The last time a Pac-10 team other than USC took the league’s automatic BCS berth was…2002. That year saw Washington State represent the league in the Rose Bowl, but the Trojans still managed to grab an at-large berth in the Orange Bowl. But given the program that Pete Carroll has built in Los Angeles, the better question may be whether or not the Pac-10 can send two teams to the BCS. While the Trojans return a wealth of talent on both sides of the football, making them the clear favorite to once again win the conference, there are two teams that can make sure their road to Pasadena (or Miami should they rank in the top two) isn’t a walk in the park.
Arizona State could be poised to make a run at the top spot this season due to the return of senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter and fifteen other starters. The primary issue for the Sun Devils will be a schedule that is much more challenging than last season’s slate. In addition to hosting Georgia September 20th, ASU also visits Cal and USC before hosting Oregon. And yes, those four games are all in a row, which makes that stretch all the more important. As for the Ducks, they may be without the services of quarterback Nate Costa for a while due to a knee injury suffered earlier this week. But they do have Justin Roper, who also saw time in place of Dennis Dixon last season. On the other side of the ball Oregon could have one of the league’s best secondary units, led by Patrick Chung at safety and Walter Thurmond III at corner.
Those may be the three most likely suspects to take home the Pac-10 title, but is also a group of possible spoilers who could at the least prevent one of those three from winning the league. California will be looking to recover from last season’s tailspin in which they lost six of their last seven regular season games before beating Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. Kevin Riley takes over at quarterback, but they’ll have to replace RB Justin Forsett and wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. Seven starters are back on defense, including all three linebackers.
Oregon State also has the ability to pull off an upset or two this season, and they’ll look to get better play at quarterback from Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield. WR Sammie Stroughter should be in better spirits after injury and personal issues that plagued him in 2007. The problem for OSU could be a defense that while experienced in regards to eligibility returns just three starters. Rick Neuheisel takes over at UCLA and will have Norm Chow with him as offensive coordinator. But the familiar injury woes at quarterback have stuck, with Patrick Cowan being lost for the season and Ben Olson struggling to stay healthy. But DeWayne Walker is back to coordinate the defense, something that should maintain continuity in a unit that ranked 29th in total defense last season.
A program in desperate need of a good season, both for the job security of its head coach and the sanity of its fan base is Arizona, and they just might be able to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since the 1998 season. Willie Tuitama returns to lead an offense that returns ten starters, most notably wide receivers Mike Thomas, Terrell Turner and Delashaun Dean and tight end Rob Gronkowski. The questions lie with a defense that returns only three starters this season and frankly looked to be overrated at times in 2007. While Washington heads into this season with the conference’s toughest non-conference schedule (once again), head coach Tyrone Willingham’s team may need to show some serious improvement if he’s to return for another season in Seattle. Jake Locker is one of the better dual threat quarterbacks in the country, but the Huskies must find him some playmakers to help carry the load.
Jim Harbaugh may not have gotten to a bowl game in his first season at Stanford, but he did pull off one of the biggest upsets of the season in knocking off USC in the LA Coliseum. The defense could be a strength with nine starters back on The Farm (led by tackle Ekom Udofia and linebacker Clinton Snyder), but new coordinators Andy Buh and Ron Lynn will have their hands full since Stanford ranked 98th in total defense last season. The offense was even worse last season, ranking 107th in total offense, but the Cardinal found a way to finish the season +3 in turnover margin. But just like Washington they’ll have a non-conference schedule that could make it difficult to achieve bowl eligibility.
Lastly, there’s Washington State, who welcomes Paul Wulff as its new head coach. Also on the agenda for the Cougars is replacing Alex Brink at quarterback. Despite the heavy criticism for not being able to lead WSU to new heights, Brink left the Paloose as one of the best quarterbacks in school history when looking at the numbers. But they do have four starters back on the offensive line and RB Dwight Tardy, who missed spring ball in order to recover from knee surgery. Eight starters are also back on defense, but that gift could be a curse if they play like the 85th ranked defense that was on the field in 2007. It will take Coach Wulff and his staff a little time to rebuild, but they do share a campus with a guy who knows how to do the “unthinkable”: head basketball coach Tony Bennett.
So while the Pac-10 has a clear favorite in USC, it would be unfair to sum the conference up as one juggernaut and nine also-rans that go into 2008 hoping for a miracle. And as crazy as last season proved to be, you never know where the chips will fall come January.
Players of the Year: QB Rudy Carpenter (Arizona State) and LB Rey Maualuga (USC)
Coach of the Year: Pete Carroll (USC)
Newcomers of the Year: RB LaGarrette Blount (Oregon) and DE Trey Henderson (USC)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Ohio State @ USC (September 13th): This could be the best non-conference game of the season in college football, with the winner going a long way in grabbing a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
2. Georgia @ Arizona State (September 20th): The Bulldogs take their first trip west of the Mississippi since 1960 and could very well be headed home with a loss. Whether ASU is one year away or their time is now could be decided on this night.
3. Oregon State @ Penn State (September 6th): This is a measuring stick game for both programs, maybe more so for the Beavers. Luckily for the Beavers their three returning starters are in the secondary, with the Nittany Lions having one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
Conference Game of the Year
Arizona State @ USC (October 11th): The second of two home games for the Trojans against the likely challengers to their reign with Oregon visiting on October 4th. Last year USC drilled the Sun Devils in Tempe on Thanksgiving night, cementing themselves as the frontrunner in the conference race. The winner here could very well do the same thing.
How they’ll finish
2. Arizona State
5. Oregon State
10. Washington State