No BCS conference appears more primed for chaos than the Pac 10 does is this fall. There appears to be very little separation between what I see as the top 6 teams in the conference which almost guarantees another 1-2 loss conference champion. The cumulative result across the nation will be a controversial BCS lineup that could feature plenty of fresh faces. Stand by for the playoff argument to be booming across the web come mid December. Now back to the Pac 10.
Oregon- The Quack Attack appears to have the inside track on a return trip to the Rose Bowl. They return 9 starters on an offense that averaged 36.1 pts/gm in 2009 but will have to break in new QB Darron Thomas. On defense they return 8 from a unit that gave up 23.8 pts/gm. They have two patsies and Tennessee in September so they will truly decide their fate in conference play.
The Ducks should get off to a hot start as Stanford is the only opponent I expect to challenge them in the first six games. They will then dive into a challenging slate of UCLA, @USC, Washington, @ Cal, Arizona and @ Oregon State. I expect they will drop at least 1 if not 2 during that stretch and enter the tie breaker free for all for the Rose Bowl Bid.
USC- Where do I start with the Trojans? Carroll is out, Kiffin is in, the hammer got dropped by the NCAA, and we have since seen a few players start to jump ship. Despite this the Trojans are still sitting on a talent pool that is light years ahead of the rest of the conference so they maintain that major advantage. For now....
The Trojans weren’t quite right last season only averaging 26.5 pts/gm on offense and allowing 19.8 pts/gm on defense. Both numbers were more than 10 points in the wrong direction from what they posted in 2008. The end result was a 9-4 record and a trip to the Emerald Bowl. From those units the Trojans return 5 starters on each side of the ball this fall. So how is this going to play out?
This can really only go one of two ways. If Kiffin is able to get the Trojans to rally and play with a true "us against the world" mentality in the wake of the sanctions they could still be very good. The other possibility is that they just pack it in and we all get to witness the sinking of the Titanic post iceberg strike. I expect we won’t see the real damage for another year or two and the Trojans remain pretty formidable en-route to 9-10 wins.
Stanford- The fighting trees will be interesting to watch in 2010. I expect they will have a solid football team and that Jim Harbaugh’s name will be bandied about in relation to other jobs that might be available following the season. They have 8 starters back on an offense that put up 35.5 pts/gm in 2009 but lose all world running back/ pickup truck Toby Gerhart. They do have QB Andrew Luck back in the mix and he could have a breakout season behind a veteran offensive line.
The defense returns 7 starters from a unit that gave up 26.5 pts/gm last season and must improve if the Cardinal are really going to make a run at the Rose Bowl. New DC Nick Fangio (Baltimore Ravens) is yet one more DC converting his unit to a 3-4 so there could be some issues early.
Stanford plays a challenging schedule and they will define their season in weeks 3-6 when they play @ Notre Dame, @ Oregon and USC. I expect Stanford to compete in all of those games and if they manage to come out of that run unscathed they will be hard to catch down the stretch.
Washington- The Huskies haven’t been to a bowl game since they lost the Sun Bowl to Purdue n 2002. In the random randomness category I was actually at that game with the Coach and the Deer Hunter as a warm-up for a New Year’s Party at the Coach’s house. You can’t beat the concessions at the Sun Bowl. Regardless to say the Huskies haven’t been the same since but I thought that Steve Sarkisian and his staff did a great job with this team last season after they posted an 0-12 mark under Ty Willie in 2008. The Huskies posted 5 wins in 2009 and 3 of their losses were by less than a touchdown.
The Huskies teetered on the brink last year averaging 26.1 pts/gm on offense and allowing 26.7 pts/gm on defense. Both units should improve in 2010. The offense returns 10 starters including top flight QB Jake Locker. That unit will be good. On defense 8 starters return and I expect Nick Holt will also have his unit ready to play this fall.
We will find out all we need to know from the Huskies early as they open @ BYU then host Syracuse and Nebraska. An upset of the Huskers could be a launching pad for the Huskies prior to entering conference play. The Huskies will definitely get back into the post season this year and could be one of the bigger surprises in the country.
