The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 21, 2010

2010 Southeastern Conference Football Preview

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2010 Southeastern Conference Preview

We close out the conference previews with a look at the biggie.  The SEC has produced the last four national champions and five in the past decade, compared to two from the Big 12, one from the Big Ten, one from the Pac-10, and one from the Big East.  Not since Georgia in 2005 has the SEC Champion not played in the BCS National Championship Game.

We are going to predict this trend ends this season, but not without a lot of controversy.  We believe the SEC Champion, like all the other five BCS Conference champions will lose at least one game.  As we have stated in earlier previews, we believe both Boise State and TCU will win all their games and meet in Glendale for the rubber match bowl game.

One coach finds himself on a hot seat that he may not be able to cool down.  One coach is on a mildly warm seat due to fans that have ridiculously high and impossible standards.  One coach may want to hang it up at the end of this year after many years in the business.  One coach already decided to get out, leaving just before August practices began.  It is possible that four jobs in the elite conference will be available after the season. 

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos East SEC W-L
1 Florida 7-1 11-2
2 South Carolina 5-3 8-4
3 Georgia 5-3 9-3
4 Kentucky 2-6 6-6
5 Tennessee 1-7 4-8
6 Vanderbilt 0-8 1-11
       
Pos West SEC W-L
1 Alabama 7-1 12-1
2 Auburn 5-3 9-3
3 Arkansas 5-3 9-3
4 L S U 4-4 7-5
5 Ole Miss 4-4 8-4
6 Mississippi State 3-5 6-6

 

SEC Championship Game: Alabama over Florida

 

BCS Bowl (Sugar): Alabama

BCS Bowl: Florida

Capital One Bowl: Auburn

Outback Bowl: Georgia

Cotton Bowl: Arkansas

Chick-fil-A Bowl: South Carolina

Gator Bowl: L S U

Music City Bowl: Mississippi State

Liberty Bowl: Ole Miss

PapaJohns.com Bowl: Kentucky

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

S E C  East

 

Team

Florida Gators
               
Head Coach Urban Meyer
               
Colors Blue and Orange
               
City Gainesville, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 13-1
               
PiRate Rating 121.4
               
National Rating 10
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
Strengths: QB, RB, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, LB, DB, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Receiver (small weakness)
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Miami (O), South Florida, Appalachian State, @ Florida State
   
Key Games: @ Alabama, LSU, Georgia (n), South Carolina
   
Offense Pred. 28-32 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 15-19 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

The Gators went 13-1 last year, and it was considered a major disappointment.  The team that returned almost every starter from a national championship was expected to go 14-0 and become the next 2001 Miami, 1995 Nebraska, 1971 Nebraska, and 1945 Army in college football.

 

Head Coach Urban Meyer briefly stepped down only to come back a few days later.  Unfortunately, Tim Tebow, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez, Ryan Stamper, Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, and Carlos Dunlap don’t have the option of coming back.  The Gators lost nine players to the NFL.  How can they possibly still be considered the top contender in the SEC East?  Simple: they still have the best overall talent in the division.

 

Quarterback John Brantley completed 36 of 48 passes for 410 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions in mop-up situations last year.  Not a real dual-threat runner like Tebow, he will set up in the pocket and throw downfield.  Remember, Meyer won a national title here with Chris Leak doing the same thing.

 

Brantley has fewer weapons at his disposal than Tebow had.  The loss of Cooper and Hernandez (119-1,811/14) leaves Deonte Thompson as the leading holdover.  Thompson will get help from the speedy Andre DeBose and the big-bodied Carl Moore.  Slotback Chris Rainey caught only 10 passes last year, and he will have to quadruple that mark this year for the Gators to be successful.

 

The running game will need more production from real backs, because Brantley will run much less than Tebow.   Rainey will team with Chris Demps and Emmanuel Moody to carry the load.  Expect the trio to top 1,800 rushing yards this year.

 

The offensive line returns four talented blockers, including all-American center Mike Pouncey and 6-5, 360-pound guard Carl Johnson.

 

Losing three defensive players who were drafted in the 1st two rounds of the NFL Draft and two other players in later rounds, UF will be a little weaker on this side of the ball, but not too much weaker to miss out on a return trip to a BCS Bowl.

 

The Gators have strength at defensive tackle thanks to the return of Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard.  Very few teams will run the ball up the middle against them.  Meyer recruited a lot of grade A d-line talent, and three could see immediate action as true freshmen.  Keep an eye on Ronald Powell and Sharrif Floyd.

