By: Brad Allis
Arizona may only be coming off back-to-back three-win seasons, but optimism is high in Tucson. In year three of his tenure in Tucson, Mike Stoops has a roster made up mostly of players he recuited. Although youth is a concern, a lack of talent is no longer an excuse.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Michael Johnson is a senior safety who Stoops has pegged as having first-round NFL talent. The tall safety can both hit and run, and will help anchor a strong defensive backfield.
Biggest Storyline: Last year the Wildcats lost five games by a touchdown or less. In all five of the losses the Cats dropped catchable passes that would have gone for scores or kept late drives alive.
Superstar In The Making: QB Willie Tuitama gets the headlines, but LB Ronnie Palmer could be a force if he remains healthy.
Impact Freshmen: The Cats need one of their three first-year receivers to step up. Terrell Reese is thought to be the most ready, but Delashaun Dean and Terrell Turner will get a long look. With almost no depth at corner, Devin Ross and Michael Turner will get a lot of reps to prepare them, but expect only one to play.
Cats Can Go To A Bowl If: The offensive line can open holes for the backs and protect Tuitama. The Cats need to learn to win the close games. Arizona was just 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less. The Cats must survive the first month of the season, that sees them host BYU and USC and travel to LSU.
By: Hod Rabino
Five Key Players: QB Sam Keller, OL Brandon Rodd, WR Rudy Burgess, DL Tranell Morant, Safety Zach Catanese.
Biggest Storyline: While the fate of the 2006 season lies on the shoulders of the defense, an explosive aerial attack is vital to the Sun Devils' success. A relatively inexperienced group of wide receivers will have to successfully replace a talented trio of departed seniors.
Superstar in the Making: 5-10, 190 lb. running back Keegan Herring was spectacular as a true freshman. In 2006 he'll be a year older and a year wiser. The sky is truly the limit for him.
Impact Newcomer: 6-3, 320 lb. defensive tackle Martin Tevaseu. A rare JC transfer with three years of eligibility should make all the difference on a thin defensive tackle unit.
Best Player You've Never Heard of: 6-2, 220 lb. safety Josh Barrett has been plagued by injuries his entire ASU career. However, the junior is coming off an impressive spring practice, and his combination of blinding speed and ferocious hits has pleased both coaches and fans.
ASU Will Have A Winning Season if: The offense can maintain the same success as last season, the defense line does a 180-degree turn, and the punting woes of last year are a thing of the past.
By: Chris Avery
Some prognosticators forecast Cal to finish even higher nationally than the 6th place pick by Street and Smith. Other observers who know the team well are not so sure about all the optimism.
Yes, the team returns starters, talent and experience almost across the board, but the exceptions are important. LBs and DBs are fast and strong. RBs Marshawn Lynch (1st team pre-season All-American) and Justin Forsett are fast and elusive. WRs have outstanding speed and athleticism – and now another year of experience. DT Brandon Mebane, (another 1st team AA) leads a talented defensive line that lacked an outstanding pass-rushing DE last year, but may have found that now in Nu'u Tafisi.
Cal has a new offense, a hybrid of Coach Tedford's power running game and (new OC) Mike Dunbar's spread-option offense he brought over from Northwestern. The hybrid ("Ted-Spread" in local parlance) will be a major concern for opponents - no one has seen it before.
But. The offensive line, critical to the spread offense, has to replace three starters - NFL signees – a major challenge. The talent is there, but teamwork and coordination on the O-line is notoriously difficult to develop.
And then there's the QB. Last year, JC transfer Joe Ayoob had a seriously inconsistent season. Steve Levy, former 3rd team FB, replaced Ayoob and helped Cal win its final two games. Levy, unfortunately, got caught up in a bar brawl this summer that will probably prevent him from contending for the job.
That leaves two untested QBs with a total of 1.5 quarters of D-I experience. Look for Nate Longshore to start the season - a broken leg sidelined him in the first game last year. He seems to have the personal maturity needed to manage the team, and the skills to contribute even if he is not yet a fully developed QB.
Cal's season depends on that.
By: Steve Summers
The 2006 Oregon Ducks will be running the ball much more than the 10-2 Duck team of 2005. Gone is quarterback Kellen Clemens, with his 2,406 yards, 16 passing touchdowns and 301 yards rushing. Insert junior Dennis Dixon, who will make his fifth start on September 2 when the Ducks open against Stanford at Autzen Stadium. Clemens went down in the eighth game of the year against Arizona, giving Dixon and back-up Brady Leaf plenty of opportunity to enter the 2006 season as veterans.
