Known as a defense-first outfit through almost all of its Pac-10 existence, Arizona figures to lean on its offense this season.
"I think our quarterbacks and running backs are the strength of this team," coach Mike Stoops said late in camp. "I'm impressed with our execution offensively. It's light years ahead of where it has been at this time."
Heading into Friday's opener at Toledo, the Wildcats have almost no questions on offense.
Junior quarterback Nick Foles is a returning starter and should be among the top three or four quarterbacks in the Pac-10. He has become a team leader, the face of the program. His backup, running threat Matt Scott, showed improved throwing mechanics in camp and is a valuable insurance policy. The coaches might script some action for him in the opener.
The running back position was rarely healthy at the same time last season, but Nic Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko are a formidable trio. They all do something a little different -- Grigsby is a slasher, Antolin is a hard-charger, Nwoko is bigger and more powerful -- which only emphasizes the Wildcats' versatility on offense.
New co-coordinators Seth Littrell and Bill Bedenbaugh won't abandon Arizona's Texas Tech-like principles. Arizona can still spread out four wide and throw an array of screen passes, also threatening defenses deep with junior wideout Juron Criner and senior speedster Travis Cobb.
To top it all off, six of the top seven offensive linemen are seniors. The other is a junior.
"Whenever anybody asks me about the offense, I say the strength is the line," Foles said.
Meanwhile, the defense is replacing seven starters, including all three linebackers. Stoops was worried late in the camp that the defense wasn't playing as "violent" as it needed to be.
"If we don't get better . . . we are going to struggle," he said.
"Our offense is going to have to score a lot of points. I think they are capable, but that only lasts so long. We have to have a consistent defense, and we haven't really been consistent."
--Arizona figures to play as many as five true freshmen in the opener, perhaps none as important as long-snapper Chase Gorham. He'll be happy to keep a low profile, though, while others in his class look for the spotlight: safety Marquis Flowers, cornerback Shaquille Richardson and receiver Tyler Slavin. It's also possible that defensive back Jonathan McKnight and a true freshman offensive lineman (perhaps tackle Trent Spurgeon) will play this season.
--Backup defensive tackle Jonathan Hollins left the team late in fall camp. Hollins, a junior college transfer who originally signed with Texas Tech, redshirted last year at Arizona. He enrolled at Texas Southern and will be immediately eligible at the FCS school.
--Arizona earned points in the preseason AP and USA Today Coaches polls. The Wildcats were 29th in the USA Today poll and tied for 35th in the AP media poll.
SERIES HISTORY: Arizona leads Toledo 2-0 (last meeting, 2008, 41-16 Arizona).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: With experience and talent throughout the offense, Arizona should be able to adjust and find the soft spot in any defense. The Wildcats are equipped to whittle away with short passes, go deep or play smash-mouth -- whatever is necessary. QB Nick Foles has worked with new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo on his footwork, which has led to better accuracy and more consistency in practice. Starting guards Conan Amituanai and Vaughn Dotsy each missed a big chunk of fall camp, but they were on track to be back in the lineup for the opener.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The big question is the back seven on defense. Arizona has arguably the best pair of defensive ends in the conference with fifth-year seniors Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, and another fifth-year senior, Lolomana Mikaele, is a rock at defensive tackle. Derek Earls will start at middle linebacker, and fellow junior college transfer Paul Vassallo is at an outside position. They have Pac-10 size at 240 pounds, but everything else will be a question until they get some game experience. The Wildcats, young and athletic in the secondary, figure to play a lot of nickel coverage.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Leaves a bad taste in your mouth. We were a hell of a lot better team than we showed. You kind of have to move on, but it's also good to kind of have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder." -- Senior C Colin Baxter, on the lingering effects of the 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Arizona at Toledo, Sept. 3 -- This completes a home-and-home series between the teams, and it could certainly be a tricky matchup for the Wildcats. There are always potential surprises in an opener, and UA coach Mike Stoops has been reminding his team that the Rockets have won five of their past six home games against BCS opponents, dating to the 2001 season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: RB Nic Grigsby tends to feast on non-conference opponents, and Toledo wasn't stout against the run last season, allowing 166 yards per game and really struggling in that area against the Big Ten's Purdue and Ohio State. Grigsby, whose shoulder is healthy after missing almost all of the Pac-10 season last year, will be eager to launch into a big 2010. Arizona's running attack should be able to control the game and ease the pressure on its young defense.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Juron Criner -- He missed more than two weeks of camp because of a concussion, but he returned last week and will play. The only question is his conditioning, because his workouts were limited while he was recovering. Criner, a 6-4 junior, is the key figure in the UA passing game, having caught nine touchdown passes last season.
CB Robert Golden -- The junior is moving to cornerback after being the starting strong safety last season. Cornerback is his natural position, but he'll have a lot to prove as Toledo and future opponents target him instead of all-star candidate Trevin Wade on the other side. The secondary will be wary of Toledo WR Eric Page (82 catches for 1,159 yards and seven touchdowns last season).
LB Derek Earls -- The junior college transfer grabbed a starting spot in the spring and held on to it this fall, although there wasn't much competition. Earls is one of the X-factors in predicting how well the Wildcats can do this season, so his performance in the opener will be closely watched.
--LG Conan Amituanai suffered a sprained knee early in camp but returned last week and was on pace to return to the starting lineup.
--RG Vaughn Dotsy was out for the first few weeks of camp because of a back injury, but returned to practice last week and could be in the starting lineup for the opener.
--FB Taimi Tutogi, who suffered an ankle injury early in camp, had not returned to practice by late last week and appears to be doubtful for the opener.
Arizona State finally has its starting quarterback.
The competition lasted all spring and through fall camp, and coach Dennis Erickson announced the winner on Monday: Michigan transfer Steven Threet. The redshirt junior beat out sophomore Brock Osweiler.
"(Threet) was the most consistent throughout fall camp, although Brock (Osweiler) had a great camp," Erickson said. "The biggest thing is, I saw great improvement from both of them."
Threet started eight games at Michigan in 2008 before transferring. Osweiler played in six games, starting one, as a true freshman, completing 24 of 55 passes for 249 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Osweiler has great size (he's 6-8), and Erickson raved about him last season, so the coach isn't giving up on him by any means. Look for Osweiler to see playing time in each of the first two games, both of which are against Football Championship Subdivision teams -- Portland State and then Northern Arizona.
"We will see what happens as time goes on," Erickson said of the quarterback derby. "There isn't that much difference between the two, to be honest with you. I feel very comfortable with the decision I had to make. Both of the quarterbacks can win and be very successful for us."
This is Threet's third school, as he spent the spring of 2007 at Georgia Tech. He was Michigan's leading passer in 2008, completing 102 of 200 passes for 1,105 yards, with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, but was not a good fit for Rich Rodriguez's offense.
Now, he's taking over the spread attack of new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
"He is very competitive and smart," Erickson said of Threet.
"He gets the football out of his hands very quick and is accurate, which is required of this offense. Steven does that extremely well and his experience in terms of seeing defenses makes a difference."
