The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 26, 2012

2012 Pac-12 Conference Preview

The Pac-12 last produced a national champion in 2004, when Southern Cal blew Oklahoma out of the Orange Bowl 55-19.  The Trojans rode the arm of Matt Leinart and the legs of Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

 

Oregon played for the national title two years ago, giving Auburn a great game (lost 22-19).

 

Stanford has lost twice to Oregon in the last two year, but the Cardinal have won their 11 other regular season games both years.

 

The Pac-12 is slowly becoming important again.  This year, the league has two legitimate national title contenders.  However, the big story in this league is the new blood that should make this league the most exciting of all.

 

Rich Rodriguez brings his spread offense to Arizona.  Todd Graham is attempting to become the Larry Brown of college football.  His latest nomadic travel brings him to Tempe, Arizona.  Jim Mora, Jr. takes over in Westwood and tries to make UCLA important again.  However, the biggest new face settled in Pullman, Washington.  The Pirate, Mike Leach, returns to coaching, and Washington State fans will get to see the Cougars go wild this year.

 

Yes, this just may be the most exciting league in college football.  The PiRate Ratings show the Pac-12 to be the third strongest league, just a field goal weaker than the SEC and two points weaker than the Big 12.

 

The Media Poll was released a month ago, and the members of the press had this to say about the 2012 Pac-12 race:

 

 

Pac-12 North

Votes

 

 

Rank

Team

1st Place

Total

 

1

Oregon

117

732

(18)

2

Stanford

5

533

 

3

Washington

0

502

 

4

California

1

382

 

5

Washington State

0

228

 

6

Oregon State

0

205

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pac-12 South

 

 

 

Rank

Team

1st Place

Total

 

1

Southern Cal

117

729

(102)

2

Utah

1

514

 

3

U C L A

2

435

 

4

Arizona

0

385

 

5

Arizona State

3

353

(3)

6

Colorado

0

164

 

 

 

 

 

 

Numbers in ( ) are votes to win Pac-12 Championship Game

 

 

The PiRate Ratings agree with the belief that the top two teams in the league are dominant this year.

 

PiRate Ratings

Rank

Pac-12 North

PiRate

1

Oregon

122.1

2

Stanford

119.1

3

California

109.1

4

Oregon State

106.0

5

Washington

105.8

6

Washington State

102.1

 

   

Rank

Pac-12 South

PiRate

1

Southern Cal

130.5

2

Utah

111.6

3

U C L A

110.5

4

Arizona

105.6

5

Arizona State

99.3

6

Colorado

92.6

 

 

The PiRate Vintage Ratings differ only slightly from the two above, but they agree that the top two teams are national title contenders.

 

 

Vintage Ratings

 

Rank

Pac-12 North

Vintage

1

Oregon

116

2

California

112

3

Stanford

111

4

Washington

107

5

Oregon State

105

6

Washington State

100

 

   

Rank

Pac-12 South

Vintage

1

Southern Cal

118

2

Utah

110

3

U C L A

108

4

Arizona

108

5

Arizona State

103

6

Colorado

96

 

 

Team

California Golden Bears

               
Head Coach

Jeff Tedford

               
Colors

Blue and Gold

               
City

Berkeley, CA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-5

Overall

7-6

               
PiRate Rating

109.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

34

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

112

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

16

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

4-5

Overall

6-6

 

After going 52-24 from 2004 to 2009, the Bears have come close to going into hibernation the last two seasons, going 12-13.  Coach Jeff Tedford returns his quarterback and top running back, but he must find a new set of complimentary receivers on offense.  He must rebuild a defense that was one of the best in the league.  This looks like another year of mediocrity in Berkeley.

 

Zach Maynard has a decent arm and nice accuracy, but he needs open receivers.  Maynard completed 57% of his passes for 2,990 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011.  If he gets injured, Cal will be in trouble, because there are no quality passers with game experience behind him.  True freshman Zach Line and seldom used Allan Bridgford could not lead the Bears to a bowl.

 

Tedford prefers a balanced offense with something close to a 50-50 run-pass percentage.  If Cal plans to throw the ball 30-35 times per game this year, Tedford is going to need to find four or five receivers that can create open space and catch the football.  He has one star that he can count on.  Kennan Allen finished second in the league last year with 98 receptions, and he could easily top 100 this year.  Allen combines excellent hands with good speed.  He can catch the tough passes on third down, and he can split a seam and break free for a long gain.

 

The drop in talent is significant after Allen.  Expect a true freshman, Bryce Treggs to start from the beginning.  Some have compared Treggs to DeSean Jackson, and if he lives up to the hype, Cal’s offense will soar this year.

 

The ground game has been consistently strong under Tedford’s watch.  Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch  gave the Bears a top-notch double punch for three years.  Cal relies mostly on one back these days, and Isi Sofele is that man.  Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 scores last season.  C. J. Anderson finished second with just 345, but he scored eight times on 72 carries.

 

The Bears return three starters to the offensive line, but guard Dominic Glass will be out at least until October following surgery for a torn pectoral muscle.  Center Brian Schwenke and tackle Matt Summers-Gavin are the two holdovers.  A redshirt freshman and true freshman will contribute here.

 

Cal averaged 28 points and 400 yards per game last year, and if the receiving corps shapes up, the Bears should replicate those numbers again this year.

 

If Tedford can defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can get a repeat of the defensive numbers, they will have earned a raise, because the top four tacklers from 2011 are no longer around.  Cal played a lot of people on this side of the ball, so the rebuilding should not be as harsh as it could have been.

 

Up front in the 3-4 defense, the Bears have just one starter returning.  Aaron Tipoti can play inside and outside on the line.  He will line up at end this year, and he needs to become a better pass rusher.  Deandre Coleman is a better pass rusher, and he inherits the other terminal spot, while experienced backup Kendrick Payne becomes the new starter at the nose.  This shapes up to be a decent front line.

 

The Bears have to replace one of the top linebackers in the nation from last year, as leading tackler Mychal Kendricks now works for the Philadelphia Eagles.  Number two tackler D. J. Holt has used up his eligibility as well.  Projected starting outside linebacker Cecil Whiteside was expelled from the team for violating team rules.  This leaves Chris McCain as the lone starter in the group.  McCain made just six tackles for loss and 29 tackles total in 2011 (he did miss three games).  Brennan Scarlett starts for Whiteside, even after he missed Spring Practice.  J. P. Hurell and Robert Mullins will man the other two linebacker spots.  This unit is considerably weaker than it was last year, but the Bears add former Penn State reserve Khairi Fortt, who has the potential to develop into a fine defender.

 

The secondary is the strongest part of this year’s defense, but if the Bears fail to generate a decent pass rush, it won’t be strong enough to stop enemy passing games. Cornerbacks Mark Anthony and Steve Williams combined both registered 13 defended passes, and Anthony proved to be an excellent run stuffer on the perimeter.  Safety Josh Hill is the leading returning tackler, and he was equally competent covering receivers.

 

The opening game is a trap game for the Bears.  Nevada knows it can compete with the Bears; they blew Cal off the field two years ago when they last played.  Cal also has to play Ohio State in Columbus, so the Bears will enter Pac-12 play with at least one loss.  They have to follow up the trip to Columbus with a trip to the Coliseum to face USC.  The Schedule is not friendly, but we believe the Bears will sneak into bowl eligibility with a 6-6 record.  Cal had to vacate their home stadium last year so that it could be remodeled into a 21st Century venue.  They return to Memorial Stadium this year, and that should be worth an extra win.

 

 

Team

Oregon Ducks

               
Head Coach

Chip Kelly

               
Colors

Green and Yellow

               
City

Eugene, OR

               
2011 Record              
Conference

8-1

Overall

12-2

               
PiRate Rating

122.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

116

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

5

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

8-1

Overall

11-1

 

At first glance, 2012 would appear to be a rebuilding season in Eugene.  At Oregon, they no longer rebuild; they reload.  Oregon has a lot of positions to plug new bodies into, but the Ducks have faced this twice in recent years and reloaded with little effect on the stat sheet.  The Ducks have averaged better than 42 points per game over the last four seasons, and in two of those, they entered the year with the same number of new starters.

 

Coach Chip Kelly has loads of talent on the offensive side of the ball.  When your team leads by more than 30 points with plenty of time to play, the reserves get a lot of playing time.

 

Quarterback Bryan Bennett is one of those seasoned reserves.  As a freshman last year, he played in eight games, starting once (Oregon won that won 45-2).  Bennett attempted 45 passes.  Six scored touchdowns.  The Ducks will not miss Darron Thomas; there will not be a falloff in the passing game, and there could actually be an increase in yardage. 

 

The receiving corps lost two excellent pass-catchers, but the Ducks always have a plethora of riches here.  Add to this the fact that Kelly uses his backs as lethal receivers, and opponents cannot stop the passing game; they can only hope to slow it down.  Josh Huff leads a deep contingent here.  He caught 31 passes for 430 yards last year, and he should top 50 this season.  Speedy Keanon Lowe will become a key contributor this year, as will Daryle Hawkins, who is a lethal deep threat with the ability to steal an interception away from a defensive back.  The Ducks have two talented tight ends as well.  Colt Lyerla has flanker skills in a fullback’s body.  True freshman Terrence Daniel is an aggressive fighter (a defensive end playing offense).  Two more player could press for playing time here.  Look for the tight ends to combine for 40-50 receptions.

 

Defenses will have to stop the passing game first, and that will make a very good running game great.  LaMichael James may help the San Francisco 49ers get to the Super Bowl, but Oregon has another future NFL back in Kenjon Burner.  As the number two back last year, Burner rushed for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per rush.  When does a team’s number three running back earn Freshman Player of the Year awards, especially when said team runs a one-back offense and not the triple option?  De’Anthony Thomas gained 595 yards on the ground and scored seven touchdowns.  Against Wisconsin in last year’s Rose Bowl, he took a handoff on the nine yard line and waltzed into the end zone; oh, that was his own team’s nine yard line, and the play broke the game open.  Thomas was the team’s top receiver last year, grabbing 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns.  He didn’t stop there.  He scored two more times on kick returns.  18 touchdowns from the number three option in the backfield?  It is just plain crazy!

 

The offensive line gives the running back big running lanes and keeps pressure off the quarterbacks better than at least 10 other Pac-12 schools and as competently as their top rival in the City of Angels.  Three starters return from last year, but the top blocker and former 1st Team All-Pac guard, Carson York, will begin the year on the sidelines, as he has not fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained in Pasadena.

 

This looks like another 40-point team for Kelly.  It would not surprise us one bit if the Ducks rush for 250+ and pass for 250+ this year or rush for 300+ and pass for 200+. 

 

Defensively, Oregon goes for the big play, be it a QB sack, a forced fumble, an interception, or a big tackle for loss on a blitz.  Occasionally, the defense gives up a big play, but over time, they give the ball to the offense with a short field.  The Ducks can run the table if they give up an average of 22-24 points per game.

 

There are holes to plug in all three areas, but defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has a lot of talent remaining.  Starting up front, Taylor Hart is an end in a tackle’s body.  He is not the strongest pass rusher, but he will make it hard to run the ball into the off-tackle hole on his side of the line.  Dion Jordan is probably the best pass rusher in the Pac-12.  He returns after producing 7 ½ sacks and 13 tackles for loss.  Tackle Wade Keliikipi is a run-plugger in the middle.

 

Two new starters are needed at linebacker, but the one holdover could become a 1st team All-Pac player.  Michael Clay finished with 102 tackles last year with 8 ½ for losses.  He picked off a couple of passes as well.  The two new starters, Kiko Alonso and Boseko Lokombo have seen considerable action in the past, so there should not be much concern here.

 

The Ducks have a potential All-American in the secondary.  Safety John Boyett led the Ducks with 108 tackles and defended seven passes.  Cornerback Terrance Mitchell defended a dozen passes, picking off two. 

 

The schedule presents just a handful of difficult games.  Instead of opening with LSU, Oregon gets Arkansas State this year.  Add Fresno State and Tennessee Tech the next two weeks, and Oregon will be 3-0 with a cumulative score of about 180-45.  The Ducks should go to the Coliseum on November 3 with a 8-0 record.  The game with the Trojans could be the “Game of the Century” for 2012.  Unlike last year’s Alabama-LSU game, this one could produce 80-100 points.  If the Ducks are not 12-0 or 11-1, it will be a major disappointment.

 

 

 

Team

Oregon State Beavers

               
Head Coach

Mike Riley

               
Colors

Orange and Black

               
City

Corvallis, OR

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-6

Overall

3-9

               
PiRate Rating

106.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

42

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

105

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

47

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

4-5

Overall

5-7

 

The past couple of years have not been fun in Corvallis, as the Beavers have started to lose ground against their rivals.  OSU fell to 3-9 last year, and there are worries that this trend could continue this year.  Several players have left the program, sustained an injury, or have been suspended for various reasons.  The offensive line has taken a major hit and is very thin.  Just an injury or two could force players into the lineup that might find it hard to start at a school like New Mexico.

