August 24, 2008

Pick the winners Pac-10 Preview

The Eighth Annual 'Picking the Winners' 2008 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.

Eight 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 seven years of writing this piece (three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, the past three seasons, for USCFootball.com), I've gotten harsher reviews than the academics at Arizona State University did from Mike Stoops. 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)
• TOTAL: 381-141 (.730)

However, upon first (and second, third and fourth) glance, making this year's picks has been a bit of a meat grinder. Every team in the conference has some major question marks. Outside of USC, which is the consensus pick to win its seventh consecutive conference crown, there appear to be two distinct levels of teams in the conference. Oregon, California and Arizona State appear to be the Nos. 2-4 teams in the Pac-10. In what order? Who can tell? Meanwhile, the Nos. 5-10 contenders appear so tightly bunched that every week during the heart of the conference schedule seems to present at least two or three toss-up games.

For the fourth 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 2008 Pac-10 game-by-game preview.

Thurs., Aug. 28
Stanford 20, Oregon State 10: Not only do the Beavers and Cardinal kick off the season with an odd Thursday night game, but they also kick it off with the rare in-conference season opener. The improving and experienced Cardinal defense bottles up OSU's inexperienced running backs and an ugly, turnover-marred game tips their way when Wopamo Osaisai picks off a Lyle Moevao pass.

Sat., Aug. 30
Oregon 42, Washington 20: Another in-conference opener features the conference's ugliest rivalry that the rest of the country doesn't know about. Tyrone Willingham's job-saving quest starts off ugly, as the Ducks' new offensive leaders enjoy a strong opening act at Autzen.

Arizona 45, Idaho 16: Ah, the Vandals return for another year as a non-conference punching bag for various Pac-10 opponents.

Arizona State 38, Northern Arizona 10: The Sun Devils don't strain themselves too much in their first warm-up for the big battle with Georgia in three weeks time.

California 37, Michigan State 28: The Bears and Spartans meet for just the fourth time - and the first time in Berkeley in 51 years. Bay Area fans are treated to an offensive highlight reel, as both teams have potent attacks. Cal pulls away with a late drive led by new starting RB Jahvid Best.

Washington State 28, Oklahoma State 27: The questions have all surrounded Paul Wulff's no-huddle offense, but it's the Cougars defense that makes the big stop late to pull off a minor upset at Seattle's Qwest Field.

USC 38, Virginia 6: A year ago, this looked like it could be an interesting match-up. But even with the Trojans' questions on offense, the Cavaliers off-season issues and lack of experience on either line doom their chances from the get-go. USC's defense forces four turnovers, setting up 24 Trojan points.

Mon., Sept. 1
Tennessee 24, UCLA 10: The Bruins are hurting on the offensive line and starting a new quarterback in Kevin Craft. Though UCLA's defense puts up a tough fight in Rick Neuheisel's debut, the undermanned offense can't do enough to help against Tennessee's speedy defense.

Sat., Sept. 6
Arizona State 34, Stanford 16: The Cardinal offense struggles in the desert, and Rudy Carpenter takes advantage, throwing for three scores.

California 31, Washington State 21: The Bears make sure they don't have a close call against the Cougs this season by scoring the first 24 points on the Palouse. Two late TD grabs by Brandon Gibson make the score respectable.

Arizona 38, Toledo 14: The Wildcats have eased up a bit on the non-conference scheduling, and Stoops is just five wins away from appearing on the sidelines in Tucson in 2009.

Oregon 48, Utah State 10: Speaking of easing up - a year ago this weekend, the Ducks were in Ann Arbor, stomping Michigan in front of 110,000. This year, about 55K see them wallop the Aggies.

BYU 27, Washington 24: Last December, the Huskies were only thing standing between Hawaii and a BCS bid. This season's pre-season BCS little darling is BYU - and they keep their hopes alive with a late FG at Seattle.

Penn State 34, Oregon State 13: Outside of nearly knocking off LSU a few years back, the Beavers have had major problems in early-season, big-time non-conference roadies. Their issues continue at Beaver Stadium in State College, as JoePa keeps on truckin'.

