1. UCLA Bruins
(4-7 last season, 2-6 in the Pac-10)
The Bruins certainly looked like the class of the conference with their opening win over Alabama, and there’s no arguing with the talent they have on both sides of the ball.
The quarterback situation is up in the air, with sophomores Corey Paus and Ryan McCann battling for playing time. Paus won the job out of camp, but suffered a separated shoulder on the season’s opening drive. McCann came in and led the Bruins down the field several times against Alabama’s vaunted defense, showing that he can do the job. Even if Paus returns at full strength, look for a the battle to continue all season. Head coach Bob Toledo could end up rotating the pair to keep them both happy.
Starting wideouts Brian Poli-Dixon and Freddie Mitchell are the best duo in the conference, and huge tight end Gabe Crecion serves as an outlet in the passing game along with as creating holes for tailback DeShaun Foster, the most talented back in the conference. If he can stay healthy after dealing with ankle and knee injuries the past two years, the junior should have a breakout year running behind a monsterous line and catch the attention of NFL scouts.
As with most of the Pac-10 contenders, the Bruins’ real questions are on defense. Senior end Kenyon Coleman is the most proven of the line candidates, but a dominating defensive end has to get more than the 3.5 sacks he recorded last season. Junior linebackers Ryan Nece and Robert Thomas are both Butkus Award candidates, and Thomas was all over the field against Alabama.
If UCLA can survive another huge non-conference game with Michigan with no key injuries, they are capable of running the Pac-10 table. The schedule is a killer, as the Bruins miss only basement-dweller Washington State in conference play. But with Washington dealing with injuries and suspensions and UCLA getting USC at home, the Bruins could be in for a big year.
2. USC Trojans
(6-6, 3-5 Pac-10)
Coach Paul Hackett can rest a little easier after the Trojans routed Penn State 29-5 in the Kickoff Classic. Hackett’s job may still be in jeopardy, however, if USC doesn’t translate speed and talent into results this season. Hackett has recruited unprecedented speed to “Tailback U,” but track stars don’t always make for football stars. But with four players who run the 100-meter dash in under 10.5 seconds, Hackett had better hope they get a chance to show their speed with a football in their hands.
One of those speedsters, tailback Sultan McCullough, had a breakout game against Penn State, rushing for a career-high 128 yards, most of them tough yards between the tackles. If he can show the same toughness week in and week out, he could be the latest in the storied line of great USC running backs.
Also returning from injury is junior quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer looked outstanding before breaking his collarbone in week three last season, and is expected to be one of the top signal-callers in the nation this year. He looked hesitant against Penn State, but will come around as he gets back into the flow of the offense. He certainly has a wealth of receivers to throw to, with sophomore Kareem Kelly looking like a future star after catching 54 passes for 902 yards as a true freshman last year.
Summer wasn’t kind to the USC defense, as the team’s best cover cornerback, Antuan Simmons, is probably out for the year after having surgery in May to remove a benign growth in his abdomen. The Trojans still return nine starters, however, and have several standout players. Linebackers Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele are among the nation’s elite at their positions, and tackles Ennis Davis and Ryan Nielsen team with them to form a solid heart of the defense.
The Trojans are another team capable of winning the conference. It may come down to the final weekend’s rivalry game with UCLA to determine the Pac-10 Rose Bowl entry.
3. Washington Huskies
(7-4, 6-2 Pac-10)
The team that entered fall camp as many experts’ pick to win the Pac-10, the Huskies have several problems looming over their heads as the season begins. Marques Tuiasosopo is clearly a special talent at quarterback, but who will he throw the ball to? The team’s best receiver, Chris Juergens, is out with a knee injury, and potential star tight end Jerramy Stevens is facing legal problems following a July arrest in a rape investigation. Also, the Huskies only proven cornerback, Tony Vontoure, was suspended for breaking team rules. The Huskies don’t have the overwhelming talent of the southern California schools, and the loss of three key players would be too much to ask Tuiasosopo to compensate for.
With little talent at receiver, coach Rick Neuheisel will turn to tailback Paul Arnold to carry the offense along with Tuiasosopo. Arnold, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry last year, put some extra muscle onto his small frame this summer and should be a breakout star this year. Huge lineman Chad Ward (6’5”, 335) will move from guard to tackle this year, and along with three other returning starters, should provide room for Arnold and Tuiasosopo to run.
