Forecasting a fantastic Pac-10 finish

THE PAC-10 IS what my good friend refers to as the "Conference of Cannibals". While the Big 10 or ACC teams will capitulate and seemingly allow a Florida State or Ohio State to run the table and go unbeaten, the Pac-10 rarely does. For that reason alone, the run USC has made in the past three seasons is just stunning.

It is traditional for the conference to have a team that's a media darling in August—think Arizona, UCLA, or Washington—that gets whooped inexplicably by a team like Oregon or Stanford.

The conference will not allow another team to simply run away with it. While other Big 12 schools will concede, "It's good for the conference if Oklahoma wins another title," here in the Pac-10, the attitude is more like "USC? Screw those guys. If we're not going to win the national championship, then they can't either."

The fun in covering and following the Pac-10 is the belief that anything can, will, and usually does happen. Dormant programs can come out of the woodwork and win the conference. Conference favorites are usually looking right over their shoulders, either at their rival, or another horse in the race that is suddenly making a run for the crown.

Like any other year, the 2005 Pac-10 lineup has one or two favorites, one or two lousy teams, and about seven programs that can cause havoc and serve as the cannibals.

THE FAVORITES:

1. USC
Pete Carroll has managed to build a Yankee-esque program in Los Angeles, and given Southern California what it's lacked for over a decade: a professional football team. They are crisp, fluid, talented, and well coached. They lose because they get caught on a bad day, and those days simply don't happen- the last two they've had were in 2002 at Washington State and 2003 at California.

They remain fully loaded- with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and crew primed to make a repeat performance. The only question mark this program has is with the departure of renowned offensive coordinator Norm Chow, the most underrated coach in all of football the past two years. Lane Kiffin, who's made a name in recruiting, has stepped up to fill the void, and if he can manage to let Leinart do his thing and not try and get overly creative, the Trojans will have another blockbuster season.

The schedule is one of cupcakes and speed bumps, opening up in Hawaii, hosting Fresno State and Arizona. The speed bumps occur on September 17 against Arkansas, but the Trojans are at home, so that shouldn't be a problem, and Notre Dame might be improved under Charlie Weis, another former New England Patriots coach. The toughest road game would be at Arizona State on October 1, but the Trojans have done well there in the past. After that, the biggest threat to USC occurs late in the season at home against a Washington State team on October 29 that could be very, very good, but Armageddon will take place November 12 at California, the site of their last defeat. Assuming the Bears can reload at quarterback, it could very well be the game of the year in the Pac-10.

2. CALIFORNIA.
You had to feel for the Golden Bears program. For two months last fall, they penciled themselves into the Rose Bowl, having a feeling that USC would get the Orange Bowl bid and the BCS would make the most money inviting a program that hasn't made the Rose Bowl since the Eisenhower administration into the Granddaddy of Them All. Mired in the depression of being jobbed by the BCS, the Bears stumbled into the Holiday Bowl and got smacked around by Texas Tech.

Berkeley fans that have put away their protest chants for football chants needed to become acquainted with rule No. 1 of college football: Don't ever assume. Common sense to the rest of us never applies to the bureaucracy of college football. In a country with 119 Division I-A programs, too many things can go wrong each week. In 1997, when Washington State was trying to make it's first Rose Bowl in 67 years, it became forbidden on campus to even mention the words "Rose Bowl" in casual conversation, let alone make travel arrangements, during the final month of the regular season.

The Bears have learned, and they've spent the off-season becoming even better. The onus was on head coach Jeff Tedfordto reload, and he has done just that. With the loss of Aaron Rodgers to the NFL, he has found another amazing junior college transfer in Joe Ayoob, who ran up some insane passing statistics at San Francisco City College. The holes remain at running back and in a few places on defense, but given the talents of Tedford, that has likely been taken care of.

Ayoob really is the best fit for the Tedford offense, and thankfully he'll get plenty of time to get acclimated to the D-1 level. Opening up against Sacramento State, rebuilding Washington, Illinois, New Mexico State, and Arizona should help the Bears work in the new parts at a leisurely pace. Nobody should be rushed, so it should all work out well.

The big tests for the Bears come in the season's second half, but luckily, they play at home for all of them: Dangerous Oregon State, a potential hazard in Washington State, and uber-rival USC all come calling to Berkeley in October and November. The only tough road game of the season is at Oregon, only because Autzen is an insane place to play, and the Bears have struggled there in the past. If Ayoob can get going, and they only manage to drop one of their four big games this year, the Bears could be in good BCS shape. The 'Big Game' against Stanford is a mere formality.

