The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 25, 2011

2011 Pac-12 Conference Preview

2011 Pacific 12 Conference Preview

 

Larry Scott didn’t start the fire, but he did ignite it.  After Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for the Big Ten, Scott tried to lure Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado to form the first 16-team super-conference.  Sure, the Western Athletic Conference tried a 16-team setup in the 1990’s but the winner did not receive a bid to a major bowl.

 

Although Scott had to settle for Colorado and Utah, he fired the first shot toward what could become four major conferences of 16 teams.  It isn’t far beyond the imagination to see a four-team playoff down the road with a “plus one” format.

 

The strength of the league is in the North Division this year.  The South is faced with the strong possibility of sending its number two team to the first Pac-12 Championship Game, since Southern Cal is still on probation and prohibited from appearing in post-season games.

 

NORTH DIVISION

Stanford

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Stanford has a reputation for producing great quarterbacks over the decades.  Four past passers are in the College Football Hall of Fame—Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, and John Elway.  Add Trent Edwards, Steve Stentstrom, Turk Schonert, and others.  Could the current quarterback actually be the best of the bunch?  If you believe A-Rod is better than Gehrig and Ruth or Pujols is better than Musial, then maybe you can say the same about Andrew Luck.

 

Luck is the best college quarterback in 2011, and he is the prohibitive favorite to cart off the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Davey O’Brien Award, and most importantly, the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.  A joke is already going around NFL circles that one or more teams may deliberately “sandbag” this year in an attempt to post the worst record and take the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

 

Luck completed almost 71% of his passes last year for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns.  He averaged almost nine yards per attempt, which is almost unstoppable.  As a runner, he added over 500 yards when sacks are factored out.  As long as he stays 100% healthy, he is the player you want to watch every week—the modern day Babe Ruth of college football.

 

Receivers

Luck lost his top two targets from 2010, but we do not believe it will greatly affect his production.  Great QBs can take average receivers and make them look like stars; just ask Indianapolis Colts fans. 

 

Unlike almost every other college team, Stanford actively includes two tight ends for a considerable amount of playing time.  It allows the Cardinal to get extra blocking for the running game, and it makes it very difficult on diminutive safeties trying to stop 250-pound receivers.

 

The Cardinal have three excellent tight ends capable of making a big play.  Coby Fleener caught 28 passes and averaged 15.5 yards per catch with seven touchdowns last year; he became a star in the Orange Bowl with three touchdown receptions.  Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz will also see significant amounts of playing time.

 

Stanford’s new wideouts will do just fine and will not be a liability.  Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu should average about 14-18 yards per catch and combine for about 90-110 receptions.  There is ample depth here with Jemari Roberts, Jamaal-Rashad Patterson, and Drew Terrell.  Terrell is a sleeper; he could emerge as a star.

 

Running Backs

What makes the offense so unstoppable is the running game.  Defenses cannot forget it is there, because the Cardinal can beat you on the ground.  Stepfan Taylor returns after gaining 1,137 yards with 15 touchdowns.  Taylor is also a big weapon in the passing game, and he grabbed 28 passes.  Defenses forget him on a running fake, but Luck is great at faking to him and then passing to him when the defense covers the downfield receivers.

 

Behind Taylor are three other competent backs that will receive playing time.  Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney, and Usua Amanam teamed for 789 yards and seven scores in 2010.  This unit is loaded.

 

Stanford uses a fullback, but he is a blocker 99% of the time.  Last year’s “third guard,” Owen Marecic, was so good, he was a fourth round draft pick.  He also played full-time at linebacker, frequently playing 90-100 scrimmage plays in a game.  The new Marecic will be Ryan Hewitt, but he will only play on this side of the ball.

 

Offensive Line

The line must replace three excellent players from last year, including 1st Team All-American Chase Beeler at center.  Khalil Wilkes and Sam Schwartzstein are battling neck and neck to replace him.

 

David DeCastro is entrenched at one guard spot after earning 1st Team All-Pac-10 honors in 2010.  Kevin Danser will start on the other side.  At tackle, Jonathan Martin earned 1st Team All-Pac-10 accolades last year.  Tyler Mabry and Cameron Fleming are in a heated battle for the other tackle position. 

 

While not as talented overall as last year, this unit will still be an asset.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Stanford gave up just 56 points in their final six games last year, and the defensive line really toughened up down the stretch.  They allowed just 89.7 yards rushing 276.8 total yards per game in that stretch.

 

New head coach David Shaw appointed defensive back coach Derek Mason and former San Francisco 49er defensive coach Jason Tarver as co-defensive coordinators.  With the change comes a switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense.

 

Terrence Stephens will start at the nose.  At 290 pounds, he is a little on the light side for a two-gap defender.  Ben Gardner and Matthew Masifilo start at the end positions.  This unit is the weakest link on the team, and it will be here where Stanford either wins or loses the Pac-12 title.

 

Linebackers

Two starters return from last year, and of course, there will be an extra linebacker in the alignment this year.  Shayne Skov will start at one inside position, while Chase Thomas will start at an outside position.  They led the Cardinal with 84 and 70 tackles respectively.  Both players co-led the team with 7 ½ sacks, and they combined for 22 tackles behind the line.  They also showed prowess for stopping passes, combining for nine passes defended.

 

Trent Murphy and Max Bergen will be the new starters on this unit.  Bergen made 21 tackles in limited playing time last year.  Blake Lueders could crack the starting lineup this year.  Keep an eye on Alex Debniak.

 

Secondary

Three starters return to this unit, and it should be in good shape.  Safety Delano Howell is the stud of this unit.  He led the Cardinal with five interceptions and 10 passes defended.  Michael Thomas returns to the other safety spot after finishing third on the team with 61 tackles.

 

At cornerback, Johnson Bademosi started nine times last year, while Barry Browning takes over for Richard Sherman, another NFL draft choice.

 

OTHER

Stanford lost a lot of talent via graduation, but the biggest loss will be coach Jim Harbaugh, who graduated to the 49ers.  Shaw has never been a head coach, but we believe he has enough talent to learn on the job without losing a game due to inexperience.

 

The Cardinal were one of four teams to average better than 40 points per game and give up less than 20 points per game (Oregon, Boise St., and TCU were the others).  In the 21st Century, any team that can pull off this feat is capable of contending for a national title.  We believe Stanford’s offense could be just strong enough to control the ball and the clock and allow the defense to mature without giving up 25 points per game.  We would not be surprised if Stanford repeats their averages of last year.

 

SUMMARY

Stanford has a dream schedule for a Pac-12 team.  They open the season with area rival San Jose State and then go on the road to Duke.  They should be 2-0 before opening conference play on the road at a rebuilding Arizona.  They then get a week off before hosting UCLA and Colorado.  A road game with Washington State follows, before Washington, without Jake Locker, comes to Palo Alto.  Stanford should be 7-0 when they head to the Coliseum to face Southern Cal in the first of a tough closing schedule.  By then, the defense should be up to snuff.  Following USC, Stanford has a trap game with Oregon State in Corvallis.  Then, on November 12 is the big rematch with Oregon, and this time it is at Stanford Stadium.  Arch-rival Cal comes in the following week, and then the Cardinal close out at home with Notre Dame, in what could be a battle of 11-0 teams.

 

Stanford has not run the table with a bowl win since 1940 when they became the first college team to use the modern T-Formation.  Could it happen again?  We believe it could, but chances are the defense will stumble at least one time.  The Pac-12 does not get its due in the eastern half of the country, but there is a lot of talent spread throughout the teams, and upsets are more prevalent here than in any of the Big Six conferences.

 

Oregon

Oregon is another of the teams that faced off-the-field issues during the summer.  The football program made several thousand dollars in payments to a recruiting service in Texas for what appeared to look like a third grade art project given in return, as well as the delivery of multiple key recruits out of the Lone Star State.  Running back Lache Seastrunk left UO over the controversy.  The NCAA is investigating.

 

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Darron Thomas made fans forget Jeremiah Masoli.  Thomas made the Ducks fly last year.  He passed for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for more than 550 yards (sacks not included).  He can only hope for a repeat as a 2nd Team All-Pac-12 choice, but he is the best quarterback in the league after the new “franchise” down the road.

 

Receivers

Like Mr. Luck, Thomas loses his top two targets from a year ago.  Jeff Maehl and D. J. Davis teamed for 119 receptions and 15 touchdowns, but their replacements will be quicker and more elusive this season.

 

One of those speedy guys is not quite 100% as of this writing.  Josh Huff has the talent and potential to play on Sundays.  He is recuperating from an ankle injury.  Rahsaan Vaughn will fill in for him until he is ready.  Justin Hoffman will see significant time and will use his size and speed to make big plays.  Lavasier Tuinei is more of a possession receiver, and he is the leading returning pass-catcher with 36 receptions. 

 

Tight end David Paulson returns after catching 24 passes and showing some ability to run to daylight.  He earned 1st Team All-Pac-12 honors last year.

 

Running Backs

Oregon’s Heisman Trophy candidate is LaMichael James.  James led the league with 1,731 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.  If Oregon ran the ball 70% of the time (instead of 61%), James might be a serious candidate to top 2,000 yards on the ground.  James also caught 17 passes, with three going for touchdowns.

 

Slot back Kenjon Barner should change his name to “Burner.”  The track sprinter is a hybrid running back/receiver.  He rushed for 551 yards and six touchdowns (6.1 yds/rush) and caught 13 passes with two more scores.

 

This dynamic duo plus the running ability of Thomas gives the Ducks the best running game in the league and one of the best in the nation—the best of the non-triple option teams.

 

Offensive Line

It will be hard to replace the three graduated stars from this unit, but the Ducks could still have the best blocking corps in the Pac-12.  Carson York is a returning 1st Team All-Pac-12 at guard.  Ryan Clanton will be the new starter at the other guard spot.  Mark Asper and Darrion Weems will start at tackle, while the center position is still a two-man race between Hroniss Grasu and Karrington Armstrong.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Here is the first question mark in 2011.  Three starters must be replaced.  End Terrell Turner returns after recording just 32 tackles and 2 ½ sacks.  At the other end spot, Dion Jordan saw limited action in 2010, making 33 tackles and two sacks.  The two new tackles will be Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi, who combined for 27 tackles.  The defensive line was exposed by Auburn in the Championship Game, but the Ducks gave up only 117.5 rushing yards per game in the regular season.  Expect that number to jump by about 20 to 25 yards this year.

 

Linebackers

This is the second and even bigger question mark.  The Ducks will be without their top two linebackers from last year.  Casey Matthews led in tackles and played both the run and pass better than most.  Spencer Paysinger was almost as talented.

 

Josh Kaddu is the lone holdover.  He was the weakest of the three starters last year and is not a candidate to become an all-conference player.  Dewitt Stuckey and Michael Clay will be the two new starters.  Clay saw as much time as Kaddu and made 42 tackles.