Sat., Sept. 13
Arizona State 47, UNLV 15: Memo to Dennis Erickson and Co.: Starting next week, things get a shade more difficult.

Oregon State 35, Hawaii 14: June Jones and Colt Brennan are gone - and the Rainbow Warriors are always much less threatening on the mainland. The struggling Beavers are thankful.

USC 24, Ohio State 16: The most-hyped game in the Coliseum since No. 1 USC faced No. 2 Oklahoma in 1981 turns on a Kevin Ellison interception, returned deep into Buckeye territory. Allen Bradford's short TD run gives the Trojans an 11-point edge early in the fourth quarter, and the Buckeyes can muster just a FG the rest of the way.

Oklahoma 38, Washington 13: The Huskies' nightmarish beginning to the 2008 season continues, as a BCS-title-shot worthy Sooner team beats them up in Seattle.

Arizona 31, New Mexico 24: A year ago, the Lobos scored a 29-27 upset in Tucson. But these are different teams, and Willie Tuitama's four-touchdown performance gives the Cats enough points to hold off UNM.

California 28, Maryland 17: The Bears follow the Trojans lead, heading to ACC country and picking up a nice early season road win against a BCS conference foe. The Terrapins simply don't have the firepower to take advantage of 2 Cal turnovers that could have opened the door in the third quarter.

Oregon 31, Purdue 17: The Duck defense makes life easy for a youthful but growing offense, holding the Boilermakers to 10 points through three quarters and handing the Oregon offense three takeaways inside Purdue territory. It's a second-consecutive win for Mike Bellotti's team in a Big-10 stadium.

TCU 31, Stanford 22: The Cardinal comes up short in its bid for redemption after a 38-36 loss to the Horned Frogs in Palo Alto a season ago. Stanford's rushing attack is stopped cold by TCU, while senior RB Aaron Brown lights up the Cardinal D.

BYU 34, UCLA 14: In Provo, The Cougars make it safely through the Pac-10 portion of their schedule, while the Bruins concerns on offense seem to multiply by the week.

Washington State 27, Baylor 17: Yes, Wazzu is a consensus pick for the bottom three of the Pac. But Baylor is Baylor - the Cougs take another victory over a Big XII foe, this time in Waco.

Sat., Sept. 20
Arizona 27, UCLA 13: The Wildcat defense is the team's weakness this season. The Bruins, in their second home game, score 10 in the first half - but can only manage a second-half FG as Arizona pulls away in the final 20 minutes.

Georgia 41, Arizona State 31: The Devil offense is up to the task, putting up points early and often. However, ASU just can't stop Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno, who rolls up 196 yards and three scores as the Dawgs come to the desert and escape still No. 1.

Oregon 31, Boise State 19: The Broncos aren't the same team that shocked the world in the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago - especially on the road. The Ducks continue to roll as the conference slate looms.

Stanford 31, San Jose State 10: The Cardinal get well against the Spartans, as it appears Jim Harbaugh has put a stop to those recent SJSU upsets, after last season's 37-0 win and this whipping today.

Washington State 42, Portland State 10: A different university from Oregon will come calling next weekend. Don't expect a similar result for the so-far surprising Cougars.

Thurs., Sept. 25
USC 21, Oregon State 10: The Trojans traditionally struggle in their conference road opener. They lost a thriller the last time in Corvallis (33-31 in 2006). There's the natural letdown effect after the stirring win against Ohio State. Setting up well for the Beavers? Unfortunately, USC's defense has other ideas, holding OSU to just 178 total yards and picking up for an inconsistent offensive performance.

Sat., Sept. 27
Oregon 30, Washington State 20: The Ducks have struggled in Pullman recently, losing by 11 two years ago and winning each of the two previous appearances by just three points. The Cougars are feisty early, but Pac-10 defenses - especially Oregon's - are used to the pacing and style of Wulff's new offense. The Ducks take advantage of two Jairus Byrd interceptions to pull away.