 

Guard Grant Enger and tackle Colin Kelly return as starters up front, but neither is an all-conference performer.  True freshman Isaac Seumalo has all-conference potential, but that may occur in 2014.  He opens the season at center.  The Beavers found it hard to run the ball last year, and more of the same can be expected this season.

 

Redshirt freshman Storm Woods has ascended to starting running back after OSU rushed for just 86.9 yards per game.  It is hard to gain yardage when defensive players meet the running back at the handoff point.  Woods will have a difficult time averaging more than last year’s starter Malcolm Agnew averaged.  Agnew is still around, and he will still see significant time here.  Fullback Clayton York will be used more this year to provide support at the point of attack.

 

The Beavers can still move the ball and score points thanks to a decent passing game, but quarterback Sean Mannion needs to cut down on his interceptions.  He frequently tried to force the ball where he should not have thrown, but he had little alternative, as it was either pass or punt last year.  Mannion completed almost 65% of his passes for more than 3,300 yards and 16 touchdowns, but he was picked off 18 times.  OSU passed the ball 42 times per game, and Mannion may have to resort to that strategy again this year, even though Coach Mike Riley has set a goal of 150 rushing yards per game.  We don’t see that happening.

 

Mannion’s receiving corps is credible but not spectacular.  Markus Wheaton has all-conference potential.  He led the Beavers with 73 receptions and 986 yards, but he crossed the goal line just one time.  Brandon Cooks should come close to doubling his receptions this year as a full-time starter.  As a freshman, he caught 31 passes.  Tight end Colby Prince caught just 12 passes last year, and Riley brought in a good recruit here in Caleb Smith.  Mannion will get more production out of this position.

 

The defense was asked to stay on the field too long last year, because the offense could not sustain long drives.  Part of the 31 points and 400+ yards surrendered rested on the offense’s liabilities.  Expect some improvement on this side of the ball. 

 

The Beavers have solid players in all three units.  Perhaps the best player on the team is safety Anthony Watkins.  He led the Beavers with 85 tackles, but too many times it came at the end of a first down play for the opponent.  A new starter plugs into the vacant safety position, but Ryan Murphy showed he was up to the task last year in reserve.  Cornerback Jordan Poyer led the league in passes defended with 16, including a team-leading four interceptions (tied for Pac-12 lead too).  He is also a dangerous punt returner.

 

At linebacker, there is a doctor in the house at Reser Stadium, and nobody will file malpractice claims against him.  Michael Doctor might send enemy combatants to the hospital.  He is aptly qualified as a run-stopper and pass defender. The rest of this unit is not as talented.

 

One of the better ends in the league returns as OSU’s leading pass rusher.  Scott Crichton finished eighth in the league with six sacks and third with 14 ½ TFL.  Tackle Andrew Seumalo and end Dylan Wynn give this unit experience and decent talent.

 

The Beavers will find it hard to move back above .500 in the league and overall, as the schedule does them no favors this year.  They avoid USC, but they must play at UCLA and Arizona.  Outside of league play, games against Wisconsin and BYU (in Provo) will be tough.  The Beavers could enter the Civil War game needing to pull of a huge upset against the Duck in order to become bowl eligible.

 

 

Team

Stanford Cardinal

               
Head Coach

David Shaw

               
Colors

Cardinal and White

               
City

Palo Alto, CA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

8-1

Overall

11-2

               
PiRate Rating

119.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

111

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

19

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-4

Overall

7-5

 

Stanford has been in this situation before.  The Cardinal have a history of producing All-American quarterbacks that go on to NFL careers.  Let’s look at what happened with five former consensus All-American Stanford quarterbacks.

 

Frankie Albert was the first major star at this position, but his departure cannot be used in this example.  After leading SU to an undefeated season in 1940 and two very good follow-up seasons in 1941 and 1942, Stanford did not field official football teams the next three seasons during WWII.

 

Bobby Garrett became the next star quarterback in Palo Alto.  As a senior in 1953, he guided SU (then known as the Indians) to a 6-3-1 record with 246 points scored.  Without him the next season, Stanford fell to 4-6 and scored exactly half the points from the year before.

 

In 1956, John Brodie was the best passing quarterback in the nation.  Stanford did not have a quality defense, and the record was just 4-6 with 218 points produced.  The following year, with a better defense, SU went 6-4 and scored nine more points.

 

Jim Plunkett won the school’s one Heisman Trophy in 1970, as he teamed with end Randy Vataha to form the top pass combination.  Stanford displaced USC as the top team on the Coast, and the Indians won the conference championship.  They topped off the season with an upset over undefeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl to finish 9-3.  The offense scored 343 points.  Stanford was picked to finish in the lower half of the standings in 1971, as Plunkett’s replacement, Don Bunce, guided SU back to the Rose Bowl with an identical record.  Stanford scored 82 fewer points, but the defense was improved.  In the Rose Bowl, Bunce looked like a future superstar named Elway, when he guided Stanford on a final drive that produced the winning field goal to upset undefeated Michigan.

 

Speaking of Elway, his career ended on a sour note—the emphasis multiple lateral kick return that ended with a Stanford band-member failing to make a proper tackle.  Elway departed as the star of a 5-6 team that scored 328 points.  SU went 1-10 with just 159 points in 1983.

 

That brings us to the present day.  Andrew Luck is now the new Peyton Manning in Indy, and Josh Nunes hopes to become the next Don Bunce.  Stanford went 23-3 in the last two seasons, averaging 42 points and 480 yards per game.  Nunes, a redshirt freshman, must also deal with the graduation of the top three pass receivers, including tight end Coby Fleener, who often served as the prime target for Luck.  Expect Coach David Shaw to rely even more on his big targets, as Stanford relies on its two tight end formations more than any other college team.  Levine Toilolo caught 25 passes last year, and his backup Zach Ertz grabbed 27.  This duo may need to catch 75-80 passes this year.  Ty Montgomery is the best holdover on the outside.  He caught 24 passes and scored twice.

 

The running game became the big reason the 1971 Stanford team was able to score less and win the same amount of games.  Shaw will hope history can repeat itself in Palo Alto.  Stepfan Taylor returns after gaining 1,330 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns.  Expect sophomore Anthony Wilkerson to get more reps this year after rushing for 282 yards and three scores last year.  He can open holes that are not already there. 

 

The offensive line must replace two talented blockers, but Shaw did a great job on the recruiting trail and landed perhaps the best duo of blockers in the high school ranks.  Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy should see significant playing time right off the bat, and it would not surprise us if both are starters by November.  Guard David Yankey and tackle Cameron Fleming both earned all-conference consideration last year, so if the recruits live up to their press clippings, Stanford will be in good shape on this side of the ball.

 

There are some holes to plug on the defensive side of the ball, but the Cardinal have enough talent returning to improvise a decent stop unit.  The defense will be built around a strong linebacker unit.  Chase Thomas could become a 1st team All-American if he builds upon a season that saw him lead the league with 17 ½ stops for loss.  He finished with 8 ½ sacks.  Trent Murphy had 10 tackles for loss and returns to the opposite outside linebacker spot.  Shayne Skov was off to a great start last year before tearing his ACL.  If he is healthy this year, he should eventually work his way back onto the first team.  James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley are two more high-quality linebackers.  This unit is so strong, last year’s leading tackler Jarek Lancaster has lost his starting job this year.

 

Up front, Ben Gardner is one of the two or three best ends in the league.  He was credited with 4 ½ sacks and 10 TFL with six additional QB hurries.  Nose tackle Terrence Stephens made just 11 tackles last year, but he has a very important job, keeping blockers away from the linebackers.

 

Terrence Brown is the lone starter returning to a secondary that has some questions.  Brown will not show up on any all-conference teams.

 

Make no mistake: there will be slippage this season, but the Cardinal have enough talent leftover to return to a bowl game this year.  SU should be good for two non-conference wins (San Jose State and Duke), and they should be competitive at Notre Dame.  SU draws USC and UCLA from the South Division and must face Oregon at Autzen Stadium.  We tend to believe that Cal will be ready to avenge a close loss from last year, so we could see Stanford losing four or five games this year.

 

 

Team

Washington Huskies

               
Head Coach

Steve Sarkisian

               
Colors

Purple and Gold

               
City

Seattle, WA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

5-4

Overall

7-6

               
PiRate Rating

105.8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

46

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

107

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

3-6

Overall

5-7

 

It has been a rough preseason for the Huskies, as they faced the same situation that Oregon State faced—numerous players expected to contribute suffered injuries, were disciplined for rules violations, or opted to leave the program.  Coach Steve Sarkisian had to alter his working depth chart every week for reasons other than talent evaluation.

 

Hit the hardest were the offensive skill positions, where UW received bad news in their receiving corps.  James Johnson injured his wrist, and it required surgery.  He is out until October at the earliest.  Kevin Smith has not been able to return from an ACL injury.  Until those two can return, Sarkisian will call on a pair of tight ends to carry more weight.  Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Michael Hartvigson are up to the challenge.  Seferian-Jenkins is the top returning receiver with 41 receptions and 538 yards.  Hartvigson could see his receptions triple this year (eight last year).

 

Quarterback Keith Price not only replaced Jake Locker, he improved on the stats left by the 1st round draft pick.  Price finished with 3,063 yards passing and 33 touchdowns with a 67% completion rate, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt.  He actually finished slightly ahead of Matt Barkley in passing efficiency.  Should Price be injured, UW is going to struggle.  Sarkisian has many untested options to choose from, including true freshman Cyler Miles and redshirt freshman Derrick Brown.

 

The Husky ground game averaged better than 150 yards per contest last year, but the top back has moved on.  Trying to replace Chris Polk’s 1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns are a pair of players with potential.  Expect Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey to team for at least 1,200 yards, more if the top blocker can recover from injury.

 

That top blocker happens to be guard Eric Kohler.  Kohler hurt his knee on the first day of practice and may not be ready for the start of the season.  When he returns, he will supply an instant upgrade in the trenches, where the inside should be strong.  Center Drew Schaefer and guard Colin Tanigawa will team with Kohler to make the power running game work.

 

Defensively, UW has not been a powerhouse under Sarkisian.  In fact, the stats have gotten worse each year.  Last year, the Huskies gave up 36 points and 450+ yards per game, but they had to face Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon, USC, and Baylor.  They gave up 51.4 points per game to those five powers, and 26.3 points to the rest of the schedule.

 

None of the three units can be considered outstanding, but the secondary is better than average.  Cornerback Desmond Trufant tied for the conference lead with 16 passes defended, while safety Sean Parker tied for the conference lead with four interceptions.  Look for 5-star recruit Shaq Thompson to eventually supplant Justin Glenn at free safety, but for now he will be the nickel and a return specialist.

 

Three starters return to the four-man linebacker unit.  Josh Shirley and Princeton Fuimaono are fine outside ‘backers. Shirley finished second in the league with 8 ½ sacks.  John Timu starts on the inside; he is a plus in pass coverage, as well as shooting the gaps to dump running backs for losses.

 

Multiple injuries in the trenches make the defensive line a questionable unit.  Danny Shelton gets the job done inside and allows his linebackers time to pursue the ball.  Andrew Hudson has been moved from linebacker to fill in at end.

 

 The Huskies don’t have to play Nebraska this year.  They replace them with LSU.  It guarantees them one loss as they enter conference play.  Somebody at the Pac-12 must not like Sarkisian, as they saddled him with Stanford, Oregon, and USC in consecutive weeks.  The trip to Tucson in the fourth week won’t be a picnic either.  We believe the Apple Cup game in Pullman will decide which team from the Evergreen State will become bowl eligible.  Us PiRates have to stick together, so sorry Husky fans.

 

 

Team

Washington State Cougars

               
Head Coach

Mike Leach

               
Colors

Crimson and Gray

               
City

Pullman, WA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-7

Overall

4-8

               
PiRate Rating

102.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

55

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

65

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

4-5

Overall

6-6

 

Tickets to Martin Stadium just got a lot more difficult to come by, as the collegiate greatest show on turf debuts in Pullman this year.  Mike Leach returns to the coaching ranks after a two-year exile.  In the two years after his firing in Lubbock, the Red Raiders have gone 13-12.  He was 84-43 in his 10 years at the outpost in the middle of the plains.