--One of Arizona State's true freshmen to watch is 5-foot-11 defensive end Junior Onyeali from Denver Mullen High School. "He has great explosiveness and speed," coach Dennis Erickson told the Arizona Republic. "He can fly. He's not very big as you can see, but he's going to be a real impact pass rusher for us this year. You'll see him I think quite a bit in the nickel stuff. We thought he was going to be pretty good, but he's a little bit better than we thought."
--Other true freshmen who are expected to play for ASU: Wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks, running back Deantre Lewis and cornerback Alden Darby.
--Arizona State was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10 in a vote of the league's media (and that is the consensus projection for the Sun Devils), so it was curious that ASU received six points in the USA Today coaches poll.
SERIES HISTORY: This is the first meeting between Arizona State and Portland State.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Coach Dennis Erickson decided to do something of an extreme makeover with his offense, abandoning his version of the one-back spread. He brought in coordinator Noel Mazzone, who will run a no-huddle, fast-paced attack. Do the Sun Devils have the depth of receivers to make it work? Perhaps more importantly, how will a young, banged-up offensive line hold up? For the opener, the starters look like this: LT Dan Knapp, LG Adam Tello, C Garth Gerhart, RG Evan Finkenberg, RT Brice Schwab.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Sun Devils led the Pac-10 in total defense last season, allowing only 297.6 yards per game. ASU has at least two proven stars on defense -- junior DT Lawrence Guy and sophomore MLB Vontaze Burfict, last season's Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. This should be the strength of the Sun Devils once again, and the name of the game is speed. ASU opens the season a bit thin at defensive tackle, so the Devils might slide an end inside and use some three-lineman fronts.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We believe we are a much better football team than people give us credit for. We have to change that attitude and go out and play and win football games. We can talk all we want about the new offense and the new defense but until we go out on the field it doesn't make a difference." -- ASU coach Dennis Erickson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Portland State at Arizona State, Sept. 4 -- The Sun Devils get to test drive their new offense and their new quarterbacks, while easing into the season with a pair of FCS schools -- Portland State and then Northern Arizona. Portland State has a new coach -- Nigel Burton, who was previously a defensive assistant at Nevada. On offense, Burton is expected to import the Pistol offense used by Nevada coach Chris Ault.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Arizona State should win the game easily, so the most important part of the process is that the Sun Devils leave the game feeling good about what they are doing on offense. One way or another, getting a full game of film on the new four-wide, no-huddle spread will be valuable to the coaches. The door hasn't been closed at the quarterback position, so Steven Threet needs to have a strong performance to make sure there aren't any lingering doubts.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
CB Omar Bolden -- The junior, who missed the final eight games of last season due to injury, had a super camp. With Deveron Carr on the other side, ASU might be willing to take more chances in one-on-one coverage, leaving the Devils free to do more blitzing.
LB Vontaze Burfict -- The hard-hitting sophomore -- projected as an All-American this season in some circles -- has been limited in the preseason because of a sprained left ankle suffered early in camp. He was getting close to 100 percent as the opener neared. ASU might want to be cautious with its defensive star, but Burfict, whose play was reckless at times last season, also needs as much experience as he can get.
WR Aaron Pflugrad -- The Oregon transfer earned a starting spot, and he should be one of ASU's top receivers. He's a savvy route-runner who knows how to find the open spots, and he should be a big comfort for Steven Threet in ASU's quick-strike offense.
--Junior WR Gerell Robinson, expected to be a big factor in ASU's new spread offense, missed most of camp because of a hamstring injury. He returned to practice over the weekend, and he might play some in the opener against Portland State.
--Sophomore DT William Sutton, who was running second-string in camp, and redshirt freshman LB Anthony Jones, were declared academically ineligible.
--Second-string DT Corey Adams (torn meniscus in left knee) likely will miss the first three weeks of the season.
Cal's season-opening game against UC Davis on Sept. 4 will mark the debut of an intriguing passing combination that could enable the Bears to exceed expectations.
It couples a quarterback in his fifth season at Cal who has had his ups and downs with a wide receiver who arrived on campus this summer amid tremendous hype. The quarterback is Kevin Riley, who is the key to the Bears' success, and he knows it. When he plays well, Cal wins. When he plays poorly, Cal loses. And the disparity between his good performances and bad performances is wide, making observers wonder whether he will even provide the consistency needed for Cal to contend in the wide-open Pac-10.
Riley does not lack for experience, having started 23 college games, but has lacked that indefinable characteristic that makes a quarterback a star.
Perhaps the addition of Keenan Allen will help Riley acquire that final ingredient. Allen is the most highly-rated recruit in Cal's freshman class. In fact, he's the most highly-rated recruit Cal coach Jeff Tedford has ever had, and Tedford has been raving about Allen ever since he showed up on campus.
"He's about as ready-made as anybody we've ever had here," Tedford said.
Several true freshmen are expected to see playing time for the Bears this season, but only one, Allen, is expected to start in the 2010 opener. Allen has a fluidity and presence on the field that makes everything look easy.
Wide receiver was one of the weak spots on the team last season, which contributed to Riley's inconsistency. The addition of Allen, who is expected to start opposite returning starting wide receiver Marvin Jones, may give Riley the material he needs to find the elusive consistency.
The game against UC Davis may not be a proving ground, because the Bears should handle the Aggies, who will be starting a redshirt freshman quarterback. But it may indicate whether the Riley-to-Allen combination has the potential to develop into something exciting and meaningful.
--Six or seven newcomers are expected to see meaningful playing time in the opener, by far the most since Jeff Tedford became coach. Besides Allen, the two true freshmen most likely to see considerable action in the opener are outside linebacker Dave Wilkerson and inside linebacker Nick Forbes. They were competing for starting jobs until late in preseason, and may end up starting before long. However, Wilkerson's progress has been hampered by being unable to practice because the NCAA clearinghouse has not approved the academic paperwork Cal submitted. Whether he will be eligible for the opener is uncertain, as of Aug. 30.
--Throughout most of preseason camp, it seemed redshirt freshman Steve Williams would be a starting cornerback, but that is not the case. Darian Hagan, a starter in 2008 who began the 2009 season as a starter before dropping in the depth chart, and Marc Anthony will be the starting corners.
--The last time Cal played UC Davis was 1939. It was the eighth consecutive season the teams had met, and Cal won all eight by a combined score of 293-20.
