Pac-10 Football Preview

August 27th, 2009

Is this the year that USC gets dethroned?


With a significant number of personnel losses following yet another Pac-10 championship, many wonder if this is indeed the year in which Pete Carroll’s team sees their run atop the conference end. The Trojans have won at least a share of every conference title since 2002, and it would be borderline foolish not to peg them as the favorites. True freshman Matt Barkley will be the starter under center, beating out Aaron Corp for the job. The nation’s top-ranked quarterback in the 2009 freshman class, Barkley has a maturity beyond his years and could eventually join the list of great Trojan passers.


Talent abounds at the skill positions with the likes of Joe McKnight, Damien Williams and many others in the running back and receiver rotations. Defensively, USC has one of the nation’s best in free safety Taylor Mays, who hits like a Mack truck while possessing the speed of a Lamborghini. If they can find ample replacements at linebacker (all three starters are now in the NFL) look for this group to round into shape under Coach Carroll and defensive coordinator Nick Holt. The big game on their schedule: a trip to Ohio State on September 12th. Win that and things boil down to a four-game stretch in October: at Cal, at Notre Dame, Oregon State and at Oregon. USC doesn’t rebuild, they reload. But there will be serious challengers within the Pac-10.


California will go with Kevin Riley as the starting quarterback to begin the season, and he’ll be one of seven starters returning to Jeff Tedford’s offense. Running back Jahvid Best is arguably the nation’s best rusher, and he should be a must-see for those who hold a Heisman vote. Best ran for 1,653 yards last season despite dealing with an elbow injury, and he could post even bigger numbers with a healthy campaign. The Golden Bears have some holes to fill at linebacker, but they likely have the best secondary in the Pac-10 thanks to the presence of corners Syd’Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan Jr. We should know by the end of the day on October 3rd whether or not Cal can win the Pac-10; they visit Oregon on September 26th, then host USC the following Saturday.


Speaking of Oregon, both schools in the state find themselves in contention for a conference title. Mike Riley’s Beavers are thought of by many who don’t follow them closely as some sort of “little engine that could” program, but how many other schools have won at least nine games in each of the past three seasons? Sean Canfield won the starting quarterback job in fall camp, but Lyle Moevao has more than enough experience to step in should Canfield either struggle or get injured. They’ve also got the Rodgers brothers, RB Jacquizz and WR James, back in Corvallis. The key for OSU will be replacing eight starters on a defense that ranked second in the Pac-10 in total defense. Also, Oregon State will have to visit all three of the other main contenders.


Oregon returns even fewer starters with just ten back, the lowest amount in the conference. QB Jeremiah Masoli is back, and his partnership with RB LaGarrette Blount will make Chip Kelly’s spread attack that much tougher to slow down. Oregon returns just one starter on the offensive line, and the defense has pockets of experience surrounded by players with limited starting experience. But the reason why this team is thought of so highly is that there is a lot of talent on the roster; how they respond to the newfound playing time will determine whether or not they’re a suitable challenger to USC.


In a league that on paper breaks down into three tiers, the midsection promises to be something to watch as well. Arizona is coming off of their first bowl win in ten years, and despite the expectations of the league’s coaches (they pegged the Wildcats for eighth in the preseason poll), optimism surrounds the program. Defensive end Brooks Reed leads a solid defense that returns seven starters to a unit that ranked third in the conference in total defense last year.


The question is who will hand the ball off to the combo of Nick Grigsby and Keola Antolin, as well as throw the ball to some talented receivers (and Mackey Award candidate Rob Gronkowski). Matt Scott and Nick Foles were engaged in a competition through fall camp, and there still hasn’t been a concrete answer at the position. If the answer is the correct one for Mike Stoops, Arizona could turn some heads this year.


UCLA struggled mightily on offense last season, but you get the feeling that head coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow will solve the quarterback issue pretty soon. Kevin Prince was considered to be the front-runner for the job, and with seventeen starters back the Bruins have some talent. WR Terrence Austin is one of the better special teams players in the conference, and he also led the team with fifty-three receptions last year.


Defensively UCLA has one of the best cornerbacks in the nation in Alterraun Verner, who led the team with eighteen pass breakups while also ranking second on the team with seventy-three tackles. Senior middle linebacker Reggie Carter also returns to help lead a defense that returns seven starters and the goal will be to improve a defense that ranked eighth in the Pac-10 against the run.


Stanford and Arizona State also have question marks at the quarterback position, but there is also talent spread out at other positions. The Cardinal will hand the ball to workhorse Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 1,176 yards in 2008. Tavita Pritchard and Alex Loukas are both back at quarterback, but redshirt freshman Andrew Luck will be the starter. Seventeen starters are back on The Farm, including eight on a defense that will be one of the more experienced units in the conference. Seniors Bo McNally and Ekom Udofia will be two of the pillars for a unit that will have to improve (seventh in the conference in total defense last season) if they want to entertain any thoughts of a bowl game.


As for the Sun Devils, Danny Sullivan takes over at quarterback for Rudy Carpenter, who lost a bit of his luster following a very good sophomore campaign. Two years later, some fans weren’t exactly dreading the final appearance for Carpenter. With four starters back on the offensive line and talented playmakers such as receivers Chris McGaha and Kerry Taylor, and running backs Shawn DeWitty and Dimitri Nance, Dennis Erickson’s team could put some points on the board. A solid defense returns six starters, led by linebacker Mike Nixon, but if ASU can’t run the football (9th in the Pac-10 in rushing offense in 2008) they’ll struggle to qualify for a bowl game.


Rounding out the conference are the two Washington schools, both of which hope that this year’s Apple Cup won’t be a showdown to see who gets their first win of the season. Steve Sarkisian takes over in Seattle, and it will be a major help to have a healthy Jake Locker. Once he went down Washington could do nothing on offense, failing to keep the defense off of the field for solid stretches in what finished as the worst season in school history. The Huskies return eighteen starters this season, most of whom are young players hungry for some success.


Paul Wulff’s Cougars return fifteen starters, and the hope is that running backs James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy can take some of the pressure off of quarterback Kevin Lopina. Four starters are back on the offensive line, which should help with the continuity of the entire offense. Defensively four of the top five tacklers from last season return, and they’ll need some substantial improvements in 2009. Just like their bitter rivals from Seattle, the defense paid dearly for the offense’s inability to hold onto the football. Both teams should show signs of improvement, but will it be enough?


Storyline: Can someone dethrone USC? Teams have beaten the Trojans, but winning the conference has been an entirely different animal. A challenger such as Cal, Oregon or Oregon State coming through could do wonders for the perception of the entire conference, which seems to get left behind by many national media outlets.


Players of the Year: RB Jahvid Best (Cal) and FS Taylor Mays (USC)


How they’ll finish

1.      USC

2.      California

3.      Oregon

4.      Oregon State

5.      Arizona

6.      UCLA

7.      Stanford

8.      Arizona State

9.      Washington

10.  Washington State


Next: Pac-10 Ultimate Schedule