 

Leach brings his fabulous “Air Raid” offense to Wazoo, and he inherits an excellent situation.  The Cougars have a quarterback ready to challenge for the national lead in passing yards.  Jeff Tuel just needs to stay healthy.  He suffered two different injuries last year, and only played in three games.  If he starts 12 games this year, we expect him to toss for 4,200 to 4,500 yards   Backup Connor Halliday dealt with a lacerated liver, so the expected close competition here never developed.

 

Who will be the beneficiary of the aerial assault?  Start with Marquess Wilson, who led the Pac-12 with 1,388 receiving yards in 2011.  His reception total could top 100 this year, and he could approach 1,500 yards in catches.  Great things are expected from two true freshmen.  Gabriel Marks could become the second leading receiver this year, while Rahmel Dockery should contribute immediately.  Throw former tight end Andrei Lintz into a slot or flex position, and he should catch as much as five times more balls this year (7 rec. 96 yds in 2011).

 

Leach believes running backs are best used as safety valve receivers.  Rickey Galvin will not run for 1,000 yards, but he could top 500, catch 50 passes, and gain 1,000 total yards.

 

Expect immediate improvement in the offensive line, because teams will think twice about sending more than four pass rushers after Tuel.  The Air-Raid can burn a defense that sends five or six pass rushers at the QB.  Left tackle John Fullington is the best blocker on the team, and that bodes well for the passing game.

 

If WSU is to challenge for a bowl this year, the defense has to improve on the 6.2 yards per play it allowed last season.  This was actually the best figure by this defense since 2007. 

 

There are no exceptionally talented units on this side of the ball, but there is one exceptionally talented player.  Linebacker Travis Long returns for his senior season, after playing end in the previous coaching tenure.  Long led the Cougars with four sacks and 12 tackles for loss, and he earned 2nd Team All-Pac honors.  Look for Chester Su’a to possibly have a breakthrough year as a sophomore.  He had his moments as a true freshman last year, and he has good instincts.

 

All four starters return from the secondary.  Considering there was virtually no pass rush other than that generated by Long, this quartet did a decent job.  Cornerback Damante Horton would get a lot of press coverage if he wore a green and gold uniform.  Horton tied for the conference lead with four interceptions.  Safety Deone Bucannon added three picks.

 

Kicker Andrew Furney returns after proving to be a weapon from 50 yards out.  He connected on 14-16 field goals last year.

 

It will be a Cougarfest in Provo, Utah, to begin the season, as Washington State faces BYU.  Wazoo should prove to be a tough out for the favored home team.  The Cougars should move to 2-1 before conference play starts. Can they find four conference wins?  We think they will have three in the books when they face Washington on Friday, November 23.  Leach guided Texas Tech to bowls in all 10 seasons in Lubbock, and the Pirate just may make it 11 for 11.

 

 

Team

Arizona Wildcats

               
Head Coach

Rich Rodriguez

               
Colors

Cardinal and Navy

               
City

Tucson, AZ

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-7

Overall

4-8

               
PiRate Rating

105.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

47

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

108

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

33

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

4-5

Overall

6-6

 

Rich Rodriguez was ridden out of Ann Arbor on a rail, because the Michiganders did not want and would not support a non-Michigan man.  Poor Rich Rod:  he had to move from Michigan to Tucson, Arizona, where he will be able to play golf in January in 70-degree weather. 

 

Coach Rodriguez brings his famed spread offense to the Pac-12.  It went unnoticed that Michigan ran for 239 and passed for 250 yards during his final year there, and he made Denard Robinson into the star that he became.  He inherits no Robinson’s at UA.  He begins his career here with a senior quarterback that has hardly seen game action and a junior college transfer that was not that highly recruited.  Matt Scott is the only viable option to run the UA offense this year.  He missed all of last year and was out a good bit of 2010.  Scott is an aggressive player, but he may need to “take a dive” and sacrifice a yard or two at times this year.  The Wildcats need him to stay on the field.

 

Small but powerful Daniel Jenkins has leap-frogged over Ka’Deem Carey in the depth chart, but both backs should see a lot of action this year.  Coach Rod will bring back the fullback to the offense, and Taimi Tutogi is a load in the backfield.

 

The Wildcats’ are hurting a little at receiver, but the emphasis on the passing game has been replaced by a more balanced approach with a slight emphasis on the running game.  UA passed the ball 48 times per game last year and gained 371 yards through the air.  That amount could be cut in half in 2012.  Dan Buckner is the best of the returnees.  He caught 42 passes for 606 yards to finish fourth on the team.  He could repeat that amount this year and finish first!  Austin Hill could become the long ball threat. 

 

All five starters return to the blocking corps, but not all five are expected to start in 2012.   Center Kyle Quinn, guard Trace Biskin, and tackles Chris Putton (a former guard) expect to be joined by new starters Addison Bachman at guard and Jacob Arzouman at tackle.  This group should be more mobile and able to carry out the blocking needed to make the zone read work.

 

Arizona games featured 146 scrimmage plays last year, and that hurt the defensive numbers.  Expect the total plays to drop by more than a dozen this year, so UA’s defense figures to defend at least a half dozen fewer plays. 

 

The greatest amount of improvement needed is in the secondary, where UA gave up 299 passing yards per game last year.  UA had its Pac-12 interception co-leader, Shaquille Richardson, and he returns at one cornerback position.  Besides intercepting four passes, he knocked away five others.  Tra’Mayne Bondurant had seven passed defended as a true freshman last year, and he will team with Richardson and safety Marquis Flowers (see below) to form 3/5 of a decent five-man secondary.  If cornerback Jonathan McKnight has recovered adequately from an ACL injury that forced him to miss 2011, this secondary all of a sudden becomes rather talented.

 

The secondary must have more help from the pass rush, as Arizona introduced enemy quarterbacks to the turf just 10 times all season.  No player on the roster recorded more than one sack last year (Bondurant is the leading returner with 3 ½ TFL).  Rodriguez hopes that new starters Tevin Hood and Dominique Allen can establish a better pass rush.  Kirifi Taula was supposed to be a sack monster, but he did not show up last year in his four starts.

 

Rodriguez thought he had the answer at middle linebacker, when Brian Wagner transferred from Akron as a graduate student.  Wagner was coming off three consecutive triple digit tackle years (409 total), but he burned out on the game and decided to give up football.  That leaves the Wildcats in a bit of a bind, as undersized Jake Fischer was forced to move inside on short notice.  Hank Hobson will start on the outside, while safety Flowers has been pressed into emergency duty as the other outside linebacker.  This trio averaged just 220 pounds.

 

Arizona should go 2-1 outside of Pac-12 play.  Like the two Washington schools and their in-state rival, they will need to find four conference victories.  We believe they will have three when they host the Sun Devils on Friday, November 23.  Like the Apple Cup game, this one should be for a bowl.

 

 

Team

Arizona State Sun Devils

               
Head Coach

Todd Graham

               
Colors

Maroon and Gold

               
City

Tempe, AZ

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-5

Overall

6-7

               
PiRate Rating

99.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

65

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

103

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

55

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

3-6

Overall

5-7

 

Todd Graham guided Rice to a bowl in his only season with the Owls.  It was Rice’s first bowl game since 1961.  He went to Tulsa and led the Golden Hurricane to back-to-back CUSA West Division championships while leading TU to record-setting offensive showings.  After four years there, he moved to Pittsburgh, but his stay there was just one season.  His wide open offense didn’t click in the Big East.  Will it work in Tempe, Arizona?  Only time will tell, but his first year at Sun Devil Stadium may not be the cat’s meow.  ASU has a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball.

 

Brock Osweiler would have been a contender with Matt Barkley and Keith Price for top passer in the league if he had returned for his senior season.  The star QB was chosen to become an understudy to Peyton Manning in Denver.  Osweiler threw for more than 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns last year.  New starter Taylor Kelly saw very limited action last year, completing all four of his passes.  He has the tools to run the spread option offense.  Freshman Michael Eubank backs him up.

 

The Sun Devils lost a lot of their receiving corps from last season.  While they return the player with the second most receptions, he only averaged six yards per catch.  You might think Jamal Miles has no speed and can only be used to throw the quick, short pass to.  Oh, but you would be so wrong!  Miles was always getting open as the safety valve receiver, and his yards per catch will head north this year.  He is a model of versatility.  He ran the ball 29 times for 237 yards.  He averaged 16.6 yards returning punts, taking one 78 yards to the house.  He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, and because that wasn’t enough, he has attempted three passes in his career; they were all completed for touchdowns.

 

Rashad Ross may be the best newcomer to the starting receiving corps.  He caught 18 passes in limited action last year.

 

The ASU running game accounted for less than 130 yards per game last year, and that number will rise by at least 50% in the new offense.  Cameron Marshall could top 1,200 rushing yards after gaining 2,050 last year, but Graham removed him from contact drills last week citing fatigue.  Yes, the summers in the desert are brutal.

 

The offensive line has some rebuilding to do.  Tackle Evan Finkenberg is one of two returning starters.  Guard Andrew Sampson is the other.  They will be charged with leading the new blocking philosophy.

 

Graham’s teams usually top 450 total yards per game, surpassing 200 yards in both running and passing.  The Sun Devils will need to produce numbers like that to have any shot at bowl eligibility, because the defense is not ready to dominate any Pac-12 team, especially in the all-important secondary, where even Colorado topped 300 passing yards against them last year.

 

Both starting cornerbacks return this year, but only one of the rest of the back eight in Graham’s 3-3-5 will have a returning starter.  Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor teamed up for 17 passes defended (just one interception by Irabor).   Kealon Johnson figures to contribute more after making 48 tackles in reserve last year.

 

The only other starters returning are tackle Will Sutton and Devil linebacker Junior Onyeali.  Onyeali started just seven games last year and made just 11 tackles.  Sutton performed a little better with 33 tackles.

 

There is room for a true freshman to earn a spot in the lineup this year, and as of this writing, the leading candidate is defensive lineman Jaxon Hood.

 

After opening with an easy win against Northern Arizona in a couple of days, the Sun Devils have two tough non-league games.  They lost to Illinois and beat Missouri last year, and they could do the opposite this season.  We believe ASU will be 3-5/5-6 when they close the regular season at Arizona.  It should be an exciting bowl elimination game.

 

 

Team

Colorado Buffaloes

               
Head Coach

Jon Embree

               
Colors

Black and Gold

               
City

Boulder, CO

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-7

Overall

3-10

               
PiRate Rating

92.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

84

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

96

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

82

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

1-8

Overall

3-9

 

Since Gary Barnett was let go at Colorado, the Buffs have fallen on hard times.  It seems like it has been a generation since CU ran undefeated and top-ranked Nebraska off the field by a score of 62-36 (it was 2001, and yours truly saw that game on the CU sideline).

 

The Buffaloes face a major revamping on the attack side this year, as every skill starter from last year is missing.  At least, there is some good news at quarterback.  Former Kansas QB Jordan Webb left Kansas when Dayne Crist left Notre Dame for Lawrence.  He is eligible immediately and has beaten out Texas transfer Connor Wood.  Webb produced so-so stats at KU (1,884 yards 13/12 TD/Int), and he should put up slightly better numbers in a more passer friendly offense. 

 

With the return of three offensive line starters, including 2nd team All-Pac tackle David Bakhtiari, Webb should get adequate passing protection.  However, CU needs to supplement the pass with something better than its poor rushing attack of the last three years (3.4 yards per attempt).  Tony Jones is the leading returnee with 297 yards rushing, but he is too small to carry the ball more than 10-12 times per game.  D. D. Goodson is even tinier, but he is number two as of now.  This team needs a bulky back that can pick up two yards up the middle on third and one. 

 

The already thin and inexperienced receiving corps expected to ride the legs of speedster Paul Richardson, but a torn ACL in spring practice was a dagger in Coach Jon Embree’s back.  It was feared Richardson would be lost for the season, but he has rehabbed well ahead of schedule and could eventually take the field at some point this season.  Without him, CU has no Pac-12 quality talent at this position.

 

The news is slightly better on the other side of the ball, but nobody will confuse the Buff defense for USC’s, Stanford’s, or Oregon’s.  When your number one and three tacklers are defensive backs, you know your team is giving up a lot of points and yards.  Safety Ray Polk and cornerback Greg Henderson teamed up for 127 tackles last year.  Henderson was a decent pass defender with nine passes defended.  Embree is high on three true freshmen that could contribute immediately in the secondary.  Yuri Wright, Kenneth Crawley, and Marquis Mosley should see the field in the opening weeks.

 

Another true freshman could see a lot of time in the front line.  Justin Solis could be a starter at one of the vacant tackle spots.  Will Pericak returns at the other inside post.  One d-lineman that will definitely start full time this year is end Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who finished with 5 ½ sacks last year.

 

All three starters return at linebacker this year.  Derrick Webb, Douglas Rippy, and Jon Major teamed for 15 TFL and 154 total tackles.