--UC Davis will start redshirt freshman quarterback Randy Wright, who will be making his college debut against Cal. Applying pressure to the passer has been an emphasis ever since Clancy Pendergast was named defensive coordinator last spring, so the Bears will no doubt try to rattle Wright.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads UC Davis 8-0 (last meeting 1939, 32-14 Cal).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal's offense has always been based on balance under Jeff Tedford, and the Bears have the ingredients to pass and run the ball effectively. Shane Vereen proved last season he can be among the best running backs in the conference, gaining 952 yards despite making just four starts. QB Kevin Riley has demonstrated at times that he can be a productive Pac-10 quarterback, and the offensive line returns virtually intact from last season, so it should be improved. If WR Keenan Allen is as good as Tedford thinks, he could provide the Bears with the big-play performer it needs. But the key is, and always will be, Riley.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: A lot of questions face a defense that was decent against the run, but poor against the pass last season. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast promises to provide varying looks and more pass pressure, but it will depend on the development of his linebackers and cornerbacks. Mike Mohamed may be the best linebacker in the conference, but the three other linebacker spots in the Bears' 3-4 alignment are unproven. Cal's defensive backs, aside from departed Syd'Quan Thompson, did not cover well and did not play the ball well in the air. DE Cameron Jordan and NT Kendrick Payne have been impressive, and Payne may be one of the surprise stars of the conference.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When I play well, we win. When I don't, we don't." - Cal QB Kevin Riley.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: UC Davis at Cal, Sept. 4 -- Cal should have no problem with UC Davis, especially with the Aggies starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback. UC Davis is a FCS (Division I-AA) team that is coming off a 6-5 season and does not have nearly the talent Cal does. However, UC Davis upset Stanford in Palo Alto in 2005, so the Aggies know it's possible. Cal begins the season with three nonconference games, and a poor showing may cast a pall on the season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal must jump on UC Davis early to prevent the Aggies from thinking they have a chance. The Bears will try to overpower the Aggies with superior athletes and must avoid making errors, which is about the only way Cal could lose. The Bears presumably will apply lots of pressure on UC Davis redshirt freshman QB Randy Wright, hoping to force him into some turnovers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Kevin Riley -- The Bears' season depends on Riley's consistency. When he plays well, Cal wins. When he doesn't, Cal loses. The difference in Riley's statistics in Cal wins and Cal losses is dramatic. He has started 23 games, and Cal is hoping that experience will pay off in his final season.
TB Shane Vereen -- He performed well as a starter in the final four games last season after Jahvid Best was injured. However, Vereen was asked to carry the ball too much (42 times against Stanford), and he wore down. Cal has had a lot of 1,000-yard rushers under Jeff Tedford, and Vereen, who had 952 yards last season, primarily as a backup, is a good bet to do it this season.
CB Marc Anthony -- Anthony has been one of the most impressive players in camp and surprisingly landed a starting job at a position that was Cal's weakness last season. He hardly played at all last season as a redshirt freshman, when he had no tackles, no interceptions and no pass breakups. But if he is as effective in games as he was in preseason camp, the Bears will solve a lot of problems.
--NG Derrick Hill has been a starter most of the past two seasons, but he has been slowed by a knee injury and gout in his big toe. He was beaten out for the starting job by Kendrick Payne, but is expected to play quite a bit.
--Josh Hill was switched from cornerback to safety in preseason camp and is expected to start the opener in place of returning starter Sean Cattouse.
--Freshman Dave Wilkerson had been held out practice for more than a week, as of Aug. 30, because he had not been cleared by the NCAA. Coach Jeff Tedford said Cal has submitted Wilkerson's academic paperwork three or four times during the summer, believing it had satisfied the NCAA requests each time. However, the NCAA requested additional information every time. Wilkerson was competing for a starting spot at outside linebacker before the absences eliminated that chance. Cal is not certain when Wilkerson will become eligible to play and practice.
--TB Shane Vereen had a hamstring problem that limited his activity during preseason camp, but as of Aug. 30, he is believed to be nearly 100 percent.
--Trevor Guyton, Deandre Coleman and Ernest Owusu are expected to share the defensive end spot opposite Cameron Jordan, as none of the three has solidified himself in the No. 1 spot as of Aug. 30.
Oregon's great mystery has been solved.
It's somewhat of a surprise, but more-athletic sophomore Darron Thomas won the starting quarterback job over fifth-year senior Nate Costa, whose strength was thorough knowledge of coach Chip Kelly's system.
"It was the body of work through spring practice and fall camp," Kelly said Tuesday. "It was a really, really close competition. We're fortunate in that we have two quarterbacks we think can play."
Quarterback is the huge question for the Ducks, who have been tabbed to repeat as Pac-10 champions. Oregon lost some of its national buzz when returning quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended in the offseason (he later transferred to Ole Miss), but the Ducks had all of spring ball and fall camp to practice with and evaluate Thomas and Costa.
Kelly said that, based on the rest of the offense around the quarterback position, Thomas "was the best fit for us."
The sophomore has a bigger upside than Costa, able to run around more and better threaten defenses with the deep ball. All that will help Oregon create space in its tricky read-option offense.
"I think that's probably the deciding factor in what gave him the job," wide receiver Jeff Maehl told the Salem Statesman Journal. "Just the stuff he can do with his feet and extend plays when he's in trouble."
Considering all the injury trouble Oregon has had at quarterback in recent years, there's another name you might want to know: True freshman Bryan Bennett showed big potential in camp and will need to be ready in case something happens to Thomas or Costa.
--True freshman DT Ricky Heimuli is definitely going to play this season for the Ducks, who could lose him after the season for two years. Heimuli is still mulling a decision whether to take a two-year church mission. Other true freshmen to look for this season -- WR Josh Huff, who was a touted all-purpose threat from Aldine, Texas, and RB Dontae Williams from Houston. He seems to be a bit ahead of another big-time running back recruit, speedy Lache Seastrunk.
--Freshman walk-on Eric Solis will handle the place-kicking and kickoff duties in the opener against New Mexico while PK Rob Beard serves a one-game suspension. Beard figures to take over those duties in Game 2 at Tennessee. Oregon would like to redshirt Alejandro Maldonado, a scholarship true freshman.
--Oregon is the highest-ranked Pac-10 team in the AP and USA Today preseason polls. The Ducks are 11th in each poll.
SERIES HISTORY: This is the first meeting between Oregon and New Mexico.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Ducks were unstoppable at times last season, averaging 36.1 points per game behind a well-coordinated read-option offense. Oregon loses only two starters from that unit, but both were major components -- QB Jeremiah Masoli and TE Ed Dickson. Masoli might have been worth a couple of victories by himself, but the Ducks aren't barren at the position. At tight end, look for David Paulson to step up; he saw plenty of time last season, and coach Chip Kelly calls him one of the most underrated tight ends in the Pac-10.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Oregon likely has the fastest unit in the Pac-10, led up front by undersized end Kenny Rowe, who led the Pac-10 in sacks last season with 11.5. One of the big competitions of camp came at the cornerback position opposite standout Talmadge Jackson III. The winner was junior Anthony Gildon, whom coach Chip Kelly called the most consistent and the one who best covered the deep pass.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm sure he's disappointed. It's got to be tough to be told you're not going to be the guy right now. But as I told him, and I don't say it tongue in cheek, every year I've been here, two quarterbacks have played." -- Coach Chip Kelly, in the Oregonian, on backup QB Nic Costa.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: New Mexico at Oregon, Sept. 4 -- New Mexico was woeful last season, going 1-11 and dealing with off-the-field controversies in coach Mike Locksley's first season. The Lobos, who allowed 35.9 points per game last season, shouldn't offer too much resistance to the Ducks, who will be tuning up for a Sept. 11 game at Tennessee.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The game isn't expected to be close, but QB Darron Thomas needs to soak up as much game-day experience as he can in advance of the Tennessee game. There is little doubt he has the physical tools to deftly handle the position, but the Ducks will feel better about themselves if he shows solid decision-making and ball security.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Kenjon Barner -- The sophomore had a super camp and will get plenty of chances in the opener with LaMichael James sitting out because of a suspension. Coach Chip Kelly says he considers them "1 and 1A on the depth chart" anyway. Barner had 61 rushes last season for 366 yards and three TDs. "Kenjon is just scratching the surface of how good he can be," Kelly said.