Perhaps the most anticipated player to step foot on Autzen turf in one of the new Nike-designed uniforms is sophomore running back Jonathan Stewart. The 5-10, 235 pound freight train scored nine touchdowns last season, including two kickoff returns. In spring workouts, Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson (5-9, 213) showed signs of becoming the new "thunder and lightning" in the Pac-10. Stewart impressed many with his 410-lb. bench press, 4.35-second 40-yard dash time and his propensity to simply run over tacklers unfortunate enough to get in his way. Johnson also runs the 40 in sub-4.5, is a better pass receiver and is very impressive in the open field.
The Ducks will still boast a deep receiver corps led by senior James Finley, 6-2, 204, and junior Cameron Colvin, 6-2, 205. Look for sophomore Jaison Williams, 6-5, 243, to be a major factor with his imposing size and speed against smaller defensive backfields.
The Duck defense will be a bit weaker without NFL-bound Haloti Ngata, but promises to be a bend-don't-break unit.
By: Dan Norz
Best player you've never heard of: OL Andy Levitre is the most versatile lineman on the squad, and can switch seamlessly between tackle and guard. He sits behind linemen with more than 20 starts under their belts, but is pushing for playing time.
Biggest storyline: On offense the largest question mark is the receivers. Starter Anthony Wheat-Brown can't seem to shake various leg injuries while Sammie Stroughter, who is QB Matt Moore's favorite target, sprained his knee in the final week of spring camp. Marcel Love and Ruben Jackson have experience, but have work to do in the classroom and on the field. TE Joe Newton is fully healed, but depth at tight end is a major concern.
Depth at defensive end and defensive tackle are the biggest concerns on defense. The defensive ends were basically a non-factor in 2005, and little has changed in 2006. Experienced players in Ben Siegert, Jeff Van Orsow, Joe Lemma, and Curtis Coker, among others, sit at the tackle and end positions, but none have proven they can play consistently at their position.
Superstar in the making: With a year of starting under his belt, CB Keenan Lewis is poised to have a breakout season. The sophomore has tremendous range as his long arms allow him to get his hands on plenty of passes. He is developing toward becoming that lock-down corner that has helped OSU teams rank near the top of the conference in pass defense in recent years.
By: Mike Eubanks
Stanford Football has been unrecognizable of late: the offensive production has been a shell of its former self, while the defense has kept the Cardinal in some surprising games and sent numerous players to the pros.
2006 promises to return a more familiar rendition of the Cardinal and White you once knew: high-scoring affairs with big plays on offense from both teams. Fifth-year senior Trent Edwards at quarterback plus senior wide receivers Mark Bradford and Evan Moore make for the most experienced and talented Stanford passing attack seen in years, buoyed by an excellent set of seniors at tight end and fullback and an improving offensive line. Walt Harris' scheme, the best offensively on The Farm since Bill Walsh's days, combined with these players will put big numbers on the board.
The defense, however, took big hits the last two years in the NFL Draft. Most of those holes were filled in the spring with a talented yet untested class of redshirt freshmen, including nose tackle Ekom Udofia, outside linebacker Clinton Snyder, safety Bo McNally and others. But they have never played a game of college football, and could experience nasty growing pains this fall.
A preview came during Stanford's spring game, when the offense exploded for a procession of scores. Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander combined for four touchdowns and no interceptions, with 328 yards on 85% passing. Eighty-five percent! Stanford's tailbacks combined for another four touchdowns and 214 yards, at a clip of 5.8 yards per carry. The flip side of that success was the sight of a turnstile Stanford defense.
By: Tracy Pierson
UCLA is coming off its best season (10-2, 6-2 in the Pac-10, 13th in the final USA Today Poll) since 1998, and easily the best among Karl Dorrell's three seasons in Westwood. That's good for the program, as UCLA capitalized with Dorrell's biggest and best recruiting class to date. But in terms of the 2006 season, the Bruins lost its three-headed offensive monster of quarterback Drew Olson, All-American tight end Marcedes Lewis and junior running back Maurice Drew, who left for the NFL a year early. So, UCLA will be young and inexperienced on offense. But it's time for the new Olson Era, with the much-heralded and long-awaited Ben Olson taking over at quarterback.
After a two-year Mormon mission and a year backing up his friend Drew Olson (no relation), the 6-5, 228-pound lefty is ready to live up to all the hype he received as the #1 high school prospect in 2002. He's mostly been spending his time getting to know the complicated playbook of the West Coast offense. It probably won't set him back that offensive coordinator Tom Cable left for an NFL job, since his quarterbacks coach, Jim Svoboda, takes over the reins of the offense. Svoboda hopes to open up UCLA's O a bit, with a more pronounced vertical passing game. Olson also will benefit from a very deep and experienced receiver corps, featuring WRs Junior Taylor and Joe Cowan.