THE CANNIBALS.
These are the teams that could strike at any moment to put a dagger into USC or Cal. In the rich tradition of the conference, here's how the middle of the Pac looks:

3. ARIZONA STATE
For the cannibal teams, the conference schedule is key, and the Sun Devils get a great break by missing Cal and hosting USC. The only downside of this schedule is a trip to LSU for their second game of the season, which will be rough but could be close given how much things have changed for the Tigers this year given the loss of coach Nick Saban to the NFL.

Their high-octane offense, led by wideout Derek Hagan, who averaged 103 receiving yards per game last year as a junior, is stocked. Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams are two great linebackers who anchor the defense.

Given the circumstances, ASU is that nice little team in every conference who is going to be a little overrated because nobody's really looked at how weak the conference schedule really is. There will be a lot of hype before hosting USC October 1, but that hype will be over in the first quarter when the Trojans have rung up 21 points on them in the first ten minutes. Except the trip to Pullman in November, this is a conference schedule every other team would trade for in a heartbeat.

4. WASHINGTON STATE
Wazzu is back as a Cannibal, the dark horse that can cause trouble in the blink of an eye. Not much is expected of the Cougs this year, maybe a lower-tier Bowl Trip, but WSU has the benefits of good scheduling and talent at the key positions to keep them in contention and causing havoc into November.

On offense they they boast three of the top players in the conference at their position: RB Jerome Harrison, TE Troy Bienemann and WR Jason Hill. At press time the QB situation is undecided, but the Cougs are confident they can win with either Josh Swogger or Alex Brink.

The defense has had to reload in the secondary, but they do have the major advantage of having the perhaps the best linebacking corps in the conference, anchored by MLB Will Derting. Barring injuries, and that's always a big if, considering that depth is a problem in certain key areas, the Cougs could sneak up on some people.

In the schedule department, the Cougars play their first three games in the bakery, complete with cupcakes and soufflés to smash through. Grambling and Idaho will be defenseless, and Nevada provides the toughest non-conference test in a Sept. 9 game in Reno. After that, the Cougs open up the Pac-10 season at Oregon State, and if they are able to come out of Corvallis with a win, they can run the table and potentially head to a road date at Cal with a 6-0 record, and Cal would very likely be 6-0 as well. After that possible high-noon matchup, it's a road trip to USC a week later—and it will be Matt Leinart's last homecoming game. No matter what happens after those two games, the Cougars better have the chinstraps buttoned up tight- home games against Arizona State and Oregon before wrapping up the season for the Apple Cup at Washington is how the Cougs will end the regular season.

Washington State is the Pac-10's traditionally underrated program; so even with the sixth place prediction a lot of pundits are making this year, it should always be adjusted by a few ticks. The Cougars could go as high as third, strictly depending on the outcomes of the Oregon and Arizona State games.

5. OREGON
The 3-4-5 teams of the Pac-10 are alarmingly close to each other this season, and could honestly finish in any order. The Ducks have a huge potential landmine in the schedule on September 17, when they host Fresno State, which may not seem important at first, but the Bulldogs have a knack for beating good teams on the road. If the Ducks take them lightly, that could be a disastrous loss for the Ducks. Another non-conference foe, Montana, is an excellent IAA program but will not be a problem for UO. If catastrophe struck in either of those two games, this team could be very adversely affected for the remainder of the season, especially in big games at Arizona State and Washington State late in the season. The Ducks' best chance to make a statement will be when they host Cal on November 5. The Bears host USC on November 12, and there's a good chance the Ducks may be overlooked and Cal may not escape Eugene with a win.

Quarterback Kellen Clemens leads the Ducks into his senior season. Oregon quarterbacks typically enjoy nice senior seasons, but here's something to chew on: the Ducks only return two of their five starting offensive linemen and that could lead to big problems when having to compete with linebacker-blessed teams like Arizona State and Washington State. Especially now that the Ducks are employing more of a spread offense, teams with fast linebackers and a penchant for stunts and differing blitz packages could give them problems.

They have an early season date at USC, but the Cal game could be this team's crowning moment.

