Inside the 2009 Schedule: Unit Rankings

Which of Stanford's opponents strong, weak, surprisingly good and surprisingly bad at each position group on the field? We're keeping this non-premium so fans across the Pac-10 (and South Bend and Winston-Salem) can chirp in to defend their favorite teams, but here's how one scribe sees Stanford's schedule shaping up.

Complete disclosure: other preview magazines do "unit rankings," but, best as I can tell, the take the concept of "unit" too literally. On average, a stud starting quarterback will take well over 80 percent of his team's meaningful snaps on the year (close to 100 percent when he's healthy, and some fraction thereof if not; the 80 percent figure is my best-guess average of the two), so that the third-stringer looked great in spring ball may make the quarterback position stronger in some hypothetical unit ranking, but is unlikely to have much impact on the team's season. While depth obviously does matter more at other positions, especially on the lines, I figured there was some value to be added by taking a more honest look at the strength of the position units of Stanford's opponents.

The additional value also comes in, obviously, when trying to assess our beloved Stanford. Too often fans forget there are another 11 men on the other side of the ball, and those guys have every bit as much of an impact as our 11 on whether we run for 300 yards or 30. Feel free to reference this throughout the season, and when you realize Wake Forest's back seven was nothing special or USC's linebackers were a lot better than we thought, adjust your perception of the Stanford squad accordingly.

Okay, for each position I list the best and the worst unit(s) of teams on the 2009 schedule. San Jose State is excepted because comparing their athletes or their stats to BCS teams' is an apples-to-oranges comparison, listing them as among the worst for everything would quickly get old, and, besides, we smoke those guys. In addition to just listing the best and worst units and filling your monitor up with "USC" and "Washington State" over and over (and, I'll admit, I graded on a curve such that it wasn't always WSU as worst or USC as best), I also try to list some sneaky good and bad units – a receiving or D-line corps that's much better or worse than what you'd expect given the overall team strength. The more I thought about it, though, many of these units are so sneaky good I also convinced myself they'd be among the best in absolute terms, hence a lot of overlap. Here's hoping Stanford makes them all look sneaky bad this season.

Best: Washington
Worst: Washington State
Sneaky good: Wake Forest, Cal
Sneaky bad: USC – replacing two starters in consecutive years is a first for Pete Carroll.

Running backs
Best: USC, Cal, Oregon State
Worst: Washington
Sneaky good: Oregon
Sneaky bad: Arizona State, UCLA – the Bruins lose their starting tailback (and, to boot, left tackle) after averaging just 2.6 yards per carry last year

Best: Notre Dame
Worst: Washington State, Oregon State
Sneaky good: Notre Dame – Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Armando Allen and Kyle Rudolph all return and you know how well Notre Dame's been recruiting – and that wide receivers are among the players most likely to see early playing time. My life mentor Phil Steel e calls Charlie Weis' wideouts the best group of receivers in the country.
Sneaky bad: Wake Forest

Offensive line
Best: USC – the entire starting two-deep returns off a unit that averaged five yards per carry last year. Watch out.
Worst: Washington State, Oregon State
Sneaky good: Notre Dame, USC, Cal – the Bears should return to the early days of Tedford ball, with a unit that averaged 5.6!! yards per carry last year leading the way to a top-ten season
Sneaky bad: Arizona

Defensive line
Best: Cal, Arizona State
Worst: Washington State
Sneaky good: Wake Forest – six of their back seven depart, but three of the front four return. Wake's allowed no more than 3.5 yards per carry the last three seasons, so figure the Deacons will be able to force Andrew Luck to beat them.
Sneaky bad: USC

Best: Arizona, Arizona State
Worst: Wake Forest
Sneaky good: USC. Everyone will talk about the loss of the entire starting corps -- Maualuga, Cushing and Maiava -- to the NFL Draft, but USC reloads like no other program. Their DC says this year's group – Malcolm Smith, Chris Calippo and Michael Morgan all figure to factor heavily – is actually faster than last year's unit. That's a scary thought. Another scary thought: none of them are seniors, so they should all be back in 2010.
Sneaky bad: Cal, Washington State. Yeah, the Cougars stink everywhere, but they lost their one All-Pac-10 player in LB Greg Trent. Despite him, the D allowed 248 rush yards per game last year. The No. 3 tackler is also gone. Ouch.

Best: Notre Dame, USC
Worst: Wake Forest, Oregon State – a combined 1-of-8 starters return. Oregon State loses its entire backfield in Brandon Hughes, Greg Laybourn, Keenan Lewis, Al Afalava, all of them All-Conference. Wake loses First Team All-American and all-time ACC interception leader Alphonso Smith and fourth-round draft choice Chip Vaughn.
Sneaky good: USC – the Trojans allowed six passing touchdowns to 19 interceptions, and just 134 passing yards per game, both of which are insane even by USC's standards. With star Taylor Mays back, this year's unit should be just as good.
Sneaky bad: Wake Forest, Oregon State – see above.

Special teams
Best: USC, Oregon State
Worst: Washington
Sneaky good: Cal field goals – true frosh soccer transfer Giorgio Tavecchio hit 9-of-13
Sneaky bad: Oregon, Cal kickoffs – Tavecchio had just one touchback to eight that sailed out-of-bounds in 52 attempts. What gives?

Best: USC, Oregon State
Worst: Washington State
Sneaky good: Wake Forest, Oregon State, Arizona State – Savvy college football fans know about Grobe and Riley, but remember Dennis Erickson folks? He's easy to overlook in a conference with two new coaches, a compelling personal story for all the right reasons (Wulff), a compelling personal story for all the wrong reasons (Neuheisel), the perennially underrated (Riley), the perennially overrated (Tedford?) and the brazen upstart (Harbaugh), but I hear he was pretty good too back in the day.
Sneaky bad: Washington, Oregon – two big-name coaches, but they're both brand new head coaches. I'd also add Arizona here – next year perennially promises to be Mike Stoops' year.

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