S Eddie Pleasant -- He'll be starting his first game at his new position, after moving from outside linebacker to a rover position in the spring.
WR Jeff Maehl -- The Ducks' go-to receiver made a team-best 53 receptions for 696 yards and six scores last season. He's likely eager to atone for a Rose Bowl performance in which he made only one catch.
--Sophomore RB LaMichael James is suspended for the season-opener against New Mexico. He will be available for the Sept. 11 game at Tennessee.
--PK Rob Beard is suspended for the opener because of an offseason misdemeanor.
Few teams in the nation have a nonleague schedule to match the one Oregon State will play in September with two top 10 opponents, and both away from Corvallis.
The opener is against TCU in Cowboys Stadium, and three weeks later the Beavers are at Boise State. Even the game in between isn't automatic, with rebuilding Louisville coming to Corvallis.
And then the Pac-10?
"We have the opportunity with the schedule we have to win a national championship. We do," OSU senior Keith Pankey said. "I think everybody knows it's going to be a challenge (but) there's no harm in saying I would rather play TCU than Eastern Washington.
"I want to play the best and see what's out there."
Pankey wasn't singling out Eastern Washington for derision. That was simply the scheduled opponent for OSU until ESPN put together the game against TCU, for a national telecast. It's good money for the OSU finances, it does take the Rodgers brothers back to their native Texas and there would certainly be a huge bump in recognition for the Beavers if they pulled the upset.
But, there is a downside.
Playing one top 10 team in September is enough of a challenge, but two? And on the road? OSU is 10-11 in the past five Septembers, and has never gone better than 2-2 prior to Oct. 1 during those five seasons. It usually means a battle to rebound, which OSU has done very well, taking Rose Bowl hopes into the season finale of the past two seasons.
Maybe the gain, if not on the win-loss record, is in finding out early what needs to be fixed, and not playing an opponent in the league schedule any tougher than what the Beavers have played in nonleague preparations.
That's certainly the case this year. TCU and Boise State to start a season?
"We're not backing down from anybody," OSU senior cornerback James Dockery said.
No, not with that schedule.
--OSU's game against TCU will mark the first time James and Quizz Rodgers have ever played a college game in their native state of Texas, which has naturally caused a problem for the two brothers in finding enough tickets for family and friends. The Beavers played in the Sun Bowl after the 2008 season, but the Rodgers brothers were both injured and unable to play, which had a big part in explaining the offensive performance of OSU in that 3-0 win over Pittsburgh.
--This marks the first time since 2001 when 24th-ranked OSU has begun a season ranked nationally. It will also be the first time since 1961, when the Beavers were No. 17 and Syracuse was No. 10, that the Beavers have both been ranked and played a ranked opponent in the opener.
--Mike Riley enters his 10th season at OSU with the opportunity to become the school's winningest coach, but it will take a memorable year for him to do it. Riley has 64 wins with the Beavers, to rank second in OSU coaching wins to Lon Stiner's 74. OSU has won as many as 10 games in a season only twice, going 11-1 in 2000 and 10-4 in 2006.
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Is there more to the offense than the Rodgers brothers? Not that receiver James and running back Quizz aren't capable, but the Beavers are likely to see defenses gang up on the two until the other receivers prove their worth, and sophomore quarterback Ryan Katz shows himself to be capable of handling the starting role. The Beavers preach balance in their offense, but that needs to be more than between running and passing.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: As the defense sent one blitz package after another at the offense in preseason practices, the stated intent was to prepare the offense for what it should be expecting to see with an inexperienced quarterback. But the unstated message was also that the Beavers need to find a way to put more pressure on the opposing quarterbacks in games. That was notably lacking last year when OSU only had 17 sacks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's been like the lead-up to a bowl game. It feels like that kind of a deal. It's obviously one of the more exciting matchups in college football on opening (weekend). It's great to be a part of it." -- OSU coach Mike Riley, on playing another ranked team to start a season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Oregon State vs. TCU at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 4 -- The stakes are high for the Beavers, playing a top 10 opponent with another (Boise State) only three weeks in the future. Plus, with the national telecast of this game, much of the nation's view of the Beavers will come from this game. Making an early statement would be significant for the Beavers, slow starters in recent seasons.
KEYS TO THE GAME: It's most of the usual for the Beavers, such as winning the turnover battle. That won't be easy against an opponent with a senior quarterback while the Beavers put out a first-time starter in sophomore Ryan Katz, but against an opponent the quality of TCU, OSU needs a break or two to pull the upset.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Ryan Katz -- The Beavers expect him to remain the poised player he's been in scrimmages since assuming the starting role in the spring, but does that continue under the pressure that TCU is expected to bring on a first-time starter? In an attempt to prepare Katz and the offensive line for that, the Beavers have spent an inordinate amount of time running plays against a variety of blitz packages.
LB Keith Pankey -- Six months after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, the senior will start at outside linebacker. There's also more of a role for him as he no longer shares a position with Dwight Roberson, who now starts on the other side. Pankey has looked to be at full speed in workouts, but the outside backers play a huge role in the OSU defense.
LT Wilder McAndrews -- After missing most of the past two seasons with injuries, the senior offensive tackle makes the first start of his career. He was solid in the spring, when returning starter Michael Philipp was out with a knee injury, and McAndrews held on to the starting spot through preseason practices. He hasn't played in a game since 2008, so TCU is likely to test the protector of the quarterback's back side.
--The Beavers dismissed freshman offensive lineman Tyler Thomas from the team after an alcohol-related arrest that received national attention. Thomas wasn't expected to contribute this season but was considered one of the best of the young linemen.
--Though Cameron Collins had starting experience at safety last season, he's being tried in a new position, a hybrid of a safety and linebacker when the Beavers go with a 4-2-5 alignment. He has the size, at 230 pounds, and lost his starting berth at safety to Suaesi Tuimaunei. The sense is that it will give the Beavers more options.
--OSU's major injury concern entering the opener is the sprained ankle of defensive end Taylor Henry. His backups are junior college transfer Dominic Glover and redshirt freshman Devon Kell, though sophomore Andrew Seumalo, listed as the backup to Gabe Miller on the other side, could certainly swing over to share time if Henry can't play.
There are so many major storylines swirling around the USC program. New coach Lane Kiffin. A 2010 postseason ban. A future loss of scholarships. A new athletic director. Being stripped of national titles because of violations centered on former Trojan Reggie Bush.
That's some of what is going on.
The thing this group of Trojans needs most of all is a game. That's the relief they'll get when they open the season Thursday night against Hawaii.
"There's a lot of motivation for these guys," Kiffin told the Orange County Register.
"They've been through a lot. I've said it before; the wrong people are being punished. You've got all these players getting on a plane to Hawaii that can't play in a bowl game that had nothing to do with this, that weren't even here. ...
"What they can control is having the same goal we always have -- win every game that they allow us to play."
