August 30, 2010

Picking the winners Pac-10 preview

The 10th Annual 'Picking the Winners' 2010 Pac-10 Preview

By now, serious college football fans have likely read more than their share of national and regional preview magazines. All of you out there crazed enough about college football, and Pac-10 football in particular, to be reading this column are probably able to run off a Cliff's Notes version of each major team's strengths and weaknesses. In fact, a select few of you could probably rank each Pac-10 club's defensive line or tight end corps from best to worst.

Ten seasons ago, I decided: what better way to break away from the pack than to simply sit down with the conference's composite schedule and make preseason picks of each and every game played by a conference club this year. Not only does it provide some excellent ammo for readers, but also, it's simply enjoyable to pick 76 games with nothing more than last season, spring practice and summer camp to lean on.

In my nine years of writing this piece (three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, the past five seasons, for USCFootball.com), I've gotten harsher reviews than "Sex and the City 2."

I've also put together a record I am pretty proud of:
• 2001: 50-18 (.735)
• 2002: 55-25 (.688)
• 2003: 57-23 (.713)
• 2004: 58-13 (.817)
• 2005: 52-19 (.732)
• 2006: 51-25 (.671)
• 2007: 58-18 (.763)
• 2008: 58-18 (.763)
• 2009: 59-16 (.787)
• TOTAL: 498-175 (.740)

Once again, however, the Pac-10 schedule presents its share of quandaries, especially with once-prohibitive-favorite-to-repeat Oregon cut down to size with the dismissal of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for a range of criminal indiscretions. Add to that the question marks surrounding USC following the heavy sanctions laid upon it in June by the NCAA, and the likely top two contenders for the crown suddenly fall in with a group of five (some even may say seven) other quality teams that could rise just as easily as they could fall.

For the sixth time, the Pac-10 "Picking the Winners" column is appearing exclusively on USCFootball.com. So, again, I figure I can temper my annual "by the time we're done here, many of you are certain to be irritated and, based on track record, offended" warning. However, I can assure fans of other schools reading this space that it is probably safe for you to prepare your "homer" E-mail templates now.

So - as always - I invite you to settle in and grab an adult beverage. Here it comes once again … odd scores, blowouts, nail-biters, upsets and all - the 2010 Pac-10 game-by-game preview.

Thurs., September 2
USC 38, Hawaii 17: The season kicks off with a Thursday night luau, and Lane Kiffin's Pac-10 head coaching debut. Though trips to the islands have been tricky for a number of teams in recent years, the Trojans have been able to navigate them well, with blowout wins in 1999 and 2005. It's not quite as big a runaway this time, but USC should have more than enough to take care of UH.

Fri., September 3
Arizona 31, Toledo 24: Nick Foles two second-half TD passes help the Wildcats avoid the upset against a very good Toledo offense.

Sat., September 4
Kansas State 22, UCLA 13: The Bruins' new variation on Nevada's prolific Pistol offense sputters in Manhattan, Kan., as K-State's defense forces four turnovers.

Washington 35, BYU 31: If the Huskies are going to take the next step and become a competitor for the Pac-10 title, these are the games it's going to have to win. Jake Locker accounts for three Husky touchdowns in Provo, where the Cougars' rebuilding offense falls just short.

Oklahoma State 51, Washington State 14: Cougs' Coach Paul Wulff's hot seat doesn't get any cooler, as WSU's schedule provides a brutal opening test in Stillwater, Okla.

TCU 24, Oregon State 10: At Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, No. 6 TCU jumpstarts its hopes for another BCS bid by holding the Beaver offense to 211 total yards. Though Oregon State will likely compete for the Pac-10 title, the nation's toughest non-conference slate is likely to lead to another slow start.

Arizona State 38, Portland State 3: The Devils ease into what could be a very difficult season with a non-conference appetizer in Tempe.

California 42, UC Davis 14: The Aggies travel west to face their UC brethren, with the expected result. At least the State of California can shift some funds from Berkeley's coffers to those in Davis.