 

Secondary

This was to be the best defensive backfield in the league, but it is not now.  The front seven may not provide a decent pass rush, diminishing the secondary’s effectiveness.  The bigger factor in the decline is the suspension of one of its key components; cornerback Cliff Harris is out indefinitely after running afoul of the law, and Oregon’s defense begins to show a couple of holes and enough vulnerability to be exploited by quality teams (like LSU, USC, and Stanford) with these factors.  Harris was the premier cover corner in the nation last year.  He intercepted six passes and had an unbelievable 23 passed defended.  He is not replaceable.  He also led the nation with four punts returned for a touchdown, so his loss is worth about as much as Stanford losing Luck.

 

Anthony Gildon will start at one corner after seeing limited action last year.  Eddie Pleasant and John Boyett make a decent pair of safeties, but without Harris, this secondary will be lit up against quality passers.

 

OTHER

It is hard to predict what the investigatory cloud hanging over the program might do for team morale.  Oregon figured to be a top contender for the National Championship Game following their narrow loss to Auburn last year.  However, the cloud hanging over is definitely a black one.  It could eventually cost Coach Chip Kelly his job.  Other players could be implicated as the season progresses.

 

SUMMARY

The schedule is a bit more difficult this season, and we cannot see the Ducks running the table in the regular season.  An opener with LSU at Jerry Jones’ Cowboys’ Stadium in Arlington could be interesting if only for the fact that both teams have off-the-field issues.  The Ducks could get lucky if more than one key opponent is unable to play.  Oregon has to play at Stanford, and they host Southern Cal.  We believe at least one of those teams will get them this year.

 

Oregon State

OFFENSE

Quarterback

In a league with multiple NFL quarterback prospects, Ryan Katz gets overlooked.  Katz might be a contender for all-conference designation in other leagues, but in the Pac-12, he does not even challenge for third team.

 

Katz completed 60% of his passes for 2,401 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.  He should improve upon those numbers in his second season as a starter. 

 

Backup Cody Vaz has potential, but he is nursing a bad back and will miss the start of the season.

 

Receivers

Katz’s top three receivers (Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop, and tight end Joe Halahuni) are back for more after teaming for 107 catches and 12 touchdowns.  However, the sensation of the August practices has been a true freshman.  Brandin Cooks was challenging for a starting bid until he injured his ankle.  When he is fully recovered, look for him to contribute immediately.

 

James Rodgers caught only 16 passes last year in limited action, as he missed most of the season with knee injuries.  He has undergone two surgeries earlier this year, so he may not be ready to play.  He was a star in 2009 when he was last healthy.  Redshirt freshman Obum Gwachman could start in Rodgers place.  This unit will allow Katz to surpass his stats of last year.

 

Halahuni had shoulder surgery earlier this season, and he will miss all of September.  Backup tight ends Tyler Perry and Connor Hamlett face one game suspensions that will be staggered.  Tight end will be a concern in the early part of the season.

 

Running Backs

“The Quizz” is gone.  Jacquizz Rodgers left early and was a fifth round NFL Draft choice.  There will be a drop in talent and production here this year, as Coach Mike Riley uses the committee approach to replace him.

 

True freshman Malcolm Agnew may be the surprise opening day starter for OSU.  Terron Ward and Ryan McCants are contending with Agnew, but all three should see ample playing time. 

 

Offensive Line

Four of the five positions are set in stone.  The four holdovers from last year are center Grant Johnson, guard Burke Ellis, and tackles Michael Philipp and Mike Remmers.  Philipp and Remmers have the potential to become all-conference blockers.  Joshua Andrews was set to start at the vacant guard slot, but he suffered a concussion in practice and could be out for the opener.  Grant Enger had been moved to tight end but was moved back to guard and may start. 

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Injuries and academics are causing Riley some headaches this pre-season.  Both of his projected starting tackles will not be available for the opening of the season.  Dominic Glover, who recorded 43 tackles with 7 ½ for loss, is not academically eligible, and Riley is not sure when he will be available.  Kevin Frahm injured his meniscus and could be out four weeks. 

 

Redshirt freshman Scott Crichton will start at one end, while Taylor Henry should start at the other spot.  Henry started four games last year.  Rusty Fernando will become the designated pass rusher and come in on passing downs.

 

Manu Tuivailala should start at one of the tackle positions, with the other one still up for grabs as of this writing.  The Beavers will struggle here for the first month of the season.

 

Linebackers

The trio in this unit better overachieve, or else OSU’s defense will give up an increase in points per game for the fifth year in a row.

 

Rueben Robinson returns to the middle linebacker spot after registering 35 tackles in seven starts.  Cameron Collins started twice and saw considerable action in the other games.  He made 39 tackles.  Michael Doctor played in every game as a reserve and registered 11 tackles.  This group is not a top trio, but it is the best unit on this side of the ball.

 

Secondary

Once again, here is a unit that has been hit with injuries.  Top cornerback Brandon Hardin suffered a shoulder injury that required surgical repair.  He is out until October.  Two reserves are out for the season.

 

Safety Lance Mitchell finished third with 74 tackles last year.  He intercepted two passes and knocked away three others.  Anthony Watkins will start at the other safety position.  He got in on 27 tackles as a key reserve last year.  Ryan Murphy should see plenty of playing time.

 

Jordan Poyer figures to start at one cornerback position.  As a reserve in 2010, he had six passes defended.  Rashaad Reynolds will replace Hardin at the other corner.  He made 14 tackles and had no passes defended last year.

 

OTHER

The Beavers have seen their points allowed increase from 22.2 to 22.6 to 23.1 to 25.0 to 26.8 in the last five seasons.  The possibility of extending that negative streak to six is very high.  OSU could give up more than 28 points per game this season with all their injury troubles and a tough schedule against high-scoring opponents.

 

SUMMARY

The Beavers took a step backward last season, finishing with seven losses for the first time in over a decade.  This program has been on a small decline since 2006. 

 

Oregon State was once one of the weakest programs in major college football.  They went close to three decades without a winning season.  There was a quick transition from winning seasons in the 1960’s to losing seasons for the next 30 years.  Could the Beavers be on the cusp of repeating history?  We don’t know the answer, but we are a little pessimistic about 2011.

 

Katz is going to have to improve to a level similar to Thomas at Oregon if the Beavers are to score enough points to win most games.

 

The schedule gives them one cupcake—the opener with Sacramento State.  Conference games at home against UCLA, Arizona, and Washington are winnable, and road games with Cal and Washington State are winnable.  The Beavers must win all five of these games to become bowl eligible, and we cannot see this happening.

 

Washington

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Jake Locker had his critics.  He threw too many off-target passes; he held onto the ball too long and took a lot of sacks; he ran the ball when he could have passed it, etc.

 

A quarterback at Southern Mississippi in the late 1980’s had many of the same criticisms bestowed on him.  His name was Favre.  Locker is Favre redux, and the Huskies will quickly realize how much he is missed.  Locker completed just 55.4% of his passes, for 2,265 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final year at UW.  He added over 500 rushing yards (sacks removed) and six touchdowns. 

 

Keith Price takes over after completing 19 of 37 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman.  He has talent and potential, but he will not duplicate Locker’s performance.

 

Receivers

Coach Steve Sarkisian welcomes back two stars on this side of the ball.  One of them is wideout Jermaine Kearse.  Kearse hauled in 63 passes for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010. 

 

Devin Aguilar and Kevin Smith will supplement Kearse.  Aguilar caught 28 balls and averaged 12.6 yards per catch. 

 

The Huskies have two young, but inexperienced, quality tight ends; Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the top incoming recruit and should play right away, while redshirt freshman Michael Hartvigson will see significant playing time.

 

Running Backs

The other star on this offense is Chris Polk.  As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,415 yards and nine touchdowns, and he nabbed 22 passes for 180 yards.  Polk recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss the start of the season.  Jesse Callier will replace him.  Callier rushed for 400+ yards and actually averaged a little more per rush than Polk.  Fullback Jonathan Amosa will open holes for Polk and Callier.

 

Offensive Line

Three starters return to the blocking corps.  Center Drew Schaffer, guard Coline Porter, and Tackle Senio Kelemente combined for 36 starts with Kelemente earning some all-conference consideration.

 

Erik Kohler should start at the vacant tackle position, while redshirt freshman Colin Tanigawa will take the vacant guard position.  Overall, this is a fair unit. 

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Huskies gave up more rushing yards last year than the year before, but four tough opponents accounted for most of that deterioration. 

 

The Huskies have depth here.  All four starters return from last year, but one or two may be supplanted by others.  Alameda Ta’Amu is the big man in the trenches.  The 6-3, 330-pound tackle plugs multiple gaps.  True freshman Danny Shelton could start opposite him.  Hau’oli Jamora and Everette Thompson should start at end, with Josh Shirley serving as a designated pass rusher.  Providing depth in the line are Sione Potoa’e and Talia Crichton.  This unit will perform better in 2011.

 

Linebackers

Here is Sarkisian’s headache, and the reason the defense may not improve overall.  Middle linebacker Cort Dennison is a good defender, having made 93 tackles with 8 ½ behind the line and defending five passes.  John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono are untested.  Garret Gilliland is available here as well.  This is the weakest trio in the Pac-12, and replacing Mason Foster and his league-leading 161 tackles will be impossible.

 

Secondary

When healthy, this is a tough unit.  However, as of this writing, one of its key components is recuperating from an ankle injury that may prevent him from starting the season opener.  Cornerback Quinton Richardson intercepted two passes among his 10 passed defended, and he will likely be replaced by Greg Ducre for the Eastern Washington game.

 

Safety Nathan Fellner led the Huskies with five interceptions and 13 passes defended.  Cornerback Desmond Trufant posted 48 tackles and defended five passes.  His counterpart will be sophomore Sean Parker, who picked off one pass in limited duty.

 

OTHER

2011 presents UW with a tough schedule.  The non-conference slate includes games with Hawaii and Nebraska (in Lincoln).  In conference play, the Huskies must play at Utah, Stanford, USC, and Oregon State.  The Apple Cup game with WSU has been moved to Qwest Field and will not be as much of a home field advantage.

 

 

SUMMARY

We have a lot of confidence in Sarkisian and his two coordinators, Doug Nussmeier on offense and Nick Holt on defense.  They have just enough talent to compete against everybody but Stanford and Oregon.  UW could win six or seven games again even without Locker at quarterback.

 

California

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Coach Jeff Tedford has developed some outstanding quarterbacks here, including current Super Bowl Champion QB Aaron Rodgers, Kyle Boller.  As OC at Oregon, he had Joey Harrington, A. J. Feely, and Akili Smith.  At Fresno State before that, he tutored Trent Dilfer, David Carr, and Billy Volek.  In other words, Tedford knows a thing or two about quarterback development.