 

A.J. Jones is the lone starter returning at linebacker.  Jones plays the run and the pass well, but UF will be weaker in the second line of defense.

 

The secondary will be strong once again with the return of two starters and several talented letterwinners.  Enemy quarterbacks will throw away from cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

 

Florida must play Alabama in the regular season at Tuscaloosa on October 2.  They will probably face the Tide in Atlanta two months later in a rematch game.

Team Georgia Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Mark Richt
               
Colors Red and Black
               
City Athens, GA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 115.5
               
National Rating 23
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: RB, Receiver, Offensive Line ***, Linebacker, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: UL-Lafayette, @ Colorado, Idaho State, Georgia Tech
   
Key Games: @ South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida (n), @ Auburn
   
Offense Pred. 27-31 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

It is ridiculous that many Georgia fans want to get rid of Coach Mark Richt, when he just guided the Bulldogs to the most successful decade in their history.  Vince Dooley did not post 10-consecutive seasons as victorious as the decade Richt produced in Athens.  Pay close attention to what happened in Minnesota when Glen Mason was fired.

 

Editorial aside, Georgia has another fine team this season.  10 starters return on the offensive side; the one position that needs to be filled just happens to be at quarterback.  Richt has basically one option here.  Redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has the job from day one, because true freshman Hutson Mason is the only real backup.

 

If Murray is worth his salt as a passer, he will have a lot of weapons at his disposal.  A.J. Green has all-American potential after grabbing 53 passes for 808 yards in an injury-plagued season.  Tavarres King and Orson Charles should both top 40 receptions.  Former quarterback Logan Gray moves to receiver, where he should contribute this year.

 

At running back, Washaun Ealey played in the final nine games and rushed for 717 yards.  Caleb King added 594 yards.  Both have a combination of power and speed and can hit anywhere on the line of scrimmage.

 

The offensive line returns all five starters from last season, and this quintet ranks second nationally to Wisconsin’s line.  Guards Chris Davis and Cordy Glenn make a terrific tandem, and when you throw in center Ben Jones, the Bulldogs will be able to run the ball inside with authority and keep defensive pass rushers from coming up the middle.

 

In the last five seasons, Georgia gave up 16.4, 17.6, 20.2, 24.5, and 25.9 points per game.  This annual deterioration has led to a change at defensive coordinator.  Enter NFL veteran Todd Grantham, and enter the 3-4 defense.

 

We are a bit concerned about the new front three, as nose guard DeAngelo Tyson is not the answer there for a 3-4 front.  Former offensive lineman Justin Anderson may eventually take over in the interior.  At 330 pounds, he is better suited to growing roots over center.

 

If the new defensive line can keep blockers away from the UGa linebackers, the defense will have a chance to improve for the first time in five years.  Watch for Justin Houston to become a fixture in opponents’ backfields.  He could register double figure sacks and 20+ tackles for loss.

 

Brandon Boykin is the only returning starter in the secondary, and there isn’t much experience taking the place of the three departed starters.  Look for the ‘Dogs to give up more passing yards this year.

 

Georgia faced a key game in week two, when they visit South Carolina.  The winner will get a chance to play for the division title later in the season against Florida, while the loser will be out of the race.

Team Kentucky Wildcats
               
Head Coach Joker Phillips
               
Colors Royal Blue and White
               
City Lexington, KY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 101.9
               
National Rating 55
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Receiver, Special Teams, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Louisville, Western Kentucky, Akron, Chas. Southern
   
Key Games: @ Ole Miss, Auburn, South Carolina, @ Miss. St., Vandy, @ Tenn.
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 300-325 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

Joker Phillips takes over as head coach in Lexington after directing the Wildcats’ offense.  Kentucky has used intelligent non-conference scheduling to gain bowl eligibility four years in a row.  The trend should continue in Phillips’ first season.

 

This will be a weaker Kentucky team, but the Wildcats will benefit from having the easiest schedule in the league.  They should sweep their four non-SEC foes for the fourth year in a row and win two conference games to make it back to a bowl for the fifth straight year.

 

Phillips has to make a decision at quarterback.  He has senior Mike Hartline and sophomore Morgan Newton as his two main options.  Hartline is a more conservative passer who seldom takes chances.  He’s got a more accurate arm, but he doesn’t have much zip on the ball.  Newton can hum the ball deep and has a quick release, but he doesn’t always put the ball where he aims.  Expect both to play, and redshirt freshman Ryan Mosakowski could see some game time as well.