Washington 27, Stanford 23: The Huskies, desperate for a win, finally catch a break as QB Jake Locker's tipped pass is hauled in by frosh Chris Polk, who runs 70 yards for the deciding score.

California 42, Colorado State 14: This was a tight one in Fort Collins a year ago. It's a different story in Strawberry Canyon as a green Rams team is hammered from the get-go.

UCLA 20, Fresno State 17: The Bruins, like the Huskies, are starving for a victory - and DeWayne Walker's defense gives it to them. After a Rahim Moore pick-six in the first half, they stop the Bulldogs inside the Bruin 15 twice in the fourth quarter, once holding Fresno to a field goal and then shutting them down on a fourth down in the final minute.

Thurs., Oct. 2
Utah 31, Oregon State 14: The news keeps getting worse for the Beavers, whose tough early schedule leaves them another hole to dig out of. They've done it the past two years - can they do it again?

Sat., Oct. 4
Arizona 42, Washington 24:The point total in Arizona's 48-41 victory in Seattle a season ago looks to be in jeopardy early, as it's 24-21 Huskies at the half. But the Wildcats rally in the second half, forcing three UW turnovers.

California 31, Arizona State 20: This is one of two huge games this week, as the Bears get their first serious test. Cal has dominated the Sun Devils in Berkeley of late (winning by 27 and 28 in the past two meetings by the Bay) - and that trend continues, albeit a shade more precariously than recently.

USC 27, Oregon 13: This is the other big one. The Trojans get revenge for 2007's error-filled defeat in Eugene. Trojan defenders rattle the young Duck QBs into five sacks and three interceptions, while Mark Sanchez throws for 265 yards and two scores to Damian Williams.

UCLA 24, Washington State 20: Break up the Bruins! UCLA's second-consecutive win features a breakout game for the offense, as UCLA gains more than 300 total yards for the first time in 2008.

Notre Dame 28, Stanford 17: The Irish resurgence continues - or is it the Irish's lighter schedule continues? No matter, the Cardinal are stymied on two late opportunities and Irish wideout Duval Kamara scores from 65 yards out to put the final nail in the coffin.

Sat., Oct. 11
Arizona 27, Stanford 16: The Wildcats gain a measure of revenge for the Cardinal's stunning one-point upset a season ago. Don't look now, but Arizona is 6-0 and bowl eligible. Can they continue their stellar run?

USC 38, Arizona State 17: The Trojan offense has a breakout performance, lighting up the Sun Devils for 477 yards and taking a 31-7 lead at the half. For ASU, they get a much-needed week off to try to find a way out of this three-game losing streak.

Oregon 31, UCLA 12: Outside of four Kai Forbath field goals, the Bruins don't put up much of a fight against a Ducks team that was still stinging from its loss to USC a week before.

Oregon State 34, Washington State 14: The Beavers hope this drubbing of the Cougs in Corvallis is the start of good things to come.

Sat., Oct. 18
California 34, Arizona 28: In an unexpected match-up of undefeated, ranked Pac-10 foes, the Bears hold off the Wildcats in the desert. While Arizona's offense has the best performance of the season against the Bear defense, Cal is the first team to really take advantage of the Wildcats green secondary.

Oregon State 28, Washington 20: Last year's game turned ugly late, after some questionable shots on both sides. This year's game is cleaner, but the outcome is the same. Willingham's days look numbered on Lake Washington.

UCLA 23, Stanford 13: The Cardinal haven't scored a point in their past two trips to the Rose Bowl. They improve on that here, but the Bruins' talented freshmen on both sides of the ball are prompting a midseason push, as UCLA has won three out of four.

USC 34, Washington State 16: Joe McKnight catches two TD passes and returns a punt for a third score as the Trojans overcome the Cougars and some nasty rain in Pullman.

Sat., Oct. 25
USC 38, Arizona 20: The Trojans force two early fumbles, Sanchez throws for three scores and the Wildcats' dreams of BCS glory are dead just eight days after reaching their peak.

