PiRate Preview: The Pac-10 Conference

The Southern California Trojans have gone 30-2 in Pac-10 play over the last four seasons. They have won 27 consecutive games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC faces five tough opponents this season—Nebraska, Arizona State, Oregon, California, and Notre Dame. All four must come to the Coliseum.

Even missing 12 starters from last season, including Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Frostee Rucker, Collin Ashton, and Darnell Bing, The Trojans are favored in all 12 games before the season begins.

California, Arizona State, and Oregon figure to be the three to challengers, but can any of these teams win at USC?  Even if one of them pulls this feat off, these three will beat up on each other giving USC a chance to win at 7-1.

 

The official Pac-10 Media Poll once again selects USC to win the conference championship, but this year the Trojans failed to win that praise unanimously.  All three of the above-mentioned challengers received some first place votes.  Cal, Oregon, and Arizona State were picked second, third, and fourth in that order.

 

There was a gap from four to five, with three teams bunched together fighting it out for the last spot in the upper half of the poll.  UCLA held off Arizona, with Oregon State picked seventh.  Washington State and Stanford were picked eighth and ninth with Washington bringing up the rear.

 

The Pac-10 media has been more accurate than other leagues' media when it comes to picking winners.  They have picked the last six winners correctly and more than half of the time in the last quarter century.

 

The PiRates differ only slightly from the media poll, and that may be a good thing with the West Coast journalistic geniuses. 

 

1. Southern California Trojans

PiRate: 128             National Ranking: 1              HFA: 7

 

When 11-1 and 2nd place feels like a letdown, you know your program is the tops in the nation.  USC was really the co-number one team last year.  They would have beaten Texas five times out of 10; it's just so happened that one of the five Texas wins occurred in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

 

The Trojans offense last year was the best since Nebraska of 1995, and unlike that Cornhusker team, they were equally superior running and passing the ball.  USC averaged better than 49 points per game and 580 yards per game.  Per game, they rushed for 260 yards on 40 carries, and they passed for 320 yards on 24 completions at a 65% completion rate.  Poor Tom Malone became a spectator most Saturdays.  The since departed punter saw as much action as the fourth string center.

 

The Trojans lost 11 players to the NFL draft.  Teams that lose that much talent normally drop like a rock in the standings.  When a future NFL prospect replaces a departing NFL draft choice, the drop is not as severe.  Southern Cal will reload rather than rebuild.  They have enough talent left to begin the season as the number one team in the PiRate ratings.

 

John David Booty was the top-rated high school quarterback in his class.  In mop-up duty last year with USC, he completed 64.3% of his passes for an average of 12.1 yards per completion.   He has been dealing with back pain, and that can affect the strength of his passes.  If he cannot go, USC will still be okay with Mark Sanchez, yet another former top high school quarterback.

 

At running back, the Trojans don't have a number one high school recruit.  But, they do have seven or eight top 10 recruits.  Four of them are still fighting it out to replace Reggie Bush and LenDale White.  Expect the rushing average to hover around 180 to 200 per game.  Chauncey Washington will have to fight to hold off spectacular freshmen Allen Bradford, Stafon Johnson, Emmanuel Moody, and C.J. Gable.  Any one of these guys can rush for 1,000 yards if given 200 attempts.

 

The backs will find their jobs replacing the two All-Americans a lot easier because USC has the number one group of receivers this side of the Indianapolis Colts.  Both Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith can make the All-American team; Jarrett already has been awarded 1st team status.  Last year, he grabbed 91 passes for 1,274 yards and 16 touchdowns.  Smith added 60 receptions for 957 yards.  Backup Patrick Turner, from Goodpasture High School in Nashville, could be an All-Pac 10 performer if the other two guys weren't here.  In limited duty, he caught 12 passes for 170 yards and two scores.  USC should average close to 300 yards passing this year.

 

The offensive line isn't as strong as last year's quintet.  This group may only be in the second five nationally.  Center Ryan Kalil should be a Rimington Award finalist and possibly the favorite.  Tackle Sam Baker is the one of the two or three best offensive lineman in college football.

 

USC will not score 49 points per game this season, but they can still compete for a national title averaging 35-40 points per game.  The defense could be better than last season and approach the performance of the Wild Bunch II group of 2003 and 2004. 

