 across Division I-A, after factoring in non-Division I-A cupcakes, to be precise.) Some magazines have started to predict wins and losses on a game-by-game basis, but the likely favorite wins 100 percent of those virtual matchups, equally unrealistic. There's no Stanford beating a USC or a Cal, or Syracuse over a Louisville, or a Boise State over an Oklahoma in these predictions – yet we know that some teams come out of nowhere every given year.
So, enough talk, time to fill the prediction void. Here is how I see it shaking out:
1. USC (11-1, 9-0)
Wins: Everyone, save for…
Losses: Ohio State
Key Games: Ohio State (Sept. 13), Oregon (Oct. 4), Cal (Nov. 8)
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "The defense does not allow more than 20 points at home the entire season." Technically correct. Stanford, would you believe it, was the only team to crack 20 at USC, but one of those touchdowns was a pick-six.
This Year's Crazy Prediction: USC's five toughest opponents (the three above, plus Notre Dame and Arizona State) are all at home. So, even if they do lose to Ohio State, it'll be early enough that I think USC runs the table and the Trojans make the national championship. (Plus, voters are sick of OSU in the national title game and would likely leapfrog a one-loss SC over a one-loss OSU, head-to-head results be damned.)
2. Cal (9-3, 6-3)
Key Games: Oregon, at USC, at Oregon State (Nov. 1, Nov. 8, Nov. 15)
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "Tennessee has major defensive issues; Cal has the best receivers in the nation; and the Vols embarrassed the Bears last year. This year's game is in Berkeley, so I say Cal returns the favor and hangs 40." 45-31. Check.
This Year's Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: Cal is the biggest turnaround story in the Pac-10, alongside Arizona, and squeaks out a second-place finish. But whoever finishes second won't be within two games of USC, as the Pac-10 finishes the regular season with just one team in the Top 20.
3. Oregon (9-3, 6-3)
[Note: there are only so many different records teams can have, so teams ranked differently may happen to have the same record. I don't predict ties (it seems to defy the whole purpose), so I'm calling Cal second and Oregon third.]
Losses: at USC, at Arizona State, at Cal
Make-or-Break Stretch: at Arizona State, at Cal (Oct 25., Nov. 1)
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "Arizona's top defense stonewalls the Ducks on a Thursday night in one of the conference's biggest upsets of the season." 34-24. Oregon was undefeated and No. 2 in the country heading into the game. Huge upset with national implications. If only I were half this good in Vegas.
This Year's Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: The offense scored 38.2 points per game last year, but with no Jonathan Stewart or Dennis Dixon, it will suffer the biggest dropoff in the country, narrowly edging out Washington. The Ducks scored 25.4 per game in a 5-7 2004 campaign; this will be their worst total since then.
4. Arizona State (7-5, 5-4)
Wins: Northern Arizona, Stanford, UNLV, Oregon, at Washington, UCLA, at Arizona
Losses: Georgia, at Cal, at USC, at Oregon State, Washington State
Make-or-Break Stretch: Georgia, at Cal, at USC, Oregon, at Oregon State (five straight games from Sept. 20 to Oct. 25)
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "Life is great in Tempe as the Sun Devils start 6-1, crack the top-15 and ESPN writes a puff piece or two on the turnaround Erickson is performing in the desert. It all comes crashing apart, though, as the Devils hit the back half of their schedule and lose four of their last five (Cal, at Oregon, at UCLA, USC, Arizona)." Check. The Devils started 8-0, climbed to No. 6, and visited Oregon in the national game of the week. Then they lost three of their last five to cap off yet another squandered opportunity for a special season.
Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: The Devils went 3-0 in close games last year, sneaking by Washington State, Cal and Arizona. They'll return to more average luck this year – and their win total will drop from 10 to seven or eight.
5. Oregon State (6-6, 5-4)
Wins: Hawaii, Washington State, at Washington, Arizona State, Cal, at Arizona
Losses: at Stanford, at Penn State, USC, at Utah, at UCLA, Oregon
Make-or-Break Stretch: at Penn State, Hawaii, USC, at Utah (four straight, from Sept. 6 to Oct. 2)
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "Yvenson Bernard leads the conference in rushing and is in the top-ten nationally, but few notice as the Beavers are not a top-25 team." His 1,214 yars trailed Jonathan Stewart, Justin Forsett and Louis Rankin, but, again, no one did notice Bernard in his senior season. And the Beavers weren't in the Top 25.
Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: Oregon State starts off 1-4 with USC, some early nasty road trips and only three returning defensive starters, but come together with everyone in the country writing them off, rallying for a winning Pac-10 season and bowl eligibility.
6. Arizona (7-5, 4-5)
Losses: Cal, USC, at Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State
Make-or-Break Stretch: The last six games are sheer torture: Cal, USC, at Washington State, at Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State. Two wins in that stretch would be great.
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "The Cats steal one of their last three (UCLA, Oregon, at Arizona State) to make their first bowl since 1998." The Cats stole two of the three, topping UCLA and Oregon, but finished 5-7 with four losses by a touchdown or less – missing a bowl berth by the length of Mike Gundy's fuse.
This Year's Crazy Prediction: The Cats climb into the Top 15 by starting 6-0, and then truly backslide (1-5) their way into their first bowl berth in a decade.
7. UCLA (5-7, 3-6)
Losses: Tennessee, Arizona, at Oregon, at Cal, at Washington, at Arizona State, USC
Make-or-Break Stretch: The last five: at Cal, Oregon State, at Washington, at Arizona State and USC. The Bruins will be definite underdogs at Cal, at ASU and vs. USC, and could be dogs vs. OSU as well. They'll need to steal one or two here if they want to keep their bowl streak alive.