On defense, the Bruins hope to turn over a new, aggressive leaf with new Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker, straight from the Washington Redskins. UCLA managed such a great season last year with a defense that was horrendous, last in the Pac-10 against the run and overall. The big question will be whether Walker can markedly improve the unit, with a young, inexperienced LB group. Watch for talented but raw redshirt freshman middle linebacker Reggie Carter to make an impact. Junior Kevin Brown, the DT star, will return after a season on the sideline with an injured ankle. UCLA will get some help on the DL, too, with the addition of 6-3, 330-pound Darius Savage, the California state discus champ.
If UCLA can shore up its defense and retain its production offensively, even despite a fairly challenging schedule, it should still find itself in the upper echelon of the Pac-10 in December.
By: Garry Paskweitz
Most people assume that a team would stumble a bit after losing 11 players to the NFL draft, including the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners. Don't expect that to be the case at USC, however, where Pete Carroll has the Trojan program cranking at a high level these days, and the losses of those talented players simply means Carroll will move other talented prospects into their spots.
Lose a Matt Leinart? Say hello to John David Booty, once heralded as the top prep quarterback in the nation and the only player on record as having graduated high school a year early to enroll in a D-I program.
No more Reggie Bush? That's fine. Meet Chauncey Washington, a Class of 2003 signee who came in with fellow running backs Bush and LenDale White. Washington has missed the past two seasons due to academics but he is ready to show that he also can be a star for the Trojans.
With an inexperienced QB and RB, it will help to have the best receiver unit in the country, led by Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, along with a pair of All-American candidates on the O-line in Sam Baker and Ryan Kalil.
While the offense settles in with so many new faces, the Trojans will rely on their defense to set the tone. Look for top performances this year from DE Lawrence Jackson, CB Terrell Thomas and safety Josh Pinkard. Oh yeah, the Trojans also have the deepest linebacker group in the nation.
By: Chris Fetters
Washington is in its second year under Tyrone Willingham, and while the swagger isn't back, the Huskies should have a little more bite in them. Despite going 2-9 in 2005, Washington had at least two other very winnable games, and Willingham will need the breaks to go his way this year if he plans on keeping his rebuilding plan (going to a bowl game) on schedule.
While it bodes well that Washington is bringing back a senior quarterback (Isaiah Stanback) and depth at running back and receiver, the Huskies' Achilles' heel on offense will be the O-line. Stanley Daniels and Clay Walker will have to come up huge in making sure an athletic but untested OL brings their 'A' game every Saturday. Incoming JC WR Marcel Reece gives them a big-play wideout to take the place of Montana transfer Craig Chambers.
Defensively, the Huskies have plenty of wide-bodies up front. What they need to focus on is making sure they handle the bulk of UW's business, as their linebacking corps is relatively young. Outside of Scott White, only Tahj Bomar has started for UW. Chris Stevens and Dan Howell will add depth, energy and excitement at the position, but they also will make some mistakes along the way.
The secondary is getting a big boost with the addition of Ashlee Palmer and Jason Wells, allowing UW to move talented DB Dashon Goldson to corner, but they are still young and inexperienced in the back third. New DB's coach JD Williams will have his work cut out for him, but he is more than capable of molding them into a competitive unit.
By: Greg Witter
Jerome Harrison is gone, but optimism reigns on the Palouse as all eyes look for a Washington State rebound in 2006. With seven starters returning on offense and another seven on defense, the Cougar renaissance forecast for the 2005 season may just be a year behind schedule.
The offense, one of the West's most prolific a year ago, will be led by veteran quarterback Alex Brink, two All-American-caliber receivers in Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus, and tackle Bobby Byrd. Look for breakout seasons from sophomore running back DeMaundray Woolridge and senior tight end Cody Boyd. Defense, where the Cougs struggled last season, will be key to getting back to a bowl game. Star DE Mkristo Bruce spearheads a D-line loaded with talent and experience. Despite finishing ninth in Pac-10 defense last year, WSU was tops in sacks, so there's a big asset to build from. Senior LB Scott Davis, a supreme playmaker when healthy, was slowed by injury in '05 but is now 100 percent. Breakout types could be DE Matt Mullennix, LB Steve Dildine and nickel DB Michael Willis.
The 2006 recruiting class should offer instant help. JC cornerbacks Markus Dawes, Brian Williams and B.T. Walker will contend for the starting lineup opposite Tyron Brackenridge, with JC receiver Charles Dillon and JC running backs Darrell Hutsona and J.T. Deiderichs shaping up as early contributors on offense. WSU lost six games in '05 at or near the wire. A year of experience, mixed with the new JC talent, could turn those heartbreakers into W's in 2006.