 

There is another option at quarterback.  Randall Cobb is the Wildcat Offense quarterback, but he is a starting wideout.  Cobb led UK with 39 receptions and 447 yards last year.  He finished second in rushing with 573 yards, and he passed for 89 more.  If the single wing were still in vogue, he would be an all-star tailback.

 

Speaking of tailbacks, Derrick Locke returns after rushing for 907 yards.  Expect Locke to run the ball 200-225 times for more than 1,000 yards this season.

 

Besides the previously mentioned Cobb, Kentucky returns four other receivers that saw considerable action, so whoever ends up in the pocket should have some good targets running routes.

 

The offensive line could be a liability this year, as just one starter returns.  Guard Stuart Hines has all-conference potential, but three of the new starters have seen a lot of action in SEC games.  Don’t expect too many more sacks allowed by this unit.

 

The 2009 UK defense turned out to be outstanding.  Ask Tim Tebow about the pass rush.  This year, the defensive line could even be a bit better.  Ends DeQuin Evans and Taylor Wyndham (the concussion-delivering blow to Tebow) will give the ‘Cats a good pass rush from the outside.  The tackles are not as talented as the ends, and opponents will run the ball up the middle against them.

 

Only one starter returns at linebacker.  Danny Trevathan finished second in tackles last year with 82, and he had five tackles for loss.  Phillips may have some depth issues here, because several expected backups have left.

 

Half of last year’s great secondary returns.  Cornerback Randall Burden intercepted two passes and knocked down eight others.  Safety Winston Guy was an excellent run stuffer, and he broke up five passes.  The pass defense won’t come close to matching last year’s exceptional output (just 48.5% completions allowed), but it will still be quite good.

 

Kentucky has not defeated rival Tennessee since 1984, but we believe this is the season that streak ends.

Team South Carolina Gamecocks
               
Head Coach Steve Spurrier
               
Colors Garnet and Black
               
City Columbia, SC
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 121.6
               
National Rating 9
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Running Back, Receiver, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Southern Miss, Furman, Troy, @ Clemson
   
Key Games: Georgia, @ Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, @ Florida
   
Offense Pred. 26-30 points & 360-380 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

It could be now or never for Coach Steve Spurrier in Columbia.  He has enough talent to break through into the top two in the division, if he can get halfway decent production from his quarterbacks.

 

Spurrier tends to eat at his quarterbacks when they don’t play every down like they have the name “Wuerffel” on the back of their jerseys.  He has bad-mouthed two-year starter Stephen Garcia since the end of last season, and it appears he will carry the insults to the opening game.  Garcia passed for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and he scrambled at times when the pocket broke down.  Still, Spurrier is threatening to start true freshman Connor Shaw in the first game.

 

Another true freshman might start from day one and become the best running back the Gamecock’s have had since George Rogers.  Marcus Lattimore is the real deal.  He was the top running back recruit in the nation last year.  Returning starter Kenny Miles and backups Brian Maddox and Jarvis Giles return, so the USC running game may produce the most yards here since Lou Holtz was coaching.

 

The receiving corps welcomes back leading pass catcher Alshon Jeffery, who finished 2009 with 46 receptions for 763 yards and six touchdowns.  He will team with Tori Gurley to form a formidable pair of wideouts.  If tight end Weslye Saunders can improve on his 32 receptions, the Gamecocks are going to be potent on the attack.  Saunders was one of the college stars present at that South Beach agent party, so he could miss some or even all of 2009.

 

The offensive line has played inconsistently the last couple of years, but it should be a team strength this season with four returning starters. 

 

The USC defense gave up just 20 points and 300 yards per game last year, and seven starters return to keep it strong in 2010.  Two starters return to the front four, including all-conference end Cliff Matthews.  Matthews made 47 tackles with seven sacks and three other tackles for loss, and he proved valuable against the pass with three knocked down passes.

 

At linebacker, leading tackler Shaq Wilson returns after making 85 stops last year.  Rodney Paulk returns to the middle linebacker spot after missing two seasons due to injury.  If he is close to 100% after suffering an ACL injury, the Gamecocks will be strong here.

 

The secondary is the strength of the defense.  USC has a top notch pair of cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and Chris Culliver.  They broke up 17 passes last year, and they should pick up a couple more interceptions this season.

 

Everything is in place for Spurrier to take USC to the next level.  They have a chance in all eight conference games, as they get to host Alabama and Georgia, and they play Florida in Gainesville in a year where the Gators will have a minor rebuilding season.  If the Gamecocks repeat with a 7-6 season, Spurrier may hang it up.