The defensive line returns only one starter, and the talent is thin at best. After recording just 13 sacks last year, the Husky defense doesn’t scare anyone.
4. Oregon Ducks
(9-3, 6-2 Pac-10)
The Ducks were the Pac-10’s second-biggest surprise last year, finishing just behind the Rose Bowl-bound Stanford. Coach Mike Bellotti’s offense averaged more than 35 points per game. All-Pac-10 tailback Reuben Droughns is the biggest loss, with junior college transfer Maurice Morris the leading candidate to take over the position. The lack of experience at the position, combined with the three-deep tight end position, may lead to more one-back sets this year.
The talented duo of junior Joey Harrington and senior A.J. Feeley will battle for time at the quarterback spot, with Harrington named the starter.
The defense returns only three starters. The defensive line will be led by senior end Saul Patu, who had 7 sacks last season. He will be joined by fellow seniors Quinn Dorsey and Jed Boice. Senior inside linebacker Matt Smith was third on the team in tackles last season, and should step up to a leadership role this year.
The secondary should be the strongest area of the defense, as CB Brian Johnson is joined by Rashad Bauman, who missed last season with a knee injury. Bauman, a junior, joined the starting lineup as a true freshman in 1997 and earned honorable mention all-conference honors his sophomore year. Assuming he’s fully recovered, the Ducks should be one of the top pass-defense teams in the conference.
5. Stanford Cardinal
(8-3, 7-1 Pac-10)
Stanford’s unlikely run to the Rose Bowl last year was powered by the conference’s best offense, as the Cardinal had the worst defense in the Pac-10. They parlayed their success into on of the nation’s top recruiting classes, so the future looks bright for the program. But this season will be filled with transition and growing pains.
The offense returns seven starters, which should provide a solid base. But all four of the departed starters were first-team All-Pac-10 performers last year, and the projected starter at quarterback, Joe Borchard, was stolen away by baseball’s Chicago White Sox. The starter will be Randy Fasani, who played mostly on special teams and at linebacker last season. He looked good against Washington State in the opener, but consistency is a question.
Junior Brian Allen and sophomore Kerry Carter were both impressive at tailback last year; Allen averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and Carter led the team with six rushing touchdowns. If the passing game looks weak early in the season, coach Tyrone Willingham may be forced to scrap tradition and concentrate on the ground game. The line blocking for the tandem returns three starters, but must deal with the loss of center Mike McLaughlin and left tackle Jeff Cronshagen. Both were All-Pac-10 players last season, and McLaughlin made all the line calls.
The defense is led by senior tackle Willie Howard, who was awarded the Morris Trophy as the Pac-10’s best defensive lineman, and played in the Rose Bowl despite suffering considerable damage to his knee in the last regular season game. Howard founded the “Trench Dogs,” the tightly-knit group of linemen that return five of the top six players this year. Combine the line with senior outside linebacker Riall Johnson, who tied for the conference lead in sacks with 13, opposing quarterbacks should feel the heat this year. The Cardinal certainly hope so, as the secondary is unproven.
6. California Bears
(4-7, 3-5 Pac-10)
See breakdown on page 16
7. Arizona Wildcats
(6-6, 3-5 Pac-10)
The Wildcats were possibly the biggest disappointment in the nation last year, starting with the humiliating 41-7 loss to open the season against Penn St. Picked to finish in the top 5 in nearly every poll, they didn’t even make a bowl game. QB Ortege Jenkins will be given the keys to the offense full-time this year, after splitting time with the departed Keith Smith for the past three seasons. Jenkins has the athleticism and arm to be a star, but his judgement hasn’t always been the best. If he can step up and find two-way star Bobby Wade (WR/CB) and TE Brandon Manumaleuna for some big gains, the running game should open up for the tailback tandem of Leo Mills and Larry Croom The offensive line returns four starters, so holes should open up for the runners on a regular basis.
