The Pi-Rate Ratings

September 1, 2009

2009 Pacific 10 Conference Preview

2009 Pacific Ten Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

Quick, can you name the last team to win the automatic BCS Bowl bid from the Pac-10 prior to Southern Cal’s long reign at the top?  Would you believe, it was Washington State in the 2002 season?  That was Mike Price’s last year in Pullman.  The fad this year on the West Coast is to jump off the Trojan bandwagon.  The so-called experts say that this is the year Southern Cal will be displaced at the top.  We don’t proclaim to be experts, but we have our opinion as well.  Read on to find out what we think.  Oh, and all five of us agree with this opinion too.  Our choices for first and second place were unanimous.

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, when UCLA hosts Southern Cal at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins may not get any home field advantage whatsoever.  However, if UCLA hosted Connecticut on a Saturday night at 7:30 PM Pacific Time just five days after Connecticut played at Rutgers, UCLA might get 7-10 points home field advantage. The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.

 

Pac-10 Conference Preseason PiRate Ratings

 
   

 

Prediction *

 
  Team

PiRate

Pac-10

Overall

  Southern Cal

125

9-0

11-1

  California

120

7-2

10-2

  Oregon State

109

5-4

8-4

  Arizona

109

6-3

8-4

  Stanford

109

5-4

6-6

  Oregon

108

5-4

7-5

  U C L A

104

4-5

6-6

  Arizona State

103

3-6

5-7

  Washington

99

1-8

2-10

  Washington State

84

0-9

2-10

   

 

 

 

 
 

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

 
 

on expected changes to rating during the year

 
             

 

Southern Cal: The Trojans own this league.  They have won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles.  However, the dominance hasn’t been all that dominating.  USC has actually lost five conference games in the last three years.

Many prognosticators think this is the year that another team finally ends the dominance and drops the Trojans out of first place.  After all, eight starters from the stellar defense are gone, and quarterback Mark Sanchez is the new Joe Namath/Brett Favre with the Jets.

Listen to us now, and believe us later: This Southern Cal team will not only make it eight wins in a row, they just might prove to be the best team in the nation by December.  We would pick USC to run the table and play at home in the National Championship Game, but they must make a September 12 road trip to the giant horseshoe to play Ohio State.  If that game were played in October, we would be confident that the Trojans would win.  In the second game of the season and first road trip, we think it’s too iffy to chalk that one as a win.  If the Trojans win that game, they could easily win the rest.  What would happen if USC, Oklahoma, and Florida were undefeated at the end of the season?  Of course, the Trojans did win a piece of the national title once before when they were the odd team out.  In our opinion, if there was an eight or 12-team playoff, USC might have won any or all of the last seven titles.

Let’s start at quarterback.  It’s impossible for a team to lose the top QB picked in the NFL draft and stay on an even keel, right?  Not right when it’s the men of Troy.  Understand this: USC had the number one recruiting classes for 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.  They are a perpetual all-star team.  It’s like Joe DiMaggio giving way to Mickey Mantle.  The Trojans actually have three Mantle’s at quarterback.  Aaron Corp was the starter coming out of spring practice, but he’s been slowed by a leg injury.  True freshman Matt Barkley will begin the season as the starter. 

Now, to tell you a little something about Barkley: he could be the very best quarterback in all of USC history!  We’ve studied this situation at length the last few days, and it’s apparent that Coach Pete Carroll was waiting for any excuse to elevate him to first team.  New quarterback coach Jeremy Bates came from the Denver Broncos.  Jay Cutler credited Bates for the success he’s enjoyed in the NFL.  Well folks, Bates thinks Barkley is already close to Cutler in talent and ability.  He convinced Carroll to make the change.  Barkley is a gunslinger who may throw more interceptions than Corp, but he will be the Brett Favre (in his prime) of the Pac-10.  Southern Cal will average 250-300 yards passing this year.  Former Arkansas starter and top recruit in the nation Mitch Mustain may only see action in the fourth quarter of 56-0 games.