Oregon 52, New Mexico 10: While the Huskies opened on the road against one of the Mountain West Conference's top teams, the Ducks open in Eugene with one of its worst. While Thomas is solid in the opener, the question remains: which QB, Nate Costa or Darron Thomas, gives UO its best chance next Saturday in Knoxville?

Stanford 49, Sacramento State 6: The Cardinal's Andrew Luck lives up to the pre-season hype in Stanford's home opener, tossing four first-half touchdown passes.

Sat., September 11
Stanford 27, UCLA 20: The Cardinal ruin the Bruins' home opener, opening a 17-point fourth quarter lead before surviving a late UCLA push.

California 31, Colorado 16: The Bears give the Buffaloes an early welcome to the Pac-10, rolling up 213 yards on the ground.

Oregon 27, Tennessee 15: Though the Ducks are always a much different team on natural turf and Neyland Stadium is one of the toughest places to play in America, I can't buy into a Tennessee upset. After all, a more talented Vols offense couldn't beat UCLA at home a season ago.

USC 42, Virginia 17: The Trojans mix it up well, as Matt Barkley throws for three touchdowns, and USC's stable of tailbacks combines for 224 rushing yards to dominate the Cavaliers at the Coliseum.

Arizona 45, Citadel 13: The Wildcats offense keeps rolling in UA's home opener.

Arizona State 31, Northern Arizona 3: Vontaze Burfict leads ASU's defense to seven sacks and three forced turnovers in dominating another overmatched non-conference opponent.

Washington 44, Syracuse 14: The Husky offense keeps rolling, and even the UW defense gets into the act as Mason Foster returns a fumble 41 yards for a score.

Washington State 30, Montana State 14: If this is Wazzu's only win of the season - and it very well could be - at least it came in front of a home crowd starving for some positives.

Fri., September 17
Nevada 38, California 35: Bears, meet Colin Kaepernick. A season ago, he led a Wolfpack offense that finished sixth nationally in scoring and second nationally in total yards, while accounting for 36 total touchdowns. On this freaky Friday night, he runs for two scores and passes for three against a stunned Cal defense.

Sat., September 18
Nebraska 30, Washington 20: The Huskies finally find the offensive road a little rougher against a strong Cornhusker defense, which forces three key turnovers. Faced with a situation where its defense needs to keep it in the game, UW falters.

Wisconsin 20, Arizona State 10: The aggressive ASU defense keeps the game closer than expected, but the Devils' anemic offense can't take advantage, and John Clay's three-yard run in the closing minutes puts the game out of reach for the Badgers.

USC 27, Minnesota 17: It's Allen Bradford's time to shine, as the lumbering tailback rolls up 154 yards and helps the Trojans control the clock and the game in Minneapolis.

SMU 34, Washington State 24: The Mustangs gain revenge for 2009's overtime loss in Pullman, rolling up 456 total yards in the process.

Arizona 23, Iowa 20: Speaking of revenge, the Wildcats, on the leg of Alex Zendejas, upset highly-touted Iowa in front of a rabid throng on a hot Tucson night.

UCLA 42, Houston 38: The Bruins' Pistol finally fires against Houston's porous defense in a Rose Bowl shootout. UCLA's defense comes up with two fourth-quarter takeaways to slow the Cougars' high-flying attack.

Stanford 34, Wake Forest 17: Revenge Week continues, as the Cardinal prepare for next weekend's visit to South Bend with a smashmouth clinic against the Demon Deacons.

Oregon 45, Portland State 7: Ho-hum.

Oregon State 28, Louisville 10: The Beavers' Jacquizz Rodgers rolls up 143 yards and three scores as OSU evens its record.

Sat., September 25
Oregon 24, Arizona State 13: Oregon's LaMichael James toughs out 98 yards and two touchdowns against a stingy Devils defense to lead the Ducks to an important conference road victory.