Team Tennessee Volunteers
               
Head Coach Derek Dooley
               
Colors Orange and White
               
City Knoxville, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 101.9
               
National Rating 54
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 4-8
               
Strengths: Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: UT-Martin, Oregon, UAB, @ Memphis
   
Key Games: @LSU, @ Georgia, @ S. Carolina, Ole Miss, @ Vandy, Kentucky
   
Offense Pred. 16-20 points & 275-300 yards
               
Defense Pred. 20-24 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

Welcome to the annual soap opera known as “All My Coaches.”  The Volunteers have their third coach in three seasons and fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons.  Add to this that several players have left and more have suffered injuries, and this is going to be the weakest team on the hill in Knoxville in more than 30 years.

 

The offense starts with a new quarterback that threw for 39 yards in very limited action at Louisville two years ago.  Matt Simms is the son of Phil Simms.  The junior transfer will compete with true freshman Tyler Bray, but whoever winds up as the starter will not come close to matching the stats compiled by departed starter Jonathan Crompton.

 

Three talented receivers will give the new QB a decent chance at having some success against weaker pass defenses.  Wideouts Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker teamed up for 115 receptions, 1,609 yards, and 16 touchdowns.  True freshman Justin Hunter could see extensive action.

 

The running game has to start from scratch with the loss of the top two rushers.  Tauren Poole and David Oku are serviceable backs, but neither will threaten to run for 1,000 yards.

 

The weakest unit on the team is the offensive line.  All five starters are gone.  Guard Jarrod Shaw started three games last season, and the rest of this unit has no career starts.

 

This will be the weakest offense at UT since before Doug Dickey’s time as coach in the mid-1960’s.

 

The defense should be better off than the offense, but there are no Reggie White’s or John Henderson’s on this team.  There are also no Eric Berry’s.  Berry finished his career with seven tackles for loss and nine passes defended last season.  The all-American strong safety was the fifth overall pick in the draft.

 

Darren Myles was going to be the new stud of the secondary, but he was dismissed from the team this spring.  Expect opponents to shred this secondary for 200+ passing yards this season.

 

The defensive line took a major hit with injuries, and there will be a problem stopping the run and rushing the passer.  Southern Cal transfer Malik Jackson could see immediate playing time.  Chris Walker will be the lone serious QB sack threat.

 

Tennessee has a similar history to Penn State when it comes to producing linebackers.  They have two fine ones this year who should combine for 100-120 tackles.  LaMarcus Thompson and Nick Reveiz won’t make all-conference teams, but they won’t be liabilities either.

 

Tennessee should win three of their four non-conference games this year, but once conference play begins, the Vols may have to wait to November to get a league win.  Coach Derek Dooley’s first season in Knoxville could produce a 4-8 record.  Since the Vols started playing football in 1902, they have never lost eight games in a season.

Team Vanderbilt Commodores
               
Head Coach Robbie Caldwell
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Nashville, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 0-8
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 96.1
               
National Rating 68
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 1-11
               
Strengths: Running Back
               
Weaknesses: QB, Receiver, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, LB, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Northwestern, @ Connecticut, Eastern Mich., Wake Forest
   
Key Games: @ Ole Miss, @ Kentucky, Tennessee
   
Offense Pred. 13-16 points & 275-300 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-26 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

Vanderbilt was supposed to contend for another bowl game last year and maybe win as many as eight games with a veteran squad returning from a seven-win season that included a bowl victory.  Instead, the Commodores suffered through numerous injuries and crashed to a 2-10 season.  The offense could not move the ball on Army much less a conference foe.  Vanderbilt averaged just 8.9 points and 234 yards of offense in conference play, numbers not seen in the SEC since the mid-1960’s.

 

To add insult to injury, Bobby Johnson decided in July that he could take no more of this.  He retired, leaving the job to Robbie Caldwell.  Vanderbilt is a team that must stay healthy to have a chance in the SEC, and immediately after practice began, serious injuries put a major crimp in the offense.  It is going to be a long season in Nashville, and the Commodores are going to be underdogs in all but one game.

 

Larry Smith returns at quarterback after suffering through a sophomore slump season that ended in the first quarter of the ninth game.  He will compete with holdovers Jared Funk and Charlie Goro and junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Aaron Rodgers.  We expect Smith to start the opener with Northwestern, but we wouldn’t be surprised if more than one quarterback played in that game.