 

Let's start with the secondary.   Although three starters departed, the unit should be number one or two in the Pac-10.  Safety Josh Pinkard won't get beat deep, and he can cover the short zones with ease.  He defended nine passes and made 54 tackles last year.  Cornerbacks Cary Harris, Kevin Thomas, and Terrell Thomas have the speed and size to ably replace John Walker and Justin Wyatt.

 

Linebackers Keith Rivers, Oscar Lua, Brian Cushing, and Dallas Sartz are so talented, USC could end up using more 3-4 than 4-3 this year.  Backup Rey Maualuga might eventually be the best linebacker on the roster.

 

The defensive front will be led by nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and end Lawrence Jackson.  Those two teamed for 21 tackles for loss.  Ends Kyle Moore, Alex Morrow, and Jeff Schweiger can be rotated in and out of the lineup.

 

I think this defense will give up less than last year's 22.8 points and 361 yards per game.  The offense will help by sustaining longer drives.  Look for 17 points or less per game by the opposition and 325-340 total yards per game.

 

The schedule this year is loaded with landmines, but USC can handle every team they play.  The opener on the road at Arkansas could be close, but the Trojans should prevail.  The other tough games, Nebraska, Arizona State, Oregon, California, and Notre Dame, are at home.  Somebody will beat USC this year, meaning I'm picking the Trojans to go 11-1.  I think this is the year where nobody will run the table, so 11-1 will be enough for the Rose Bowl bid at the minimum and could be enough for the BCS Championship Game, which is where the PiRates say they will end up.

 

2. Oregon Ducks

PiRate: 116             National Ranking: 11 (t) HFA: 6

 

After finishing 10-2 and losing to Southern Cal and Oklahoma, the Ducks get the benefit of having the opportunity to seek revenge.  The Sooners must come to Autzen Stadium, while the Ducks have to migrate to LA to play USC.  They could lose both of them plus games at Cal and Arizona State, but OU will return to a bowl game this year.

 

Quarterback Dennis Dixon took over the reins of the offense when Kellen Clemens was injured last year.  He completed 66.3% of his tosses at 11.3 yards per completion.  At 6-5 and 231, Brady Leaf's got a rifle arm like his older brother Ryan.  Oregon uses the spread option, and Dixon is a much better runner.

 

Running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to have a break out season and remind fans of LenDale White.  Stewart rushed for just 188 yards on 53 carries last year.

 

Wide receivers James Finley and Cameron Colvin are the two leading returnees to a unit with less experience than last year.  Finley took in 57 passes last year with no breakaway runs after catch.  Colvin was more of a deep threat, but he caught just 22 passes.  Tight end Dante Rosario offers an excellent target in the middle.

 

The Duck offensive line is every bit as good as USC's.  All five starters return, led by tackle Max Unger and center Enoka Lucas.

 

If Oregon's defensive line can prevent being blown off the ball, the Duck defense could equal last year's 23.2 points per game allowed.  End Matt Toeania won't be knocked backward often. The 301-pound rock can move exceptionally fats for his size. 

 

A.J. Tuitele, Blair Phillips, and Brent Haberly combined for 145 tackles at linebacker.  Oregon actually uses a 4-2-5 defense, so Tuitele and Haberly will rotate.

 

The defensive backfield cannot rival that of USC, but safety J.D. Nelson, cornerback Jackie Bates, and rover Patrick Chung are all quite competent.

 

Not many teams have two kickers who hit field goals beyond 50 yards in the same season, but Paul Martinez and Matt Evensen did so last year.  Martinez will be the starter after he connected on 19 of 24 field goals, eight of nine from 40 yards and out.

 

Oregon will not approach last year's record.  They cannot win 10 games against the schedule they have this year.  Out of conference, they play at Fresno State, host Oklahoma, and get a so-called breather with Portland State, whose players will be playing the game of their lives.  The new conference format has the Pac-10 teams playing every other team.  The Ducks must go on the road to USC, Arizona State, and Cal.  Look for a 7-5 or 8-4 season, even though Oregon could go 11-1 or 10-2 if the home and road games were switched.   