 

This year, he welcomes Zach Maynard from the University of Buffalo.  Maynard has beaten out last year’s starter Brock Mansion and sophomore Allan Bridgford.  Look for Maynard to easily surpass last year’s off-season for Cal in yardage and touchdowns (2,101 yards and 15 touchdowns).  Look for a return of 200+ yards through the air and 20 touchdowns or more.

 

Receivers

The Bears’ top two receivers return in Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen, who teamed for 96 receptions and 1,255 yards.  Michael Calvin started three times and caught 13 passes.  Anthony Miller returns at tight end after hauling in 13 passes.  Look for steady improvement here with Maynard throwing the pigskin.

 

Running Backs

Tedford is also known for developing 1,000-yard rushing backs.  Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, and the just departed Shane Vereen are prime examples.  Vereen does not have a likely 1,000-yard back replacing him this year.

 

This could be a year in which Cal uses a running back by committee.  Isi Sofele, Covauhgn DeBoskie-Johnson, and C. J. Anderson could split the carries, but the freshman Anderson has the skills to eventually become the feature back.  Cal averaged just 159 yards on the ground, which is a multi-year low in the Tedford era.  Look for better overall results, with the new trio combining for about 175 yards per game.

 

Offensive Line

This will be an improved unit in 2011.  Three starters return, including 1st Team All-Pac-12 tackle Mitchell Schwartz.  Guards Brian Schwenke and Matt Summers-Gavin are the other two veterans of the line.  Dominic Galas will start at center.  He started once in 2009.  Matt Williams is a famous sports name in the Bay area; Cal’s version will start at the vacant tackle position.  This group could give up less than 20 sacks and block well enough for the backs to average better than 4.5 yards per rush.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

There is rebuilding to do all throughout the defense this year, and the Bears will take a step backward on this side of the ball.  The line returns just one starter from the 3-man unit and loses a 1st team all-conference player in Cameron Jordan.

 

DeAndre Coleman returns at end after registering 18 tackles as a platoon player.  He did not make a sack or hurry a quarterback.  Trevor Guyton started four games and played in seven more, getting in on 29 tackles with 8 ½ for loss.  At the nose position is a human eclipse.  Viliami Moala is 6-3 and 350 pounds.  The true freshman is one of Cal’s most prized recruits, and he has won the starting job from day one.

 

Linebackers

Two starters return to this four-man unit, one of whom is a legitimate star.  The Bears lose another star with the departure of leading tackler Mike Mohamed to the NFL Draft.

 

Mychal Kendricks led the Bears with 8 ½ sacks and 15 total tackles for loss.  His fellow inside linebacker mate, D. J. Holt, returns after making 85 tackles.  On the outside, redshirt freshman David Wilkerson will man one spot, while the other one is up for grabs between Chris McCain, Ryan Davis, and Cecil Whiteside, none of whom have played here.

 

Secondary

Two starters return to the back line of defense.  Safety Sean Cattouse is the closest thing to a star on this unit.  He intercepted a pass and broke up seven others last year.  D. J. Campbell will start opposite him after making 21 tackles in reserve last year.

 

Marc Anthony returns at one cornerback slot.  He was credited with eight passes defended with two interceptions.  The new corner will be Steve Williams, who intercepted a pass and knocked away four others in reserve.  Overall, this is a reliable but not spectacular secondary.

 

OTHER

The kicking game is in good shape with the return of two quality players.  Bryan Anger narrowly missed leading the league in punting, while Giorgio Tavecchio has a strong leg and was 4-6 on field goal attempts from beyonf 40 yards.

 

Cal will have to play its home games away from campus this season, as Memorial Stadium undergoes some surgery.  The Bears will host Fresno State at Candlestick Park and play the rest of their home games at AT&T (Giants baseball) Park.  If the Giants are in the NLCS, Cal will have to move its game with USC.

 

SUMMARY

It all depends on the rebuilt defense.  Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast knows his stuff, and we believe he will mold the new players into a cohesive unit.  They will not stop everybody on the schedule, but just remember what Cal did to Oregon’s offense last year—15 points and 317 yards (Oregon gained almost 450 yards against Auburn).

 

The offense will be much improved and will easily top last season’s averages.  We would not be shocked if the Bears top 28 points per game and 400 total yards per game.

 

The schedule has just one cupcake—a week three game with Presbyterian.  Cal opens with Fresno State at Candlestick Park, and that is a trap game for sure.  Through a quirk in the schedule, the Bears will play 10 conference games this year.  The Colorado game will not count in the league standings, as this game was already on the schedule before the Buffs joined the Pac-12. 

 

Here is the catch.  Cal was 1-4 on the road last year, and in effect, all 12 games this year will be on the road.  If the two municipal parks provide them with the same homefield advantage as Memorial Stadium, then the Bears will go bowling in El Paso, Las Vegas, or a similar venue.  If not, then Tedford could be sitting on a hot seat.

 

Washington State

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Jeff Tuel is not another Jason Gesser or Alex Brink, but he is going to have a year not too different than the two former stars.  Tuel completed almost 60% of his passes for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, and he has the potential to top 3,000 yards in 2011.

 

Marshall Lobbestael has starting experience, and if Tuel is injured, all will not be lost.  He does not have the accuracy of Tuel, but he will not be a deer in the headlights if he must go in.

 

Receivers

The Cougars return three starters here, one of whom was a Freshman All-American last year.  Marquess Wilson could be a 1st Team All-Pac-12 member this year after taking in 55 passes for 1,006 yards and six touchdowns.  He is a threat to take even a one yard pass and turn it into a long touchdown bolt.

 

Jared Karstetter hauled in a team-leading 62 passes and scored seven times.  He is strictly a possession receiver and uses his height to his advantage over smaller cornerbacks.  Isiah Barton and Gino Simone teamed up for 32 receptions and will supplement the two primary options.  Look for true freshman Henry Eaddy to challenge for a starting spot early in the season.

 

A new tight end/h-back must be found.  Coach Paul Wulff will choose between Jared Byers, Andrei Lintz, and Aaron Dunn.  This unit is in good shape overall.

 

Running Backs

WSU has not been able to generate a running game in six years.  The last three seasons have seen the Cougars rush for an average of less than 86 yards!  Of course, giving up 51 sacks in a season is enough to skew those rushing stats.  Removing the sacks, WSU rushed for about 115 yards per game with an average of 3.8 yards per rush.

 

Wulff will rely on a three-man platoon this year and hope to take enough heat off Tuel to prevent defenses from lining up and coming with five and six pass rushers.  Rickey Galvin, Logwone Mintz, and Carl Winston will split the load.  Look for the Cougars to top 100 yards rushing, but only by a little bit.

 

Offensive Line

This won’t be a major asset, but the blocking corps is going to be quite a bit improved in 2011.  Three starters return to this unit, but the new starters have enough experience to be considered quasi-starters.

 

Guard B. J. Guerra is the leader of this unit. He could challenge for 1st team all-conference honors this year.  Fellow guard John Fullington takes over on the other side after starting six times as a freshman.

 

Wade Jacobson and David Gonzales will man the tackle positions.  Jacobson started every game last year, while Gonzales has started seven games in the past.  He missed last season with an injury.

 

Andrew Roxas will be the new starting center.  He has nine career starts under his belt. 

 

This unit is not the equal of Oregon’s or Stanford’s, but they are no longer the weakest in the league here.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Cougars are still in need of a lot of improvement on this side of the line.  They gave up 220 yards per game on the ground (average of 5.6/rush) and made just 23 sacks. 

 

Two starters return to the trenches this year.  End Travis Long led the team with five sacks and 10 ½ tackles for loss.  Tackle Brandon Rankin made just 19 stops, but five were for losses.  The new starters figure to be Anthony Laurenzi at tackle and Adam Coerper at end.  Coerper is a fast developer; he moved from number four to number one in just a couple weeks.

 

Linebackers

This unit is a little stronger than the one in front.  Two starters return here.  Alex Hoffman-Ellis finished second on the squad with 81 tackles, while middle linebacker C. J. Mizell added 57 stops with six for loss.  Sekope Kaufusi is the new starter at the Sam position.  He made 22 tackles in a limited role last year.

 

Secondary

If there is a strong unit on this side of the ball, this is it.  However, it is hard to call this quartet a major asset. 

 

It is never great when your leading tackler is your strong safety.  Deone Bucannon led WSU with 84 tackles.  He intercepted a couple passes and knocked away five more.  Tyree Toomer is the other starting safety.  He is adequate against the pass but better supporting the run.

 

Cornerbacks Daniel Simmons and Nolan Washington combined for 62 tackles but only seven passes defended.  Washington is nursing a sore hamstring, so he will be slow to start the season.

 

OTHER

Washington State’s last winning season was 2003, which was the third consecutive 10-win season.  The Cougars have fallen on rough times since.  Defense has been the major problem, as WSU has given 35 or more points per game the last three years.  We believe that streak will come to an end this season, but not by much.

 

SUMMARY

The schedule should allow Wulff’s Cougars to start 2-0 after they open with Idaho State and UNLV.  Game three will be the bell-weather game.  When the Cougars go to San Diego State, they might even be favored.  If they win the game to move to 3-0, then there is a chance, albeit small, that they could find a way to win three in the conference and make it to a bowl.  We tend to believe they will fall short this year, but they could easily double their win total from last year.

 

SOUTH DIVISION

Southern California

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Matt Barkley is the best second best quarterback in a league since Colt McCoy at Texas in 2008 and 2009.  He might be the top quarterback in every other conference in America.  Last year even though he missed a game and parts of another, he completed 62.6% of his passes for 2,791 yards and 26 touchdowns. 

 

The Trojans are stocked here with three other quality passers.  Jesse Scroggins is out indefinitely with an injured hand, but true freshmen Max Wittek and Cody Kessler have star potential.  The Trojans will rely more on the pass this year, and we expect them to average more than 250 yards per game through the air.

 

Receivers

As a freshman, Robert Woods may have been one of the three best receivers in the league.  He finished with 65 receptions and six touchdowns last year and could top 80 receptions this season.

 

Behind him, the Trojans are inexperienced.  Marqise Lee could start as a true freshman.  Kyle Prater is a redshirt freshman, but at 6-05, he will be a tough matchup problem.  Brice Butler has played sparingly in two seasons.

 

Tight end/H-back Rhett Ellison hauled in 21 passes and scored three times in 2010.  Look for him to get more balls thrown his way this year.

 

Running Backs

Who would have thought that an internet gossip site could affect a college football team?  Starting tailback Marc Tyler ran his mouth off to TMZ.com, and it cost him his spot in the lineup.  Coach Lane Kiffin suspended him indefinitely over his remarks.  Funny, Kiffin’s name has been dragged through the mud from coast to coast in numerous internet sites, yet he still has a job.

 

Tyler led the Trojans’ ground game with 913 yards and nine touchdowns.  Curtis McNeal figured to be his replacement, but he injured his knee and is doubtful for the season opener.  Dillon Baxter and C. J. Morgan will share the reps at running back until one of the other two is able to play again. 