Barkley has a future NFL star as his top receiver.  Damian Williams led the Trojans with 58 receptions and 869 yards in ’08.  New starter Ronald Johnson may make USC fans forget Patrick Turner.  The speedster will keep defenses honest, and if they concentrate of stopping Williams, they will be watching USC’s placekicking unit come out on the field for the extra point.  Johnson average 17.3 yards on his 33 catches last year (8 TDs), and he should easily top 50 this season.  Tight end Anthony McCoy will contend for the Mackey Award this year.  He provides a mammoth-size target at 6-5 and 255.

Now for even better news: USC has the real top running back unit in the country (Oklahoma might argue the point, but we say it’s USC).  Their fourth string tailback could start for half the BCS conference teams.  Joe McKnight has a tendency to drop the ball, but if he fixes that problem, he could actually become a dark horse contender for the Heisman Trophy.  He may not get enough touches to gain 1,000 yards, but that’s because Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable are just as talented.  The three backs should combine to rush for 2,250 or more yards this year.

To add to all these riches, Southern Cal’s offensive line is just plain scary.  There is no argument here: it is hands down the best OL in the nation, and no other team comes close.  Even with center Kristofer O’Dowd questionable for the first two weeks, the Trojans have stars-in-the-making to plug the hole.  When healthy, O’Dowd is the best center in college football and better than many starting centers in the NFL.  You can make that same statement about guard Jeff Byers.

We expect USC to score 35-45 points per game and average 450-500 total yards per game.

Okay, you say the defense is bound to take a major step backward with the top four tacklers from last season and all eight graduated starters picked in the NFL draft.  We’ll agree that USC won’t give up just nine points and 222 yards per game this year, but the drop-off may not be all that harsh.  Also, the Trojans will probably force more turnovers this year and convert them into points.

The strongest unit on this side of the ball is the secondary.  This is the third different unit that ranks number one in the nation.  In all the past in Troyland, there have been some fantastic defensive backfields.  The 1980 may have been the best ever with Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith, Joey Browner, and Jeff Fisher starting.  We believe the current starting secondary could prove to be even better.

Cornerback Shareece Wright has been given the best compliment he can receive.  The USC receivers say they cannot get open against him in practice.  Since Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald won’t be playing in the Pac-10, Wright should be able to shut down the opponents’ top receivers every week.  Safety Taylor Mays strikes fear in the brains of all those who think for a second they can catch a ball in the middle of the field without experiencing great punishment.  He’s a safety in a middle linebacker’s body.

The three all-star linebackers from last year leave the biggest hole, but the Trojans won’t fall much in this department.  In fact, this trio ranks in the top 10 nationally as a unit.  They will be smaller but quicker and should guarantee that the Trojan pass defense stays number one.  Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan will be household names by November.

Up front, the Trojans took another beating to graduation, but the new starters are capable of picking up where the graduates left off.  Defensive tackle Armond Armstead will miss the first half of the season, but if he returns to form, this unit will be tough at the end of the year.  End Everson Griffen could record double digit sacks.

You will see that the rest of the team previews are considerably smaller than USC’s preview.  We just don’t see another team that can displace the Trojans this year.  Sure, there are a lot of new players to plug the holes left by player graduation, but all the other teams in the league have question marks as well.  Those teams don’t have three dozen highly-rated recruits available to choose their new starters.  

Late Note:  Shareece Wright will miss the season due to academic ineligibility.

California: Those prognosticators who believe USC will fall from first in the Pac-10 believe Cal is the team that will move up.  We believe the Bears will be terrific this year and probably will win 10 regular season games, but we just don’t see them topping the Trojans.  Coach Jeff Tedford’s squad could conceivably due what Oregon State did last year, but the Bears have holes to fill this season.  Road games against Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, and Stanford spell at least one additional conference loss and maybe two.