 

3. California Golden Bears

PiRate: 115             National Ranking: 14                   HFA: 5

 

Some of the so-called experts believe the Bears could win the Pac-10 title this year, and Cal has stockpiled a lot of talent.   While the PiRates say Cal begins the year as third best in the league, they will be a better club in November than they are in September.  Facing both Oregon and Arizona State at home gives the Bears the advantage for second place.

 

The Bear offense could be quite strong if the interior line comes together.  The line will have three new starters, and none of the five figure to vie for All-Pac 10 honors.  Guard Erik Robertson and tackle Scott Smith are the two returning starters.

 

The quarterback situation could eventually become a controversy in Berkeley.  Joe Ayoob took over the job from Nate Longshore last year in game one after Longshore's season lasted 11 passes (fractured leg).  Ayoob proved to be a disappointment after passing for just 1,707 yards at a 49.2% completion rate.  Longshore apparently won the starting job back this year, but he suffered a back injury and has missed several practices.  Meanwhile, Ayoob has been looking more like the star he was projected to be.  Coach Jeff Tedford may not announce who is his starter until just before Cal leaves for Knoxville, Tennessee, to take on the Vols.

 

There will be no controversy at running back.  Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett will alternate and accumulate 2,000+ yards again this season.  The dynamic duo averaged 6.8 yards per rush with 16 touchdowns.

 

DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan return after leading the Bears with 38 and 34 receptions respectively.  Both have enough speed to turn a seven yard route into a 45 yard gain.  Tight end Craig Stevens is like having a tackle that can run pass routes.  The 6-5, 255 Goliath caught 13 passes for 165 yards.

 

The Cal defense may be overshadowed by the offense, but this year, they may be the better side.  After giving up 21.2 points and 359 yards in 2005, look for some improvement—maybe 18 points and 335 yards allowed.

 

The defensive line has as much excellent depth as any team in the nation.  Tackle Brandon Mebane earned 1st team All-Pac 10 honors last year, and he could be a 1st team All-America this year.  He recorded 9.5 stops for loss last year with seven of those as QB sacks.  Cal has four ends that can ruin a quarterback's Saturday.  Phillip Mbakogu, Nu'u Tafisi, Abu Ma'Afala, and Fahim Abd Allah can knock a passer out of a game quicker than the time it takes to pronounce their names.  The quartet should accumulate about 30 tackles for losses and 10 sacks.

 

The linebackers are almost as potent as the line.  Desmond Bishop returns after leading Cal with 89 tackles.  Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams are two more talented multi-tooled players.

 

The secondary is the weakest of the three defensive units, but it is still in the top half in the Pac-10.  Daymeion Hughes defended 17 passes with five interceptions last year from his cornerback spot.  Fellow CB Tim Mixon intercepted three balls and broke up 10 more.

 

Mixon is a threat to take every punt he fields to the house.  Last year, he returned one punt all the way and averaged 14.9 yards per return.

 

Cal has to open the season three time zones away on national television against Tennessee.  If they can overcome the Vols in Neyland Stadium, they could be 10-0 when they make the trip to the Coliseum to play Southern Cal.  All told, 10-2 looks like a safe prediction, but this team could be better by one game… or even two.  Watch out for the Bears if the offensive line lives up to the challenge.

 

4. Arizona State Sun Devils

PiRate: 113             National Ranking: 21 (t) HFA: 5

 

Dirk Koetter arrived on the scene in Tempe six years ago from Boise State and has produced a record of 33-28 with three bowl appearances.  That hasn't sat well with the fans, but Koetter received a vote of confidence and contract extension at the conclusion of last season.

 

The Sun Devils return a strong contingent on the attack side, but the defensive side suffered heavy losses.  As a result, ASU begins the season ranked fourth best in the Pac-10 according to the PiRates.

 

The offense scored its most points per game since the Jake Plummer golden year of 1996.  ASU averaged 36.8 points and 519 total yards per game in 2005.  Quarterback Rudy Carpenter replaced Sam Keller last year after Keller injured his thumb.  Carpenter proceeded to lead the NCAA in passing efficiency with 68.4% completions and 10 yards per attempt.  Keller decided to transfer to Nebraska after Koetter named Carpenter the starter last week.