As far as winning goes, much will depend on sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley. The previous coaching staff treated him with kid gloves last season, not wanting to put too much of the offense's load on the true freshman.
He ended up being OK -- he completed 211 of 352 passes for 2,735 yards, with 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions -- but the offense sputtered down the stretch, averaging 20.7 points in the final six games.
This season, Kiffin is going to open up the playbook for Barkley, whose first task is to take aim at a Hawaii defense that has an experienced secondary but questions up front and at linebacker.
Senior center Kris O'Dowd said he has seen a difference in Barkley.
"For a pup, for a freshman, he did the best he could do," O'Dowd told the L.A. Times. "Now, in the huddle he's confident. He brings energy."
--True freshman Robert Woods had a strong camp, and he'll likely be a starting wide receiver and one of USC's main kick returners when the season opens at Hawaii. Woods was rated as California's second-best prospect last season by Rivals.com.
--In one of USC's highest-profile position battles, sophomore Devon Kennard won the starting middle linebacker spot over Chris Galippo. Kennard has previously played defensive end and outside linebacker. Galippo will back up all three linebacker spots in a thin linebacker corps.
--USC, which suffered some offseason attrition, is down to 69 scholarship players -- 16 less than allowed by the NCAA. The Trojans can sign nine players in December before NCAA sanctions take effect in the spring. That is when USC is limited to signing 15 players, 10 fewer than typically allowed.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads Hawaii 6-0 (last meeting, 2005, 63-17 USC).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Trojans don't have the crazy depth they had a few years ago, but the offense's front-line players still rank among the best in the Pac-10. The biggest news might be the surprising emergence this fall of RB Marc Tyler, an oft-injured junior who sprinted up the depth chart and wrested the starting assignment away from Allen Bradford. True freshman RB Dillon Baxter is suspended for the opener, but look for a pair of classmates to make an impact right away -- WR Robert Woods and WR Kyle Prater.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: USC's strength is up front, starting with DT Jurrell Casey, a junior who seems poised for an All-American season. It's USC's secondary that could be under attack by Hawaii, though. The Warriors don't exactly have the scoreboard-breaking units they had under coach June Jones, but returning starting quarterback Bryant Moniz has a pair of talented receivers in Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares. The Trojans will be breaking in true freshman Nickell Robey at one cornerback spot; Robey moved ahead of redshirt freshman Torin Harris in fall camp.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Matt's the golden child here. Even though he went through some ups and downs, he still started as a true freshman and did some really good things." -- Coach Lane Kiffin, to the Los Angeles Times, on sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: USC at Hawaii, Sept. 2 -- While ineligible for the Pac-10 title and the postseason, the Trojans still have the talent to make a statement with their play on the field. The early schedule isn't overly taxing, so there's a chance for USC to build momentum and use an "us-against-the-world" mentality. The Trojans have scored 60-plus points in each of their past three meetings against Hawaii, including a 63-17 win on the islands in 2005.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Hawaii has the skill position players to threaten the Trojans, but USC has the horses up front on the defensive line, which should have a big advantage against an inexperienced Warriors' front. If USC controls the front like it should, it could really get aggressive in bottling up Hawaii's run-and-shoot. Meanwhile, USC's offense needs to show a go-for-broke mentality that will set the tone for the season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Matt Barkley -- The sophomore is leaner and more nimble than last season, and he says he's more comfortable being the leader of this team and taking control in the huddle. He needs to improve on his touchdown-to-interception ratio of last season (15-14).
RB Marc Tyler -- The junior won the starting job in fall camp and now has to put his best foot forward to keep it. Tyler played in only one game last season because of a sprained toe, but he did have 72 yards on five carries in the opener against San Jose State. He has 41 carries for 270 yards in his career.
LB Devon Kennard -- The sophomore beat out incumbent Chris Galippo for the starting spot in fall camp. He will play in the middle, flanked by returning starters Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan.
--Freshman RB Dillon Baxter, who became a YouTube sensation in spring, is suspended for the season-opener at Hawaii for an unspecified violation of team rules. He won't be on the traveling squad.
--Freshman LB Hayes Pullard (knee) is likely to redshirt. The Trojans aren't very deep at linebacker, so Pullard had a chance to possibly contribute as a backup and special teams player.
--Junior S Drew McAllister (hip) missed most of camp, and sophomore Jawanza Starling claimed the starting spot at strong safety.
--USC added Miami transfer WR Thearon Collier in camp. Collier had 18 catches for 250 yards and one touchdown for the Hurricanes last season, also returning two punts for touchdowns. He will be eligible in the 2011 season.
Stanford's Sept. 4 game against Sacramento State begins the Cardinal's season, but it also begins QB Andrew Luck's audition for the NFL.
If Luck performs as well as Stanford hopes and expects, he could be a high first-round pick in next spring's NFL Draft. As a third-year sophomore, Luck has the option of turning pro after this season, and many think he's ready.
Luck, of course, has offered no clue as to what he plans to do after this season. But his decision will have a lot to do with how he performs this season.
The question is whether Luck can be as effective this year without the run support provided by Toby Gerhart as he was last year with Gerhart providing the team's main offensive threat. The focus of the offense will be on Luck and the Cardinal's passing game this season, and it remains to be seen whether Luck can handle the added burden.
He seems to have the personality and poise to deal with the hype, but only his performance can prove it.
Luck certainly has capable receivers in wide receiver Chris Owusu and Ryan Whalen, and a number of talented tight ends. However, Owusu may not play in the opener as a result of an undisclosed injury. Owusu is also a standout kick returner, and if he is sidelined for a prolonged period, it will affect Luck and the team in general.
As a Division I FCS team, the Hornets should provide Luck plenty of opportunities to look good. It's unlikely Luck will get enough playing time to put up overwhelming numbers, but conclusions will be drawn nonetheless.
Luck's success this season may depend on whether Stanford can launch a running threat, and Jeremy Stewart and Stepfan Taylor will try to make defenses pay attention to the running game. As many as four players could get significant playing time at running back in the opener and perhaps the first several games, as coach Jim Harbaugh searches for the player to carry the load. In all likelihood, two or three players will share the job throughout the season.
The offensive line returns virtually intact after yielding just seven sacks last season, second fewest in the country.
Last year, this was Gerhart's team. This year, it's Luck's team. If Stanford is to contend for a Rose Bowl berth, as many expect, Luck will have to perform like a first-round NFL draft pick.
--This will be the first time since 2005 that Stanford has opened the season against a nonconference opponent. Teams typically prefer to play nonconference foes to begin the season, but the Cardinal's unusual schedule in recent seasons has seen them start against Pac-10 opponents the past four seasons, winning two and losing two.
--Redshirt freshman TE Levine Tiololo may be the biggest surprise of preseason camp and apparently will be the Cardinal's starting tight end in the opener. The 6-8, 263-pound Tiololo was impressive during the spring and has continued to improve this season.