 

Colorado’s schedule is easier this year because Ohio State has been replaced with Sacramento State.  Colorado State and Fresno State are beatable, but we believe CU will split these two games.  Once conference play begins, wins will be hard to come by.  We think CU can get fired up and win one, so three wins is their ceiling this year.

 

 

 

Team

Southern California Trojans

               
Head Coach

Lane Kiffin

               
Colors

Cardinal and Gold

               
City

Los Angeles, CA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

7-2

Overall

10-2

               
PiRate Rating

130.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

118

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

3

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

8-1

Overall

11-1

 

Southern Cal has been pointing to this season for two years.  The Trojans are eligible once again for the conference championship and a bowl.  They are very eligible for the National Championship Game this season, if they can take care of Oregon—probably twice!

 

USC has at least a dozen players this year that could become NFL players in the next couple of years.  Coming into this season, the only question that needed to be answered was who would be the number two running back.  That’s no longer a worry, so this team is loaded at every position.

 

Coach Lane Kiffin has seen his two USC offenses improve on the previous year’s production by four to five points and 25-30 yards per game.  There is no reason to think the men of Troy won’t improve that much again this year, or even more.

 

It all starts with the early Heisman Trophy favorite.  Quarterback Matt Barkley will leave USC as the all-time leading passer, surpassing Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer in career passing yards (assuming he stays healthy).  Barkley gained 3,528 yards through the air last year, completing 69% of his attempts and tossing 39 touchdown passes.  Backup Cody Kessler might start for 75 other FBS teams, but he will only see the field in mop-up duty this season.

 

Barkley has the nation’s best receiver and best duo of receivers coming back this year.  Robert Woods caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, and he was never 100% healthy!  Imagine what he might do if he is 100%.  We bet he fails to match last year’s production, because there are going to be weeks where he doesn’t play much in the second half.  Marqise Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he was just a freshman.  Tight end Randall Telfer isn’t the top player in the league at his position, but he isn’t too far behind.  He caught 26 passes and scored five times.  He might eventually be passed in the lineup by Xavier Grumble, who will see extended playing time in double tight end formations.  There’s a new star to add to this unit.  True freshman Nelson Agholor looks just as talented as Woods and Lee.

 

The running back situation went from really good to outstanding when Penn State tailback Silas Redd left State College and enrolled in Los Angeles after the big scandal.  He will team with Curtis McNeal to form the top tandem in the nation.  Both players topped 1,000 yards on the ground last year.  McNeal is the better outside speed back, while Redd is the stronger inside runner. 

 

It would be interesting to put USC’s offensive line up against Oregon’s in some form of agility and strength competition.  Both are among the tops in the nation.  Southern Cal has four returning starters up front, led by center Khaled Holmes, one of the top five candidates for the Outland Trophy this year.  Tackle Kevin Graf has an NFL future.

 

The only problem this offense might have this year is finding enough playing time for the skill position players.  USC should average 35-40 points and 480-500 total yards per game this season.

 

The defense will not remind anybody of the Wild Bunch, or Wild Bunch II of four season’s ago, but the Trojans should be improved on this side of the ball.  If defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s troops give up 20 points and 350 yards per game, the Trojans should be very happy in early January.

 

Start in the secondary, where the Trojan have an embarrassment of riches.  Prior to this year, most USC fans figured to never see a secondary as talented as the group from 1979 and 1980.  Three defensive backs on that team (Dennis Smith, Joey Browner, and Ronnie Lott) became All-Pro backs in the NFL (the fourth member of that secondary is still getting an NFL paycheck—Jeff Fisher). 

 

If this year’s secondary isn’t the equal of that great one from the past, it isn’t far from it.  Safety T. J. McDonald has all the tools.  Cornerback Nickell Robey joined McDonald on the All-Pac first team last year.  Fellow cornerback Torin Harris could be a star in the next two years, but he will have to split time with another potential star, Anthony Brown.  Jawanza Starling has a possible NFL future as well.  Look for this group to post better numbers than last year, but they will give up 250 yards because opponents will be forced to throw the ball 40 times a game.

 

The only reason why USC is not our preseason number one team this year is because of a defensive line that is missing all four starters from last year, at least until the last few weeks of the season.  End Devon Kennard tore a pectoral muscle in July, and he is expected to be shelved until Thanksgiving at the earliest.  He might miss the entire season.  He was only the third best defensive lineman last year.  Now Wes Horton will become the leader of this unit.  He finished with four sacks in a reserve role last year.  Because there will be two new defensive tackles, teams with big backs and strong centers and guards might stand a chance of finding chinks in the Trojans’ armor.

 

Lamar Dawson beat out last year’s starter to take over at the middle linebacker spot in the middle of the year.  He teams with Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey to form a linebacker unit almost as talented as the trio at Stanford.

 

The schedule has its dangerous spots this year.  A 2-0 start is a given with games against Hawaii at home and Syracuse at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey (Where the Giants & Jets play).  The first key game comes a week later, when USC has to fly 3,000 miles home and then play at Stanford the following Saturday.  The Cardinal won an exciting triple overtime game last year.  The only other team that has the talent to go head-to-head with USC is Oregon, and they come to the Coliseum on November 3.  There are two more potential trap games.  Arizona is not nearly as talented, but the Wildcats could get up and put a scare in the Trojans.  Then, there is arch-rival UCLA.  After beating the Bruins 50-0 last year, every player on the UCLA team will be ready in ambush at the Rose Bowl. 

 

Remember this:  in 1968, Ohio State was 8-0 entering their big match with 8-1 Michigan.  They not only destroyed the Wolverines, they rubbed it in by going for two points late in the game when they were up by more than 30 points; they won 50-14.  Coach Woody Hayes was asked why he went for two in that situation, and he yelled back, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”  The following year, Ohio State was 8-0 again, entering their big game against 7-2 Michigan.  This Buckeye team was as dominant as the USC team will be this year, but Michigan was ready to play like Kamikazes in this game.  They knocked off the Buckeyes 24-12.  USC better watch out for UCLA this year.  It could happen again.

 

 

 

 

Team

U C L A  Bruins

               
Head Coach

Jim Nora, JR

               
Colors

Blue and Gold

               
City

Los Angeles, CA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

6-4

Overall

6-8

               
PiRate Rating

110.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

33

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

108

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

30

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-4

Overall

7-5

 

The Sons of Westwood have been disappointed more years than not since Terry Donahue left UCLA in 1995.  Donahue took the Bruins to four Rose Bowls and a Cotton Bowl (when it was still one of the big four).  Since he left, the Bruins have been to just One Rose Bowl, and that came 14 years ago.  In the last 13 years, the program has suffered through six losing seasons, one .500 season, and two winning seasons where they won just one more game than they lost.  In the only double-digit winning season in the 21st Century, the Bruins gave up 410 points.  That team was not a powerhouse.  USC beat them 66-19.

 

After dismissing a couple of former Bruin players as head coach (Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel), the Bruins turn to a Washington Alum, Jim Mora, Jr.  Mora’s dad was an assistant to Dick Vermeill at UCLA in the early 1970’s, so there is a small family tie.

 

Mora is a defensive guru from the NFL, and he hired an experienced college offensive coordinator to put together the attack troops.  Noel Mazzone is a multiple, pro-set advocate.

 

Being the quarterback at UCLA has been about as dangerous as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Whereas the Sports Illustrated jinx tends to lead toward mediocrity, being the UCLA quarterback has been disadvantageous to the passer’s health.  It was so bad at one point, that two quarterbacks were injured in the same drill in practice—and that was spring practice!

 

There are still two quarterbacks on the roster that were part of the QB injury jinx, but neither is expected to start this season.  Mora named redshirt freshman Brett Hundley as his starter.  Hundley is the same size as Tom Brady, and Mora prefers an NFL-style passer over a dual threat type.

 

Hundley has two fairly talented receivers returning from last season.  Shaquelle Evans caught just 19 passes in the previous pistol formation offense, and he averaged better than 16 yards per catch.  Tight end Joseph Fauria caught 39 passes and scored six touchdowns.  Redshirt freshman Steven Manfro has jumped over several others on the depth chart and will begin the season as a starter.

 

Jonathan Franklin returns at running back after narrowly missing the 1,000-yard mark last year.  He will see the ball more often this year, as UCLA goes with a more traditional approach.  Lithe little Damien Thigpen missed 2011 with a medical redshirt, and he has impressed coaches enough to move to number two on the depth chart.  He will provide the Bruins with an excellent change of pace when they need a quicker, more elusive runner and can sacrifice the power they get from Franklin.  Thigpen will also be called upon to catch passes out of the backfield.

 

If guard Jeff Baca is okay to play after suffering an August concussion, the Bruins have the making of a rather good offensive line.  Joining Baca in the line will be center Greg Capella, guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (returning from a mission), and tackles Torian White and true freshman Simon Goines.

 

It has been six years since UCLA scored more than 24 points per game.  That streak should end this year, and the Bruins should smash through that barrier with 28-32 points per game.

 

The Bruin defense fell apart the last two years, and Mora was hired to fix the problem.  He welcomes back most of the parts to last year’s defense, but they are the same guys that gave up 31 points and close to 420 yards per game.

 

The Bruins have talented players throughout the defensive lineup.  Ends Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones should have much better seasons this year.  They combined for 63 tackles, five sacks, and 10 ½ TFL).  Nose tackle Seali’i Epenesa will plug the A-gaps with his 325-pound body.

 

The four-man linebacking contingent took a major blow when the expected leader of this group, Patrick Larimore, gave up football due to multiple concussions.  UCLA will try to plug his loss by moving safety Dalton Hilliard to inside linebacker.  Hilliard, the son of the former outstanding college and NFL running back, weighs just 205 pounds, so he will be given free rein to visit the pizza parlor and the milkshake shop.  Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt combined for 137 tackles last year.  Joining this group will be converted running back Anthony Barr.  Barr and Hilliard make this quartet a quicker group.

 

All four secondary starters return this year.  Cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price and safeties Andrew Abbott and Tevin McDonald combined to intercept nine passes and break up 26 more. Abbott was one of the Pac-12 co-leaders with four picks.  True freshman Fabian Moreau could emerge as a key contributor this year.

 

UCLA represented the Pac-12 South in the championship game because USC was ineligible.  The Bruins finished 5-4 in conference play, and after they lost to Oregon in the title game and to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, they finished 6-8.  Expect the Bruins to get back to a bowl again this year and finish with a record north of .500.

 

 

Team

Utah Utes

               
Head Coach

Kyle Whittingham

               
Colors

Crimson and White

               
City

Salt Lake City, UT

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-5

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

111.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

29

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

110

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

22

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-4

Overall

8-4

 

Utah’s first year in the Pac-12 was rather successful.  The Utes proved they could compete weekly in a power conference.  Were it not for an upset to Colorado in the season finale (Utah was a three-touchdown favorite), the Utes would have earned the South’s spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  A win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl left the Utes with eight wins, which gave them six consecutive seasons with eight or more victories.

 

The Utes have to be considered a sleeper team this season, as they return a lot of exceptional talent from last year including two battle-tested quarterbacks.   Jordan Wynn’s first year in a BCS conference ended prematurely due to an injury suffered against Washington.  Wynn was off to a decent season when he was shelved for the year.  Jon Hayes took over, and the Utah offense kept going without missing a beat.  The two QBs combined for 2,186 passing yards and 18 touchdowns.

 

What will make the passing game better this year is the return of almost every receiver that caught a pass.  Devonte Christopher, Dres Anderson, and Luke Mathews all averaged between 15 and 16 yards per reception and scored 10 touchdowns on their 82 combined receptions.  Coach Kyle Whittingham has five tight ends that could play this year.  2011 starter Kendrick Moeai has given way to two others this year.  David Rolf and Jake Murphy begin the season as the top two TEs.

 

With McNeal and Redd splitting time at USC, Ute running back John White could win the Pac-12 rushing title.  He ran for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns last year.  Junior college transfer Kelvin York will get some carries in short yardage and goal line situations. 

 

Three starters return up front, led by center Tevita Stevens and guard Sam Brenner.

 

Utah averaged 25 points and just 311 yards per game last year, the lowest production in SLC in many years.  Expect considerable improvement this year.

 

Utah won eight games last year thanks to a consistently good defense.  For the sixth year in a row, the Utes gave up less than 21 points per game.  They held USC to 23, BYU to 10, and UCLA to six.

 

The key to the Ute defense is a tenacious defensive line that makes life miserable on enemy running backs and pressures passers.  Brothers Dave and Joe Kruger start at tackle and end respectively.  The siblings get to see a real star lining up with them at the nose.  Star Lotulelei lived up to his name last year with nine tackles for loss.  He earned 1st team all-Pac honors, as opponents had a hard time moving the 325-pound wide body out of the way.