 

Carpenter has two star receivers available when he drops back to pass.  Wide out Rudy Burgess, who also played quite a bit at running back, caught 59 balls last year, while tight end Zach Miller seized 38 passes.  Add Terry Richardson to the fray, and it gives ASU a very capable receiving corps.

 

 Burgess rushed for 644 yards and a 4.4 yard average in his time in the backfield, but he can stay on the perimeter now.  Keegan Herring is a speedster who can turn a three-yard slant into a breakaway run down the sidelines.  He finished his 2005 freshman season with 870 yards rushing (5.5 avg).

 

There are three standouts in the offensive line.  Tackle Andrew Carnahan could move from 2nd team to 1st team All-Pac 10 with another stellar season.  Center Mike Pollak and tackle Brandon Rodd could challenge for all-league accolades.

 

The defense has some holes to fill, as five of last season's  top six tacklers are gone, including the top two pass defenders and top two pass rushers.  Consider that ASU finished dead last in the league in total defense, allowing 180 yards rushing, 289 yards passing and 30 points per game (much worse when you factor out the Temple game).  In Pac-10 play, they gave up just shy of 500 yards per week. 

 

The defensive line could be strong.  End Kyle Caldwell and tackle Jordan Hill

Welcome end Loren Howard from Northwestern and tackle Michael Marquardt from BYU.  The two transfers make this unit much stronger than last year.

 

The back seven could be a problem.  Only two starters return.  Safety Zach Catanese registered 107 tackles last year and defended five passes, but Koetter would rather have his one secondary star not have to make as many tackles.  Linebacker Robert James is the other experienced starter.  James made five tackles for losses and defended six passes a year ago. 

 

Kicker Jesse Ainsworth converted on all 53 PAT attempts while hitting true on nine of 11 field goal attempts.  His long was just 34 yards last year, but he can hit from 50.

 

A non-conference schedule of Northern Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado  in Boulder presents ASU with an opportunity to score 130-150 points, but they could lose two of those games.  I think they will win two and then go 6-3 in the league to finish 8-4 prior to their bowl.

 

5. Arizona Wildcats

PiRate: 108             National Ranking: 34                   HFA: 4

 

Could year three be the big turnaround season for Coach Mike Stoops' Wildcats?  Arizona isn't about to challenge USC or even Cal and Oregon for a top three finish, but 2006 should be the year they return to a bowl for the first time since 1998.

 

The offense will run through the passing arm and feet of quarterback Willie Tuitama.  As a freshman, he replaced now Vanderbilt Commodore Richard Kovalcheck in the seventh game and became the starter.  Tuitama finished with 1,105 yards passing with 57.7% completions and nine touchdowns against just five interceptions.

 

Running back Chris Henry assumes the starting job after rushing for just 119 yards last year.  113 of those yards came against UCLA in the 52-14 blowout of the then unbeaten Bruins.

 

What should make Arizona so dangerous is the return of their top four receivers from a year ago.  Mike Thomas, Syndric Steptoe, Anthony Johnson, and Brad Wood teamed up for 148 receptions and 1,987 yards.  This year, the gang of four will top 170 receptions and 2,300 yards if they all stay healthy.

 

There are no standouts on the offensive line, but three starters return to make it no weaker than last season.  Tuitama is mobile and will avoid sacks, so the line's job will be easier.

 

Stoops was known for directing top defenses while working for his brother at Oklahoma.  In his first two seasons in the desert, he chopped 10 points off the average AU gave up in 2003.  The figure should fall more this season, as the Azcats return nine starters.

 

The farther back you go in this defense, the better it is.  Cornerback Antoine Cason defended eight passes last year and made 50 tackles.  Opposite side corner Wilrey Fontenot defended eight passes.  Safety Michael Johnson earned honorable mention All-Pac 10 honors after making 60 tackles and defending eight passes, with four being interceptions.

 

The linebacking corps features returns all three starters who combined for 127 stops.  The added experience here makes up for the lack of a true star, but Ronnie Palmer could make an all-league team before he leaves.

 

The front four lacks a true run stopper or sack monster.  Ends Marcus Smith and Jonathan Turner should be much improved and could develop into fairly efficient pass rushers.