Cal’s passing game didn’t live up to Tedford’s standards last year, averaging just 193 yards and a very unCal-like 52.6% completions.  Starter Kevin Riley faced a heated competition this August from Brock Mansion, and if Riley doesn’t improve his accuracy, expect to see Mansion taking over.  Cal absolutely must improve upon the 6.1 yards per attempt to move forward.

What could make the passing situation worse is the lack of a star at receiver.  Nyan Boateng and Verran Tucker return after combining for 801 yards and eight touchdowns.  One of them must step up and become the next DeSean Jackson for Cal to reach its offensive potential.  Freshman tight end Spencer Ladner has loads of potential, but he won’t be the answer this year.

The Cal running game is second only to USC in the Pac-10.  Jahvid Best is favored to win the league rushing title for the second straight season (1,580 yds/8.1 Avg./15 TD), and Shane Vereen is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards if given enough carries. 

The Bear offensive line will open holes for the two star backs.  Cal is well-endowed at tackle with Mike Tepper and Mitchell Schwartz, but the inside isn’t quite as strong.

Cal will score 30-35 points per game and pick up 375-425 yards per game, but the standard deviation of their scores and yardage will be higher than USC’s.  It will allow the Bears to win 66-3 against weak teams, but they will lose some games 35-27 (USC won’t have that type of up and down performance).

Defensively, Cal is strongest up front and not too far behind in the secondary.  There’s a bigger question mark at linebacker than the question mark at USC.

The secondary returns all four 2008 starters.  Cornerbacks Syd’Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan combined for seven interceptions and 29 deflected passes, as Cal limited opponents to just 51.6% completions.

Up front, Cal returns all three DL starters from a year ago.  Tackle Tyson Alualu and end Cameron Jordan have all-Pac 10 potential after teaming for 22 tackles behind the line.

Three great linebackers have used up their eligibility.  Michael Mohamed is the only holdover.  Nobody on the roster can replace Zack Follett’s 23 tackles for loss (10 ½ QB Sacks).

The Bears will have days where their defense shuts down the opposing offense, much like they did against Oregon last year when they held the Ducks to 84 passing yards.  There will also be days when they give up 400+ yards, like they did against Arizona last year.  This team will be better than 2008, but not enough to move from second to first.

Oregon State: We were puzzled when the PiRate mathematical equation spat out the Beavers as the third best preseason team in the Pac-10 ratings.  We still don’t believe it.  OSU lost eight defensive starters, including its entire secondary.

The Beavers gave up 23.1 points and 312 yards per game last year.  After dropping the opening two games and giving up 81 points and 755 yards, OSU’s defense toughened up and gave up 154 total points and just 244 yards per game over the next nine games. 

Linebackers Keaton Kristrick, Keith Pankey, and Dwight Roberson will lead the new defense.  The trio recorded 186 tackles a year ago.  Kristrick finished with 14 tackles behind the line, and he’ll have to be a monster this year for OSU’s defense to stay competitive in the league.  

Stephen Paea is the sole returning starter up front.  He sacked QBs five times and trapped six runners behind the line last year, but he will see double teams more this season.

The secondary hasn’t been this raw this decade, and we expect the enemy pass numbers to rocket upward.  OSU gave up 181 yards at a 51.7% completion rate last year, and the 2009 numbers could move to 250 yards and 60% completions allowed.

The offense has some issues as well, but they have one major asset.  Running back Jacquizz Rodgers deserves to be on the Heisman Trophy watch list.  As a freshman, he rushed for 1,253 yards and 11 scores and caught 29 passes in 11 games.  He’s so multi-talented, he will line up and take the direct snap from the wildcat formation.  His rushing totals may stay the same, but his receiving totals are going to head north this year.