 

The second line of defense is the one liability from among the starting units on either side of the ball.  One experienced linebacker returns.  Trevor Reilly tied for the team lead with five sacks.  It will be hard to replace former middle linebacker Chaz Walker.  New starter V. J. Fehoko made four tackles last year.

 

The secondary will not be at full strength at the beginning of the season, as the top player will miss the first three games.  Safety Brian Blechen has been suspended for those games.  Cornerback Ryan Lacy led the team with a dozen defended passes, while safety Eric Rowe added 10.

 

The non-conference schedule begins with a breeze game against Northern Colorado, but the other two are toughies.  The Utes play at Utah State and then host BYU in back-to-back weeks before beginning Pac-12 play.  Utah could go 3-0 outside the league.  If so, then the Utes will win eight or more games yet again.

 

Coming Monday night, August 27: Once thought to be a dead-conference walking, the Big 12 not only survived, it brought in two quality programs to replace the two they lost this year.  Can Oklahoma get back to the National Championship Game?

August 20, 2010

2010 Big Ten Conference Preview

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

 

2010 Big Ten Conference Preview

The Big Ten started all this realignment mess, but all they did in the end was add Nebraska.  While we wouldn’t be shocked to see Commissioner Jim Delany add two or even four more teams before the year is up, nothing will be more surprising than the Big Ten race this season—at least in our opinions.

We are not about to shock anybody and pick Indiana and Minnesota to split the title.  No, we believe, like most other pundits, that Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin are the main contenders, and Penn State and Michigan State are right behind.  We do throw in one surprise team that could contend this year.  Our big surprise is that we feel like the league has become as balanced as the Pac-10.  We actually expect that there is a possibility that four teams could go 6-2 and split the title multiple ways.  Every contender has a strength that can be used to exploit one of the other contenders’ weaknesses.  Thus, every contender also has an exploitable weakness.  It should be an interesting season, as the Big Ten sends its champion to the Rose Bowl (no BCS Championship Game again this year) to face a Pac-10 champion, just like the good ole days.

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 B10 W-L
1 Wisconsin 7-1 11-1
2 Iowa 6-2 9-3
3 Ohio State 6-2 10-2
4 Michigan 5-3 8-4
5 Michigan State 5-3 9-3
6 Penn State 5-3 8-4
7 Northwestern 3-5 7-5
8 Purdue 3-5 6-6
9 Illinois 2-6 4-8
10 Indiana 1-7 5-7
11 Minnesota 1-7 3-9

 

BCS (Rose) Bowl: Wisconsin

Capital One Bowl: Ohio State

Outback Bowl: Iowa

Gator Bowl: Michigan

Insight Bowl: Penn State

Texas Bowl: Michigan State

Dallas Football Classic: Purdue

Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl: Northwestern

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

Team Illinois Fighting Illini
               
Head Coach Ron Zook
               
Colors Orange and Blue
               
City Champaign-Urbana, IL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 3-9
               
PiRate Rating 98.3
               
National Rating 63
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 4-8
               
Strengths: Running Back, Linebacker, Cornerback
               
Weaknesses: Wide Receiver, Safety, Special Teams
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Missouri (N), Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, @ Fresno State
   
Key Games: Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern (@ Wrigley Field)
   
Offense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

Ron Zook almost lost his job last year, and he will lose it this year if the Illini don’t return to a bowl.  He hired new offensive and defensive coordinators, but that may not be enough to turn the tide in Champaign-Urbana. 

 

Illinois will have a decent running game again this year, but we do not see the Illini averaging 200 yards a game like last year.  Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase does not have the wheels former QB Juice Williams had.  He will pass for more yards possibly.

 

At running back, the Illini will rely on a good tandem.  Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford could combined for 1,500 yards, but their average per gain will drop some without a mobile QB threat.

 

Scheelhaase will struggle against better secondaries, because his receivers are not that talented.  Jarred Fayson is the leading returnee after catching just 16 passes for 218 yards.

 

The offensive line is average at best, and they will give up considerably more sacks with a less-mobile QB.

 

Illinois stunk on this side of the ball last year, and things won’t be much better this season.  Illinois switches to the 3-4 defense this year, and the three-man line will struggle some.  Only one starter, Clay Nurse, returns to this unit.  He will see a lot of double team blocks, as the rest of the line will not pick up a lot of sacks.

 

Linebacker is the strength of this side of the ball, as three with starting experience return. 

 

The Illini are set at the corners, but safety is a concern.  Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne combined for 12 batted passes but intercepted just two.  Illinois finished #120 (dead last) in the nation in intercepted passes, so there is only one way to go in this category.

 

We do not believe the Illini have enough to get over the hump.  They had a lot better talent last year and won just three games.  Zook is headed back to the assistant coaches ranks after this season. 

Team Indiana Hoosiers
               
Head Coach Bill Lynch
               
Colors Cream and Crimson
               
City Bloomington, IN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 92.5
               
National Rating 82
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 5-7
               
Strengths: Wide Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Running Back, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Towson, @ Western Kentucky, Akron, Arkansas State
   
Key Games: Michigan, @ Illinois, Northwestern, @ Purdue
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 31-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Outlook

Three close losses were the difference in a 7-5 season and the 4-8 season in Hoosierland in 2009.  Indiana has a lot of talent on the offensive side and a lot of questions on the defensive side of the ball this year.  It looks like another year of close, high-scoring games with IU on the losing side.

 

Quarterback Ben Chappell returns for his senior year after completing 62.6% of his passes for 2,941 yards and 17 touchdowns.  His 15 interceptions have a lot to do with an offensive line that did not do its job.  He had to heave the ball in desperation too many times.

 

Chappell has some excellent receivers, and when IU plays teams with weaker pass rushes, the Hoosiers will generate a lot of passing yards.  Tandon Doss, Damario Belcher, and Terrance Turner teamed for 183 receptions and 2,175 yards last year, and they should top that contribution this season.

 

Indiana will pass the ball more this year, because their running game is still a problem.  Their offensive line does not block well for the run, and we don’t see the Hoosiers getting much more than 100 yards on the ground this year.  If they do, it will be because they fatten their stats against the non-conference opponents.

 

The Hoosiers were less than mediocre on the defensive side of the ball last year, and the news gets worse this year.  Seven of the top eight tacklers are gone, including the only two quality pass rushers.  IU has a decent tandem at defensive tackle, and Adam Replogle and Larry Black will stop up the middle running plays.  Replogle is the only pass rushing monster returning.

 

Only one starter returns at linebacker and in the secondary, and with a weaker pass rush, the Hoosiers will be quite generous through the air.  Look for IU to give up more than 250 passing yards per game in a conference noted for heavy running attacks.

 

A very easy non-conference slate will give Indiana four wins.  They will only need two conference victories to become bowl eligible, but getting one win will be tough.

Team Iowa Hawkeyes
               
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Iowa City, IA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 119.8
               
National Rating 15
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Defensive Line ***, Receiver, Defensive Back, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Eastern Illinois, Iowa State, @ Arizona, Ball State
   
Key Games: Penn State, @ Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State
   
Offense Pred. 26-30 points & 360-380 yards
               
Defense Pred. 13-17 points & 275-300 points
               
Outlook

Iowa was a losing team last year if you look at their scores through three quarters.  They came from behind numerous times and barely earned victories over Northern Iowa and Arkansas State.  Of course, if you look at their bowl game against Georgia Tech, they looked like a top five team.

 

The Hawkeyes are the trendy pick to win the Big Ten this year because they host Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.  We won’t bash the Hawkeyes, but we see just enough exploitable areas to select them to come up a game short in the league standings.

 

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi completed just 56.3% of his passes last year and tossed 15 interceptions.  He forced passes at times, and he shut cut down on those this year.  On the other hand, some of those forced passes resulted in spectacular plays that helped Iowa move the ball in the fourth quarter. 

 

Stanzi will have two excellent weapons at his disposal.  Wideouts Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt combined for 79 receptions and 1,424 yards (18.0 per catch).  Their ability to break loose for long gains opened the running lanes for the backs.

 

Speaking of backs, Coach Kirk Ferentz welcomes the return of two fine runners in Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.  Look for the two to team for 1,500 or more yards this year.

 

The one weakness on this side of the ball is in the offensive line, as three starters departed.  Iowa usually has excellent line play, but only tackle Riley Reiff qualifies for all-conference material.  Stanzi could receive a tougher pass rush this year, and if he reverts to his old ways…

 

Iowa won with defense last year, and they will probably rely on defense to win again this year.  Eight starters return on this side of the ball, but the Hawkeyes lost three excellent players who heard their names called in the NFL Draft.

 

The overwhelming strongest unit on this side of the ball is possibly the top in the nation!  All four defensive line starters return, and with North Carolina’s defensive line possibly missing the best player in the nation, we give the nod to Iowa.  In fact, we would not be surprised if all four starters (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug, and Broderick Binns) ended up on the 1st or 2nd Team All-Big Ten list.  Clayborn made 20 total stops behind the line last year.  The other three combined for 32 for an incredible 52 plays where the other team lost yardage!

 

The second line of defense is the vulnerable unit on this side of the ball.  Expect teams to use a lot of play-action passes and short passes into the seams of the underneath zones to try to exploit the youth in the linebacking corps.

 

The secondary is almost as tough as the defensive line, even with the loss of Amari Spievey to the NFL.  Safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood combined to defend 22 passes last year.  Sash proved to be very valuable in run support as well.

 

Most pundits believe the Big Ten race could come down to the two big games the Hawkeyes host at Kinnick Stadium—October 23 with Wisconsin and November 20 with Ohio State.  We believe they will win one and lose one.  We actually believe the race will be decided on October 16, when Iowa plays at Michigan.  We think the Wolverines might upset the Hawkeyes in that game, forcing Iowa to sweep the other two teams.  At 6-2, they may fall one game short.     

Team Michigan Wolverines
               
Head Coach Rich Rodriguez
               
Colors Maize and Blue
               
City Ann Arbor, MI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 106.3
               
National Rating 43
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Connecticut, @ Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green
   
Key Games: Michigan State, Iowa, @ Penn State, Wisconsin, @ Ohio State
   
Offense Pred. 30-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Coach Rich Rodriguez’s seat is just as hot as Ron Zook’s, but we believe he will right the ship in Ann Arbor this season.

 

Michigan will unveil a new quarterback that will remind folks of Pat White.  Denard Robinson has apparently beaten out last year’s starter Tate Forcier, and Robinson could easily rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 this year.  The Wolverines increased their offensive production from 20 to 30 points per game last year, and if Robinson is as good as advertised, they could top that number in 2010.

 

With Robinson set to get a lot of rushing attempts, look for running backs Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint to benefit from the linebackers having to freeze to make sure they pursue the right player.  Toussaint has the potential to be an every down back in the Big Ten, as he combines power and speed.

 

Receiver Roy Roundtree may be the only deep ball threat for the Wolverines this year, but he will require double coverage by many opponents, and that will open up the zone read to explode.  If opponents put an extra man in the box to stop the run, Roundtree will burn them with a breakaway play.

 

The offensive line is the key to the offense moving from really good to outstanding.  The healthy return of center David Molk should give this line a chance to shine.  They will give up fewer sacks with Robinson taking the snaps.

 

The key to a possible surprise move into title contention is the progress of the defense.  UM has suffered through two dreadful seasons on this side under the Rodriguez tenure.  The Wolverines are switching to a 3-3-5 alignment this season, which is a gutsy move when you have to face Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State’s ground games.

 

Michigan still had a decent pass rush last year, but the man responsible for that, Brandon Graham, is now getting paid to play in the City of Brotherly Love.  End Ryan Van Bergen will be the new sack specialist after recording five a year ago, but the key to the front line will be nose tackle William Campbell.  If he can hold his own in the trenches, the linebackers can move and make plays.

 

Linebacker is the key to this defense; can the Wolverines find enough talent to make the 3-3-5 work?  Former end Craig Roh has the tools to play linebacker in the Big Ten.  Jonas Mouton has not lived up to his press clippings, but this new defense may suit him better.

 

The back line must improve by leaps and bounds for UM to have a chance at winning the Big Ten.  Losing Troy Woolfork to injury will make that impossible, but the Wolverines will improve just enough on this side of the ball to win two or three more times.

 

We believe Michigan can win eight games this year.  That would save Rodriguez’s job.  It would be funny if he won big this year and then went shopping for a possible vacant position if an opening popped up in the SEC (LSU, Georgia, South Carolina???). 