 

The running back situation appeared to be a team strength until practice began.  Sophomore Warren Norman rushed for 783 yards as a freshman, while fellow freshman Zac Stacy added 478.  Stacy sprained his MCL in practice and is out for the first couple of games.  Backup backs Kennard Reeves and Wesley Tate (younger brother of Golden Tate) are nursing injuries as well, so depth will be an issue here.

 

The Commodores are rather weak at receiver.  There is not a deep ball threat on the roster, and there is only one consistent possession man.  John Cole led the team with just 36 receptions and 382 yards.  Tight end Brandon Barden finished second with 29 catches for 357 yards.  No receiver had more than one touchdown reception.  Expect another year of struggles through the air.

 

The offensive line lost its one all-conference caliber blocker when tackle James Williams was lost to academic difficulties.  One starter returns to the blocking corps–guard Kyle Fischer.

 

This looks like an offense that will possibly score fewer than 10 points per game in conference play for a second consecutive season.

 

The Vanderbilt defense was decent last year, but the offense forced it to defend too many plays, more than 70 to be exact.  Injuries and graduation will make this side of the ball weaker than last year.  Tackle Adam Smotherman tore his ACL in Spring drills, and he will not be 100% at all this season.  He will probably miss some games as well.  End Theron Kadri will become the sack specialist on this team, but we don’t expect Vanderbilt to top 20 sacks with this defense.

 

Chris Marve is an all-conference talent at middle linebacker after leading the Commodores with 121 tackles last year.  He will have two new partners starting with him in the second line of defense.

 

The back line of defense loses its leading pass defender, but cornerback Casey Hayward returns after intercepting two passes and batting away seven others.

 

We cannot see the Commodores breaking through with a conference victory this season.  Vanderbilt’s non-conference schedule is the toughest of any SEC team.  They face Northwestern, Connecticut, and Wake Forest, and we see these opponents defeating the Commodores in close games.  That leaves an October 9 home game with Eastern Michigan as possibly the only chance to pick up a victory.

S E C  WEST

Team Alabama Crimson Tide
               
Head Coach Nick Saban
               
Colors Crimson and White
               
City Tuscaloosa, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 14-0
               
PiRate Rating 126.1
               
National Rating 2
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 12-1
               
Strengths: Quarterback **, Running Back ***, Defensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: San Jose State, Penn State @ Duke, Georgia State
   
Key Games: @ Arkansas, Florida, @ S. Carolina, Auburn
   
Offense Pred. 34-38 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 15-19 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

What can the Tide do for an encore?  They had maybe two tough games in their march to a 14-0 record and national championship.  The had the Heisman Trophy winner as well.  How can a team lose nine starters on their defensive side and still be a legitimate contender for another national championship?

 

That’s simple.  When you have a top five recruiting class three years in a row, you have exceptional talent past your two-deep.  There are players on this team that may see no more than a few snaps of game action per year that could be starting for other bowl teams.

 

Let’s start on offense, where the Tide will be tough to slow down.  The second best running attack in college football starts with the best individual back.  Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is back after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns.  He added 32 receptions for 334 yards and three more scores.  Backup Trent Richardson rushed for 751 yards and eight scores, earning 1st Team Freshman All-American honors! 

 

Handing the ball off to this dynamic duo is a quarterback that has never lost a game at the college or high school level.  Greg McElroy didn’t get much publicity with Ingram running roughshod over opponents, but he completed better than 60% of his passes for 2,508 yards and 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions.  He could top 3,000 yards this year.

 

McElroy’s receivers are not as talented as the running backs, but they are still quite talented in their own right.  Julio Jones led the Tide with 43 catches, even though he missed the better part of seven games.  Marquis Maze is a deep threat in his own right, and he will see mostly single coverage.

 

The offensive line returns three starters but has several talented newcomers, including redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker, who has all-conference written all over his chest.

 

The defense has some major reloading to do.  13 of the top 16 tacklers are gone, and that number could become 14 of 16. Middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and strong safety Mark Baron are the only two returning starters, and Hightower only started four times before going down for the season with an ACL injury. 

 

Baron could be a 1st Team all-American this year.  He led the SEC with 18 passes defended (7 Int./11 PBU).  There is very little experience joining him in the secondary, but there is a lot of raw talent waiting for Coach Nick Saban to mold into the next tough pass defense.

 

Sophomore Nico Johnson made the SEC All-Freshman team last year in limited action, and he will team with Hightower to form a splendid pair at linebacker.

 

The front line could have another major blow.  End Marcell Dareus, a sack machine, may be declared ineligible for part or all of the season for his attendance at the South Beach agent party.

