Is This the Year?Can Another Pac-10 Team Topple the Trojan Juggernaut? See Our Rankings to Find Out
Football: Midweek UpdateJeff Goodman and Matt Kawahara discuss Kevin Riley's being named as the starter and whether or not the expectations for Cal in 2009 are too high.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Category: Sports > Fall > Football
At first glance, the departure of eight starters from the best defense in the country and two coordinators, may finally spell the year USC falls from its throne. But this story has been heard before. Year after year, the Trojans lose talent and yet, year after year, they continue to add another trophy to the mantle of the Pete Carroll era.
The defense is unquestionably inexperienced, but there is talent at every position-especially the secondary. Taylor Mays is truly one of the best players in the country and will lead a very deep and experienced group of defensive backs.
On the offensive side of the ball, it won't really matter if it's Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley taking the snaps, because USC still boasts one of the best offensive lines in the country. There's also a talented receivers corps headed by redshirt junior Damian Williams. Finally, it wouldn't be a conversation about the Trojans unless the running backs were mentioned. Once again, the amount of talent at this position is unrivaled in the Pac-10, so look for Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, and Stafon Johnson to have field days.
It's unwise to pick against USC to win the Pac-10 when Carroll is still in charge. Talent and coordinators may come and go, but Carroll is the one who makes the engine run for the Trojans.
Cal finished the 2008 season with the Pac-10's leader in rushing yards and the conference's second-best defense in terms of points allowed.
That rushing leader is back-some people are now calling him the nation's most explosive player-and so are eight starters from the defense, including the entire secondary and defensive line. That's why the Bears are widely considered to be one effective passing attack away from dethroning USC atop the Pac-10.
The quarterbacks were inconsistent last season, as were the receivers. Virtually the entire receiving corps returns intact, though, and they're combining that year of experience and an improved chemistry with quarterback Kevin Riley in an attempt to put 2008's underachievement out of their minds.
Riley was named the starter on Monday, so turning the passing numbers around will start with him. But along with the more experienced receivers, he'll be working with a healthy, stable offensive line and talented tight ends in Anthony Miller and Skylar Curran.
"It's not just Kevin that was the problem (last season), it's not just Kevin that's the solution," head coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's a team effort on the offensive side of the ball."
The tone of Cal's season will be set within the first month. In their first five games, the Bears host Maryland, travel to Minnesota and Oregon, and then face USC at home on Oct. 3.
Depending on where it stands after that, Cal could be in store for a special season.
The folks up in Eugene are dreaming big about Oregon this season. But is their Nike army, captained by first-year head coach Chip Kelly, really USC's main competition for the Pac-10 title?
Returning are the two main cogs of the offense-quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount. Masoli, who emerged from the quarterback shuffle that Oregon endured early last season, is a solid option in the air and an even better one on the ground. With 1,000-yard rusher Blout, Masoli anchored the second-best rushing attack in the country last season, averaging 280.1 yards per game.
On defense, the Ducks retain one of the conference's best run-stoppers in defensive end Will Tukuafu. In the secondary, standout corner Walter Thurmond III also returns.
But all's not rosy at Autzen. Blount will be running behind an inexperienced offensive line, one that lost a rock in center Max Unger to the draft. And while Masoli's legs can carry Oregon pretty far, how far can the Ducks go with an almost brand-new receiver corps? The projected starting three combine for seven career touchdowns.
Their schedule plays to their advantage, however, as the Ducks see USC, Cal and Oregon State at home. But Oregon faces a formidable test in its first game-a battle at Boise State, a team that has lost two games at home in the last 10 years.
If the Ducks take down the Broncos on Sept. 3, the stage could be set for one memorable year. But if they don't, Oregon fans might want to scale back their expectations just a bit.
4. Oregon State
Oregon State might not be considered an elite Pac-10 team, but that doesn't mean the Beavers won't exert their wrath on the conference and national rankings.
Under the direction of Mike Riley, the 2008 Pac-10 Coach of the Year, Oregon State upset No. 3 USC in 2006, shocked No. 2 Cal in 2007 and defeated the Trojans again in Corvallis last season, when the Beavers compiled a record of 9-4 and a Brut Sun Bowl victory over Pittsburgh.