Team Michigan State Spartans
               
Head Coach Mark Dantonio
               
Colors Green and White
               
City East Lansing, MI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 107.4
               
National Rating 42
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Receiver, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: W. Michigan, Fla. Atlantic (@ Detroit), Notre Dame, N. Colorado
   
Key Games: Wisconsin, @ Michigan,  @ Northwestern, @ Iowa, @ Penn State
   
Offense Pred. 31-34 points & 420-440 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Here is a team that is not far from being ready to challenge for a conference championship.  The Spartans have a first-rate passing attack that rivals those of the great West Coast teams.  Unfortunately, a below-average secondary will allow opponents to pass like they are a West Coast passing team.

 

Quarterback Kurt Cousins returns to pilot the MSU offense after taking most of the snaps last year.  He tossed for 2,680 yards and 19 touchdowns to just nine interceptions.  Keith Nichol, last year’s backup threw for 764 yards, but he is now a starting wideout.  Cousins could easily approach 300 passing yards per game this year.

 

Besides Nichol, Cousins will have two excellent wideouts and a talented tight end to pass to.  B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin give Cousins two different types of receivers to aim for.  Cunningham is a possession receiver who can take a lick and hold onto the ball.  Martin can get open deep quickly and pick up a long gain.  He scored five times on just 18 catches last year.

 

With the passing game ready to excel, the running game may not produce a lot of yards, but the yards per attempt may go up.  Larry Caper is a bull who can get the tough yards inside, while Edwin Baker can get around the perimeter quickly.

 

The offensive line may be a small liability this year, as just two starters return.  Due to a lot of injuries last year, several players saw action.  So, this year’s starters are not totally raw.

 

The Spartans will use both the 4-3 and 3-4 defense this year.  The defensive line welcomes back two starters including tackle Jerel Worthy, who registered nine tackles for loss.

 

Middle linebacker Greg Jones is the real stud of this defense.  He led the Big Ten last year with 154 tackles and had nine sacks and 14 total tackles for loss.  Eric Gordon returns at Sam linebacker after finishing runner-up on the team with 92 stops.

 

The secondary is the big question mark on this team.  Even with an exemplary pass rush last year, MSU gave up 268 passing yards per game.  Two defensive back starters graduated, one to the NFL.  Chris Rucker is a Big Ten-caliber defensive back, but two or three more quality player must emerge for this team to compete with the elite.

 

Michigan State games will be shootouts this year, as the offense appears to be dominant and the defense is pedestrian.  It will keep MSU from winning the title, but they could play spoiler.  Expect at least eight wins and maybe nine.

Team Minnesota Golden Gophers
               
Head Coach Tim Brewster
               
Colors Maroon and Gold
               
City Minneapolis, MN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 100.7
               
National Rating 57
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 3-9
               
Strengths: Offensive Line, Safety
               
Weaknesses: Receiver, Running Back, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Cornerback
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Middle Tennessee, South Dakota, Southern Cal, N. Illinois
   
Key Games: Northwestern, @ Purdue, @ Illinois, Iowa
   
Offense Pred. 23-27 points & 325-350 yards
               
Defense Pred. 30-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Outlook

Minnesota fired Glen Mason after the 2006 season because they were fed up with seven, eight, nine, and 10-win seasons and no conference championships.  In the three years since, the Gophers have won one, seven, and six games.  With a major rebuilding job facing Coach Tim Brewster’s defense, Minnesota’s win total could drop 50% this season.

 

The Gophers return most of their offense from last year, but that offense was not all that good.  The best player, receiver Eric Decker, is now in the NFL.  

 

Quarterback Adam Weber returns for his final season after having a subpar junior season.  He threw 15 interceptions and completed just 52% of his passes. 

 

With Decker gone, the Gophers have few downfield weapons.  The leading returnee in reception yardage is Da’Jon McKnight.  He had 311 yards on 17 catches, most of them after Decker went down to injury.

 

The running game, which was always stellar during Mason’s tenure, has fallen to the bottom of the league.  The Gophers rushed for just 99 yards per game last year, but the offensive line gave up 41 sacks to skew that number a little.

 

All five starters return to the offensive line, so there should be some improvement both in pass protection and in opening holes for the run.  Guard Matt Carufel is the best of the five.

 

The defense could be the weakest stop unit in the Big Ten since the Minnesota defense of 2007.  Just safeties Kyle Threet and Kim Royston return to the starting lineup this season, and Royston has leg issues. 

 

Linebacker Keanon Cooper played quite a bit last year, and he is the only other experienced player on the roster.

 

In the defensive line, end Anthony Jacobs is the closest thing to an experienced player.  He registered 19 tackles in a backup role last year.  His career start total is three games, which is three more than the rest of the d-line.

 

To make matters worse, Minnesota must play Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, and Penn State, and they don’t play Indiana.  It is going to be a long year in Minneapolis, but at least the Gophers have a really beautiful stadium now.  Just how many people decide to come to TCF Bank Stadium in November when it is 25 degrees and windy…

Team Northwestern Wildcats
               
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald
               
Colors Purple and White
               
City Evanston, IL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 95.7
               
National Rating 69
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 7-5
               
Strengths: Offensive Line, Linebackers
               
Weaknesses: Receiver, Running Back, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Vanderbilt, Illinois State, @ Rice, Central Michigan
   
Key Games: @ Minn., Purdue, Mich. St., @ Indiana, Illinois (@ Wrigley Field)
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

The Wildcats may take a small step back this year but not enough to keep them from going to their third consecutive bowl.  Northwestern lost their starting quarterback and top two receivers on offense, and five starters on defense, so we expect NU to be a couple points weaker.  Thanks to a soft non-conference slate of opponents, they should win seven games and earn another bowl trip.

 

The new quarterback is Dan Persa.  He saw limited action last year, completing 59% of his 34 pass attempts.  Persa is a sneaky runner, so expect more rushing yards from this position than last year.

 

No NU backs rushed the ball with any competency last year; Arby Fields led with 302 yards.  Expect a big improvement, because Persa can run the zone-read quite well.

 

The running game has to improve, because the passing game will take a step backward.  NU lost 148 receptions and 1,783 yards when their top two receivers graduated.  The replacements are not as talented.  Nobody on this roster is a consistent deep threat; Drake Dunsmore is the closest thing to that, and he averaged just 11.1 yards per catch last year.

 

Helping make the running game improve this year is an experienced offensive line with four returning starters.  Tackle Al Netter was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten player last year.

 

The Wildcat defense is above average in the line, really good at linebacker, and below average in the defensive backfield.  End Vincent Browne tied for the NU lead with five sacks and had three other tackles for loss. 

 

The other co-leading sack man is linebacker Quentin Davie.  To Davie’s five sacks, he added 6 ½ other tackles for loss.  Fellow linebackers Nate Williams and Ben Johnson return to make this a solid unit.

 

Opponents with good quarterbacks (Ricky Stanzi, Kirk Cousins, Scott Tolzien, Robert Marve, Ben Chappell) will torch the NU secondary this year.  Jordan Mabin is the only returning starter, and he was more of a run-stopper than pass defender in 2009.

 

Look for the Wildcats to win all four of their non-conference games.  They will only need two conference wins to gain bowl eligibility, and there are four conference opponents that they can beat.  We’ll say they win three of those games and post another winning season.  Maybe, this is the year they draw an easier bowl opponent and finally win a bowl.

Team Ohio State Buckeyes
               
Head Coach Jim Tressel
               
Colors Scarlet and Gray
               
City Columbus, OH
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 124.3
               
National Rating 5
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 10-2
               
Strengths: Quarterback,  Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Not many, maybe slightly at Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Marshall, Miami (FL), Ohio U, Eastern Michigan
   
Key Games: @ Wisconsin, Penn State, @ Iowa, Michigan
   
Offense Pred. 30-34 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 13-17 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

We could be far off base here, but we actually believe that Ohio State will not win the Big Ten and will not play in the National Championship Game this year.  The Buckeyes have an incredible offense returning, but it is not as good as Wisconsin’s or Michigan State’s offense, and is no better than Purdue or Michigan’s offense.  They have a very good defense, but it is not as good as Iowa’s or Penn State’s defense.  Thus, we believe they will fall twice in conference play and watch a rival lost just once.

 

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is a Heisman Trophy contender.  He must be considered one of the top five preseason choices.  He ended the season on a roll with a dynamic Rose Bowl performance, but he was almost a non-factor passing in November.  He threw for less than 300 yards in the last three regular season games combined.  He also threw 11 interceptions (3.73%) and finished 8th in passing efficiency.  His ability to run made him a lot more dangerous than other QBs, but we believe Coach Jim Tressel will try to limit his runs this season and increase his passing attempts.

 

OSU is still a run first team, but Pryor has a plethora of good receivers to toss the ball.  DeVier Posey is a classic possession receiver, and his 60 receptions led the Buckeyes last season.  Dane Sanzenbacher is more of a deep threat.  Tight end Jake Stoneburner will be a new star for the Buckeyes this season.  He provides a large target with a good pair of hands.

 

The running game benefits from the return of Brandon Saine and Dan Herron.  The two combined for 1,339 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Saine is a weapon coming out of the backfield as a pass receiver as well.

 

The offensive line returns four starters, and all four are all-conference talents.  This is a one of the nations’ top five lines, but it is just number two in the Big Ten.

 

The defense will not crumble even though it lost five great players.  Tressel’s last four teams yielded just 12.5, 13.9, 12.8, and 12.8 points per game.

 

The defensive line is a minor strength, even with the loss of three starters.  Tressel rotated fresh players in every week, so the three new starters saw extensive playing time in big games.  End Cameron Heyward is ready to become the next great lineman to play at the Giant Horseshoe.  He registered 10 total tackles for loss, but he was not an every down player last year. 

 

Two players return to the second line of defense.  Brian Rolle earned 2nd Team All-Big Ten accolades after making 95 tackles.  Ross Homan was a 1st Team all-conference selection and led OSU with 108 stops.  He also recorded 10 passes defended with a team-leading five interceptions.

 

The back line of defense will be a team strength with three starters returning.  Cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence are among the best in the league.

 

The Buckeyes must travel to both Wisconsin and Iowa.  Home games with Penn State and Michigan will be toughies.  A September home game with Miami will be very interesting.  We think Ohio State will beat the Hurricanes, but the two road games in Big Ten play will be a bit too much.  Call it a second place finish.

 

Team Penn State Nittany Lions
               
Head Coach Joe Paterno
               
Colors Dark Blue and White
               
City State College, PA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 109.6
               
National Rating 38
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Running Back, Receiver, Defensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Youngstown State, @ Alabama, Kent State, Temple
   
Key Games: @ Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, @ Ohio St., Michigan St.
   
Offense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Defense Pred. 17-21 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

Penn State will have to break in a new quarterback this year, and we don’t have much faith in the possible replacements for Daryll Clark.  Two sophomores and two freshmen will battle it out, but we believe sophomore Kevin Newsome will get first crack at the job.  Expect a major decline in passing yardage and more interceptions.  With just an average offensive line, we wouldn’t be surprised if the number of sacks rose as well.

 

The Nittany Lions will try to get the job done with a strong ground attack.  Running back Evan Royster is a great stone to build that running foundation.  Royster rushed for 1,169 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.  Backup Stephfon Green added 319 yards.  Expect the two to combine for close to 2,000 rushing yards this year.

 

The Lion receiving corps has talent, so if a quarterback can emerge that can consistently deliver the ball on target, Penn State can still enjoy a decent passing attack.  Derek Moye and Graham Zug return after teaming for 94 receptions and 1,385 yards.  Expected starter Curtis Drake will miss at least half the season with a broken leg.

 

Penn State gave up just 12.2 points per game last year, the sixth consecutive season they held teams under 20 points per game.  Six starters are gone, but PSU had to replace seven starters last year.

 

The two returning starters to the defensive line are end Jack Crawford and tackle Ollie Ogbu.  Crawford recorded 5 ½ sacks and nine other tackles for loss, while Ogbu recorded eight total tackles for loss.  The two new starters are on par with those two, so Penn State should once again be dominating up front.

 

Ironically, the weakness on this defense is the one position football fans think about when they think about Penn State. “Linebacker U” will have an off season.  All three starters must be replaced.  Middle linebacker Michael Mauti missed last year with an ACL injury, and if he can return to his 2008 form, he will be the leader of this group.

 

The strength of the back line is at safety.  Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino are tough against the pass and the run. 

 

Not many teams contend for championships with poor quarterback play these days.  That’s why we cannot pick Penn State to contend for the Big Ten title.  They will be good with their defense and running game, but they will lose two or three times in conference play.

Team Purdue Boilermakers
               
Head Coach Danny Hope
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City West Lafayette, IN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 99.4
               
National Rating 61
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Defensive Line
               
Weaknesses: Running Back, Offensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Notre Dame, Western Illinois, Ball State, Toledo
   
Key Games: @ Northwestern, Minnesota, @ Illinois, Indiana
   
Offense Pred. 27-31 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 25-29 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

After enjoying many years among the elite of the Big Ten, Purdue has fallen back among the also-rans.  The Boilermakers have endured losing seasons three times in the last five years, including back-to-back sub-.500 years.