 

Offensive Line

The Trojans are deep here.  Their two-deep is almost as good as Oregon’s, even though just two starters return.  Center Khaled Holmes is one of the best in the league.  Ditto for tackle Matt Kalil.  John Martinez and Abe Markowitz will start at the vacant guard positions, while Kevin Graf will man the vacant tackle spot.  Look for this group to provide excellent pass coverage for Barkley and surrender less than 20 sacks for the seventh year in a row.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Any defense with Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron coaching is going to be tough up front.  The Trojans have the top defensive line in the league and one of the best in the country.

 

Three starters return, but nose tackle Armond Armstead will have to share his spot with newcomer George Uko, and DaJohn Harris may be relegated to the second team in favor of Christian Tupou.

 

Nick Perry starts at one end, while Wes Horton inherits the other end spot.  Devon Kennard and Kevin Greene will spell the two starters and allow the Trojans to have fresh anchors on the edge.

 

Linebackers

If there is an Achilles’ heel in the defense, it is in the linebacker unit.  It would be hard to find the heel here, because the Trojans’ linebackers are going to make a lot of plays this year.

 

Devon Kennard returns to the middle after making 72 tackles with seven for losses.  Chris Galippo was a part-time starter and made 29 tackles.  Marquis Simmons will split time with Hayes Pullard at the other outside spot.

 

Secondary

This unit is almost as strong as the front line.  The loss of Shareece Wright and his 10 passes defended will be hard to overcome, but new starting cornerback Tony Burnett saw a lot of action last year and made 26 tackles.  He will join Nickell Robey, who led the team with four picks.

 

The two starting safeties are back for more.  Jawanza Starling and T. J. McDonald combined for 126 tackles and nine passes defended.

 

Nickel back Torrin Harris is good enough to be a regular for most teams.

 

OTHER

Kiffin was cleared in the recent investigation of the Tennessee football program.  The Trojans will be off probation after this season, and they will not be eligible for the Pac-12 Championship Game this year.

 

SUMMARY

USC should be 6-0 when they travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame on October 22, although they must face Arizona State in Tempe on September 24.  They follow that game with Stanford at the Coliseum. A trip to Eugene to face the Quack Attack in November is followed by a visit from cross-town rival UCLA. 

 

Southern Cal should win at least eight games this year, and we would not be surprised if they go 10-2.

 

Arizona State

OFFENSE

Quarterback

When healthy, Brock Osweiler is an effective quarterback.  At 6-08, he has no trouble seeing over the line, but he is mobile enough to be an effective runner.  In limited action last year, he completed 57% of his passes for 797 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.

 

The Sun Devils will be in a heap of trouble if Osweiler is absent for any length of time.  Redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly is the next best option, but he is not ready for Pac-12 football.

 

Receivers

Coach Dennis Erickson has loads of depth here but no true stars.  His projected three starters, Aaron Pflugrad, Mike Willie, and Gerell Robinson, all topped 25 receptions and combined for 94 total with 13 touchdowns.  T. J. Simpson caught 29 passes for 481 yards, but he is still recovering from ACL surgery in the spring.  Juco Transfer George Bell could see action early.

 

Tevor Kohl and Christopher Coyle could form a double tight end set, but ASU does not throw to their tight ends and uses them basically for blocking.

 

Running Backs

The Sun Devils have some depth here.  Cameron Marshall returns after leading the team with 787 yards and nine touchdowns.  James Morrison saw limited action in 2010, but he will move to number two on the depth chart.  Deantre Lewis will not be ready for the start of the season after suffering a gunshot wound that damaged his hamstring.  He finished second with 539 rushing yards.

 

Look for Marshall to threaten the 1,000 yard mark if Lewis does not see the field this year.

 

Offensive Line

Arizona State welcomes back all five starters from 2010, and this is why the Sun Devils have an excellent shot of advancing to the first Pac-12 Championship Game.

 

Center Garth Gerhart is a Remington Trophy contender.  Tackle Evan Finkenberg could contend for all-conference honors.  Guards Andrew Sampson and Mike Marcisz and tackle Aderious Simmons round out the unit.  Look for the total number of sacks allowed to drop by 5-10 from a rather high 31 in 2010.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Erickson’s front four performed admirably last year, giving up just 120 rushing yards, but they did not provide enough of a pass rush.  Both ends, Junior Onyeali and Jamaar Jarrett, return after teaming for 22 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.  Bo Moos and William Sutton will be the new tackles.  They are one-gap aggressors and not big beefeaters.  Corey Adams is making a charge to replace Moos.

 

Linebackers

This could have been one of the top units in the nation, but the loss of key starter Brandon Magee with a torn Achilles’ tendon has dropped it several rungs on the national ladder.  Vontaze Burfict led the team with 90 tackles last year, but he did not record a sack and only knocked away three passes.  Colin Parker made 57 tackles, while Oliver Aaron made 47 with 7 ½ for losses.  Aaron replaces Magee.  Shelly Lyons could crack the starting lineup in place of Parker.

 

Secondary

Here is the problem with the defense.  ASU gave up 245 passing yards per game and allowed a completion percentage of 63.2%.  Two full-time and one part-time starter must be replaced.  Cornerback Deveron Carr started part-time and made just eight tackles.  At the opposite corner, Osahon Irabor made 40 tackles with three passes defended.  Safety Eddie Elder registered 64 tackles with 5 ½ stops for loss and five passes defended.  Clint Floyd will start at the other safety spot after recording 30 tackles.

 

OTHER

The Sun Devils had a -6 turnover margin last year, and a lot of that had to do with a defense that could not create turnovers.  Expect some improvement on that side of the ball but not much.

 

SUMMARY

This is Arizona State’s year to shine, but injuries could hamper the process.  With Southern Cal ineligible for the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Sun Devils are the best of the rest in this weaker division. 

 

ASU may not have a gaudy record, because their out of conference slate includes games against Missouri and Illinois.  They could easily start 1-3, because their first conference game is against the Trojans.  Even if that happens, the Sun Devils can still rebound and go 6-3 in the league.  That should be good enough for second in this division, and at 7-5, they would be playing Oregon or Stanford for the Pac-12’s automatic BCS bowl berth.

 

Arizona

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Nick Foles returns after passing for 3,191 yards and 20 touchdowns.  He completed 67+% of his passes.  The situation is muddled after Foles.  Expected backup Bryson Beirne sprained his ACL and is out for several weeks.  Last year’s backup Matt Scott plans to redshirt this year, and that leaves true freshman Daxx Garman as the only other choice should Foles go down.

 

Receivers

Coach Mike Stoops has quality talent here with the return of his top four receivers.  Juron Criner, David Douglas, David Roberts, and Terrence Miller teamed for 207 receptions and 18 touchdowns.  Criner was the breakaway threat, while the other three were excellent possession receivers.

 

Dan Buckner joins the group after transferring from Texas.  He had starting experience with the Longhorns.

 

Running Backs

One of UA’s two platoon backs return this season.  Keola Antolin rushed for a team-leading 668 yards; he scored seven times.  Antolin also caught 28 passes with two more touchdowns.  The talent behind him is average.

 

Offensive Line

Oh no!  That’s the best way to describe this unit, as all five starters are missing.  Center Kyle Quinn is the only player to ever start a game, and he started a grand total of one.  Guards Trace Biskin and Chris Putton are as green as any starter in college football.  Tackles Fabbians Ebbele and Mickey Baucus are redshirt freshmen.  ‘Zona is going to regress by a considerable amount, and Foles is in danger of having to run for his life.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The front line is almost in the same boat as the offensive line.  The Wildcats lose two NFL Draft choices.  Tackle Justin Washington is the lone returnee.  He made 46 stops with 11 ½ for loss and will contend for 1st Team All-Pac-12 honors this year. 

 

Sione Tuihalamaka starts at the other tackle position.  He made 23 stops with three going for losses.  The ends will be Mohammed Usman and C. J. Parrish.

 

Linebackers

Paul Vassallo returns to his Will linebacker position after leading the team with 102 tackles and eight for loss.  Derek Earls returns at the middle spot after making 44 tackles.  David Lopez will be the new starter at the Sam position.  This is an average unit.

 

Secondary

If Arizona has a strength on this side of the ball, it is in the secondary.  Free safety Robert Golden finished tied for third in the league with 13 passes defended, but he only intercepted one pass.  He’ll team with Marquis Flowers, who made 11 tackles as a freshman.

 

At Cornerback, Trevin Wade needs to improve on his four passes defended, while Shaquille Richardson becomes a full-timer after coming up with nine passes defended.  Without a strong pass rush, this unit will struggle a little.  

 

OTHER

Arizona has to visit Oklahoma State just prior to playing Stanford, Oregon, and USC in consecutive weeks.  This four-game losing streak could damage the morale of the new starters and doom Arizona to a losing season.

 

SUMMARY

The only sure wins on the schedule are the opener with Northern Arizona and the finale with Louisiana.  There are chances for maybe four conference wins, so the Wildcats could get to 6-6.  Who knows?  When Arizona faces Arizona State, if they are 4-4 in league play, the game could even be for a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

 

U C L A

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Stanford is noted for its great tradition of outstanding quarterbacks.  UCLA is noted for its awful tradition of injured quarterbacks.  It seems like every starter since Cade McNown graduated in the 1990’s has suffered some injury.

 

Kevin Prince is just the latest in that trend.  He made it through five games last year, passing for 384 yards out of the new pistol offense.  His knee was not well enough to allow him to set and throw quickly, and the extra running from the new formation sent him to the sidelines. 

 

Backup Richard Brehaut returns after leading the Bruins with almost 1,300 passing yards.

 

Two more QBs could see playing time this year; that is if tradition holds, and quarterbacks go out with injuries.  Nick Crissman was a highly sought-after passer four years ago, while true freshman Brett Hundley is a dual threat.  Hundley might have challenged for a starting spot, but he tore his meniscus playing basketball and will not be ready at the start of the season.  Even before he suited up, the injury bugaboo hit him.  Expect more of the jinx in 2011.

 

Late Note: Brehaut sprained his foot in practice and will miss a few days.  JINX!

 

Receivers

If a healthy quarterback can get in a rhythm and start several games, he will be happy with the group of receivers on hand.  Nearly everybody that caught or even dropped a pass in 2010 is back in 2011.  Leading receiver Taylor Embree strained a calf muscle and will be slowed to start the season.  Embree made 32 receptions but did not convert any into touchdowns.

 

Anthony Barr and Nelson Rosario will start at the other two receiver spots; they teamed for 38 receptions but just one touchdown.  Tight end Cory Harkey made 14 catches.  How many touchdowns did he score? Zero!  Of course, the Bruins only scored nine times through the air.  Randall Carroll is the one legitimate long ball threat.  He will see a lot of action after averaging 16.2 yards on his 15 receptions—and with two whole touchdowns!