What's more, the Bears have not beaten Oregon State since 2006.
Sophomore running back Jacquizz Rodgers-who last year became the first freshman to win the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year award after averaging nearly 114 yards per game-is back from a left shoulder injury that sidelined him for the last 11 quarters of the 2008 campaign. At 5-foot-7, "Quiz" will keep opponents guessing with his stealth and speed.
His older brother, James Rodgers, is just as dangerous as a short yet savvy wide receiver.
This potent brotherly duo has a lot on its plate, though, as the Beavers will face USC, Cal and Oregon all on the road.
And if their schedule doesn't lead to their demise, their quarterback situation might. Senior Sean Canfield will likely get the starting nod, but a couple other signal-callers are hot on his heels for playing time.
No matter who's in the pocket, though, expect an upset ... or two.
In 2009, Arizona looks like it will fall somewhere in the middle of the Pac.
Coming off of an 8-5 season during which they managed their first bowl victory in 10 years, the Wildcats have what it takes to improve upon their modest successes of 2008 and make life tough for their Pac-10 foes.
In addition, the team's relatively breezy preseason schedule and strong defense could give Arizona the momentum it needs to wreak havoc on the conference competition.
In the absence of graduated senior Willie Tuitama, however, there's a serious battle for the quarterback position between sophomores Matt Scott and Nick Foles.
In fact, the two could possibly share the snaps in the team's opening game against Central Michigan in Tucson, Ariz., creating a situation similar to the one Cal endured last year.
With so much still up in the air, the Wildcats might find a constant in tight end Rob Gronkowski. The 6-foot-6 junior, who was a third-team All-American last season, holds the team records for yards by a tight end in a game, season and career.
More will be known about Arizona once it plays Cal, Oregon and USC-three of its last four opponents.
After a mediocre season under then-first year head coach Rick Neuheisel, the Bruins appear to be improved and in possible contention for a bowl game this season.
The questions are with quarterback Kevin Prince and a shaky offensive line. The top teams in the conference all have relatively strong offensive lines, so UCLA has a lot of work ahead if it wants to break the top half of the conference. Look no further for evidence of the work to be done than the paltry 2.6 yards the team averaged per rush last season. Prince hasn't been outstanding in scrimmages thus far, so the pressure is mounting for the redshirt freshman. The running game isn't strong for UCLA, but receivers are another story. Led by Terrence Austin, the receiving corps has a lot of depth.
Turning to defense though, the situation becomes even brighter for the Bruins. The linebackers, led by potential All-American Reggie Carter, are experienced and excellent hitters. Junior Brian Price is one of the best defensive tackles in the nation, but there's not much else on the defensive line. Taking the pressure off up front is the secondary, though. Three-year starting cornerback Alterraun Verner leads a group of both young talent and veterans that make up the secondary.
Neuheisel is dying to prove that there is more than one football school in Los Angeles, and this very well could be the year where his squad can make a dent in Carroll's dynasty.
Stanford's success in 2009 will begin and end in its offensive backfield, where the quarterback is an upstart, strong-armed redshirt freshman and the running back is a seasoned bruiser who has already written himself into the Cardinal's record books.
Andrew Luck became the first freshman quarterback to win the starting job out of training camp since 1996 when he beat out Tavita Pritchard, better known as the guy who threw the game-winning touchdown two years ago at the Coliseum. Luck appears to be quite advanced for his young age and has familiarized himself quickly with Stanford's offense, such that coach Jim Harbaugh said he actually had the edge in starting out of spring ball.
Tailback Toby Gerhart, meanwhile, is the Cardinal's sure thing-a 6-foot-1, 237-pound senior who set the program's single-season rushing record last year with 1,136 yards and found the end zone 15 times. Gerhart has shown that he can handle a heavy workload, playing in all 12 of Stanford's games last year and carrying 210 times.
A defense led by senior safety Bo McNally and linebacker Clinton Snyder needs to defend better against the pass after allowing 226.7 yards per game through the air in 2008, second-to-last in the Pac-10. Luck will also need some more elusive targets if he's going to improve on last year's disappointing 152.2 passing yards per game. Only one Stanford player caught more than 23 passes last season.
The Cardinal opens the season at Washington State, but plays only three Pac-10 games on the road after that. If it continues to steadily improve in coach Jim Harbaugh's third season, Stanford could very well be headed for its first bowl game since 2001.