Rodgers will help quarterback Sean Canfield to more easily knock the rust off after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury.  In limited action, Canfield posted the best stats of his career (66.7% accuracy, 8.4 yds/attempt).  Last year’s principle starter, Lyle Moevao, suffered a rotator cuff injury and won’t be ready at the start of the season.  Freshman Ryan Katz will back up Canfield until then.

James Rodgers, brother of Jacquizz, takes over as the number one receiver this year.  He’ll see multiple looks running the ball off motion.

The offensive line lost three starters, and guard Greg Peat is the only all-conference caliber player in the blocking corps.

Coach Mike Riley always seems to get his Beavers to exceed expectations, but this team is going to regress some this year.  OSU was one win away from a Rose Bowl berth last year, but this season, they will be fortunate to go 5-4 in the league.  Their non-conference slate includes Portland State, UNLV, and Cincinnati.  Reser Stadium is a great homefield edge for the Beavers, and they should beat the Bearcats to start 3-0.  By then, Canfield should be back to normal, and he will take enough heat off Rodgers to lead State to their seventh bowl in the last eight seasons.

Arizona: Just when it looked like Coach Mike Stoops had reached the end of the line in Tucson, his Wildcats turned it around and took off.  Arizona finished 5-7 in 2007, leaving Stoops on the hot seat.  The Wildcats opened 2008 with a 70-0 pasting of Idaho and never looked back, winning eight games, including a Las Vegas Bowl win over Brigham Young.  The Wildcats lost some key personnel, but enough talent returns to earn another bowl bid.

Replacing career passing leader Willie Tuitama is the first order of business.  Entering the final week of the preseason, Stoops has yet to name a starter and indicated he would use a platoon to start the season.  This school has a long history of 2nd string quarterbacks assuming starting duties and going on to long tenures as the starter, so maybe Matt Scott and Nick Foles will want to be the backup for the Central Michigan opener.

The running game is solid with the return of 1,153 yard rusher Nic Grigsby (13 TD) and backup Keola Antolin (525 yds/10 TD).  ‘Zona averaged 158 rushing yards per game last year, and we expect an improvement to 180 or more yards per game this year, as Stoops emphasizes the run this year.

When UA throws the ball, two returning starters will be running the routes.  Delashaun Dean and Terrell Turner teamed for 96 receptions and 1,173 yards.  The featured receiver this year could be tight end Rob Gronkowski.  He hauled in 47 passes for 672 yards and 10 scores last year, and he could top 70 receptions this year.  In two years, he will be a hot commodity in the NFL draft, possibly a 1st round pick.

The offensive line must replace both tackles and a guard, and the new starters are not as talented.  There would be an increase in sacks, but the ‘Cats won’t throw the ball as often.

The defense improved as much as the offense last year, and thanks to an excellent front four that returns all of its starters, chances are the 2009 edition will be just as competent.  Tackle Earl Mitchell and end Brooks Reed star in the trenches.  Reed led with eight sacks.

The second line of defense lost two of its three starters including team-leading tackler Ronnie Palmer.  The two new starters saw a lot of action, so there shouldn’t be too much drop-off.

The secondary welcomes back two starters with cornerback Devin Ross leading the way.  He broke up 13 passes and picked off three last year.

The schedule includes a non-conference game at Iowa.  That should be a loss.  Road games against Oregon State, Cal, and Southern Cal will keep the Wildcats from competing for second place with Cal and USC, but they can easily compete with the other seven teams in the league.

Stanford:  Here’s where we agree with the PiRate formula.  Stanford could be the sleeper in the Pac-10 this year.  By sleeper, we are talking about a sleeper contender for an upper division finish in the league and bowl bid.  The Cardinal started 4-3 and appeared to have two winnable games left to play, but a disheartening loss to UCLA put an end to those hopes.

This year, we expect Stanford to take the next step forward and get that important sixth win.  Because the Cardinal must play at Wake Forest and host Notre Dame out of conference, they will have to post a winning conference record to become bowl eligible.