 

Running Backs

At last, here is one position that will not cause Coach Rick Neuheisel nightmares.  Jonathan Franklin rushed for 1,127 yards and eight scores, while averaging 5.3 yards per rush.  Backup Derrick Coleman added 487 yards and five scores.  If the passing game develops like it could, the running game could see its yardage drop a little, but the average per carry could top 4.5 yards.

 

Offensive Line

Additional injuries and academic issues have put a dark cloud over this unit.  Guard Stan Hasiak had to enroll in a junior college due to grades.  His expected replacement, Jeff Baca, will miss the start of the season with an ankle injury.  The other guard spot was expected to be filled by Chris Ward.  He suffered a sprained ankle and will miss some practice time.

 

At least tackles Mike Harris and Sean Sheller are healthy and experienced.  Center Kai Maiava missed all of last year, but his healthy return is the one bright spot here.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Bruins are in good shape here with a lot of depth and decent talent.  Damien Holmes and Datone Jones make up a quality pair of ends.  That is, if Jones can make a 100% comeback after a medical redshirt year in 2010.  Justin Edison and Cassius Marsh can plug a lot of gaps from their tackle positions. 

 

Linebackers

Will linebacker Sean Westgate made 90 tackles with four sacks and 11 total for losses.  He played tough against the short pass, knocking away four passes.  The unit will build around him.  Patrick Larimore missed Spring Practice, but he should be ready for the start of the season.  Glenn Love will start at the other linebacker spot after making 16 tackles as a reserve.

 

While not spectacular, this trio will not be the reason UCLA loses games this year.

 

Secondary

What looked like a possible strength has taken a pounding through injuries.  Somebody needs to investigate UCLA’s practice field.  Are they going on pavement or something?

 

Three starters return to the defensive backfield, including strong safety Tony Dye.  Dye led the Bruins with 96 tackles (remember what we said about strong safeties leading in tackles), while breaking up nine passes and pilfering one other.  His counterpart will be Dietrich Riley, who made 21 stops in reserve last year.

 

The cornerbacks are set with Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price.  The duo teamed for 51 tackles and 14 passes defended.  Jamie Graham figured to contend for a lot of playing time after transferring from Vanderbilt, but he suffered a meniscus tear that requires surgery and will be out until at least October.  Anthony Jefferson had to have surgery for a herniated disk in his back and will also be out all of September.

 

OTHER

Neuheisel is on the hot seat.  His three years in Westwood have produced a pair of 4-8 seasons with a 7-6 season in between.  He has two new coordinators this year.  Norm Chow went to Utah, so former 49ers’ offensive guru Mike Johnson takes over.  Joe Tresey is the new DC.  He was Brian Kelly’s DC at Cincinnati for two years.

 

SUMMARY

An opening game against Houston will be very interesting and reveal if UCLA has any chance of moving up from the dregs of the conference.  The next game against San Jose State should produce a win, but game three is against Texas.  The Bruins could be 1-2 and looking at another losing season; they could be 2-1 with a chance to get to seven wins.  If the quarterback play comes around with no injuries, they could even be 3-0.  If that’s the case, and the jinx can be avoided, they could be a dark horse for the South Division title, or at least the eligible team title.

 

Utah

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Welcome to the Pac-12 Jordan Wynn.  Wynn is 1-1 lifetime against conference opponents.  The Utes beat California in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, and he almost upset Oregon in the 2009 regular season.

 

Last year in the Mountain West Conference, Wynn completed 62.2% of his passes for 2,334 yards and 17 touchdowns.  He missed Spring Practice, but he should be ready for the start of the season.  With new offensive coordinator Norm Chow tutoring him, he should produce better numbers even in a tougher league.

 

Juco transfer Jon Hayes will be the primary backup this year.

 

Receivers

Utah does not have exceptional talent here this year.  The depth is not there.  DeVonte Christopher is a gem; he led the Utes with 660 yards in receptions, averaging almost 17 yards per catch.

 

H-Back Luke Matthews is another big play receiver, but he only got his hand on 18 passes last year.  He will be called on to block more than catch passes. 

 

Reggie Dunn will split time with Dres Anderson at the flanker position, while Kendrick Moeai starts at tight end.

 

Running Backs

Utah must replace its two-platoon set of runners.  They combined for more than 1,400 yards on the ground and 19 touchdowns.  Juco transfer John White will get first crack at starting, but Tauni Vakapuna should get a lot of attempts in short yardage situations.  He’s 5-09 and 229 pounds, so tackling him will be like stopping a large boulder coming down a mountain.

 

Offensive Line

This is not a strong unit.  Center Tevita Stevens is more than capable after earning 3rd Team All-MWC honors last year.  Tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom have the experience with Bergstrom earning 2nd Team All-MWC honors.  Both projected starting guards will miss the start of the season, and Coach Kyle Whittingham has not yet settled on one of the replacements.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

There is some talent here, but overall, this is not an exceptional unit.  Star Lotulelei may one day live up to his name, but the nose tackle is an unknown commodity at the moment.  The other tackle will see a platoon between James Aiono and Dave Kruger.

 

Derrick Shelby and Joe Kruger will start at end.  Shelby made 6 ½ stops for loss last year. 

 

Linebackers

This is the strongest unit of a weak defense.  All three starters from last year return, and they finished one, two, and four in tackles.

 

Chaz Walker led the Utes with 113 tackles, while making seven for losses.  Hybrid linebacker/safety Matt Martinez made 91 tackles, while Brian Blechen added 67 stops and proved to be excellent against the pass with nine passes defended, four of them interceptions.

 

Secondary

The Utes have to start over here, as all four 2010 starters are gone.  Cornerbacks Conroy Black and Ryan Lacy have some experience, and Lacy has sprinter’s speed, so he will make up for a few mistakes before it can hurt the team.

 

Juco transfer Keith McGill will join true freshman Eric Rowe and sophomore Michael Walker at safety.

 

OTHER

Whittingham has expressed some concerns with his place kickers, as Coleman Petersen and Nick Marsh have been inconsistent in practice.

 

The Utes will miss punt returner Shaky Smithson, who took two back the distance last year, while averaging 19.1 yards per return to lead the nation.

 

SUMMARY

It is going to be a rough first season in the Pac-12 for the Utes.  Their offense will not equal last season’s production of 33 points and 389 yards, and their defense will give up more than 2010’s 20 points and 337 yards.

 

After an opening game with Montana State, Utah faces USC and BYU on the road.  They get a week off before starting conference play in earnest.  Mixed in the middle of the schedule is a trip to Pittsburgh. 

 

We see a 1-2 non-league record and then a struggle to win three more games.  At least, the Utes play neither Oregon nor Stanford.

 

Colorado

OFFENSE

Quarterback

New coach Jon Embree and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy return to their alma mater to light a fire in the Buffaloes’ offense.  They inherit co-starter Tyler Hansen, who completed 68% of his passes but averaged less than 10 yards per completion.

 

Juco transfer Brent Burnette could challenge Hansen for the job.  Overall, this is the weakest QB roster in the Pac-12.

 

Receivers

Paul Richardson is sure to start after leading the Buffs with a 15.1 yard average per catch.  He grabbed 34 passes and scored six times.  Logan Gray, a former QB at Georgia, is immediately eligible and will start.  The other position will be split between Toney Clemons and true freshman Tyler McCulloch.  There is potential here, but they may need another season of experience.

 

Running Backs

Rodney Stewart is “the man.”  He was the Buffaloes’ offense last year, rushing for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Bieniemy may sound like a broken record calling his number over and over again this year.

 

Offensive Line

Three starters return to a rather decent unit.  Ryan Miller and Ethan Adkins form a formidable pair of guards, while David Bakhtiari is a plus at tackle.  Jack Harris earned the other starting tackle nod, but he has never played in a college game in two years at CU.  There is a two-man battle to fill the center spot that would have belonged to Mike Iltis had he not given up football.  Daniel Munyer and Gus Handler are neck and neck.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Buffs are hurting on this side of the ball.  They will have a weaker defense than Washington State this year.  However, the four-man D-line is not all that bad.

 

Josh Hartigan and Chidera Uzo Diribe will make a decent pair of ends.  Hartigan made seven QB sacks as a designated pass rusher last year and will be more of a linebacker than end, while Will Pericak will play more like an end than a tackle.  Curtis Cunningham and Conrad Obi will play inside.  This unit has depth and some talent.

 

Linebackers

Unless you count Hartigan as a true linebacker, this unit is in need of a transfusion.  Jon Major made 57 tackles at the Will position last year, but too many of them were after nice gains by the enemy.  Derrick Webb and Douglas Rippy are not the answer and will be exploited.

 

Secondary

CU will be lit up via the passing game, as the secondary is not Pac-12 caliber.  Safeties Ray Polk and Anthony Perkins will make a lot of tackles, but officials will be signaling “first down” on most of them.  Travis Sandesfeld and Greg Henderson are subpar at cornerback.

 

OTHER

Colorado plays at Hawaii, so the Buffs will have 13 games on their schedule.  The contest with California in week two will not count as a Pac-12 game, since it was previously scheduled as a non-conference game.

 

SUMMARY

Because they play 13 games, there is a good chance CU will suffer through a double-digit loss season.  They play at Hawaii and at Ohio State outside of the league, and they face rival Colorado State at Invesco Field in Denver.  It will be a long first year for Embree.

 

2011 Pacific 12 Conference Media Poll

Team

1st Place Votes

Points

North Division

 

 

Oregon

29

239

Stanford

13

220

Washington

 

142

Oregon State

 

120

California

 

110

Washington St.

 

51

 

 

 

South Division

 

 

Southern Cal

24

230

Arizona St.

13

207

Utah

4

170

Arizona

1

140

U C L A

 

89

Colorado

 

46

 

 

 

Pac-12 Championship

 

Oregon

 

28

Stanford

 

11

Arizona State

 

3

 

 

2011 Pac-12 Conference PiRate Ratings

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

North Division

 

 

Stanford

126.4

9-0/13-0*

Oregon

125.6

8-1/11-1

Oregon State

112.9

5-4/6-6

Washington

112.9

5-4/7-5

California

111.3

3-6/6-6

Washington St.

102.8

3-6/5-7

   

 

South Division  

 

Southern Cal

117.2

7-2/9-3

Arizona St.

116.6

6-3/8-5

Arizona

113.1

3-6/5-7

U C L A

110.9

3-6/4-8

Utah

108.4

2-7/3-9

Colorado

101.8

0-9/1-12

   

 

* Stanford picked to defeat Arizona State
in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game.

 Coming Friday Night: A look at what’s left of the Big 12 Conference.

August 15, 2010

2010 Mountain West Conference Preview

Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Mountain West Conference Preview

 

The best of the non-BCS conferences will undergo a change next year, as Utah leaves for the newly named Pac-12.  Boise State will move here from the WAC and continue a great rivalry with TCU.  It wouldn’t shock us to see the Horned Frogs and Broncos meeting for a third consecutive season in a bowl, and it isn’t impossible for that bowl game to be the last one of the year!