8. Arizona State
For the first time in four years, Arizona State's offense will be led by someone other than Rudy Carpenter in 2009.
Carpenter started 43 consecutive games from 2005-08, played through a good amount of pain last season and still managed to throw for 2,493 yards and 16 touchdowns. It will be up to senior Danny Sullivan to pick up where Carpenter left off. Sullivan has been Carpenter's primary backup for the last three seasons and therefore is familiar with the Sun Devils' offense. Arizona State lost its top receiver in Mike Jones but returns the sure-handed Chris McGaha, the Pac-10's active leader in career starts for a receiver.
On the defensive side, the Sun Devils bring back stud defensive end Dexter Davis, who ranked third in the conference in sacks last season. Davis, along with linebackers Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel, anchored a defense last season that was surprisingly good against the run, giving up only 126.5 yards per game on the ground.
The problems start when ASU tries to run the ball.
The Sun Devils averaged just 89.1 yards per game on the ground in 2008. Last year's leading rusher, Dimitri Nance, does return, but his numbers were less than steller. Nance carried 105 times for just 410 yards and three scores.
That won't help Sullivan as he tries to make people in Tempe, Ariz., forget about Carpenter. Sullivan will get his first major opportunity against Georgia in Athens, Ga. If the Sun Devils are going to better last year's record of 5-7 and return to a bowl game, they'll have to pile up the wins early, as they play Cal, USC and Oregon on consecutive weekends in the second half of the season.
If there's one thing that Huskies fans can take solace in, it's that it can only get better than last season.
After missing most of the season with a thumb injury, one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Jake Locker will be back in action. With former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian taking the head coaching duties, the big question will be whether or not Locker flourishes in Sarkisian's pro-style offense. Locker has been staying in the pocket more, but that doesn't mean Sarkisian won't fully utilize his quarterback's athleticism as well. Outside of Locker, there's not much to like on the Washington offense other than stand-out receiver D'Andre Goodwin. Still, the receivers last season combined for just three touchdowns.
The bad news for Huskies fans is that the offense will still probably be better than the defense. Sarkisian brought along with him former Trojans defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Holt has a lot of work ahead of him, however. After leading one of the best defensive groups ever to step on the field last year, Holt will have to revamp a defense that was statistically the worst defense in school history. The defensive line will be built around Washington's lone All-Pac-10 selection last year in senior Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Also, troubled linebacker E.J. Savannah, who was suspended last year by former coach Ty Willingham, will be back and has garnered full support from his new coach. Two players aren't enough though. The secondary situation is just as ugly as it was last season.
Another interesting thing coming out of the program this year is the schedule. The Huskies will play both LSU and Notre Dame this season, but play all the top conference teams at home. Once again though, things can only go up for this program, and teams can no longer look at games against Washington as gimmes.
10. Washington State
It can only be up from here for Washington State, right? Well, the Cougars better hope so.
But to be honest, Washington State's prospects don't look much better this season than they did last. The Cougars managed to lose 11 out of their 13 games last year-five by 49 or more points-and are still without go-to options at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and linebacker.
It's hard to beat how pitiful the Cougars' lack of depth is; in 2008 they posted flyers around campus offering open tryouts for anyone interested in a job at quarterback.
This year, it looks like their man under center will probably be senior Kevin Lopina, but Lopina's line from 2008 reads like a nightmare: 11 interceptions, zero touchdowns. The four other quarterbacks who played last year did no better-as a unit, they threw six touchdowns the entire season. Yikes.
On the upside, Washington State returns 15 starters and coach Paul Wulff seems bent on installing the no-huddle spread offense that fell horribly on its face last season. So, in theory, the nation's worst offense could be better, especially if they can get the ever-dangerous no-huddle spread to work. And it's hard to imagine that last year's defense, which was the first in conference history to give up over 500 points, will get even worse.
But then again, is it a good thing to return 15 players who managed to set a whole array of records in futility last year? One of the only big adds for the program is former Cal running back James Montgomery, and Wulff himself admitted the program still doesn't have enough depth.
So an advisory to Washington State fans: If you've got a bunker, stock it up for the next few months. You probably don't want to see this.
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