6. OREGON STATE
The Beavers are celebrating the first season of refurbished Reser Stadium this season, and it was about time—many high schools in this country had better digs. This old house has the extreme makeover, but I personally wonder what they're thinking by putting the upper-crust donors so close to the field in the new seats—the best college football environments place the crazy students right on the field to allow for maximum yelling and never-ending insanity. Honestly, though, what else should we expect from a state that doesn't let you pump your own gas?

Cheap shots aside, the Beavs have great scheduling, missing USC this season and having Arizona State and Washington State at home. They could very well give the Cougars and the Sun Devils fits in those games. The Beavers could be already put away by then, after playing at a very tough Louisville, which I'm sure looked like a cupcake to everyone when that game was put on the books, plus trips to Cal and a road trip for the Civil War game at Oregon.

7. UCLA
Where Washington State is the traditionally underrated team of the Pac-10, no program has been as consistently overrated as UCLA, going all the way back to the Troy Aikman days. The Bruins have struggled with too much internal strife, and things always haven't been as advertised.

Running back Maurice Drew is a brilliant runner, but needs to overcome his fumble-itis to get the Bruins into contention for a bowl spot. The preseason buzz that already has them ranked considerably higher is already a detriment, and the Bruins could be the classic team that can't miss that always does.

Besides being roadkill for USC, Cal and Arizona State come to Pasadena, so that's good news. As long as they can take two of these four games: at Stanford (quite possible), at Washington State (in Pullman, so not likely), Arizona State (not too likely), and Oregon State (do-able), UCLA could become bowl-eligible.

8. ARIZONA
The Wildcats come into 2005 improving, but still needing work. Mike Stoops brought a very strong message to the UA program, and Arizona could be on their way back. It won't be enough to catch up to the rest of the league, however, but there is the potential for a cannibal game on October 22 hosting Oregon. They do play at Cal and at USC in back-to-back games, joining Washington State as the only school with that nightmare on their schedule. Oregon State and UCLA could be good opportunities for the Wildcats to make big strides as they set up for 2006, which should be a breakout year for the program.

THE BOTTOM OF THE PAC

9. WASHINGTON
The Huskies program was in total disarray last season, and the Keith Gilbertson administration was booted to the curb with little ceremony after the team suffered its worst season in school history. After being struck with nothing but bad luck, things turned around when Notre Dame cut Tyrone Willingham loose, which may go down as one of the more idiotic firings in college sports history.

Willingham is tremendously smart, an excellent leader, and knows how to rebuild, as he did at Stanford, and to a degree at Notre Dame. Given my Cougar background, I'd prefer the Huskies be lousy forever, but where's the fun in that? The new coaching staff will have to deal with Gilbertson recruits for a year until he can get his own people in there. Give the Huskies another year, and suddenly they'll be back with a vengeance.

They could potentially be dangerous towards the end of the season as things come together, and give Arizona State, Oregon State, Arizona, and Washington State all they can handle, especially since the Huskies always come to play in the Apple Cup, and this year they'll be at home.

10. STANFORD
The firing of coach Buddy Teevens last year was a no-brainer. The hiring of Walt Harris was a head-scratcher. Harris had just lead Pittsburgh into a bowl game they had no right to be in, to be slaughtered by Utah. His reward: a nice place in Palo Alto. This just doesn't fit; it makes about as much sense as the Mike Price hiring in Alabama two years ago: You knew it wouldn't end well.

Stanford is decimated by poor recruiting and will have a very, very long 2005. Thanks to having UC Davis on the schedule, the Cardinal won't put up the dreaded bagel and go 0-for the season, but will have big problems. The winnable games are also problematic: at Navy, and home for UCLA, but that's really it. Any other wins by Stanford would be nothing short of miraculous.

And Now... The Projected Final Standings:

1. USC 12-0 Rose Bowl
2. CAL 9-2 Holiday Bowl
3. ASU 8-3 Sun Bowl
4. WSU 8-3 Insight Bowl
5. UO 7-4 Las Vegas Bowl
6. OSU 6-5 Emerald Bowl
7. UCLA 5-6
8. UA 5-6
9. UW 3-8
10. SU 1-10


Joe Gura is a TV producer in the San Francisco Bay Area, covering the Pac-10 and NFL for ABC-TV. He is a WSU alum who covered Cougar athletics from 1997-98 for Fox Sports Northwest. You can find more of his work on his site at JoeTheGraphicsGuy.com . Send your comments to Joe at JoeTheGraphicsGuy@HotMail.com


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