The only mystery for this season’s race is who will finish second.  TCU will win the league and should go undefeated in the regular season for the second year in a row.  There is no clear-cut second best team as five teams could wind up in the runner-up spot.

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 Team MWC Overall
1 T C U 8-0 12-0
2 Utah 6-2 8-4
3 Air Force 5-3 7-5
4 B Y U 5-3 7-5
5 Wyoming 4-4 6-6
6 San Diego State 4-4 7-5
7 U N L V 3-5 5-8
8 Colorado State 1-7 2-10
9 New Mexico 0-8 1-11

 

BCS Bowl—T C U

Las Vegas Bowl—Utah

Poinsettia Bowl—B Y U

Independence Bowl—Air Force

New Mexico Bowl—San Diego State

Armed Forces Bowl—Wyoming

 

Team By Team Breakdown

 

Team Air Force Falcons
               
Head Coach Troy Calhoun
               
Colors Royal Blue and Silver
               
City Colorado Springs, CO
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 102.0
               
National Rating 52
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 7-5

 

Offense: The Falcons have a feast/famine tug of war on this side of the ball.  Coach Troy Calhoun has molded three fantastic offenses in his first three seasons in Colorado Springs, and we believe the string will continue despite Calhoun having to start almost from scratch up front.

Right guard A.J. Wallerstein started one game at left guard last year, and that represents all of the starting experience for this season’s offensive line.  It isn’t a complete disaster though.  Air Force frequently has a lot of turnover because traditionally, there has been a reliance on seniority.  Also, because the Falcons utilize the option offense, the blocking schemes rely heavily on double team blocks and leaving other defenders unblocked so the quarterback can read and option them.  We are not concerned with the new starters, but there is an issue of depth.  None of the next five are ready to play at this level.

The rest of this offense is loaded and lethal.  Returning quarterback Tim Jefferson went 4-1 as a starter last year.  He connected on 57% of his passes with five touchdowns against two interceptions.  Jefferson connected on longer passes than the two other quarterbacks, and his ability to throw the ball downfield will open more running lanes for a great stable of back.

All the contributing ball carriers return this season.  Fullback Jared Tew and tailback Asher Clark teamed for 1,835 rushing yards and 16 scores.  Z-receiver Jonathan Warzeka added 267 yards on the ground running misdirection plays.

Kevin Fogler benefitted greatly from having Jefferson under center.  He averaged 22.7 yards per catch and scored a touchdown every fifth time he caught a pass.  Warzeka added 18 more catches.

Air Force has averaged 29 points and 380 yards per game in Calhoun’s tenure.  There is no reason to believe those stats won’t be continued again this year.

Defense: The defensive line is a cause for concern with just one of the three regulars from last year returning.  AFA is a little small at Defensive tackle in their 3-4 alignment, so opponents will be able to run the ball up the gut on them. 

The four-man linebacking crew welcomes back both of the outside defenders, Andre Morris and Wale Lawal.  The two combined for 9 ½ stops for loss, but the Falcons will have troubles replacing their two excellent inside linebackers.  John Falgout and Justin Moore finished one-two in tackles.

Only TCU has a better MWC secondary than Air Force, and the Falcons may have a better pair of cornerbacks than the Horned Frogs.  Anthony Wright and Reggie Rembert picked off 10 passes and knocked away six others.

Air Force gave up just 15.7 points and 288 yards per game in 2009.  Those numbers will go up this year.  Expect the Falcons to give up 21-24 points and 320-350 yards per game.

Schedule: The schedule gives the Falcons a leg up on competing for number two in the league.  After an easy opener with Northwestern State that should allow the new offensive line to gain confidence, AF hosts BYU.  The Cougars have run defense issues this year, and we believe Air Force will win that game.  The following week, the Falcons visit Oklahoma, who is loaded this year. 

As usual, AF plays Army and Navy, and we feel that they will win at least one of those games.  The key to the season comes in back-to-back weeks in October.  They face TCU in Ft. Worth on the 23rd, and then they host Utah a week later.  If they have anything left after the TCU loss, they could give the Utes a great game.  We feel that as the season progresses, the lack of depth in both trenches will hurt them.  Call it a repeat of 2009: 5-3 in league play and 7-5 overall before the bowl.

Team Brigham Young Cougars
               
Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall
               
Colors Navy and White
               
City Provo, UT
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 103.2
               
National Rating 50
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 7-5

 

Offense: 2010 will be a rebuilding season in Provo.  Brigham Young lost too much talent on this side of the ball, and there will be a substantial drop in production.  The Cougars lost a multi-year starting quarterback (Max Hall) who finished second all-time in passing yards at a school with a dozen excellent former QBs.  Also gone is the school’s career leader in rushing yards; Harvey Unga rushed for almost 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns.  He was dismissed from school and became a supplementary NFL pick.  2009’s top receiver, tight end Dennis Pitta, is now in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens after he led the team with 62 receptions (30 more than any other player).

It could be a blessing or a curse that BYU has two quarterbacks still competing for the starting nod this close to the first game.  They have totally different styles, and according to Coach Bronco Mendenhall, neither player has separated himself from the other.  Jake Heaps is the prototypical straight drop-back passer in the Peyton Manning mode.  He has all the physical tools to be the next in a long line of great passers here.  However, he is a true freshman.  Riley Nelson is more of a scrambler who can pass well on the run.  He saw very limited action last year, but he has starting experience from his days at Utah State.

BYU has no answer at tailback with the loss of Unga.  Unga rushed the ball 208 times last year, and the top reserve ran the ball just 55 times.

Without Pitta, BYU will once again concentrate on throwing the ball to wide outs and less to tight ends.  We believe O’Neil Chambers will emerge as the breakout star of this group.  Chambers caught 32 passes last year.

The one ray of sunshine on this side of the ball is the return of four starting offensive linemen.  Tackle Matt Reynolds has first round NFL draft potential.

BYU has topped 30 points and 425 yards per game for five straight years, but this streak will more than likely end this year.  Call it 25-28 points and 380-420 total yards per game.

Defense: There is more rebuilding to do on this side of the ball than on the other side.  The Cougars lost seven of their top 11 tacklers from 2009, including six starters.  Just two of the front seven return, so BYU will have a tough time against the run and rushing the passer.  It wouldn’t surprise us to see the Cougars give up 150 points in the first four games this year (see schedule below).

The one bright spot on this side of the ball is an experienced secondary.  Three starters return including leading tackler, free safety Andrew Rich.  Rich also tied for the team lead with four interceptions.

The Cougars lost their two best pass rushers, leaving outside linebacker Jordan Pendleton as the only quality sack man.  Pendleton had three sacks and three other tackles for loss.  He is a quality pass defender in the short zones as well.

Up front in the 3-4 alignment, BYU has a decent space-occupier in nose tackle Romney Fuga.  He won’t make 50 tackles, but he will command double team blocks, giving the linebackers a chance to be heroes.

BYU may not give up too many more points this year than last, because opponents will eat the clock running the ball much better this year against them.  Expect the Cougars to yield 22-25 points and 325-350 yards per game.  However, also expect the defense to be on the field for more plays this year.

Schedule: The month of September will be a back-breaker for the defense.  BYU opens with Washington and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Jake Locker.  Then, they must travel to Air Force, where their newly rebuilt defensive front seven will struggle against the option.  A week later, they will melt in Tallahassee against Florida State.  They close out the month with Nevada coming to Lavell Edwards Stadium.  It looks like a 1-3 start for this team.  After the annual first October Friday game (precedes the Church’s National Conference) with Utah State, BYU faces three of the league’s other four expected bowl-eligible teams—San Diego State, at TCU, and Wyoming.  By this point, we expect the Cougars to be out of the conference race just trying to salvage a winning season.  November gives them a chance for three quick wins before closing the season at Utah.  We will call it a seven-win ceiling this year.  And, you can take the Las Vegas bowl off the schedule for the first time in six years.  A trip to San Diego might be a nice alternative.

Team Colorado State Rams
               
Head Coach Steve Fairchild
               
Colors Green and Gold
               
City Ft. Collins, CO
               
2009 Record              
Conference 0-8
Overall 3-9
               
PiRate Rating 85.8
               
National Rating 96
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10

 

Offense: After starting the season 3-0 with wins over Colorado and Nevada, it looked like the Rams were primed to make a bid for a second consecutive bowl game.  Then, the bottom fell out.  CSU lost their final nine, including an embarrassing loss to a New Mexico team that went 1-11.  With only four starters returning on this side of the ball, don’t expect the Rams to match last year’s three-win season.  They will take a step backwards this year.

CSU lost both of their contributing quarterbacks, and the replacement will be one of two freshmen competing for the job.  There is a third quarterback on the roster that could eventually emerge as the starter sometime during the season; Junior Klay Kubiak is the son of Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak.  Klay missed all of last season with an injured shoulder that required surgery.

The quarterbacks won’t have much opportunity to star, because there is very little talent at receiver.  CSU lost its top two pass catchers, who combined for 74 receptions.  Additionally, the Rams lost three receivers since spring that were expected to contribute including a possible starter.  Expect true freshman tight end Crockett Gilmore to see immediate action.

Things look rosier at the running back position.  CSU has enough quality backs to flirt with running an old-fashioned two-back pro-set. 

Raymond Carter was a highly-touted recruit at UCLA.  He becomes eligible here this year and could supplant last year’s two-man platoon of Leonard Mason and John Mosure (a combined 1,416 rushing yards and nine scores).  Watch out for true freshman Tony Drake, who we believe could be a difference maker with his breakaway speed.  His size will keep him from being an every down back.

The offensive line lost four starters.  There is a little starting experience returning, but the Rams will field the weakest interior in the conference.

With a raw quarterback passing to inexperienced receivers and having to run for his life due to weak pass protection, expect Colorado State to struggle to score points and to turn the ball over more this season.  A negative turnover margin is a virtual given.  Look for about 14-18 points and 300 total yards from this side of the ball.

Defense: CSU had a lot more experience scheduled to return on this side of the ball, but the Rams lost both returning defensive ends (one to injury/one to academics), a defensive back expected to see a lot of time, and several reserves in the back seven.  This looks like a train wreck waiting to happen.

The one bright spot is at linebacker.  Will linebacker Mychal Sisson will compete for 1st team All-MWC honors after leading the Rams with 91 tackles, six sacks, and 9 ½ other tackles for loss.  He knocked down five passes too.  Coach Steve Fairchild welcomes back Sam linebacker Ricky Brewer who was suspended last year.

The front four will now have four new starters, and it will be the weakest in the conference.  Expect teams to run the ball at will on the Rams and exploit their lack of a pass rush with play-action passes to keep Sisson occupied.

The secondary will be overwhelmed due to the fact that there will be so little pass rush.  Free safety Elijah-Blue Smith led the Rams with three interceptions and knocked down five others, but teams will throw away from him. 