 

Alabama will give up more points and yards this year, but they will still finish in the top 20 in the nation in total defense.

 

The schedule is really tough for all SEC West teams this year, as every team could easily be bowl eligible.  Throw in a game with Florida, and it doesn’t look possible for a third consecutive undefeated regular season.  Call it a one-loss year and trip to the Sugar Bowl.

Team Arkansas Razorbacks
               
Head Coach Bobby Petrino
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Fayetteville, AR
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 124.9
               
National Rating 4
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Quarterback ***, Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Tenn. Tech, UL-Monroe, Texas A&M (n), UTEP
   
Key Games: @ Georgia, Alabama, @ Auburn, Ole Miss, @ S.Car, LSU
   
Offense Pred. 40-44 points and 450-475 yards
               
Defense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

Arkansas has half of the best team in the nation.  Their offense is unrivaled by any team.  They may not finish atop the total offense and scoring offense statistics, but the teams that beat them out won’t play SEC defenses.  If the Razorbacks played a CUSA schedule, they might average close to 55 points per game this year.

 

Ryan Mallett is the best quarterback in the SEC and one of the five best in the nation.  Last year, he passed for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns versus just seven interceptions.  His 55.8% completion rate was lower than others, because Mallett tends to throw deeper passes.  He averaged nine yards per attempt and more than 16 yards per completion.

 

The vertical passing game works so well, because Arkansas has the best group of receivers in the SEC.  Three Hog pass catchers can burn a secondary for a quick six on a go route.  Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams teamed up for 118 receptions, 2,143 yards (18.2 avg), and 19 touchdowns.  Tight end D.J. Williams added 32 receptions, and he can take a pass over the middle and go the distance.

 

Pass defenders will have to cede territory in their alignments, and that will make the running game have more room to run when backs break free from the line.  Arkansas doesn’t run the ball much, and they have little need to do so, but when they do, expect the backs to improve on last season’s average per attempt.  Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green should average a combined five yards per rush this year.

 

The offensive line returns four starters from last year, and this group will give Mallett ample time to locate his deadly receivers.

 

The defense is a different kettle of fish.  Arkansas gave up 25 points and 400 yards per game last year, giving up 52 points to Georgia. 

 

Two starters return to the defensive line, but neither was a star.  The two new starters saw extensive time last year, so this unit will be about as mediocre as it was last year.  Look for true freshman Bryan Jones to see immediate action in the trenches.

 

The Hogs will be improved at linebacker.  Two starters, the numbers one and three tacklers, return.  Jerry Franklin collected 94 tackles and played admirably against both the run and pass.  Jerico Nelson was a better run-stopper than pass defender.  New starter Freddy Burton started seven games last year, so he can be considered a half-starter.

 

The defensive backfield is the weak spot of the defense.  The Razorbacks gave up far too many big plays last year.  Arkansas gave up 248 passing yards per game last year.  With three starters returning, there should be some improvement.  However, none of them intercepted a pass.

 

Expect another entertaining season out of Coach Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks.  We believe they will average more than 40 points per game.  We also think they may be the team that upsets Alabama.  However, they have too many holes on defense to run the table.  Call it a second or third place finish in the tough West.  Jerry Jones would love for his alma mater to play in his stadium at bowl season.

Team Auburn Tigers
               
Head Coach Gene Chizik
               
Colors Navy and Burnt Orange
               
City Auburn, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 117.8
               
National Rating 19
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Arkansas State, Clemson, La.-Monroe, Chattanooga
   
Key Games: S. Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, @ Ole Miss, Georgia, @ Alabama
   
Offense Pred. 28-32 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

What a difference a year made!  In their last season with Tommy Tuberville in charge of this program, Auburn averaged 17 points and 300 yards per game in offense and gave up 18 points and 320 yards.  In their first season under Gene Chizik, and with offensive guru Gus Malzahn’s offense being implemented, Auburn’s offense improved to 33 points and 430 yards per game.  Unfortunately, their defense weakened to 28 points and 375 yards allowed.

 

The end result was an 8-5 record that included a bowl win over Northwestern.  In year number two, Chizik has the pieces in place to win more games and even possibly challenge for the SEC West division title.

 

Former Florida signee Cam Newton takes over at quarterback this year.  He is a dual-threat that could add to the running game, but he won’t pass for as many yards as this team had in 2009.

 

Newton’s excellent running ability will help take some heat off the backs.  Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb combined for just 850 subbing for departed star Ben Tate, and we believe they will team for 1,600 or more yards.  True freshman Michael Dyer is a tank with quickness, and he could take away some of the snaps from the other two.