Arizona State 28, Oregon 27: In a must-win game for ASU's hopes of a solid bowl berth, an emotionally charged Sun Devil team jumps on the Ducks early, and then withholds a furious rally led by Duck QB Justin Roper.

California 38, UCLA 17: The Bears are rolling and appear to be - once again - USC's main competition for the Pac-10 title. Nate Longshore (yes, Nate Longshore) hits for three touchdowns as the Bears outclass their SoCal brethren.

Washington 21, Notre Dame 20: As Willingham slowly falters out of Seattle, he gets one small piece of poetic justice, as Jake Locker's late TD run allows the Huskies to upset the Irish in Seattle.

Sat., Nov. 1
Arizona State 31, Oregon State 23: The Devils had lost two of their previous three in Corvallis, but Carpenter's big day keeps ASU in the race for third place.

California 30, Oregon 24: The Bears become the latest undefeated conference challenge for USC by handing the Ducks their second consecutive bitter road defeat.

Stanford 33, Washington State 30 (OT): A late TD pass to Richard Sherman ties it and the Cardinal hold on in overtime when Ekom Udofia recovers a Gary Rogers fumble at the Stanford 8.

USC 44, Washington 13: The Trojans' homecoming crowd sees a big afternoon for Sanchez, as USC prepares for a huge showdown with the Bears.

Sat., Nov. 8
Arizona 31, Washington State 14: The Cougars are a beaten bunch, and Arizona's been a solid November team of late. This equals a second-straight win for the Wildcats on the Palouse.

Arizona State 34, Washington 10: Speaking of beaten, the Huskies roll over and play dead, giving the Devils back-to-back wins in the Northwest.

USC 28, California 13: For all the talk about Jeff Tedford's offense being a solid match-up for Pete Carroll's defense (all based on one fluke upset five years ago), the Bears are only averaging 13 points a game vs. USC in the past four meetings. Nothing about this season's teams says that anyone should expect more from Cal, as the Trojans own them in November again.

Oregon 49, Stanford 20: After a nightmarish two game road trip, the Ducks are happy to be home. They are even happier to see Stanford, which has failed to come within 30 points of Oregon in the past two meetings at Autzen. Moral victory for the Farm: Ducks by 29.

Oregon State 13, UCLA 10: A "battle" for bowl eligibility turns out to be one of the uglier games on the conference schedule. The Beavers prevail when Al Aflava picks off Craft - the Bruin QB's fourth interception of the night.

Sat., Nov. 15
Oregon 34, Arizona 17: Turnabout is fair play, as the Ducks take advantage of an early injury to Tuitama to bolt to a big lead, then coast in Eugene.

Arizona State 44, Washington State 24: The streaky Sun Devils win their fourth in a row, rolling on the ground in Tempe. Meanwhile, Wazzu will need to win the Apple Cup to avoid going winless in the Pac-10.

Oregon State 26, California 21: The Bears penchant for letting one loss snowball is on full display, as they turn it over three times and fail to stop the Beavers on a pair of late fourth-down conversions. Oregon State's win breaks a long streak of road winners in this series, and likely dooms any Cal hopes of a Rose Bowl bid.

USC 38, Stanford 10: No quarterbacks with broken fingers. No interceptions. No lack of focus. No chance for Stanford.

Washington 31, UCLA 17: First the downtrodden Huskies won one for Ty. Now, they win one for the fans, as Locker's four-TD day (two passing, two running) overwhelms former UW coach Neuheisel's new team.

Sat., Nov. 22
Arizona 28, Oregon State 19: Tuitama returns to helm the Wildcats to a solid win that may become crucial for bowl positioning.

California 35, Stanford 24: The Bears mental recovery from the prior two weeks is rapid, thanks to the desired payback for Stanford's upset win in the 2007 Big Game. While the Bear defense continues to struggle, the offense dominates throughout.