After dominating defensively with head coach Dick Tomey’s “Flex Eagle” defense in the early and mid-90s, the Wildcats have struggled to stop the opposition for the past two seasons. But with the defensive line returning players like Joe Tafoya, Idris Haroon and Keoni Fraser, the Wildcats should get back to their attacking ways, smothering running backs and harassing quarterbacks. The secondary is shaky, led by converted receiver Brandon Nash at strong safety, and will have to prove it can stop the big play that plagued the defense last season.
8. Oregon State (7-5, 4-4 Pac-10)
Well-traveled coach Dennis Erickson took over the program at Oregon State last year, and the move paid immediate dividends as the Beavers had their first winning season since 1970 and made their first bowl game appearance since 1964. Fourteen returning starters would seem to assure the program of staying in the middle of the pack. But this team has never dealt with any expectations before, and the pressure may show.
The Beavers got an ugly start to the year when five players, including top receiver Robert Prescott, were suspended indefinitely for connection to the beating of a fellow student. His loss leaves QB Jonathan Smith without a go-to receiver. Smith is a good leader, but he only completed 49 percent of his passes last season. The offense really depends on tailback Ken Simonton, who gained 1,329 yards last season. He should continue to plow through defenses during his junior year. But if the Beavers can’t get the passing game going, it’ll be a long season.
The secondary returns intact and should be the best of the Pac-10. Assuming CB Dennis Weathersby can beat his off-field legal problems, the sophomore should be one of the conference’s best. Strong safety Terrence Carroll is a hard hitter who plays the run and pass equally well.
The defensive questions come in the interior of the line and linebackers. Both tackles are letter-winners who have experience, but neither has shown themselves to be an outstanding talent. The starting ends, seniors DeLawrence Grant and LaDairis Jackson, combined for 11 sacks last year and should be solid.
9. Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6, 5-3 Pac-10)
What should have been a strong offensive season for the Sun Devils went down the drain during the summer. Senior QB Ryan Kealy, plagued by injury the past two seasons, was healthy and ready to lead the offense. But Kealy was suspended by Coach Bruce Snyder for “breaking unspecified rules.” If he isn’t reinstated, the job goes to redshirt freshman Jeff Krohn, which would doom the Sun Devils to the second division.
The other offensive mainstay was supposed to be senior tailback Delvon Flowers, who ran for 512 yards last season while backing up the departed J.R. Redmond. But Flowers’ year came to a premature end when he injured his knee during a pre-season scrimmage. With Flowers out for the year, the tailback duties fall to untested junior Davaren Hightower.
The only proven weapon left for Arizona State is junior tight end Todd Heap, who led the team in receptions last season and has been picked for several pre-season All-America teams. But in the high-scoring Pac-10, having a tight end as the main offensive threat leaves a team at the bottom looking up.
The defense will be led by a talented linebacking corps, including first-team All-Pac-10 performer Adam Archuleta, who led the conference in tackles-for-loss last season, and freshman All-America Solomon Bates, who is coming off a knee injury. Both cornerbacks are new as well, but with several experienced safeties to choose from, the secondary should come together.
10. Washington State (3-9, 1-7 Pac-10)
Three straight three-win seasons have put longtime head coach Mike Price’s job in jeopardy. Just 11 starters return, so Price will be counting on a bunch of newcomers to contribute right away. Unfortunately, Pullman isn’t exactly a magnet for high-profile recruits, and it doesn’t look like the losing will stop this year.
Price has had success with big, pocket-passer quarterbacks like Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf. So it is curious that he chose sophomore Jason Gesser, a mobile athlete, over freshman Matt Kegel, a 6’5”, 226 pounder with a rocket arm, to start the season. Look for Kegel to take over at some point this year, as he fits the offense better than Gesser.
The receivers are solid but not spectacular, depending on the spread offense to provide room to run after the catch. Huge senior Marcus Williams (6’5”, 231), caught 28 passes and four touchdowns last year. This may be the first time in Cougar history that the running game looks more reliable than the air attack. Deon Burnett was the top freshman rusher in the conference last year, gaining 974 yards. He is an ideal back for the spread offense, able to hit draws up the middle and step up to pass-block for the quarterback.
The defensive backfield should be a strength, with senior Lamont Thompson moving from cornerback back to free safety, where he looked like a future star as a true freshman on the 1997 Rose Bowl team. Sophomore cornerback Marcus Trufant looked like a player last year; he needs to turn some of his 13 pass deflections into picks.