Arizona 30, California 20: Foles finds Juron Criner for two scores and the Wildcats open conference play by dealing reeling Cal a second straight road loss.

USC 41, Washington State 14: The Cougars' misery continues, as Barkley and Ronald Johnson connect on a game-opening 80-yard TD pass, and the Trojans don't slow down from there.

Stanford 31, Notre Dame 30: Luck finds Chris Owusu for a 21-yard score in the waning moments to hand the Irish their first loss under Brian Kelly.

Boise State 21, Oregon State 13: The Beavers put up a strong fight on Boise's blue turf, but in the end, there's just too much Kellen Moore, as he throws for all three Bronco touchdowns.

Texas 38, UCLA 7: The last time UCLA played in Austin, the Bruins handed UT one of its most embarrassing losses in history. These aren't those Bruins or those Longhorns. UCLA can't wait for a nightmarish September to end.

Sat., October 2
USC 31, Washington 23: Lane Kiffin wins his first match-up with former co-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, as USC takes advantage of a still-shaky Husky defense to build an 17-point halftime lead.

Oregon 41, Stanford 31: Autzen Stadium - and some shaky play by the Cardinal linebacking corps - make all the difference as the Ducks avenge last November's throttling in Palo Alto.

Oregon State 35, Arizona State 16: The Sun Devils have a daunting road schedule in October, but the Beavers show no mercy.

UCLA 42, Washington State 9: The Bruins finally catch a break in the schedule, hosting the Cougars. Kevin Prince throws for two touchdowns and runs for another in UCLA's drubbing.

Sat., October 9
Stanford 28, USC 24: The Cardinal's Jim Harbaugh continues his mastery of USC, as Luck throws for 257 yards - outshining fellow sophomore Barkley.

Oregon State 35, Arizona 27: Did you know the Beavers have won at least three Pac-10 road games in five of the past six seasons? Winning games like this is how they've done so - gaining revenge for last season's disturbing home loss to the Wildcats.

Washington 24, Arizona State 17: Chris Polk breaks a 43-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to give the Huskies a two-score margin that the anemic ASU offense cannot overcome.

California 34, UCLA 24: The Bears make it a Bay Area sweep of the visiting L.A. schools, as Shane Vereen runs wild against UCLA's up-and-down defense.

Oregon 44, Washington State 17: Tough times continue for Wulff's team - and though he may not deserve it, the countdown is on to the end of his reign as Wazzu headman.

Sat., October 16
USC 33, California 17: Jeff Tedford's drought against the Trojans reaches seven games, as USC bounces back. The Trojan defense scores twice at the expense of Bears' senior QB Kevin Riley (in, apparently, his 17th collegiate season) - sacking him for a safety and returning an interception for a touchdown.

Arizona 31, Washington State 17: After a slow start (hangover from last week's loss to the Beavers, perhaps?), the Wildcats roll up almost 500 yards in Pullman.

Washington 28, Oregon State 27: A miracle finish in Seattle, courtesy of a Locker pass to James Johnson, helps the Huskies inch closer to a coveted bowl bid.

Thurs., October 21
Oregon 38, UCLA 20: The schedule maker did the Bruins no favors here - a Thursday night national TV showcase in front of a buzzing Autzen crowd watches the Ducks jump to a 31-6 second quarter lead before coasting home to remain undefeated.

Sat., October 23
Arizona 37, Washington 34: A classic Pac-10 shootout in the desert isn't decided until a late 74-yard drive by Arizona kills the clock and leads to a Zendejas chip-shot FG at the gun.

California 20, Arizona State 17: A pair of struggling teams meet in Berkeley, where the Bears have just enough offense to overcome the Sun Devils.

Stanford 41, Washington State 7: Mismatch. Plain and simple.

Sat., October 30
USC 24, Oregon 20: The Ducks find the grass surface at the Coliseum less to their liking than Autzen's artificial surface. They also find a better-coached USC defense bent on revenge after 2009's embarrassment.