 

Coach Danny Hope could guide the Boilermakers back into a bowl in his second season in West Lafayette.  The offense has to replace almost all of its running game and lost some quality receivers, but with former Miami of Florida starting quarterback Robert Marve becoming eligible this year, we believe Purdue will have a first class passing game again. 

 

Marve has a rifle arm, so he will tend to throw longer passes.  This could lead to a lower completion percentage but higher yardage per completions.

 

With Keith Smith returning after grabbing 91 passes for 1,100 yards, the Boilermakers have a potential 1st Team All-Big Ten pick.  Marve needs a game-breaking deep threat to emerge so he can air it out a couple times per game.

 

The running game has to start from scratch this year.  Sophomore Al-Terek McBurse had four carries for 10 yards, and he will open up as the new starter. 

 

The offensive line is going to be young as well.  Guard Ken Plue could contend for all-conference honors, but three new starters will line up in the trenches.

 

The defense gave up close to 30 points per game last year, and it will not be much better this season.  The defensive line will be much improved, but the secondary will be a major liability.

 

The front line features a great pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan.  He registered 13 sacks last year.

 

All three starters return to the second line of defense.  Joe Holland, Jason Werner, and Chris Carlino finished second, third, and fourth in tackles.  Werner recorded 14 ½ stops for loss.

 

The secondary must replace all four starters, and only free safety Albert Evans saw any real game action last year.  Purdue gave up 203 passing yards per game last year with a really good pass rush.  They could give up 250+ yards this year.

 

Like Michigan State, expect Purdue games to be fast-paced and high scoring.  We believe they will just squeak by with six wins and garner a bowl bid for the first time in three years. 

Team Wisconsin Badgers
               
Head Coach Bret Bielema
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Madison, WI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 117.0
               
National Rating 20
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-1
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Receiver, Offensive Line ***
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State, Austin Peay
   
Key Games: @ Michigan State, Ohio State, @ Iowa, @ Michigan
   
Offense Pred. 33-37 points & 425-450 yards
               
Defense Pred. 20-24 points & 310-330 yards
               
Outlook

The Badgers have quietly become the next most consistent Big Ten program after Ohio State.  They have been to eight consecutive bowl games and have won double digit games three of the last five seasons.  With 10 offensive starters returning from a fantastic offense a year ago, UW may have an unstoppable attack this year.

 

Coach Brett Bielema’s offense averaged more than 200 yards rushing and passing last year, and both phases will be even better in 2010.  Quarterback Scott Tolzien returns after passing for 2,705 at a 64.3% rate.  The Badgers have built a solid offense the last several years even though they have had to break in a new starter at quarterback the last three seasons.  Expect Tolzien to top 65% completions and 3,000 passing yards.

 

With Tolzien throwing the pigskin, the running game will have more holes available.  The Badgers have three running backs that they can unleash on opponents, and all three can rush for 100 yards in a game.  John Clay may not get much respect outside the league, but in our opinion, he is the near equal of Mark Ingram and LaMichael James.  Clay rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.  Backups Montee Ball and Zach Brown may get more carries this year at Clay’s expense.  The duo combined for 670 yards last year.

 

The receiving corps is not far from being as talented as the running backs.  Nick Toon has exceptional strength and good hands, while Isaac Anderson has the quickness to turn a five yard catch into a 50-yard touchdown sprint.  UW has made a tradition out of developing all-conference tight ends, and Lance Kendricks should be the next one.  He comes off a season in which he caught 29 passes in a secondary role.

 

We saved the best for last.  The offensive line is not just the best in the league, we believe it is the very best in college football.  All five starters return including 1st Team All-Big Ten studs at center (John Moffitt) and tackle (Gabe Carmi). 

 

The defense will not be as dominating as the offense, but we don’t expect the Badgers to give up a lot of points this year.  If an adequate pass rush can be molded out of a rebuilt defensive line, the Badgers are going to grab their first Big Ten title since the days of Ron Dayne.

 

J.J. Watt is the lone returnee up front.  He earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after recording 15 ½ total tackles for loss and batting down five passes.  Two of the new starters saw a lot of playing time, but this unit will be a little weaker than last year’s front four.

 

The second line of defense returns two talented starters.  Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are equally effective against the run and the pass.

 

The secondary is the real strength on this side of the ball.  With three competent starters back and with the new starter having past starting experience, teams will not burn UW for a lot of passing yards.

 

Throw in a great punter and placekicker, and this team looks primed to win the conference championship. 

Coming Tomorrow: The Southeastern Conference continues to produce national champion after national champion.  Can anybody challenge Alabama and Florida in the divisional races? 

September 2, 2009

2009 Big 10 Preview

2009 Big 10 Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

We’ve saved the best for last.  Okay, it’s the best for us, because four of us are Big 10 guys.  Let us take care of something before we go on.  Two of us are University of Wisconsin alums.  One of us is University of Minnesota alum, and our founder is an adopted Wisconsinite married to a former resident of Madison (and Minneapolis).  He’s also a life-long follower of Ohio State, partially because of legendary sports talk show host Pete Franklin, who mentored him during his time in sports radio, and partially because his grade school PE touch football team called itself Ohio State (read how the PiRates started for an explanation).

While the Big 10 is no better than the fourth or fifth best league in college football this year, it could very well be first in excitement.  No team, not even the Buckeyes, is dominant enough to run away with the conference title.  Five teams have a legitimate shot at contending for the Rose Bowl bid.  Four other teams could become bowl eligible.  Even the last place team should be exciting to watch thanks to a change in offensive philosophy. 

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

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, if Indiana was 0-4 and hosting a 4-0 Kentucky team, it would be expected that those devoted Blue Mist fans would pack Memorial Stadium and make it a home game for the Wildcats.  UK might actually receive a point advantage.  Now, if that same Indiana team instead is 4-0 and hosting San Diego State a week after SDSU played at Hawaii and lost in four overtimes, IU would get as much as 10 points in home field advantage.  The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.

 

Big 10 Conference Preseason PiRate Ratings

   

 

Prediction *

  Team

PiRate

Big 10

Overall

  Penn State

116

6-2

10-2

  Iowa

114

5-3

9-3

  Ohio State

113

7-1

11-1

  Illinois

106

6-2

10-2

  Michigan State

103

6-2

9-3

  Michigan

102

2-6

5-7

  Wisconsin

101

3-5

7-5

  Minnesota

101

4-4

7-5

  Purdue

99

2-6

4-8

  Northwestern

97

3-5

7-5

  Indiana

89

0-8

2-10

   

 

 

 

 

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

 

on expected changes to rating during the year

 

This preview will be a little different than the rest.  We will list each team’s strengths and weaknesses as we see them

Penn State

Strengths:

Running Back—Evan Royster rushed for 1,236 yards (6.5 avg) and 12 TDs; backup Staphfon Green has sub 4.3 40 speed

Quarterback—Daryll Clark is the perfect fit for this offense.  He passed for 2,592 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for 10 TDs as well.

Linebacker—Duh, this is Linebacker U.  Navorro Bowman led with 106 tackles, 16 ½ behind the line, and broke up five passes.  Sean Lee returns after missing 2008.  In 2007, he had 138 tackles.

Weaknesses:

Receiver—Gone are the top three receivers from 2008 (132 receptions 1,932 yds/17 TDs), representing 59% of the catches, 61% of the yards, and 71% of the touchdowns.

Offensive Line—Three new starters must have it down pat by game four, when PSU takes on Iowa.  Guard Lou Eliades and tackle DeOn’tae Pannell both have the potential to be stars, so this unit could prove to be okay.  Tackle Dennis Landolt is already a star.

Secondary—The Nittany Lions were wiped out by graduation here.  Four new starters make it the weakest unit on the team. 

Outlook—An easy out-of-conference slate guarantees four wins.  Penn State hosts Ohio State, but the visiting team has won the last two years.  A season finale at Michigan State could have the Rose Bowl trip on the line.  We think they have a few too many holes to fill but enough talent to finish in the top four in the conference.

Iowa

Strengths:

Defense—The entire defensive side, with the exception of tackle, will be tough.  The Hawkeyes gave up 13 points and 291 yards per game last year, and there’s no reason to think they won’t repeat that performance this year.  The back seven has no peer in the Big 10.  The Hawkeyes could intercept 25 passes.  Safety Tyler Sash and linebacker Pat Angerer both intercepted five passes in 2008, and Amari Spievey picked off four. 

Quarterback—Ricky Stanzi isn’t going to make the All-Big 10 Team, but he flies just under the radar.  He should top 2,000 yards passing and toss 15-20 touchdown passes.

Weaknesses:

Offensive Line—This isn’t a weakness per se; it’s a total shuffling of the roster.  Only tackle Bryan Bulaga started last year and will start this year.  The depth chart here has been scrambled, with two former starters losing their jobs.  If former starter Dace Richardson, who missed most of the last two seasons, can return to form, this will actually become a fairly good unit.

Running Back—The Hawkeyes cannot replace Shone Greene (1,850 yards/6.0 avg/20 TDs).  New starter Paki O’Meara ran the ball 21 times for 67 yards last year.

Defensive Tackle—Karl Klug could develop into a fine player, and Christian Ballard is capable of playing anywhere on the line, but neither of them is close in talent to departed stars Matt Kroul and Mitch King.

Outlook—Iowa can stop just about any offense in the league, and they should hold their four non-conference opponents (Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Arizona, and Arkansas State) to about 35 total points.  Inside the Big 10, tough games at Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State will prevent them from winning the title.  Nine wins and a eighth bowl bid in the last nine years is very reachable.

Ohio State

Strengths:

Quarterback—Terrelle Pryor is just a sophomore, but he’s the co-number one QB in this league.  Look for him to pass for 2,250-2,500 yards and rush for close to 1,000, accounting for 25 touchdowns.

Defensive Line—Three starters return from a unit that surrendered 110 rushing yards per game and provided a strong pass rush.  End Thaddeus Gibson recorded five sacks and four other TFLs.

Safety—Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell form the best safety tandem in the league.  Both are NFL prospects.

Weaknesses:

Cornerback—Malcolm Jenkins will give quarterbacks in the NFC South headaches this year, and he cannot be replaced.  Teams refused to pass the ball in his direction as much as possible, yet he still intercepted three passes and broke up nine others.

Receiver—The Buckeyes lost the two Brians, Robiskie and Hartline, both of whom were drafted.  The replacements will eventually be quite proficient, but it will take a few games.  The Southern Cal game comes up in week two.

Running Back—Beanie Wells and his 1,197 yards rushing are gone.  Pryor will lead the Buckeyes in rushing this year, but he needs somebody to take the heat off him occasionally.  Sophomore Dan Herron could subsidize the running of Pryor and allow OSU to rush for the same amount of yards this year (192 per game in ’08).

Linebacker—Ohio State lost James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, and the replacements are lightly experienced.  Lone returnee Ross Homan could make the All-Big 10 1st Team.

Outlook—Ohio State’s backups from one year usually become starters the next year and perform admirably, so weaknesses for them are not the same as weaknesses for other teams.  The key to the season comes in week two.  If they beat Southern Cal, it will be a shot in the arm, and the Buckeyes could run the table.  If they lose this game, they will have a hard time playing their best all season, knowing they have little chance of going to the second Pasadena bowl.  We think they have a better than 50-50 shot of winning. The game at Penn State may not go their way, and the Buckeyes may have to settle for the first Pasadena bowl.

Illinois

Strengths:

Quarterback—Juice Williams is the other co-number one QB in the league.  He won’t be confused for Tebow, Bradford, or McCoy, but he will make Illinois go.  He passed for 3,173 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, but he needs to cut back on interceptions.  He also led the Illini with 719 rushing, and he is capable of topping 1,000.  Backup Eddie McGee has talent and can move the team as well.

Receiver—It starts with Arrelious Benn, who finished second in the league with 67 receptions and 1,055 yards.  Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui is a nightmare on enemy safeties at 6’5 and 270.  Look for him to catch 30-40 passes and plough his way for a few extra yards after every catch except for the diving receptions.  Jeff Cumberland is a serious threat to go all the way with every catch he makes.

Running Back—The offensive skill positions are the best in the Big 10 thanks to the able running abilities of Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, and Mikel Leshoure.  The trio will split reps and rush for about 1,200 yards this year.  All three are threats as receivers as well.

Weaknesses:

The Defensive Front Seven—The Illini gave up 153 yards rushing and 4.0 yards per rush.  Only two of the front seven starters return this year, and this will be a big liability.  Expected starting end Jerry Brown was declared academically ineligible and won’t play this year.