 

The non-conference schedule includes one tough game (at LSU), one evenly-matched game (vs. BYU), and one gimme game (vs. S.F. Austin).  Home games with Washington, Oregon State, and Arizona State plus games at UCLA, Stanford, and Washington State give Arizona a chance to win six or more times.  I predict at least six wins and more likely seven wins, and that means the Wildcats will be playing after December 10.

 

 

6. Washington State Cougars

PiRate: 105             National Ranking: 43 (t)            HFA: 3

 

The Cougars may have been the best seven-loss team in the nation last year.  Opponents didn't enjoy facing their offense.  They narrowly lost to UCLA in overtime, to Cal by four, to Arizona State by three, and to Oregon by three; all four of those teams went to bowl games.  Throw in a three-point loss to Stanford, and WSU could have easily been 9-2 with a few extra successful plays.  For the season, the Cougars outscored their opponents by two points per game.

 

Six starters return to an offense that scored 33.5 points and gained 489 yards per game.  One of those is not Jerome Harrison, who rushed for 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns.  - DeMaundray Woolridge and JUCO star J.T. Deiderichs figure to split time filling Harrison's giant shoes. 

 

Quarterback Alex Brink returns after throwing for 2,891 yards and 24 touchdowns.  Brink has a strong arm and quick feet, making it hard to stop him by flushing him out of the pocket.

 

Brink's favorite target is Jason Hill.  Last year, Hill caught 62 passes for 1,097 yards and 13 scores.  He is one of the best deep threats on the West Coast.  Michael Bumpus is more of a conversion receiver, catching the short and intermediate route passes.

 

The Cougars have an unsung offensive line, but it gets the job done.  Tackle Bobby Byrd could be confused for a sasquatch at 6-7 and 319.

 

If the Cougs can reduce their points allowed by just five points per game, they could play themselves into the upper division of the Pac-10 standings.  With eight starters returning, they just might do it.

 

The defensive line is led by sackmeister Mkristo Bruce.  The star end sacked 10 enemy quarterbacks last year and threw five more ball carriers for losses.  Tackles Fevaea'I Ahmu, Aaron Johnson, and Ropati Pitoitua should improve the up-the-middle run defense.

 

A talented trio of linebackers returns to the second unit.  Steve Dildine and Greg Trent combined for 137 tackles.  Scott Davis is the best pass defender of the three; he broke up six passes in 2005.

 

The secondary was just as porous as Arizona State's last year, giving up 289 yards per game.  Safeties Eric Frampton and Husain Abdullah return after combining for too many tackles—131.  Frampton defended nine passes and Abdullah six.

 

Besides being a quality receiver, Bumpus is an excellent punt returner.  He averaged 13.1 yards per return including a touchdown.

 

After opening at Auburn, WSU hosts Idaho and Baylor.  If they enter Pac 10 play at 2-1, they have a shot at bowl eligibility.  They could beat Stanford, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona, and Washington.  It will be a tough task since most of the winnable league games (Stanford, Oregon State, UCLA) are on the road.  They will be really fun to watch regardless of whether they go 8-4 or 4-8.  If you get a chance to see them on television, by all means tune in.

 

7t. UCLA Bruins

PiRate: 105             National Ranking: 47 (t)            HFA: 5

 

The Bruins were the opposite of Washington State last year.  Instead of going 9-2 in the regular season, narrow wins over Washington, California, Washington State, and Stanford could have gone the other way and doomed them to a 5-6 season.  Having to replace their top offensive and defensive players, UCLA could be headed to a sub-.500 finish for the first time this millennium.

 

Drew Olson has graduated; now it's time for southpaw Ben Olson, the 22-year old sophomore.  Four years ago, he was the consensus top high school quarterback, but he hasn't started a game since his senior year of high school.  Talk about having to blow the dust off an old book that hasn't been taken off the shelf in a long time!

 

The running game must be overhauled after Maurice Drew took his 914 rushing yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Chris Markey rushed for 561 yards at 5.1 yards per carry, so he should be able to fill the void.

 

Marcedes Lewis may be the toughest player to replace after he caught 58 passes for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Joe Cowan caught 35 passes for 469 yards (he'll miss the opener with an injury).  Cowan will team up with Junior Taylor who missed all of last year with an injury.