UCLA 31, Arizona 24: The Wildcat defense picks a bad day to tackle poorly, as the Bruins put on their best performance of the season in Pasadena.

Arizona State 34, Washington State 10: Returning to Tempe for their first home game since September, the Devils receive the Cougs as what must seem like a special gift.

Oregon State 35, California 20: The Beavers, simply, have passed the Bears in the conference hierarchy - and this one-sided outcome in Corvallis merely reflects that fact.

Washington 34, Stanford 28: One of the games of the year in the conference comes down to Locker outplaying Luck in the key moments. Luck's late interception leads to an 11-yard Locker TD scramble that decides the outcome.

Sat., November 6
USC 26, Arizona State 6: Back to the road for the Sun Devils, and this latest loss to the Trojans turns up the volume on "FireDennisErickson.com."

Stanford 31, Arizona 17: The Cardinal are very capable of bouncing back from disheartening losses, and they show it again here as Owusu's TD return of the opening kickoff sparks them to a solid win in Palo Alto.
California 31, Washington State 24: The Bears survive what would be the upset of the year in the conference by scoring 10 late points to stave off the Cougs.

Oregon 38, Washington 27: The Huskies come out on fire at Autzen, riding the momentum of last week's win over Stanford. However, the Ducks turn a 10-point halftime deficit around by the end of the third quarter and hold off Locker and Co.

Oregon State 24, UCLA 23: The Beavers almost fall into a trap in Pasadena, before James Rodgers' 63-yard gain on a flanker sweep leads them to the game-winning field goal in the closing moments.

Sat., November 13
Arizona 27, USC 20: Barkley's rough night - two interceptions and a fumble - turns into 13 Arizona points as a wild crowd in Tucson helps push the Cats to victory.

Stanford 30, Arizona State 20: The Cardinal get a key road victory that may put a possible Rose Bowl bid under their control.

California 35, Oregon 33: Once again, the Ducks prove that they're very susceptible to miscues and defensive struggles outside Eugene, as Riley has the game of his career to lead a Golden Bear upset.

Oregon State 45, Washington State 10: Don't look now, but guess who's in first place going into the final three weeks after that rough non-conference start?

Thurs., November 18
Washington 38, UCLA 10: Husky fans really enjoy this one as the Bruins appear to be coming apart at the seams under former UW leader Rick Neuheisel. And not only that: UW is bowl eligible.

Sat., November 20
California 31, Stanford 27: Once again, the Bears foil Stanford's chances at a top-level bowl, forcing three crucial Cardinal turnovers and turning them into 21 points. LB Mike Mohamed again haunts Stanford, this time with a key forced fumble.

Oregon State 31, USC 19: The Beavers remain in control of the Rose Bowl race, as Jacquizz Rodgers again wreaks havoc on the Trojan defense in Corvallis. It's USC's first back-to-back losses since 2001.

Fri., November 26
Arizona State 19, UCLA 13: Neither of these clubs has much to give thanks for this weekend, but the homestanding Sun Devils have more than enough defense to defeat the Bruins and slide ahead of them into eighth place.

Oregon 38, Arizona 28: The Duck offense, led by James' 133 yards and two scores, is too hot for the Wildcats to keep up with.

Sat., November 27
California 35, Washington 31: So often during the Tedford Era, the Bears have gotten off to hot starts only to fade during the season's second half. In 2010, Cal writes a different script, closing with a flourish.

Stanford 27, Oregon State 22: Bounced from the Rose Bowl race a week before, the Cardinal come out motivated to cause conference-leading Oregon State some problems. And, thanks to Luck's third 300-yard passing day of the season, they push the Beavers into a first place tie with the Ducks.

USC 38, Notre Dame 28: The Trojans and Irish engage in a holiday weekend shootout at the Coliseum, with Barkley outgunning Irish QB Dayne Crist - look out for this matchup in South Bend next season.