--Sacramento State was a replacement for San Jose State, which pulled out of its scheduled game against Stanford to play a big-money game against Alabama. Stanford is expected to resume playing San Jose State, which is less than a half hour from Stanford, next season.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford and Sacramento State have never met.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Stanford will rely more on the pass than it did last season, although that may not be evident in the opener, as the Cardinal wants to get a good look at its running backs. The offensive line should be among the best in the conference, returning four starters from the unit that allowed just seven sacks and plowed the way for Toby Gerhart. Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu may be the best wide receiver tandem in the conference, and QB Andrew Luck is the team's star. Owusu may not play in the opener, however, because of an undisclosed injury. Luck led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency last season, and he is expected to be the focus of the offense this season. Stanford should be able to score points if it can run the ball at all.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Because the Cardinal was so poor on defense last season, especially against the pass (ranking 110th of 120 teams in pass defense), Stanford has overhauled its defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has installed a 3-4 defense, and Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas, who were down linemen last season, are outside linebackers now. Inside LB Shayne Skov is a potential star, and fellow inside LB Owen Marecic will play both ways. But the key is the secondary, which was the team's biggest weakness a year ago. The defensive backs looked much improved in the spring. Mike Thomas was moved from cornerback and is now the starting free safety.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's as good a prospect as the NFL has seen in years." -- ESPN analyst and former NFL QB Trent Dilfer, to the San Francisco Chronicle, on Andrew Luck.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Sacramento State at Stanford, Sept. 4 -- This is the season-opener for both teams, and it should be a breather for Stanford, which is expected to contend for the Pac-10 title, against a Sacramento State team that is not expected to challenge for the title in the Big Sky, an FCS conference. No doubt someone will remind the Cardinal players Stanford lost to UC Davis in 2005. Stanford needs to squash the Hornets' hopes early, before they begin thinking they have a chance.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford needs to overpower Sacramento State early to take the Hornets out of the game. Plus, the Cardinal must avoid mental errors and turnovers, which are the only things that can prevent Stanford from winning. Sacramento State must test Stanford's pass defense, which was weak last season. If the Hornets can get an early score, they may stay in the game awhile. Sacramento State's strength is its athletic defense, but if Luck hits a few passes early, Stanford should have its way offensively.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Jeremy Stewart -- He is likely to be the Cardinal's starting tailback in the opener and is expected to share the job with Stepfan Taylor. Stewart was Toby Gerhart's backup at the beginning of last season but missed seven games with a knee injury. He was impressive in his brief appearances in 2009, but it remains to be seen whether he can be as effective following the injury. The Cardinal needs to have a running threat.
LB Shayne Skov -- He is still in the formative stage, but he has the makings of a star. Skov started seven games as a true freshman last season, and he seemed to get better every game.
QB Andrew Luck -- Luck is the team's undisputed star and leader, and Stanford expects him to have an outstanding season. Anything less than that will prevent the Cardinal from being a Rose Bowl contender. He has everything a quarterback needs -- passing accuracy, size, mobility, poise, good decision-making -- but now he must do it without the support of Toby Gerhart.
--WR Chris Owusu was not listed at all on Stanford's depth chart for the Sept. 4 game against UC Davis, so there is a good chance he will not play. He is "working through some things injury-wise," according to coach Jim Harbaugh, who would not specify the problem. Owusu's absence also would hurt on kickoff returns, because he is one of the best kick returners in the country. Doug Baldwin would start in Owusu's place at wide receiver and would be the team's primary kick returner.
--Corey Gatewood, who started six games at cornerback last season, has been moved to wide receiver, apparently at his request. He was a sprinter on the Stanford track team so he has the speed, and he was viewed primarily as a receiver coming out of high school.
--Andrew Phillips, a starting offensive lineman, is the son of Bill Phillips, who was killed in the Aug. 9 plane crash in Alaska that also killed former Senator Ted Stevens.
--CB Richard Sherman has missed practice time with an undisclosed injury that might keep him out of the starting lineup for the opener. However, he was listed as a starter on the depth chart and is expected to play against Sacramento State.
--Owen Marecic is scheduled to start at both fullback and inside linebacker in the opener.
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was at practice as he talked to the media on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference Tuesday morning. Asked about the health of quarterback Kevin Prince, he jokingly told everyone to hold on for a second while he watched Prince attempt a pass.
The throw looked good, Neuheisel said.
"I think he's going to be fine," the coach said.
Prince, who has been limited since the first day of camp because of a slightly torn back muscle, looked better in Monday's practice and figures to start Saturday in a tough opener at Kansas State.
"He has no lingering effects," Neuheisel said. "I'm very encouraged by what I have seen the last couple of days."
Prince will be backed up by sophomore Richard Brehaut and then junior college transfer Darius Bell, a more athletic type who seems to be a good fit for what UCLA wants to do with the quarterback run game in its new version of the Pistol offense.
Prince, a sophomore, started 11 games last season, completing 173 of 308 passes for 2,050 yards, with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. After Monday's practice, he said he had a "little bit of tightness, not much pain. Before, there was a lot of pain."
As the week goes on, he'll need to work on his accuracy and shake off the rust, but early signs were that he would have proper velocity and will be able to move around well enough.
"Good to have Kevin back out there throwing," Neuheisel said after Monday's practice. "He looked very strong, fresh. Now he just has to get sharp."
--UCLA's running game is expected to be boosted by the addition of true freshmen Malcolm Jones and Jordon James. Both are behind Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin on the depth chart, but they are expected to play in the opener and likely will make an increasing impact as the season goes on. Of Jones, coach Rick Neuheisel said: "Very, very talented young man and a guy who is going to play and play a lot."
--UCLA will be wearing new road jerseys in its opener at Kansas State. The "powder blue" has been replaced by navy blue (which will be used for the numbers and stripes). Also, the initials "JRW" have been added to the back of the helmet to honor legendary UCLA basketball coach John R. Wooden.
--Senior Sean Sheller is slated to start at left tackle, replacing Xavier Su'a-Filo, who started as a true freshman last season before leaving on a church mission.
SERIES HISTORY: UCLA leads Kansas State, 1-0 (last meeting, 2009, 23-9 UCLA).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Much of the attention has been on how a new scheme will work, as UCLA tweaked the Pistol offense to come up with the Revolver. The Bruins figure to use at least two quarterbacks in the opener against Kansas State, but a longer-term issue could be the offensive line. It should be an all-senior starting unit, although that wasn't the original plan, and depth is a problem. Sophomore OG Stanley Hasiak and junior OG/OT Jeff Baca are academically ineligible. Junior C Kai Maiava will miss at least a couple of months because of a fractured ankle. Starting LT Xavier Su'a-Filo is on a church mission. It is imperative that the current starting five stay healthy.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: UCLA lost three stars -- DT Brian Price, LB Reggie Carter and CB Alterraun Verner - but is without defensive firepower. OLB Akeem Ayers and FS Rahim Moore (national-best 10 interceptions last season) are big-time playmakers. The task for the UCLA defense in the opener will be to corral Kansas State RB Daniel Thomas, who has great size and quickness, leading the Big 12 in rushing last season after transferring from junior college. K-State will use him in the Wildcat formation, too. "That will be a challenge for us in Week 1 -- tackling," coach Rick Neuheisel said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we are physically at a point where ... if we're fortunate with injuries from here on out, that we can start to compete for a championship again. I think you always start the season believing that's the case, but I really believe we're close to that level of work combined with talent. That gives you the seeds to grow a championship team. That's where we are, and as we get better and deeper, expectations will continue to rise." -- Coach Rick Neuheisel, in the L.A. Daily News.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: UCLA at Kansas State, Sept. 4 -- UCLA begins one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country with a game at Kansas State. Later, the Bruins will play host to high-scoring Houston and travel to Austin to take on mighty Texas. K-State coach Bill Snyder is a master at recruiting and developing junior college players; UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel figures the opener is the best time of all to get the Wildcats before some of the development takes place.