 

Newton has an outstanding receiver to aim for in Darvin Adams, who caught 60 passes for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Terrell Zachery added 26 receptions for 477 yards and five scores.  Fannin also proved to be a valuable weapon out of the backfield, taking 42 passes.  Look out for true freshman Trovon Reed, who could actually supplant one of the starters.

 

Four starting offensive linemen return to provide excellent pass protection and to open holes for the running backs.  Center Ryan Pugh and tackle Lee Ziemba are both stars.

 

Look for Auburn to rush for 225-250 yards and pass for 150-175 yards.  It looks like another big year from the offense.

 

Auburn returns half of their starting defensive line, but the loss of Antonio Coleman makes this unit considerable weaker.

 

Linebacker is a major asset with the return of all three starters.  Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, and Daren Bates finished one-two-and four in tackles last year.  Expect Jonathan Evans to see considerable time here as well and possibly crack the starting lineup.

 

Neiko Thorpe has all-conference potential at cornerback.  He intercepted two passes and broke up nine others last year.  He joins two safeties with past starting experience, so the pass defense should be a little tighter this season.

 

Auburn hosts both LSU and Arkansas, the two teams they will compete with for second place in the SEC West.  We give them the edge over the other two.

 

Team Louisiana State Tigers
               
Head Coach Les Miles
               
Colors Royal Purple and Gold
               
City Baton Rouge, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 113.0
               
National Rating 28
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-5
               
Strengths: Receiver, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: North Carolina (n), West Virginia, McNeese St., UL-Monroe
   
Key Games: @ Florida, @ Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, @ Arkansas
   
Offense Pred. 20-24 points & 300-325 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 290-310 yards
               
Outlook

The Tigers were a major disappointment last year, finishing 9-4 and fielding very little offense.  Coach Les Miles is on a very hot seat, and we believe this will be his last season in Baton Rouge, because the Tigers lost too much talent to improve on last year’s record.

 

Six starters return on offense, but those starters did not shine.  Quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed 61.5% of his passes for 2,166 yards with a TD/Int. ratio of 17/7.  However, Jefferson (and backup QB Jarrett Lee) took 37 sacks because of difficulty reading defensive coverage.  We don’t see the quarterbacking position being all that much improved this season.

 

Two receivers caught almost 56% of all completed passes last year, and one is no longer here.  Terrence Toliver caught 53 passes for 735 yards.  Former quarterback Russell Shepard has moved to receiver full-time and will start immediately.

 

The running game averaged 123 yards per game (skewed by all the sacks).  Take away the four non-conference breathers, and the Tigers averaged just 97 rushing yards per game.  The top two runners are gone, leaving a major hole at this position. 

 

The offensive line lost its top two blockers, so even with three starters returning, we expect little or no improvement here.

 

Opposing defenses will beg LSU to run the ball and take away the passing lanes.  Jefferson will have a hard time of it this season, and we expect the offense to boggle down yet again.

 

It was defense that won most of LSU’s games last year.  Only four starters return to this side of the ball.  Four of the top five tacklers must be replaced.

 

Only one starter returns to the defensive line.  Tackle Lazarius Levingston made eight tackles for loss and batted away four passes.  Drake Nevis will team with Levingston to make a great tandem at tackle and prevent many gains up the middle.  The news isn’t so rosy at end, where there isn’t a real proven pass rusher present.

 

Mike linebacker Kelvin Sheppard led the Tigers with 110 tackles, including 8 ½ for loss.  Expected starter Ryan Baker will be out until October, so the Tigers will have some concerns in their first four games.

 

The secondary is the strongest unit on the entire team, and it returns just two starters.  Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the league’s top three players at his position.  He picked off two passes but batted away 13 others.

 

LSU’s defense will still be powerful, but we doubt they will hold opponents to 16 points per game like last year.  The Tigers will struggle to score enough points week after week, but they will still win more than they lose.  But, it won’t be enough to save Miles’ job.  Three years ago, after supposedly being in line to take over the Michigan job, he chose to stay at LSU.  In a strange twist of fate, if Rich Rodriguez were to have a big year at Michigan and this job came open, he might be a candidate here.

Team Ole Miss Rebels
               
Head Coach Houston Nutt
               
Colors Cardinal and Navy
               
City Oxford, MS
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 108.3
               
National Rating 41
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Jacksonville St., @ Tulane, Fresno State, UL-Lafayette
   
Key Games: Kentucky, @ Arkansas, Auburn, @ Tennessee, @ LSU, Miss. St.
   