Thurs., December 2
Arizona 24, Arizona State 6: The Wildcats improve their bowl positioning with a defensive masterpiece in the Territorial Cup at Tucson. Will it be Erickson's final game at ASU?

Sat., December 4
Oregon State 38, Oregon 34: Turnabout is fair play as the Beavers clinch their first Rose Bowl berth since the 1964 season by beating the like-minded Ducks in Corvallis. It's the Rodgers Bros. Circus, as James and Jacquizz combine for 310 all-purpose yards and three scores.

USC 27, UCLA 14: This year, a beaten Neuheisel skips the timeout with his Bruins down two scores with under a minute to play.

Washington 38, Washington State 17: In what appears to be Wulff's final game, the Cougars trade punches with the Huskies for a half. But UW's depth and talent lead to a second-half barrage.

Predicted Pac-10 Standings 2010
Oregon State 8-4, 7-2
USC 10-3, 6-3
Oregon 9-3, 6-3
Stanford 9-3, 6-3
California 8-4, 6-3
Arizona 8-4, 5-4
Washington 7-5, 5-4
Arizona State 4-8, 2-7
UCLA 3-9, 2-7
Washington State 1-11, 0-9

Fittingly, the 2010 race is the conference's most wide open in years. There are a number of contenders capable of seizing control, and schedule quirks likely will come into play in a big way. Though Oregon State is likely to enter conference play under .500 (and it's no shame, considering the Beavers will play two top-10 teams on the road in non-conference play), the Beavers have five conference home games, including hosting California, USC and Oregon - three regular contenders for the conference title. Though the Beavers need Ryan Katz to mature quickly at quarterback, the rest of the offense is stellar. A defense built around All-America tackle Stephen Paea is likely to gel in time for the big conference games.

On the Beavers' heels all season will be the aforementioned trio, as well as Stanford. Really, any of these five teams have a great opportunity to win the conference. The Cardinal are a vogue "dark horse" pick to win the conference, and with the Harbaugh attitude and a stellar offense in place, many of the pieces are there. The defense remains a question mark, however. USC's schedule sets up for a 5-0 start before the Trojans travel to Palo Alto. Though the Trojans appear motivated to quiet the naysayers, a loss or two early could cool that motivation rapidly. Still, a friendly home schedule should get USC into November right in the thick of the race.

For Oregon, the loss of Masoli - at this point - appears immeasurable. He was that crucial to the Ducks' spread option attack. If Thomas (or Costa) is able to fill his shoes, the sky is the limit. But, remember, Oregon is still a much different team away from Autzen - and road games at USC, Cal and Oregon State will be difficult tests. Meanwhile, at Cal, many expect a down year - especially with Riley, whose struggles in Berkeley are well documented, still the top option at quarterback. But, again, the Bears' schedule helps out - Oregon visits, as does Stanford.

Sitting right behind this group are two teams poised to make noise - and maybe join that upper level - Arizona and Washington. For a change, its offense that will be the Wildcats' strength. Question marks about the defense and changes at both offensive and defensive coordinator might make it tough for Arizona to take the next step this season, but the 'Cats have become a consistent bowl presence. UW returns to the Pac-10's bowl mix, a special moment for Locker in his star-crossed career. Defensive questions make it hard to place the Huskies much higher, but they have the offense to win a shootout with anyone.

Tier 3 of the conference features three struggling programs: Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State. The Sun Devils have a very solid defense, but questions about the talent and scheme on offense abound. Unless ASU finds unexpected playmakers, it will be tough for Erickson's teams to win a bunch of 13-10 games. At UCLA, Neuheisel has been stockpiling talent, and it's highly likely the Bruins could take a big step forward - in 2011. However, a confluence of issues - a brutal early schedule, injury problems on both lines, continued depth problems - appear likely to derail what many had hoped would be a solid 2010 campaign. At Washington State, the issues are so many and varied that Wulff, a good guy put into a horrible spot, appears likely to walk the plank as another rebuilding effort will begin in Pullman in 2011.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.




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