 

The offensive line returns three starters.  Guard Shannon Tevaga and tackle Brian Abraham could challenge for honorable mention All-Pac 10.

 

The defense gave up 34.2 points, 233 rushing yards, and 235 passing yards per game.  It may be difficult to better those numbers this year, because the Bruins lost their three starting linebackers and two key defensive backs.  In the Pac-10, opponents will light up an inexperienced pass defense.

 

UCLA has some defensive talent.  In the trenches, nose tackle Kevin Brown and tackle Brigham Harwell will pressure enemy quarterbacks.  In the secondary, cornerback Trey Brown and safety Dennis Keyes return after defending 17 passes a year ago.  The problem will be the linebackers, where they lack experience and size.

 

Justin Medlock is a weapon at kicker.  He nailed all 50 PAT attempts last year and 13 of 17 field goals including a 51-yarder.

 

The Bruins will know after game one whether they have a shot at another bowl game.  If they beat Utah, they just might win enough games.  If the Utes come to the Rose Bowl and leave with a win, then it's going to be a long year in Westwood.  Having to play at Notre Dame in addition to road games against Oregon, Cal, and Arizona State, plus having to close out the season against USC will be too much of a hill to climb.  7-5 is the best record this team can have, while 6-6 is the more likely outcome.

 

7t. Stanford Cardinal

PiRate: 105             National Ranking: 47 (t)            HFA: 4

 

Walt Harris narrowly missed guiding the Cardinal to a winning season in his first year in Palo Alto, finishing 5-6.  A loss to UC Davis became a major toothache after Stanford defeated four Pac-10 foes and threatened to defeat UCLA and Notre Dame.  With 10 starters back on offense if the defense can maintain just the status quo, Stanford could shock a few people and become bowl eligible.

 

Trent Edwards returns to pilot the Cardinal attack after completing 62.7% of his passes for 1,934 yards and 17 touchdowns.  Backup T.C. Ostrander threw for 529 yards and almost engineered the upset over Notre Dame.  These two gunners give Stanford solid experience.  Edwards is primed for a big year with more than 3,000 yards passing.

 

Stanford couldn't run the ball last season for the third year in a row.  They averaged just 92 yards rushing, but the quarterbacks were sacked 42 times skewing that average.  Co-starters Jason Evans and Anthony Kimble both return to try to better their combined 3.6 yards per carry average.

 

Mark Bradford deserved some type of postseason accolades last year after catching 37 passes for 609 yards and six scores.  He is the Cardinal's best deep threat.  Tight end Matt Traverso should top 30 receptions this year and convert several third and short plays into first downs.

 

Two guards lead the blocking charge on the line.  Alex Fletcher and Josiah Vinson give the Cardinal an excellent inside blocking force.

 

The defense yielded 442 yards and 30.6 points per game last year (they gave up 528 to Arizona State, yet won 45-35). There just aren't any highly rated players on this side of the ball.  Linebacker Mike Silva , cornerback Nick Sanchez, and safety Brandon Harrison combined for 195 stops with 15 passes defended.

 

Perhaps the Cardinal's best defensive weapon is punter Jay Ottovegio, who averaged 40.6 yards per punt with a net of 36.6. 

 

The schedule does not favor Stanford getting over the hump this year.  They must play seven road games, including trips to Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame, Arizona State, and Cal.  Home games against Navy, Arizona, and USC don't look favorable either.  Even though the offense should be quite improved, the defense will not scare anybody.  Four wins would be an accomplishment.

 

9. Oregon State Beavers

PiRate: 104             National Ranking: 50 (t)            HFA: 5

 

Since returning to Oregon State for his second go around, Coach Mike Riley has seen his Beavers drop a few rungs in the Pac-10 hierarchy.  His Beavers have accumulated a 20-16 record overall.  This could be a decision year in Corvallis.  Riley has most of his key player back from last year's 5-6 season, so it's a make or break year.

 

If the Beavers are to challenge for bowl eligibility, they must get better defensively.  Last year they allowed four opponents (Louisville, Arizona State, UCLA, and Oregon) to score 212 points.