Cal- Cal is a tough nut to crack. They tend to look pretty good on paper then find a way to lose 5 games or so during the season. Until I see a reason to expect anything different I will continue to expect more of the same. They return 8 starters from a mediocre offense that put up 29.1 pts/gm last year and QB Kevin Riley and RB Shane Vereen could have solid seasons behind a veteran line.
On defense Cal returns 6 starters from another mediocre unit that allowed 25.5 pts/gm last season but they will be breaking in a new DC in Clancy Pendergast who has been a DC in the NFL the last 15 years. Whatever. I expect a 7-8 win season for the Bears.
Oregon State- Mike Riley consistently does more with less at Oregon State. Based on raw talent the Beavers shouldn’t be in the Pac-10 mix at all but due to good coaching they will continue to be a factor. The Beavers fell exactly one crushing Civil War victory short of a trip to the Rose Bowl last year and followed that up with a brutal loss to BYU in a windblown Las Vegas Bowl that they uncharacteristically forgot to show up for.
The Beavers return 8 starters from a solid offense that put up 31.5 pts/gm and 7 from a mediocre defense that allowed 25.0 pts/gm in 2009. They will be breaking in a new QB in Sophomore Ryan Katz but he will get some help from a veteran offensive line and the Rodgers brothers at RB & WR.
The Beavers play both non BCS conference contenders in September with trips to TCU (Jerrydome) and Boise State. Both games will be must see TV. The Beavers then launch into conference play where I expect they will again be a factor. They do finish with a tough threesome of USC, @ Stanford and Oregon. I anticipate that we will see another 8-9 win season for Mike Riley.
UCLA- I see the Bruins as still being one year away from being a real factor in the Pac 10 but they should knock around the middle of the conference this fall and trade some punches with the big boys. I anticipate they will win the games they are supposed to and pick up an upset or two along the way.
The Bruins are another team that lived on the edge last year averaging 22.0 pts/gm on offense and 21.2 pts/gm on defense. I expect the offense to improve with 8 returning starters and Norm Chow calling the shots. The defense will struggle to maintain similar results with only 5 returning starters and as a result a 6-7 win season is likely.
September games against Stanford and @ Texas will be very telling of where the Bruins truly are in Neuheisel's 3rd year. The Bruins boast a grand total of 3 projected senior starters this fall, 4 if you count kicker Kai Forbath, so I expect they could be a real factor again in 2011.
Arizona- I have seen some projections that have the Wildcats hovering at the top of the conference but unfortunately for Mike Stoops I think losing both coordinators and the majority of their defensive experience is going to take a toll in 2010. The offense does return 8 starters from a unit that averaged 27.4 pts/gm last year so that unit should remain respectable.
A Wildcat defense that gave up 23.9 pts/gm in 2009 and returns only 4 starters will struggle. Stoops promoted some assistants and brought in Colorado’s DB coach to assemble a couple of patchwork co-coordinator tandems which I am personally never a huge fan of. I think the chances of the Wildcats hitting 8 wins again this fall are slim.
Arizona State- Dennis Erickson lives! The Sun Devils return a grand total of 9 starters on a team that only won 4 games last season. The only reason I might watch an occasional series of a Sun Devil game is to see how former Michigan QB Steven Threet looks in a mustard yellow helmet. Another rough season and perhaps a quiet end to the career of Dennis Erickson could be in the cards.
Washington State- The Cougars have won three games in the last two seasons and Head Coach Paul Wulff wears a toupee. What else is there to say? Wazzu will be lucky to win 3 this fall.
Pac-10 Wrap Up- The Pac 10 will be a cage match with several teams vying to be the last man standing. I see Oregon as having the inside track with USC taking out their frustrations on several others. Meanwhile Stanford, Washington, Cal and Oregon State all have the potential to put together great seasons. UCLA and Arizona won’t be pushovers either. It should all make for some fairly entertaining games to watch late on Saturday nights this fall.