Here’s why we believe Stanford will get it done this year: they have their next great quarterback in the fold.  Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is going to be something special.  The son of former West Virginia star QB and NFL journeyman Oliver Luck, he’s beaten out 2008 starter Tavita Pritchard and will post much better numbers than Pritchard’s 2008 stats.  Stanford tallied just 152 passing yards per game last year, but that number will be easily surpassed this year.  Luck should top 2,500 yards through the air.

The top three receivers from last year are back, but one of them, tight end Coby Fleener, will lose his starting job to Jim Dray.  Dray is fully recovered from a knee injury that kept him on the sideling for much of the last 1 ½ seasons.  This unit will make it easier for Luck to shine in 2009. 

Stanford will not be one dimensional this year.  They averaged 200 rushing yards per game last year, and with Toby Gerhart returning (1,136 yds/15 TD), the Cardinal will have explosive balance.

The offensive line returns three starters and a couple of tested backups, so they will give Luck and Gerhart what they need to succeed.  Stanford should top 400 yards and 28 points per game this year.  The last time the Cardinal scored more than 28 points and produced more than 400 yards per game, they finished 9-3 and missed out on the Rose Bowl by one game.

How much the Cardinal improve this year depends on the progress of the defense.  SU gave up a generous 27.4 points and 380 yards per game last year.  With eight starters returning, we believe there will be some improvement on this side.

Each unit has potential all-conference players.  Stanford dumped enemy QBs 34 times last year, and end Tom Keiser led with six even though he wasn’t a starter.  As a sophomore, he could approach double digit dumps.

Clinton Snyder leads the second line of defense after recording 6 ½ tackles for loss last year.  Middle linebacker Nick Macaluso returns to the starting lineup after missing half the season with an injury, so SU should be okay here.

Three starters return to the secondary, and with an excellent pass rush coming up front, these guys should improve a great deal this year.  Free safety Bo McNally is the star of this unit, and he led the team with 76 tackles and four interceptions a year ago.

It looks like Stanford has all the horses needed to move into the upper half of the league standings.  Is the hometown Emerald Bowl in their near future?

Oregon: The biggest change in Eugene this year is on the sidelines.  Mike Bellotti unexpectedly stepped down earlier this year just before the start of spring practice.  For the first time in 15 seasons, the Ducks will have a new coach.  Chip Kelly was the offensive coordinator the last two seasons, and he moves up to assume control.  Kelly’s offenses proved to be difficult to slow down and impossible to stop.

Dual-threat quarterback Jeremiah Masoli returns after passing for 1,744 yards and 13 touchdowns against just five interceptions and rushing for 718 yards and 10 scores.  Backup Justin Roper transferred to FCS power Montana.

Two Ducks topped 1,000 yards rushing last year.  One returns.  LeGarrette Blount runs the ball like Eddie George.  Last year, he gained 1,002 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.  He should get 20 carries per game this year, and he could gain 1,500 yards if he stays healthy.

The Ducks’ passing numbers may decline some early, as there are some issues in the receiving unit.  Projected starter Chris Harper came to Oregon to play quarterback, but he realized that wasn’t going to happen.  He transferred to Kansas State.  Aaron Pflugrad, who was expected to contribute as a key reserve or possibly start, transferred to Arizona State.  Kelly fired his father as receiver’s coach after assuming control of the program.  Tight end Ed Dickson and wide out Jeff Maehl are not going to be confused for Anthony McCoy and Damian Williams.  Former USC receiver Jamere Holland must prove he is as good as advertised, or the Ducks are going to have trouble keeping defenses from stacking up to stop the run.

The offensive line was decimated by graduation, and there’s no way the new starters will be able to match the effort of the old.  Instead of being one of the best in the nation, they will be average.  Look for the yards per rush to drop by at least a yard and the sacks to balloon from 20 to the mid 20’s.