Outlook—The lack of stars on the defensive side will necessitate the Illini holding onto the ball longer this season.  New offensive coordinator Mike Schulz was noted for putting together TCU offenses that held onto the ball for long, time consuming drives. 

What Schulz cannot change is the schedule.  After having an off week September 19, the Illini must play at Ohio State, at home against Penn State and at home against Michigan State.  That is a tough three game stretch, and very few teams other than the top four in the nation can beat these three powers back-to-back-to-back.  Illinois should enjoy a return to a New Year’s Day Bowl, and if  more than one team can beat Ohio State, Coach Ron Zook could gain a share of the Big 10 title.

Michigan State

Strengths:

Receiver—All the receivers who caught more than five passes return this year.  Mark Dell, Charlie Gantt, and Blair White may not catch 50 passes each, but if they continue to average an aggregate 17 yards per catch, they are going to make things difficult for defenses, as the running game gets more room to operate.

Defensive Front Seven—The linebacker trio is up there with Penn State and Iowa, and the front four is above average.  End Trevor Anderson is a QB’s nightmare.  He could post double digit sacks after recording eight a year ago.  Offenses will not be able to key on him, because linebackers Eric Gordon, Greg Jones, and Brandon Denson can shoot through and drop a passer or take a running back down for a loss.

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—The loss of Brian Hoyer is harder to overcome than first thought.  None of the possible replacements has distinguished himself, and the Spartans will open the season with a possible platoon of Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, two sophomores with limited experience.  Look for Coach Mark Dantonio to run more, pass less, and pass deeper when the Spartans do throw it.

Running Back—Javon Ringer was one of the most underrated running backs in the NCAA.  He led the Big 10 with 1,637 yards and 22 touchdowns last year.  Caulton Ray, a redshirt freshman will get first crack at filling those shoes.  Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will see plenty of action.  The three will get 400 carries and hope to replace the lost yardage as a trio.

Outlook—The Spartans had a chance at the end of the year to get a piece of the Big 10 title, but Penn State thrashed them 49-18.  MSU doesn’t have enough offensive talent to score enough points to beat the better offensive teams, and their defense won’t be strong enough to hold those teams’ score down low enough to win 17-14.  The Spartans play at Notre Dame, and that could be an extra loss on their schedule.  We expect them to get their revenge on Penn State this year and prevent the Lions from winning the Big 10.  As for the MSU record, even with the offensive woes, we think they will win as many as last year.

Michigan

Strengths:

Running Back—Brandon Minor is still around, and when healthy, he is capable of piling up good yardage.  A big year could move him onto the draft boards of some teams.  Quarterback Tate Forcier will be a much better runner than Steven Threet was last year.  Nick Sheridan is another option, but Coach Rich Rodriguez would love Forcier to take the reins and not give them up.

Offensive Line—All five starters return, and with a year of experience in this offense, the rushing numbers should jump by as much as 100 yards.  Guard Stephen Schilling has all-conference potential.

Defensive Front Seven—Linebackers Obi Ezeh, Jonas Mouton, and Stevie Brown make this yet another excellent group in this league.  End Brandon Graham is the best at his position in the Big 10 (10 sacks and 10 more TFLs!)

Punter—Zoltan Mesko is a Ray Guy Award contender.  He averaged 43 yards per punt with a net of 39.3.  His punts have great hang time, and he can place them inside the 20 any time he’s punting from beyond his 35 yard line.

Weaknesses:

Secondary—Three 2008 starters are gone, and the new starters didn’t see much playing time last year.  Expect major problems when the Wolverines play Notre Dame, Iowa, Penn State, Illinois, and Ohio State.

Team Morale—We were ready to pick Michigan as a surprise contender for eight wins and a bowl until the news came out about players going to the Detroit Free Press to accuse Rodriguez of making them practice more hours than the NCAA allows.  We think there is a concerted effort from within the booster community to send Rodriguez on his way, and we expect more bad news to emerge this year.

Outlook—It looks like two years could be all for Rich Rodriguez.  He cannot coach with this lack of respect coming from within the ranks.  Rodriguez will get another chance somewhere else if this is his final year in Ann Arbor.  We say 5-7 is the best this team can do.

Wisconsin

Strengths:

Running Back—P. J. Hill is gone, but Zach Brown and John Clay are back.  The Badger running game should continue to grind out 200-225 yards per game.

Tight  End—Wisconsin usually uses two tight ends, and Mickey Turner and Garrett Graham are big and sure-handed.  Graham led the Badgers with 40 receptions and 540 yards.  He could top 50 this year, while Turner should match graduated starter Travis Beckham yard-for-yard.

Secondary—Three starters return to a unit that gave up just 52.5% completions and 196 yards per game.  Cornerback Niles Brinkley intercepted four passes and knocked away nine more, and yet he was beaten out in August practice. 

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer didn’t remind anybody of Aaron Rodgers, as they combined for just 54% completions and a TD/INT ratio of 11/10.  Neither had much running ability, and they were sacked 29 times.  Scott Tolzein has beaten out Sherer (Evridge graduated), and he’s a little more mobile. 

Defensive Front Seven—Wisconsin has usually been strong up front on defense.  This year, only two of the seven starters return, and the new starters have little game experience.  Look for opponents to rush for 150-180 yards per game against the rebuilt run defense, and look for quarterbacks to have more time to pass.  UW will give up 28-33 points per game.

Outlook– Coach Bret Bielema could be on the hot seat if Wisconsin continues to slide the wrong way.  Since taking over for Barry Alvarez, UW has won 12, nine, and seven games.  That number better move the other way this year.  An easy non-conference slate should produce four wins, but we see the Badgers repeating their 3-5 league record for a repeat of 2008.  That will place Bielema on a very hot seat for the 2010 season.

Minnesota

Strengths:

Receiver—Yes, we are talking about Minnesota being strong at the wide out position.  Eric Decker is the best receiver ever to wear the Big M.  Last year, he led the Big 10 with 84 receptions and 1,074 yards, scoring seven times.  He missed some time with injuries, or else he might have caught 100 passes.  Brandon Green and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett give UM three dangerous weapon.  Tow-Arnett grabbed just 10 passes last year, but he averaged 21.1 yards per catch.

Quarterback—Adam Weber had a Bryan Cupito-like season last year.  He passed for 2,761 yards and 15 touchdowns at a 62.2% completion rate.  He showed an ability to run when called on to do so.  If he improves as much this year as last, he could top 3,000 yards.

Offensive Line—A combination of four returning starters plus a new star-in-the-making mean the Gophers are going to be strong in the trenches.  Coach Tim Brewster would like to bring back the power running game enjoyed just four years ago in the Lawrence Maroney days.

Weaknesses:

Running Back—Duane Bennett, DeLeon Easkridge, and a host of others combined to run for just 104 yards per game (34 sacks skewed those numbers a bit).  Bennett showed the most promise for turning into a consistent runner, and he has become the starter.

Defensive Back—Minnesota is not ready to challenge for conference honors because their pass defense isn’t strong enough.  After surrendering 240 yards per game, there should be some improvement this year.  It would have been better had safety Tramaine Brock been able to remain academically eligible.  Kyle Theret  and Marcus Sherels make up half of a good secondary, but they cannot cover two zones at once.

Outlook—The most exciting thing about Minnesota football in 2009 is their brand new outdoor, on-campus stadium.  We’ve watched its construction adjacent to Williams Arena, and it is one beautiful work of architecture.  It’s light years better than old Memorial Stadium (The Brick House), and much more student friendly and personable than the Metrodome.  If you get a chance to see TCF Bank Stadium, don’t pass it up.

As for the Gophers, a better running game to compliment an outstanding passing game should allow UM to score 28 to 33 points per game and gain around 400 yards per game.  Unfortunately, the Gophers will give up 28 points per game as well.  The schedule has one tough non-conference game (Cal) and one semi-touch non-conference game (Air Force).  The Gophers should match last year’s seven-win total.

Purdue

Strengths:

Defensive Back Seven—Five of seven starters return to these two units, led by free safety Torri Williams (83 tackles, 2 int., 6 PBU) and cornerback David Pender (12 PBU).  Linebackers Chris Carlino and Joe Holland have all-conference potential

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—Is it true that this is a weakness at Purdue?  With the loss of Curtis Painter and backup Justin Siller’s dismissal, it leaves inexperienced senior Joey Elliott to take control of the offense.  There will be a major drop-off for first year coach Danny Hope.  The Boilermakers averaged 183 yards per game through the air last year, which was the lowest this century.  It will be the second lowest after this season concludes.

Running Back—1,131-yard rusher Kory Sheets and his 16 touchdowns scored are history.  Replacement Ralph Bolden rushed for 28 yards on 16 attempts.  Expect a minor decrease only, because PU just rushed for 125 yards per game last year.

Receiver—To complete the troika of skill positions, the Boilermakers suffered heavy losses at receiver.  The top two pass catchers, Desmond Tardy and Greg Orton, are gone after grabbing 136 passes for 1,546 yards and 10 TDs.  This year’s starters combined for 60 receptions and 710 yards.

Outlook—Purdue opens the season playing Toledo at home and Oregon on the road.   The next two games are at home against Northern Illinois and at Notre Dame.  If they don’t win two of those four games, they may lose double digit games for the first time since 1993.  If they split those first four, then they could win two or three more times.  We’ll call it a repeat of last year—4-8.

Northwestern

Strengths:

Defensive Line—Coach Pat Fitzgerald has slowly started to turn Northwestern into a defense before offense team, much like the way NU played when he was starring for Coach Gary Barnett.  He’s built a strong front four with end Corey Wootton leading the way.  Wootton had 10 sacks and six other tackles behind the line and made 1st Team All-Big 10.  Starting at the other end, Vince Browne recorded four sacks off the bench last year.  Tackle Corbin Bryant proved to be a reliable run stopper.

Defensive Backs—All four starters return from last year, and all of them could make one of the all-conference teams.  Safety Brad Phillips led NU with 109 tackles with six going for losses; he picked off three passes and knocked away six others.  His counterpart at the other safety, Brendan Smith, finished third on the team with 82 tackles.  Cornerbacks Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin teamed for five interceptions and 17 passed knocked away.  Northwestern gave up 214 passing yards per game, and that number could go down.

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—C. J. Bacher has graduated, and senior Mike Kafka takes over.  Kafka is a much better runner than Bacher, but he isn’t as competent passing the ball. 

Running Back—Tyrell Sutton rushed for 890 yards in eight games of action, and backup Stephen Simmons started in his place.  NU averaged just 80 rushing yards per game in Simmons’ starts, and more than 175 yards per game when Sutton played.  Simmons takes over the position full time this year after gaining just 2.9 yards per carry.  Expect the Wildcats to rely more on Kafka than any of the running backs.

Wide Receiver—Another reason Northwestern’s offense will stagnate this year is a weak receiving unit.  The top three receivers (top four when you count Sutton’s passes caught from his RB spot) have graduated, leaving a roster that combined for 57 catches and 480 yards. 

Outlook—Northwestern won all their non-league games last year for the first time since 1963, and it’s a good bet it will happen again in 2009.  They will only need two Big 10 wins to become bowl eligible, and with both Purdue and Indiana on the schedule, they have a great shot.  Throw in one upset along the way when the defense dominates in inclement weather, and you have the Wildcats’ first back-to-back winning seasons since 1995 and 1996, when Fitzgerald was the star linebacker.

Indiana

Strengths:

Defensive End—Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton give the Hoosiers one of the best set of terminals in the league.  Kirley is the leading returning sack master in the league after recording 10 ½ last year.  He added nine trappings of backs for losses to that total.  Middleton was a 1st Team All-Big 10 selection two years ago, but he spent most of last year in the doghouse following an early season suspension.

Linebacker—Middle linebacker Matt Mayberry led IU with 89 tackles last year, while Will Patterson added 55 and had 8 ½ total tackles for loss.

Weaknesses:

The entire offense—Indiana will struggle to score points, even with the switch to the pistol offense.  Quarterback Ben Chappell has the potential to be a 200-yard per game passer, but he just doesn’t have much support.  His receivers are not overly fast nor great hands people.  There are no potential stars at running back, and the offensive line is below average.  Look for the Hoosiers to average less than 20 points and 325 yards per game this year.

Outlook—It’s going to be a long year in Bloomington.  Indiana has to get some new blood into the moribund offense.  The defense will give the Hoosiers a couple opportunities to win a game or two, but that’s about all that can be expected.  This is, or at least was, a basketball school.  1967 was 42 years ago, and that’s the last time IU won the Big 10.

Next up: We begin regular season coverage with the PiRate and Mean spreads for the opening week of the college season.  Look for our initial NFL ratings the first of next week.

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