 

This season, the secondary should chop off 25 to 50 yards off the 299 passing yards allowed per game.  Safety Sabby Piscitelli is the leading returning tackler with 53.  He intercepted four passes and broke up eight others.  Cornerback Keenan Lewis broke up 11 passes last year and is the second leading returning tackler with 45.  Middle linebacker Andy Darkins started only six games last year, but he is the leading tackler for loss returnee with 5.5.  There just may not be enough quality defenders around to compete in this league.

 

The OSU offense should be improved this year after gaining 419 yards and scoring 26.6 points per game.  Quarterback Matt Moore threw for 2,711 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he tossed a league high 19 interceptions.  His job will be easier if running back Yvenson Bernard can improve on an already superb 1,321 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns.

 

The passing game took a major hit with the loss of deep threat Mike Hass and his 90 receptions for 1,532 yards.  Anthony Wheat-Brown is the only returning wide receiver with more than a dozen catches.  Last year, he grabbed 40 passes for 400 yards.

 

The offensive line features two fine guards in Roy Schuening and Jeremy Perry.  Tackle Adam Koets has 28 starts under his belt and could be primed for a memorable senior season.

 

Kicker Alexis Serna has recovered from his mulligan at LSU two years ago.  Last year, he was a perfect 32 of 32 on extra points and 23-28 on field goals for 101 points.

 

Oregon State plays 13 games thanks to a finale in Hawaii on December 2nd.  They must also go on the road to Boise State outside the conference.  Wins over Eastern Washington and Idaho means OSU could be 2-2, 3-1, or 4-0 in non-conference play.  The conference part of the schedule could get ugly.  Home games against Cal, USC, Arizona State, and Oregon could all go the other way.  Road games against Washington, Arizona, UCLA, and Stanford could actually be easier to win.  I believe 2006 will find the Beavers continuing to fall in the standings.  Call it 4-9 or worse.

 

10. Washington Huskies

PiRate: 99               National Ranking: 61 (t) HFA: 5

 

Tyrone Willingham could only muster a 2-9 record in year one in Seattle.  That makes three wins in the last two years for the Huskies, and two of those wins came against Idaho and San Jose State.  2006 could see the Huskies begin to compete against some of their Pac-10 brethren.  While, they begin the season as the bottom league play according to the PiRates, something tells me they will be one of the more improved teams on the West Coast.

 

Start with quarterback Isaiah Stanback.  He returns to direct the purple and gold attack after completing 54.2% of his passes for 2,136 yards.  Stanback can do damage with his feet as well.

 

Sonny Shackelford and Anthony Russo return to their wide out spots after joining for 71 receptions and 1,079 yards.  Both are threats to go long.  Cody Ellis and Corey Williams are two additional speedsters in reserve.

 

The running game leaves a lot to be desired.  J.R. Hasty was supposed to be the man who turned things around, but he was declared ineligible as preseason camp began.  That leaves Kenny James and Louis Rankin to handle the job after combining for 588 yards last year.  Look for UW to find a way to run for 150 yards per game and four yards per carry.

 

The offensive line doesn't have an all-Pac 10 player, and only one full-time starter returns from last season.  This could become a major problem if center Clay Walker, guard Stanley Daniels, and tackle Chad Macklin don't produce immediately.

 

The defense is in better shape than the offense.  Three secondary members return and should chop 30 or more yards off the 276 they allowed per game last year.  Cornerbacks Roy Lewis and Dashon Goldson and safety C. J. Wallace teamed for 213 tackles and 13 defended passes.

 

Linebacker Scott White made 7.5 tackles behind the line last year and is the only returning starter in this unit.  Three starters return up front.  Ends Donny Mateaki and Greyson Gunheim and tackle Wilson Afoa combined for 24 tackles for losses.

 

If it weren't for a tough out-of-conference schedule this year, I might go out on a limb and pick Washington to jump up three or four places in the league.  Having to play at Oklahoma and against Fresno State prior to starting conference play will be a bit too much for this team to handle.  The Huskies could win two or three conference games and four overall, which would be double what they won last year.

 

Next Up:  The Big 10.  This is the highest rated conference to start the season, and three teams could stake claim to serious national title hopes.

 

Sources: The official website of the Pac-10 Conference plus the official websites of the 10 member institutions

 

The San Jose Mercury News

The Seattle Post Intelligencer

The Orange County Register

The Los Angeles Daily News


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