The defense wasn’t spectacular last year, giving up 28.2 points and 390 yards per game, but those number may look good compared to what they will give up this year.  The defensive line gave up just 119 rushing yards per game and provided a superb pass rush, but three of the four starters have moved on.  At least the starter returning is a great one.  Will Tukuafu led the team with 7 ½ sacks and added 10 other tackles for loss.

Linebacker Spencer Paysinger is a complete player, but he is not as talented as the best linebackers in the league (like Mohamed at Cal).  You can say the same thing about Casey Matthews.  This duo may have trouble matching last year’s stats because the front four won’t be as adept at keeping blockers away from them.

The secondary returns T. J. Ward, who is as good as any defensive back in the league.  Ward led the Ducks with 101 tackles and deflected eight passes.  The rest of the secondary is in sort of a shambles.  Two star players and second round draft picks will be replaced by much weaker and less experienced players.

Oregon opens the season with a Thursday night game at Boise State.  They host Purdue and Utah the next two weeks before conference play begins.  They should be 2-1, but if they are 1-2, or worse, 0-3, it’s going to be a long year in Eugene.  We think OU will get off to that 2-1 start and go on to post a winning season and bowl bid.  They won’t compete for the league title. 

U C L A: Year two in Westwood promises to be a return to bowl eligibility for the Bruins.  16 starters return from a team that won four games, and two more wins are certainly possible this year.

The offense didn’t get the job done last year.  The offensive line couldn’t keep pass rushers out of the backfield, and Bruin quarterbacks were introduced to the ground 35 times.  The 220 yards lost brought the rushing average down to 83 yards per game (using NFL rules, the Bruins rushed for 101 yards on 29 attempts, which wasn’t great either).

Last year’s starting quarterback, Kevin Craft, is now the third string passer.  Freshman Kevin Prince won the job in the spring, and true freshman Richard Brehut appears to be number two on the depth chart.  With Norm Chow and Coach Rick Neuheisel’s great knowledge of quarterback talent, it’s obvious that the passing game will be taking a step forward, even if they give up an experienced senior for an untested redshirt freshman.

Two starting wide receivers are back, and they should post better numbers this year.  Taylor Embree and Terrence Austin caught a combined 93 passes.  Tight end Ryan Moya should see more balls thrown his way this year after hauling in 38 passes a year ago.

The running game can only improve this year.  Derrick Coleman and Christian Ramirez should share the load, and we expect them to combine for 800-1,000 yards this year.  Fullback Shane Moline can convert on short yardage plays, and he is a rather strong lead blocker.

The offensive line should be much improved this year with four starters returning.  Guard Nick Ekbatani is going to miss a month or more with a sprained knee ligament. 

UCLA gave up 29 points per game last year, but not all of that can be laid at the 22 feet on the stop side.  The Bruins’ offense gave the ball away too many times, allowing opponents to enjoy excellent field position.  The defense gave up just 337 yards per game, and if they just repeat that amount, they should improve their points allowed per game by as many as five to seven points.

The true superstar of this side is cornerback Alterraun Verner.  He deflected a national best 18 passes and intercepted two others.  Middle linebacker Reggie Carter returns after leading the Bruins with 83 tackles.

Up front, end Korey Bosworth could join Brian Price on the all-Pac 10 team.  Bosworth registered 7 ½ sacks and five deflected passes, while Price had 4 ½ sacks and 14 total tackles behind the line.

An added weapon is kicker Kai Forbath, who is in range whenever the Bruins cross the opponent’s 40 yard line.

UCLA’s schedule is interesting.  Out of the conference, they host San Diego State and Kansas State, and they play at Tennessee.  All three teams have new coaches this year and may or may not be much better than last season.  The Bruin record could be 3-0, 2-1, 1-2, or 0-3, depending on the progress of the new coaches.  We think it will be 2-1.  In league play, the USC and Cal games are the only ones that appear out of reach.  The Bruins have a decent shot at going 5-2 in the other seven, but we think they will flop in one of those winnable games.  4-5 in the conference and 6-6 overall look like the best fit.