The statistic is not kept, but we have a suspicion that CSU will finish dead last number 120 in scrimmage play differential.  They were -6 last year, and they could easily be -10 to -15 this year.  Expect this defense to give up 200+ yards rushing and 200+ yards passing while surrendering 31-35 points per game.

Schedule: By the time UNLV comes to Ft. Collins for homecoming on October 16, the Rams could be 0-6 and figure to be no better than 1-5.  Outside of league play, they face Colorado at Invesco Field in Denver, play at Nevada and Miami of Ohio, and host Idaho.  They open MWC play with TCU at home and Air Force on the road.  They have two chances to win a conference game—the homecoming game with UNLV and the revenge game at home with lowly New Mexico.  We will call for a 1-7 league finish and 2-10 overall.  If Fairchild can coax four wins out of this team, he deserves a raise.

Team New Mexico Lobos
               
Head Coach Mike Locksley
               
Colors Cherry and Silver
               
City Albuquerque, NM
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 1-11
               
PiRate Rating 81.3
               
National Rating 107
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 1-11

 

Offense: Lobo fans wanted someone else to coach this team after watching Rocky Long’s teams play conservative football and simply go to bowl game after bowl game.  So, they forced him out.  They got Mike Locksley’s new offense—the one that gained 315 total yards and scored 16 points per game.  We hope they enjoyed what they got.

Locksley may only last one more season in Albuquerque, because this year’s offense could make last year’s look like Boise State.

A true freshman will open up at quarterback.  Tarean Austin is a speedy multiple-threat player who could lead the team in rushing as well as passing.  Let’s hope he can run enough to avoid the oncoming slew of defenders shooting through the line.  Austin’s backup will be another freshmen—Darain “Stump” Godfrey.

New Mexico returns their top three running backs from last year.  None of them will be confused for DonTrell Moore.  The trio combined for 987 yards and five touchdowns last year, and with an even weaker offensive line, they may not equal that mark this season.

The receiving corps has some experience returning, but like the running game, Hank Baskett won’t be walking out on the field.  Ty Kirk led the Lobos with 36 receptions and 427 yards. 

The offensive line will struggle.  Two starters return, and there is much less experience here, but last year’s regulars were not world-beaters.  This year’s unit cannot be much worse.

Look for UNM to average about 14-18 points and 280-320 yards.   

Defense: As weak as the offense was last year, the defense was worse.  Without the defensive genius of Long, the Lobos gave up 13 more points and 83 more yards per game in 2009.  If the offense could hold onto the ball, the defense could show a little improvement this year.

The Lobos have strength in numbers up front.  Three starters return to the four-man line, including one of UNM’s two potential 1st Team All-MWC performers.  End Johnathan Rainey finished second in the league (to the great Jerry Hughes) in sacks with 9 ½.  He added six more tackles for loss for good measure.  When he was busy dealing with double teams, counterpart Jaymar Latchison found time to pick up 4 ½ sacks and four other tackles for loss.

The other potential 1st Team All-MWC performer would be repeating that feat if he made it again this year.  Middle linebacker Carmen Messina led the country with 162 tackles and eight for loss.  He will have two new partners on either side of him.

The secondary gave up 254 yards per game and 63% completions last year, even with the great press rush.  The Lobos need to find two new safeties.  Both cornerbacks return, but they were the two weakest corner starters in the league.

The defense will be a little more talented, but it may not show in the stats.  Because opponents emptied the bench early in five of their games last year, and New Mexico figures to be in these games a little longer this year, expect opponents to leave their starting offense in deeper into the game.  The result—opponents will still score a lot of points.  Expect 31-35 points and 400-425 yards allowed once again.

Schedule: The Lobos have a chance in two of their non-conference games, and we think they will win one of the two.  Expect an 0-2 start with a road game against Oregon and a home game with Texas Tech.  After losing at home to Utah and on the road at UNLV, the Lobos get UTEP at home and travel to New Mexico State.  If they are 0-6 at this point, then they will end up 0-12.  We believe they will be lucky once and finish 1-11 again this year.  Locksley won’t be so lucky.

Team San Diego State Aztecs
               
Head Coach Brady Hoke
               
Colors Scarlet and Black
               
City San Diego, CA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 92.8
               
National Rating 80
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-5

 

Offense: Second year head coach Brady Hoke has the Aztecs on the right path, and he could soon replicate here what he did at Ball State.  Hoke’s 2010 Aztecs are going to be much improved on this side of the ball, and with a little bit of help from the other side of the ball, San Diego State could be playing a 13th game in December.

Look for SDSU to move to a two-back pro-set and use the West Coast Offense this year.  The Aztecs are stocked anew in the backfield, and they will force defenses to stop the run first.  Brandon Sullivan moves from tailback to fullback after leading the team in rushing in 2009.  Last year’s number two rusher, Walter Kazee, may have trouble getting on the field this year.  Two outstanding freshmen may get most of the reps at halfback.  Ronnie Hillman is a blazing runner who can take a simple pitch and turn it into a long gain.  Ezell Ruffin moves to halfback from wide receiver in high school.  He is almost as speedy as Hillman, but at 205 pounds, he packs some brute force punch in his game.  The Aztecs could double their running production after rushing for less than 80 yards per game.

If the running game takes some heat off the passing game, then SDSU will have a potent attack.  Quarterback Ryan Lindley could challenge for 1st Team All-MWC accolades.  With very little running game to supplement last year’s offense, Lindley passed for 3,054 yards and 23 touchdowns.  If he can cut down on his 16 interceptions of a year ago, he could challenge Andy Dalton for top honors in the league.

Lindley has a surplus of talent at receiver where two fine wide outs return.  DeMarco Sampson caught 62 passes for 851 yards and eight touchdowns, while speedy Vincent Brown added 45 receptions for 778 yards (17.3 avg.) and six scores.  There is depth behind these two.  For a West Coast offense to click, the tight end must be a pass catching weapon, and Alston Umuolo is that.  He grabbed 22 throws a year ago, and that number will improve to 30+ this year.

SDSU’s offensive line welcomes back four starters, and the new starter is a quality junior college transfer.  Expect much improved numbers in the running game and better protection for Lindley.

We believe San Diego State can improve from 23 to 28-31 points per game this season and from 342 to 375-400 yards of offense.

Defense: New Mexico’s loss was the Aztecs’ gain.  Rocky Long took over as defensive coordinator last year, and SDSU improved on defense by almost as many points and yards as New Mexico worsened.  With the entire three-man line returning up front, look for improved play against the run and a better pass rush.

Neither B J Williams nor Ernie Lawson proved to be a dominant pass rushing end last year, but with a better secondary this year, quarterbacks could be forced to hold onto the pigskin a bit longer.  Expect their sacks totals to rise.

The one suspect part of this defense is at linebacker, where two of last year’s three starters are gone and one other linebacker has been moved back one level. 

The back line of the 3-3-5 defense is loaded with talent and experience.  The aforementioned player that moved from linebacker is Andrew Preston.  He will man the “Aztec” position, a third safety that plays closer to the ball than a regular safety.  Preston played enough last year to record 46 tackles with four for loss. 

Expect more defensive improvement in the stat sheet this year.  We anticipate this team giving up 22-26 points and 350-375 yards per game.

Schedule: San Diego State scheduled well this year.  They should win three non-conference games, and they could stay surprisingly close in the one they lose.  Nicholls State will provide SDSU with an excellent chance to work out the kinks in game one.  A trip to New Mexico State should move the Aztecs to 2-0.  The following week, they could put a scare in Missouri at Columbia, but we expect them to lose by less than two touchdowns.  A home game with Utah State should give them a third win before MWC play begins.

The Aztecs host Air Force, Colorado State, Utah, and UNLV, while they go to BYU, New Mexico, Wyoming, and TCU.  They could be as good as 6-2 in the league or as bad as 3-5.  We’ll call for them to go 4-4, which will make them bowl-bound for the first time since 1998.

Team T C U  Horned Frogs
               
Head Coach Gary Patterson
               
Colors Purple and White
               
City Ft. Worth, TX
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 12-1
               
PiRate Rating 124.1
               
National Rating 6
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 8-0
Overall 12-0

 

Offense: Nine starters return to an offense that amassed 38.3 points and 457 yards per game last year.  That offense was quite balanced, churning out 240 rushing and 217 passing yards.  TCU will be virtually unstoppable on this side of the ball this year, and it wouldn’t surprise us any if the Horned Frogs challenged for 45-50 points and 500+ yards per game!

It all starts with the league’s top quarterback.  Andy Dalton will compete for the Heisman Trophy in his senior year.  As a junior, Dalton completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,756 yards and 23 touchdowns, while rushing for 512 (600+ without the sacks) yards and three more scores.

The leading rusher from last year has graduated, but TCU uses a running back-by-committee approach, and the Horned Frogs return several quality backs this year.  Expect another season of 200+ yards per game running, maybe as much as 275.

The receiving corps is downright scary and could be as good as Houston’s group of stars.  The top four receivers are back.  Jermey Kerly led with 44 catches and 532 yards.  Jimmy Young had 33 receptions for 517 yards.  Antoine Hicks caught just 23 passes, but he averaged an eye-popping 20.8 yards per catch with six scores.  Bart Johnson caught 33 more.  To this fine quartet, add two exceptionally talented youngsters.  Redshirt freshman Josh Boyce and sophomore Skye Dawson will see considerable playing time, and it wouldn’t surprise us if both finished with more than 25 receptions.  Dawson is even faster than Hicks and can turn a line of scrimmage bullet into a 75-yard touchdown.

Throw in the best offensive line in the league and possibly one of the five best in the nation, and you have an offense that will move the ball in every game.  Tackle Marcus Cannon has first round NFL draft potential.  Center Jake Kirkpatrick should make it to a pro roster next year as well (assuming there is a next year in the NFL).

The only drawback in trying to predict the points and yardage for this team is determining how often the bench warmers will be playing for long stretches in their games.  We’ll go with 42+ points and 500+ yards per game.

Defense: Here is the even scarier news: TCU’s defense is even better than their offense.  There is no weakness anywhere on this side.  All three units rank among the best in the nation.  Coach Gary Patterson’s Frogs have given up 12.3, 18.7, 11.3, and 12.8 points in the last four seasons, and it is not impossible for this year’s team to give up single digits in points per game.  The Horned Frogs led the nation in total defense last year by holding teams to 80 yards rushing and 159 yards passing. 

TCU utilizes a 4-2-5 defense, and they have both quality and depth at every position.  Up front, three starters return including two all-conference performers, tackle Cory Grant and end Wayne Daniels.  Even with the loss of All-American Jerry Hughes, this team won’t miss a beat.  His replacement, either Braylon Broughton or Stansly Maponga, will not record 11 ½ sacks, but the other three starters will make up for that lost amount.