KEYS TO THE GAME: UCLA is going to have to grow up in a hurry on the defensive line -- perhaps its most vulnerable spot on that side of the ball -- because K-State coach Bill Snyder brings a tough, run-first mentality to his offense. K-State averaged 179.92 rushing yards per game last season. UCLA, which lost DE Datone Jones for half the season to a broken foot in practice, will have no returning starters on the defensive line against K-State and only one in the front seven.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
LB Akeem Ayers -- It's the junior's time to become a leader on a young, inexperienced UCLA defense. Ayers, who is an NFL prototype at outside linebacker, made 75 tackles last season, including 14 1/2 for loss. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
DE Nate Chandler -- With an injury to DE Datone Jones, Chandler, at 290 pounds, will fill Jones' spot on the edge. He was moved from tight end in the spring.
FS Rahim Moore -- He led the nation with 10 interceptions as a sophomore last season and is only six away from Kenny Easley's school interception record of 19. Moore will be trying to bait K-State QB Carson Coffman, who was the starter early last season before losing his job.
--DE Datone Jones, the team's only returning starter on the defensive line, suffered a broken foot in fall camp and figures to miss at least half of the season.
--All-American PK Kai Forbath missed some practice time in camp because of a groin injury, but he is expected to be ready to go for the opener at Kansas State.
--Sophomore OG Stanley Hasiak was ruled academically ineligible for 2010. He will use this season as a redshirt and have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
--Junior C Kai Maiava, a projected starter, suffered a fractured ankle in fall camp and could be out at least until late October
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has said since the day he became coach at Washington in December 2008 that he doesn't expect the turnaround to take very long.
A 5-7 record last season in his first year appeared to get the train going on the right track.
Now his second year begins with a golden opportunity for a significant breakthrough as the Huskies open on Saturday at Brigham Young.
UW hasn't won a road game since beating Stanford in November of 2007, a nasty streak that Sarkisian knows the Huskies have to stop to make anything of this season.
And while BYU may not quite have the expectations or experience of the squad that went 11-2 a year ago, beating the Cougars would arguably be UW's most meaningful win in years.
It also has the added subplot of being the beginning of Jake Locker's Heisman campaign. The UW senior quarterback has been one of the most highly hyped players of the off-season and the game provides a perfect stage to get a big win immediately.
Sarkisian, though, says he's wary of "putting all our eggs in one basket" and says that "it's a long season and this is just one game."
Indeed, it is, and the Huskies entered the week as three-point underdogs, with odds-makers and the public still unsure about a team that hasn't had a winning record since 2002.
Senior safety Nate Williams, though, insisted this week that the Huskies are ready to turn the corner.
"Last year, we expected to win, but it was still new to us, so that was probably why we couldn't win the tight ones yet," he told the Seattle Times. "We were just coming off an 0-12 year, so we didn't know how to win. But I think after getting a taste of a couple of them last year we know how to win now and it feels really good. We're expecting great things this year."
And Locker isn't all that the Huskies have.
They also return a veteran offensive line with all five starters having significant starting experience; a veteran receiving corps led by all-conference candidate Jermaine Kearse; the first player in school history rush for more than 1,000 yards in Chris Polk; and a defense that coaches say was a pleasant surprise throughout training camp.
The Huskies hope all of that is enough to get to their first bowl game since the 2002 Sun Bowl, Rick Neuheisel's last game as coach of the Huskies. The road starts Saturday.
--UW made it through camp losing only one player for a significant amount of time -- true freshman running back Deontae Cooper, who tore an ACL and will be out for the year. UW coach Steve Sarkisian, however, said he expects Cooper to make a full recovery.
--Saturday's game will be Washington's last against BYU for the foreseeable future. The two teams were originally scheduled to also play home-and-home in 2011 and 2012, but UW asked out of those games to add one more home game over that two-year span and soften the schedule in an attempt to get back to consistently winning seasons. UW will instead play FCS schools Eastern Washington and Portland State at home in those two seasons.
--The game marks a return to his alma mater for Sarkisian, who was BYU's QB in 1995 and 1996. He said he has not been back to Provo since leaving following his senior season.
SERIES HISTORY: UW leads 4-3 (last meeting, 2008, 28-27 BYU).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Huskies could have one of the best offenses in the Pac-10. It boasts Heisman Trophy candidate QB Jake Locker, returning 1,000-yard rusher Chris Polk, second-team all-conference receiver Jermaine Kearse, and five linemen who logged significant time as starters last season. UW averaged 26 points a game last season and could take a step forward in that category this year with so much talent coming back. Locker looks like an improved passer in his second year in the system of coach Steve Sarkisian, and more comfortable with the receivers around him. The one possible glitch is a line that was improving last year but struggled at times to simply blow defenses off the line of scrimmage. It will need to get better, and keep Locker healthy, for the offense to reach its potential.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The defense is perceived to be UW's weakness this season, especially after losing the two best players from a year ago to the NFL -- end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and middle linebacker Donald Butler. Maybe the biggest question mark is whether the Huskies can find a pass rusher to replace Te'o-Nesheim. UW coaches hope sophomore Talia Crichton will fill the void. Another question is whether junior Cort Dennison, making the move from the outside, can fill Butler's shoes in the middle. Sarkisian says he thinks UW is strong up the middle, however, especially in tackle Alameda Ta'amu, Dennison and LB Mason Foster and senior SS Nate Williams. But UW is inexperienced at free safety with sophomore Nate Fellner and freshman Will Shamburger.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it will be a unique experience for me and I'm sure Friday afternoon at our walkthrough I'm going to take it in a little bit. But at the end of the day we are going to go play the game." -- UW coach Steve Sarkisian on returning to his alma mater Saturday.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Washington at BYU, Sept. 4 -- Huskies go for their first road win since November 2007 at Stanford in taking on the Cougars in Provo. UW also looking to avenge a 28-27 loss to BYU in Seattle in 2008.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Let Jake run. The Huskies took the reins off Locker late in the 2009 season and that seemed to ignite the offense as UW beat WSU and Cal 72-10 in its last two games. The Huskies will likely look to get Locker 10-12 carries a game this year to take advantage of his unique running ability.
The Huskies figure to try to establish not only Locker but tailback Chris Polk and try to keep the ball as much as possible and keep BYU's offense off the field. UW thinks it has a better defense this year but it would just as soon not test it more than it has to Saturday.
UW is relatively inexperienced at three of four secondary positions, especially free safety, which could prove dicey against an historically explosive offense such as BYU's. The Huskies will have to play smart in the back end and not let little gains turn into big ones.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jake Locker -- The fifth-year senior has been one of the most-hyped players of the college football off-season. He starts off his season with one of the weekend's marquee games and can zoom to the top of the Heisman lists with a good performance.