Arizona State:  After winning 10 games and challenging for a Rose Bowl berth in 2007, Coach Dennis Erickson’s Sun Devils won only half as many games last year.  We don’t think he will right the ship this year due to a tough schedule and a major drop-off at quarterback.

Rudy Carpenter started all four seasons in Tempe, and he departed as the number two all-time passer at ASU (as a frosh, he replaced the career leader, Andrew Walter).  Danny Sullivan inherits the job, but his career completion percentage is just 46%, albeit in limited action. 

If ASU had a strong running game, Sullivan might be able to enjoy some success with play-action passes and more one-on-one situations.  Unfortunately, the running game is a liability once again.  The Sun Devils rushed for just 89 yards per game in 2008, and improvement should be nominal this season.

The returning receivers won’t be as productive with the new QB, and to make matters worse, the top pass catcher from last year has graduated.  Michael Jones led with 61 passes, and the leading returnee, Chris McGaha, caught just 35.  Kyle Williams could be a game-breaker.  He caught only 19 passes last year, but he averaged 19.2 yards per reception and scored four times.

The offensive line returns four starters, so at least the new skill players might get a fraction of a second additional blocking time.  This is the one strength of the offense.

The defense will have to carry the load if ASU returns to the plus side of .500.  The front seven returns four starters who provided excellent play.  End Dexter Davis is the league’s leading returning sack master, having recorded 11 last year.  Tackle Lawrence Guy came up with two sacks and eight other tackles behind the line.  Linebackers Travis Goethel and Mike Nixon proved to be tough at stopping the run and the pass, teaming for 161 tackles, 15 ½ tackles behind the line, seven interceptions, and nine deflected passes.

The secondary lost its best player, Troy Nolan, to the NFL, but two players return who started last year.  Cornerback Omar Bolden could become a star.

Arizona State must make the return visit to play Georgia in Athens this year, and even with the loss of Matthew Stafford, the Bulldogs will hand it to the Sun Devils.  ASU will win the other non-conference games at home with Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe.  They should be able to pick up a conference road win at Washington State and a home game with Washington.  Home games with Southern Cal and Cal will not go so well.  That leaves home games with Arizona and Oregon State and a road game with Stanford.  ASU must win two of these three games, and we see them coming up a game short of bowl eligibility.

Washington: There’s nowhere to go but up for Washington after finishing 2008 at 0-12.  It cost Tyrone Willingham his job, as he could only muster a four season record of 11-37.  New coach Steve Sarkisian comes from Southern Cal where the Trojans lost just nine games in his seven years as an offensive assistant, offensive coordinator, and assistant head coach.  His first year in Seattle could see his forces lose more than nine games in just three months.

Quarterback Jake Locker missed eight games with a broken thumb, and his replacement, Ronnie Fouch completed just 45% of his passes with a 4/13 TD/INT ratio.  Locker’s ability to run out of the spread made him a formidable dual threat, but Sarkisian’s style of play is not the best style for him.  He will take his lumps trying to set up in the pocket and pass like Matt Leinart or Mark Sanchez, because the offensive line in no way resembles the lines he saw in Trojanville.  Guard Ben Ossai is a stud, and tackle Cody Habben is better than average, but the rest of the unit would be third or fourth string at USC.

The running game could be better, but if Locker doesn’t get his share of rushes, the stats may not show it.  If none of the backs proves to be worthy of drawing away defensive attention from Locker, it’s going to be another very long season at Husky Stadium.

Locker has a couple of fine receivers holding over, and with enough protection, he can top 200 passing yards a game.  D’Andre Goodwin, Jermaine Kearse, and backup Devin Aguilar combined for 100 receptions and 1,239 yards.  Those receptions only led to three touchdowns.