Offense Pred. 31-34 points & 410-430 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 325-350 yards
               
Outlook

Brett Favre left Mississippi to return to the Minnesota Vikings.  Ole Miss has their own version of Favre, so to speak.  They will rent a quarterback for the season with hopes of winning a conference championship.  Enter Jeremiah Masoli, who was booted off the Oregon Ducks’ team for two infractions.  Masoli would have been a Heisman Trophy candidate at OU.  He led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl last season after running for 668 yards and 13 touchdowns and passing for 2,147 yards and 15 touchdowns.

 

The Rebels lost a great all-purpose back in Dexter McCluster.  He topped 1,100 yards last year.  Brandon Bolden returns after running for 614 yards.  Keep an eye of Enrique Davis.  The former highly sought after back has floundered so far, but the junior could be getting ready to come into his own.

 

The Rebels lost their top two receivers from last year, and that may keep Masoli from putting up passing stats like he did at Oregon.  Markeith Summers is the leading returnee with 394 yards on 17 receptions.

 

The offensive line lost three multi-year starters, but both tackles return.  Expect a small step backward in pass protection, but Masoli is much more mobile than last year’s quarterback, Jevan Snead.

 

The defense is in a little better shape with the return of six starters.  Three starters return up front, and the Rebels should be strong against the run and also have another good pass rush.  Jerrelle Powe could make the 1st Team All-SEC list after coming up with 12 tackles for losses last year.

 

Linebackers Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker return to form a good mix in the second line of defense.  Cornell is a better run-stopper and Walker is a better pass defender.

 

The secondary will take a step back with just one starter returning.  Safety Johnny Brown finished second with 81 tackles last year.

 

Coach Houston Nutt’s Rebels benefit from a great schedule.  Ole Miss could easily open 5-0 and should be no worse than 4-1.  The Rebels then get an off week to prepare for their October 16 game at Alabama.  We believe Ole Miss will win eight regular season games for the third consecutive year.

Team Mississippi State Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Dan Mullen
               
Colors Maroon and White
               
City Starkville, MS
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 110.8
               
National Rating 36
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Defensive Line
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Receiver
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Memphis, Alcorn State, @ Houston, U A B
   
Key Games: Kentucky, Arkansas, @ Ole Miss
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Coach Dan Mullen’s first year in Starkville almost produced bowl eligibility when the Bulldogs had been picked to possibly lose 10 games.  If not for a mix-up at the line of scrimmage at the end of the LSU game, Miss. State would have gone 6-6 instead of 5-7.

 

We think the Bulldogs will get that extra win this year and earn a trip back to a bowl for the first time in three years.  Seven starters return on both sides of the ball.

 

One position that must be replaced is at quarterback.  Chris Relf has a rifle arm, and he is mobile.  He should add another dimension to the Bulldog offense.  He also should cut down on the number of interceptions State quarterbacks threw last season (17).  Tyler Russell, a redshirt freshman, should also see some playing time this year.

 

There isn’t a lot of talent at wide receiver, but the top two pass catchers do return.  Wideout Chad Bumphis and Tight end Marcus Green have some breakaway potential, but they won’t remind anybody of Mardye McDole.

 

Replacing Anthony Dixon at running back is not possible with the running backs on the roster; Vick Ballard is expected to get the lion’s share of the load, but the roster is really thin behind him.

 

The offensive line returns four experienced starters, and they should give Relf room to run and time to pass.  We would not be surprised if Relf led the Maroons in rushing yards while passing for close to 2,000 yards.

 

The biggest loss on defense may have been defensive coordinator Carl Torbush.  Now, the Bulldogs will have their third DC in three years.  Chris Wilson from Oklahoma and Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee will share the responsibility.

 

Mississippi State’s defense will rely on a talented defensive line to set the tone.  End Pernell McPhee is one of the best in the league.  He comes off a year in which he had five sacks, 12 total tackles for loss, and four knocked down passes.  New starter Sean Ferguson will give State a strong end tandem.

 

The top two returning tacklers return to the second line of defense.  Linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright combined for 157 stops a year ago.

 

The Bulldogs have a terrific trio of starting defensive backs returning this year.  Safeties Charles Mitchell and Johnathan Banks both intercepted four passes last year; cornerback Corey Broomfield had six!

 

Look for State to improve on this side of the ball and allow fewer points this year.  We believe it will bring them one more win and bowl eligibility.

Coming Next Week: The initial PiRate, Mean, and Biased Ratings for the NFL, and the entire first week of the college football season 

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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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