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "The Bruins play USC close enough in the season finale to win over national respect and sneak into their first BCS bowl since the 1998 season." Okay, you can stop laughing. The Bruins somehow finished 6-6 – despite returning 20 starters. Never underestimate the power of Karl Dorrell.
Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: Rick Neuheisel wishes he'd stuck to NCAA Tournament pools, as the Bruins' offense is dead-last in the conference and U-(clap, clap, clap)-C-(clap, clap, clap)-ellll-A, with just nine returning starters now, has nothing to cheer about come Christmas time. The Bruins miss the postseason for the first time since 2001.
8. Washington State (5-8, 3-6)
Wins: Cal, at Baylor, Portland State, at Arizona State, Washington
Losses: vs. Oklahoma State, Oregon, at UCLA, at Oregon State, USC, at Stanford, Arizona, at Hawaii
Make-or-Break Stretch: November. At Stanford, Arizona, at Arizona State, Washington and at Hawaii are the final five, and they're all winnable… or Coug-able.
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "The offense finishes in the middle of the Pac-10, but the defense finishes dead-last in the conference and allows teams like USC, UCLA, Cal and Oregon to put up some ugly, ugly numbers. The defense blows a double-digit lead or two and costs the Cougars a bowl bid in the final weeks." The offense was middle of the pack, ninth in conference points per game, but second in conference yards per game. The D didn't so much blow it at an inopportune time as it was consistently bad, ranking eighth and ninth respectively in conference points and yards.
Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: 14 returning starters and a much-improved defense will make Washington State a tough out for everyone but the cream of the league. I've seen others picking the Cougars tenth, but I think this team is closer to catching some luck and making a bowl than finishing in the cellar. Unfortunately, the Cougars don't have enough offensively to turn tough outs into wins, so I say the majority of their losses are by single digits, with a heartbreaker or two or three along the way. How ironic would it be if the de facto bowl game, a season-ending trip to Hawaii, drops the Cougs to 6-7 and costs them an actual bowl trip?
9. Stanford (3-9, 2-7)
Wins: Oregon State, San Jose State, Washington State
Losses: at Arizona State, at TCU, at Washington, at Notre Dame, Arizona, at UCLA, at Oregon, USC, at Cal
Make-or-Break Stretch: The middle. Stanford's losing its last three (at Oregon, USC and at Cal), so it needs post a winning record in the five games from Sept. 27 to Nov. 1: at Washington, at Notre Dame, Arizona, at UCLA, bye, and Washington State, if it hopes to improve on last year's record and challenge for a bowl berth. Save for Notre Dame, all five of those games could have spreads of no more than five points.
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "The Cardinal beats San Jose State, beats a Pac-10 bottom feeder or two (I say Washington) and comes out of nowhere to win one they really should not (say, Oregon State) in dramatic, fourth-and-game, 25-yard touchdown Sportscenter-highlight fashion. Memories of that game linger for months and give the fans reason to keep on believing after an otherwise unremarkable season." San Jose State, Arizona, and USC (and Cal) respectively. Dramatic, fourth-and-game, 25-yard touchdown Sportscenter-highlight fashion undersells the USC thriller. Should have gone on more of a limb and added "with a third-string quarterback" and "as 41-point underdogs."
Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: The offense is much better. (I'll be projecting a jump from 16 to 23 points per conference game.) The defense is slightly better (moving, I think, from 31 to 28 conference points allowed.) The team feels better to fans and is respected more around the league, with opposing coaches regularly saying how improved Stanford is (and actually meaning it).
Yet the record will be worse, because last year's 4-8 team won three games by a total of nine points. That's incredible luck, that's luck Stanford will need to duplicate to equal or better its 2007 record, and that's not a smart way to bet.
Sorry to go all Jim Jones on the Kool-Aid, but Stanford was outgained by 176 yards per Pac-10 game last year, dead-last by over 100 yards per contest. Say, optimistically, the Cardinal makes great strides with its league-high 15 returning starters and chops that deficit in half. A team with an 80 yard-per-game deficit can expect to win two or three in conference. Plus, Stanford doesn't catch any breaks with a ninth Pac-10 game, TCU and a much-improved Notre Dame on the schedule. I hope I'm wrong, but honestly, I think two wins is more likely than six, and tenth place far more likely than a bowl bid.
10. Washington (3-9, 2-7)
Wins: BYU, Stanford, UCLA
Losses: at Oregon, Oklahoma, at Arizona, Oregon State, Notre Dame, at USC, Arizona State, at Washington State, at Cal
Make-or-Break Stretch: Stanford and at Arizona (Sept. 27 and Oct. 4), then UCLA and at Washington State (Nov. 15 and Nov. 22). I see a pretty clear delineation between the top and bottom five in the league, so if Washington's going to match last year's four wins, it needs to clean up against its fellow 6th-10thers.
Last Year's Crazy Prediction: "Bye, bye Ty. A god-ugly loss at Stanford is a microcosm of an ugly season that costs Willingham his job in his third year in Seattle." It was god-ugly, but Washington won at Stanford and Willingham, 11-25 overall, 4-9 last year and 1-14 versus the Top 25 at Washington, somehow returns for his fifth season. I'm still perplexed.
Crazy Prediction/Chance to Look Really Bad Six Months From Now: Five Pac-10 road games, plus BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame out-of-conference looks like the nation's toughest schedule. I was wrong last year, but fool me once, shame on you, Washington AD – I think this truly is Willingham's last year in Seattle.
Notre Dame: 8-4
San Jose State: 4-8 (2-6)
TCU: 8-4 (5-3)
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