The linebacking duo features 1st Team All-MWC Tank Carder.  Carder is one of the best all-around linebackers in college football.  In 2009, he made 89 tackles with 10 for loss.  In pass coverage, he batted away 10 passes and picked off one.  Look for him to compete for a spot on the All-American team this season.

The back five feature a trio of great safeties, but it is the two new cornerbacks that could be the best defenders in the secondary.  Greg McCoy and Jason Teague saw a lot of action last year and combined for four interceptions and seven knocked down passes.

It is tough to improve on number one, but TCU can get better statistically on this side of the ball.  We are going to guess they will give up 10-12 points and 185-225 yards per game.  They could lead the nation in both categories.

Schedule: TCU opens with Oregon State on September 4 at the Cowboys’ Stadium in nearby Arlington.  The Beavers are good and could contend for a Rose Bowl berth, but they are usually a slow-starting team.  We believe TCU will win this game by double digits and continue to roll from there.  They could lead Tennessee Tech by 50 points before halftime.  Game three at home with Baylor will be interesting, and the Bears will be pumped for this game, but the Horned Frogs should score a 17 or more point win.  Game four at SMU comes on a Friday night, and the battle for the Iron Skillet will be heated.  The Mustangs need a little more defense before they can make a game of it with TCU.  The only conference team that could give them a scare is Utah.  The game comes November 6, and it will be at Salt Lake City.  We expect the Horned Frogs to win convincingly in a game that should be on national TV, and it just could propel them into one of the top two spots in the BCS.

We believe there is an outside chance that TCU and Boise State could hook up for a bowl rubber match.  Two years ago, it was the Poinsettia Bowl, and TCU won 17-16.  Last year, it was the Fiesta Bowl, and Boise State exacted revenge with a 17-10 win.  This year, both could return to Glendale, but this one would be for all the marbles.  The SEC, Big 12, and Big Ten champions must all lose one game after October 1 for this to happen, but if it does, it should be the most talked about national championship game in decades.  It could do for the NCAA what the New York Jets’ Super Bowl victory over Baltimore did for the NFL.

Team U N L V  Rebels
               
Head Coach Bobby Hauck
               
Colors Scarlet and Gray
               
City Las Vegas, NV
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 94.1
               
National Rating 78
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 5-8

 

Offense: New head coach Bobby Hauck comes to Las Vegas from Montana, where he guided the Grizzlies to the FCS Championship Game three times.  His arrival in Vegas comes at the right time, because former coach Mike Sanford left him a full cupboard on this side of the ball.

UNLV will transition from a shotgun spread offense to an old-fashioned quarterback under center offense.  Senior quarterback Omar Clayton, a former walk-on, comes back for his third season as starter after topping 60% in completions last year.  We believe he will improve his yards per attempt and cut down on interceptions this year.  Backup Mike Clausen saw a lot of action last year, as he is a better runner than Clayton.  Clausen suffered an ankle injury in early fall practice, but he should be okay for the season.

The Rebels had three productive receivers last year, and two of them return this season.  Phillip Payne and Michael Johnson teamed for 101 catches and eight scores.

UNLV returns the two running backs that saw most of the game action last year.  While neither is a threat to rush for 1,000 yards, C J Cox  and Channing Trotter will get the tough yards—three yards on third and two.  Redshirt freshman Bradley Randle is more of an outside threat, and we believe he will become part of the rotation this year.

Four starters return to the offensive line.  The tackles, Matt Murphy and Evan Marchal, rank near the top in the league.

Hauk’s first Vegas attack should average 25-28 points and 360-380 yards per game.  If the Rebels can cut down on turnovers, they could surprise a few teams.

Defense: This is the reason Mike Sanford was let go.  He could never mold together a decent defense, as UNLV gave up more than 32 points per game the last two seasons, while falling one win short of bowl eligibility both times.

The Rebels will be more of an attacking defense this year.  They may give up an occasional big play, but they should force more turnovers as well.  Six of the two-deep from the defensive line return this season.  Tackle Ramsey Feagai tips the scale at 350 pounds!  He won’t get to the quarterback, but he should plug the inside just by holding his ground.  His counterpart at the other tackle is “puny 300-pounder”  Isaako Aaitui.  Opponents will not run many line plunges between their tackles, but the Rebels will continue to search for pass rushing answers, and they will probably resort to a lot of blitzing on passing downs.

Two linebackers return to the starting lineup, and they could finish one-two in tackles this year.  Starr Fuimaono and Ronnie Paulo teamed up for 126 stops a year ago.

The secondary is the strength of this unit.  All four starters come back for another season, and they absolutely must improve on last year’s poor showing when they gave up 236 yards and 65% completions.  They combined for just two interceptions.

Expect immediate improvement in this defense, especially in yards allowed.  We’re looking for the Rebels to give up 25-30 points and 380-420 yards.

Schedule: If they had a couple more patsies, we might be inclined to call UNLV a sleeper team.  The out-of-conference schedule is too difficult.  The Rebels host Wisconsin and Nevada and play at Idaho, West Virginia, and Hawaii.  They should be 2-3, 3-2 at best.  They are better than Colorado State and New Mexico and should win those two games.  We think they could pull one upset, maybe over Wyoming or Air Force and finish with five wins for the third consecutive season.

Team Utah Utes
               
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham
               
Colors Crimson and White
               
City Salt Lake City, UT
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 104.0
               
National Rating 47
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-4

 

Offense: This will be Utah’s last year in the Mountain West, as they move to the Pac-12 next year.  They should go out with a bang and not a whimper thanks to a strong offense.

Coach Kyle Whittingham welcomes back two experienced quarterbacks this season.  Jordan Wynn will get the nod over Terrance Cain.  Wynn started the final five games of the year, and Utah averaged 34 points in those games. 

Wynn lost his top receiver, David Reed and his 81 receptions for 1,188 yards.  Jereme Brooks caught 56 passes and led with seven touchdowns, while earning 2nd Team All-MWC last year. 

The running game will be special this season with the return of Eddie Wide.  Wide rushed for 1,069 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning 1st Team all-league honors.

Like several of the other top teams in this league, the Utes have a talented and experienced offensive line returning.  Four starters are back including two who made all-conference.  Center Zane Taylor and guard Calb Schlauderaff will hear their names called early in the next NFL draft.

Utah averaged 30 points per game for the season, and we expect that number to top 35 this year.  We also expect total yards to top 400.

Defense: Here is the reason Utah will not give TCU a serious challenge for the title.  The Utes regressed on this side of the ball last year, and they don’t look any better this year.  In fact, we expect them to be even more generous with the loss of their top four tacklers.

Three of four defensive line starters are back.  Tackle Sealver Siliga had 49 tackles with 6 ½ for loss, while getting his hand on four passes.

The linebacking corps has been decimated by graduation.  Rover J J Williams had one start last year and made 20 tackles.  Keep an eye on true freshman V. J. Fehoko, who could emerge as a starter at some point in the season.  He is one of the highest-rated recruits Utah has had.

The secondary has just one starter returning, and that is lightning fast cornerback Brandon Burton.  Burton knocked down 10 passes and intercepted one other last year.  Justin Taplin-Ross saw considerable action at strong safety last year, but he has been shifted to free safety.

Utah will surrender 20-24 points and give up 320-340 yards per game this year, and that will be just enough to keep them from competing with TCU. 

Schedule: Utah opens the season with Big East runner-up Pittsburgh on a Thursday night at Eccles Stadium.  Other non-conference games include road games at Iowa State and Notre Dame and a home game with San Jose State.  The Utes could win all four games, which would help TCU’s strength of schedule when the Frogs come to SLC.  Utah could also lose three of those four and struggle to reach eight wins in their final go around in the conference.  We will call for a 2-2 non-conference record and 6-2 league mark.

Team Wyoming Cowboys
               
Head Coach Dave Christensen
               
Colors Brown and Prairie Gold
               
City Laramie, WY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 95.6
               
National Rating 71
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-6

 

Offense: Dave Christensen inherited a veteran club from Joe Glenn and guided the Cowboys to a 7-6 record and bowl win in his first season in Laramie.  His second team should be as good as his first, and his second attack squad should be better.

Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels earned MWC Freshman of the Year honors last year.  He completed 59% of his passes for more than 1,950 yards and ran for more than 600 yards when you factor out almost three dozen sacks.  His specialty was pulling victory out in the last minutes of games.  Christensen developed Chase Daniel at Missouri, and he Carta-Samuels should rapidly improve in his second season.

The Cowboys had one great receiver and six average ones last year.  Fortunately, the great one returns for his senior year.  David Leonard grabbed 77 passes last year, many of them in tight quarters, as Wyoming was a five yards and cloud of dust passing team.

The running attack had a freshman leading the way in 2009, as Alvester Alexander ran for 640 yards and seven scores. 

The offensive line lost two seasoned veteran starters last year, but two of the three returnees could earn postseason honors.  Guard Sam Sterner is the second or third best in the league at his position, while tackle Clayton Kirven could sneak onto the All-MWC team.

The Cowboys should top 20 points per game for the first time in four years and 325+ yards per game for the first time in five years.

Defense: Seven of the team’s top eight tacklers return this year, so Wyoming’s defense should improve more than the offense.  The strength on this side is the secondary, where all four starters return.  The quartet of Marcell and Tashaun Gipson at cornerback and Shamiel Gary and Chris Prosinski at safety combined for six interceptions and 22 passes broken up.  Prosinski led the Cowboys with 140 tackles, and I am sure Christensen would prefer he wouldn’t have to make so many this season.

Christensen has made a courageous move up front.  Because all three defensive linemen graduated, he took his two outside linebackers and moved them to end and switched to a 4-3.  Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns recorded 193 tackles with 14 recorded for lost yardage. 

Middle linebacker Brian Hendricks becomes the lone holdover in the second line with the moving forward of his two comrades.  Hendricks made 116 stops last year.  Ghaali Muhammad made 21 tackles in a reserve role last year and will start at one linebacker spot.  The other will probably go to Keith Lewis, who has three years of reserve experience.  Freshman Devyn Harris could see as much time at that spot.

Look for a little more consistency out of the Wyoming defense this year.  We believe they will give up around 25-27 points and 375-400 yards again this season, but they play a tougher schedule.

Schedule: The Cowboys face three teams that went undefeated in the regular season last year—Boise State at home and Texas and TCU on the road.  Other non-league games include Southern Utah at home and Toledo on the road.  The key to the season are the two games that come after Texas and Boise State and precede TCU.  Wyoming hosts Air Force on September 25 and goes to Toledo the next week.  They must win both of these games and sit at 3-2 at this point in order to get to six wins.  We believe they can do it.  Their two new defensive ends with past linebacker experience just may be able to shut down the option game, and their improving offense should be able to score enough points at the Glass Bowl.

Coming Tomorrow: We begin breaking down the BCS conferences.  First up: The Big East Conference—Five teams have a shot at the conference title.

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