Look for a much improved defense in Seattle, as 10 starters return to the fold.  The one new starter saw significant action last year, so every facet of the defense should be better.  Linebacker Mason Foster led the stop troops with 105 tackles including 12 for loss.  End Daniel Te’O-Nesheim recorded eight QB sacks and cornerback Quinton Richardson batted away seven passes and picked off one pass. 

The Huskies gave up 38.6 points and 452 yards per game last year, so they have a long way to go to return to respectability.  They could shave a touchdown and 50 yards off those stats and still lose double digit games.  The schedule gives them just one chance to win out of conference.  UW hosts LSU to open the season and plays at Notre Dame in October.  A home game with Idaho is the closest thing to a sure win.  In league play, they have a score to settle with their rival in the Apple Cup.  We think they will break their by then 17-game conference losing streak with a win. 

Washington State: Is it possible for a team that finished 1-8 in the conference and 2-11 overall to regress?  When that team averaged just 12.7 points per game and gave up 43.8 points per game, that team can improve statistically by quite a bit and still win just one or two games.

Last year, Washington State gave up the most points ever in a single season.  They averaged just 241 total yards per game and gave up 443.  Throw out the 48-9 win over Portland State, and those numbers become 208 yards gained and 460 yards allowed and an average score of 10-47!

Second year coach Paul Wulff doesn’t have a lot of talent to work with as the season begins, as numerous players on both sides of the ball have suffered injuries in practice.  It doesn’t bode well for any real improvement.

Quarterback Kevin Lopina threw 11 interceptions last year in 153 pass attempts.  That’s one interception every 14 passes.  How many touchdown passes did he complete?  Zero!  He suffered through two separate injuries, and he is capable of much more when healthy.  Quarterback option number two, Marshall Lobbesteal started until being lost for the season with an ACL injury.  He will see playing time this year as well.

The running back position appeared to be set as Cal transfer James Montgomery looked primed to take over the starting job.  However, he’s one of the aforementioned injured players, and he may not be ready to go in the season opener against Stanford.  Last year’s starter Dwight Tardy has been successful running out of the Cougar backfield in the past, but he’s not been the same since suffering a torn ACL two years ago.

More injury troubles abound at receiver where leading returning wide out Jeshua Anderson is also questionable for the first game.  This unit is considerably weaker without Brandon Gibson, who led the Cougars with 57 receptions last year.  True freshman Gino Simone may contribute immediately.

The offensive line was just plain offensive last year, surrendering 43 sacks and paving the way for a rushing average of 2.7 yards.  Four starters return to this unit, so there should be some improvement.  Center Kenny Alfred earned 3rd Team All-Pac 10 honors last year, and he could move to 2nd Team All-Pac 10 this year.

Only five starters return to the defense, and this unit could actually be a tad weaker this year, even after surrendering 58 or more points six times last year!  The secondary would have been much better than last year, but the two starting cornerbacks will not be around.  Devin Giles was dismissed and Romeo Pellum decided to transfer.  Brandon Jones ascended to the starting lineup, and he’s another one of the starters battling injuries.

The defensive line returns just one starter, and Coach Wulff will use true freshman Travis Long if not as a starter as a top reserve. 

At linebacker, Andy Mattingly has the potential to contend for all-league honors.  Freshmen will get a long look here as well.

The schedule is not kind.  The Cougars begin the season at home with Stanford, and they should immediately occupy 10th place in the league.  A game with Hawaii in Seattle should give them a decent shot at evening the record, and a home game with SMU could even allow WSU to have a winning record for one week.  Then, the Cougars visit USC in a game where they could lose by 70 points if the Trojans rub it in.  Losses should begin to pile up, and WSU should be 0-8 in the conference when they travel to Seattle for the Apple Cup game.  This year, we expect Washington to win that one, so Washington State should wear the collar in the Pac-10.

Next up: The Big 12 featured some of the most exciting offensive performances in the nation and produced the Heisman Trophy winner.  What will the South Division do for an encore, and will a North Division team be good enough this year to be the fifth best overall team in the league?

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