RB Chris Polk -- Due to all the attention given to Locker, Polk sometimes gets overlooked. But he rushed for 1,113 yards last season despite playing with a sore shoulder the second half of the year. He had surgery in the winter and sat out the spring. He's 100 percent now, however, and coaches are expecting a big season.
CB Desmond Trufant -- The sophomore looked like a future star last year when he stepped right into the starting lineup at the midway point. Coaches envision him as a shutdown corner able to basically eliminate one side of the field. Those expectations will be put to an early test by BYU's high-powered passing attack.
--Freshman RB Deontae Cooper is out for the year after tearing an ACL early in camp. Cooper had been in line to see significant time this season as a backup to Chris Polk.
--Junior defensive end Kalani Aldrich is questionable, at best, while still recovering from off-season knee surgery. UW coaches hoped Aldrich could serve in a rotation at end, but he was still limited as the week began.
--Senior Brandon Huppert, the No. 2 middle linebacker, is out for this game, and possibly a few more, after having a setback in his recovery from knee surgery. With starter Cort Dennison playing through a sprained knee, UW's depth at middle linebacker could be put to the test quickly. The backup entering the BYU game will be redshirt freshman Tim Tucker.
Washington State coach Paul Wulff said he feels as if the WSU program is now on the track he envisioned when he took over as coach in Dec. 2007.
It had better be as Wulff is presumed on one of the hottest seats in the country with a 3-22 record the past two years, including a 1-17 mark in Pac-10 play, beating only winless Washington in overtime in 2008. WSU didn't come within 13 points of beating a BCS foe a year ago and was outscored 38-12 on average.
But Wulff says those days are history.
"I feel like we are a much improved football team, no question in our minds," he said.
The Cougars get a good chance to show just how improved Saturday when they play at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went 9-4 last year and qualified for the Cotton Bowl last season.
But this is a good time for WSU to play Oklahoma State as the Cowboys return just eight starters off last year's team, four on each side of the ball, and have been picked as low as last in the Big 12 South after losing quarterback Zac Robinson.
Still, while the Cowboys may be down, it's not like easing into a season with a lower-division foe. Wulff, though, says that has proven to be a motivating factor for his team.
"I think our players have approached it that way, as a big stick to go and reach," he said. "I think we are going to go in and play well. I have all the belief in the world we are going to go play a good football game."
The Cougars return just 14 starters off last year's 1-11 team. But the general feeling in Pullman is that the overall squad is much more talented than the last few year's, finally loaded with Wulff's recruits.
The offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel, who showed moments of vast potential in five starts last season before suffering a knee injury. Wulff also thinks a revamped offensive line (under the tutelage of new OL coach Steve Morton, who has more than three decades as an assistant) will be vastly improved.
And the defense could hardly be worse after allowing 40 or more points in six straight Pac-10 games last season.
Three seniors and three juniors could start on the front seven, giving it an experience and depth the Cougars haven't had for a few years, and three starters return in the secondary.
"Now we've got to go out and do it on game day," Wulff said.
--Of 113 players on WSU's roster, only 17 were with the team when Paul Wulff became head coach in December 2007.
--WSU has oddly lost each of its last two openers by the score of 39-13. In 2008 it was against Oklahoma State in Seattle and in 2009 against Stanford in Pullman.
--WSU doesn't exactly ease into seasons. Since 2006, its openers have been at Auburn, at Wisconsin, against Oklahoma State in Seattle, home to Stanford, and at Oklahoma State.
SERIES HISTORY: WSU leads 2-1 (last meeting, Oklahoma State 39-13 in 2008).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Now in his third year as coach, Paul Wulff hopes he can finally run the spread, no-huddle offense the way he always planned. Wulff said a lack of personnel and experience has limited what the Cougars were able to do the last two years. WSU was held to 17 or fewer points in all but two games last season, and when they scored 30 against SMU, two TDs came on interception returns. Sophomore QB Jeff Tuel will guide the offense after starting five games last year, and he has both the arm and the mobility necessary to excel. WSU also appears to have solid receivers led by 6-4 junior Jared Karstetter. But the line remains an issue after allowing a Pac-10 high 53 sacks last season.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: WSU was vulnerable everywhere last season in giving up 512 yards per game. But the hope is that more experience and talent will result in some vast improvement. The key to it all could be a defensive line that has the potential to be significantly better. It's led by sixth-year senior Kevin Kooyman and rising star sophomore Travis Long at ends, and touted JC transfer Brandon Rankin at tackle. WSU managed just 13 sacks last season and allowed a staggering 5.9 yards per carry. The linebackers are experienced and also have the potential to be much better. The secondary is more of a question thanks in part to the recent loss due to a neck injury of talented free safety LeAndre Daniels, whose career is over. WSU will get a quick test of that secondary as Oklahoma State runs a Texas Tech-style passing offense that is sure to take lots of shots to see how the Cougars respond.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we've got the frame of mind and the culture right where we want it to be." -- WSU coach Paul Wulff
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Washington State at Oklahoma State, Sept. 4 - The Cougars are 2-1 all-time against the Cowboys but lost the last meeting in Seattle in 2008 to open Paul Wulff era. This game could have some long-standing repercussions on the rest of Wulff's WSU tenure.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cougars have to do something on offense. WSU has essentially been unable to move the ball either through the air or on the ground the past two seasons. Conventional wisdom is that WSU will be a little better passing this year with the return of Tuel and some talented receivers. So the Cougars will need to be efficient, completing short passes and keeping the chains moving.
WSU can't afford to fall behind early. The Cougars understandably have a fragile psyche, and need to have some success early to avoid falling into a "here-we-go-again" mode. Especially on the road. Don't be surprised if the Cougars try some tricks early to try to grab the momentum.
WSU also needs to tackle well in the open field. The Cowboys like to get the ball to their skill guys in space and let them make plays. That's been a bad prescription the last few years for the Cougars, who too often have let little plays become big ones. They can't let that happen against the Cowboys.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jeff Tuel -- Coach Paul Wulff is basing much of the future of his program on Tuel, a true sophomore who last season became the first true frosh to start at quarterback for WSU since Drew Bledsoe in 1990. He completed 58.7 percent of his passes last season, one of the few consistent players in WSU's offense.
RB James Montgomery -- The former Cal Bear suffered what appeared to be a career-ending leg injury early last season. But he's returned to health and could get the start at Oklahoma State, capping not only a nice comeback story but also potentially providing the Cougars with a consistent running threat. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season in three games.
DT Brandon Rankin -- The JC transfer arrived with a lot of hype and has lived up to it so far in camp. Now comes the critical part -- doing it against another team. If he really can win a lot of man-to-man battles he could go a long way toward stabilizing WSU's defense.
--Sophomore FS LeAndre Daniels' career is over after a neck injury suffered during camp. He will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Tyree Toomer, who sat out last season with a torn pectoral muscle after starting four times in 2008.
--Highly touted frosh WR Kristoff Williams will be held out of the game while battling turf toe.
--Cornerback Nolan Washington, listed as a starter on this week's depth chart, is day-to-day with a hip injury.
Pac-10 Conference Week Preview
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