Washington State 38, Washington 35: Another high-scoring yet ultimately meaningless classic in the Apple Cup. At least Wulff gets his first conference win at the expense of the rivals, while Willingham still has to go through two more weeks of twisting in the wind thanks to some odd Pac-10 scheduling.

Fri., Nov. 28
Arizona State 27, UCLA 20: Keegan Herring's big night (143 yards, two scores) allows the Devils an outside shot at a second-consecutive Holiday Bowl appearance.

Sat., Nov. 29
Oregon 28, Oregon State 21: After a decade of home dominance, the Ducks' victory marks back-to-back wins for the visitor in the Civil War. The Beavers' bowl hopes are dashed when Patrick Chung intercepts a Moevao pass in the end zone with 3:30 to play.

USC 45, Notre Dame 17: Seven straight wins for USC over the Irish, the second-straight for Sanchez as QB. He again tosses four TDs against a Notre Dame defense that simply doesn't have the speed to keep up with the Trojans.

Washington State 30, Hawaii 27: The laid-back Cougars, fresh off the Apple Cup win, take their own "bowl" trip to the islands to find a Hawaii team that is merely a puka shell of its former self.

Sat., Dec. 6
Arizona 31, Arizona State 28: Bedlam in Tucson, as a late field goal propels the Wildcats past the Sun Devils for the first time in four years. The victory also pushes Arizona past ASU in the final conference standings.

California 38, Washington 22: The Bears earn their 10th win of the season and await word on the possibility of a Rose Bowl bid.

USC 27, UCLA 3: The Bruins' young offense is no match for a motivated Trojan defense. Perhaps when Neuheisel and Norm Chow have some more pieces, they'll be able to compete. For now, it remains - clearly - a Trojan town.

Predicted Pac-10 Standings 2008
1. USC 12-0, 9-0
2. California 10-2, 7-2
3. Oregon 9-3, 6-3
4. Arizona 9-3, 6-3
5. Arizona State 8-4, 6-3
6. Oregon State 5-7, 4-5
7. Washington 3-9, 2-7
8. UCLA 3-9, 2-7
9. Stanford 3-9, 2-7
10. Washington State 5-8, 1-8

While each and every Pac-10 squad has a series of major questions that must be answered as the 2008 season kicks off, there remains an almost unanimous belief that the big race is for second place. USC remains the clear favorite, while most see Arizona State, Oregon and California doing battle for the No. 2 spot. Many believe this is a make or break year for Stoops at Arizona, and they appear to head the next group of competitors. Oregon State cannot be discounted - they've won more Pac-10 games (12) the past two seasons than any team not calling the Los Angeles Coliseum home. The final four teams each face major issues with experienced talent (UW, Stanford), new coaches (WSU), tough scheduling (UW) or all of the above (hello, UCLA!).

With a slew of talent on both sides, USC remains the Pac-10's standard-bearer. But with departures at quarterback and on each line, the Trojans must find answers quickly. An underachieving group of receivers in 2007 needs to step up to help Sanchez adjust to a full-time role as starting quarterback. A solid group of running backs should continue to mature if the line - which has more experience than it appears at first glance - comes together. But it's the Trojans' back seven on defense - which features four All-America caliber players - that figures to do the heavy lifting early. If USC makes it past Ohio State on Sept. 13 in perhaps the most buzzed about regular season game in school history, the schedule sets up nicely for another run at the BCS title game.

At California, the Bears lost a number of playmakers at running back and wide receiver - while Longshore remains in a nip-and-tuck battle with Kevin Riley for the starting QB job. However, Cal has recruited well at the skill positions, has solid depth and experience on both lines and the best set of linebackers this side of USC. They also get home games against their closest rivals for second place - Oregon and Arizona State.

Oregon has the second best defense talent in the Pac-10, led by a stellar secondary. Chung, Byrd and cornerback Walter Thurmond are ballhawks and excellent tacklers. They also return plenty of offensive weapons for whichever quarterback - Nate Costa (who was injured earlier today in a practice) or Sun Bowl winner Roper - wins the job. However, road games at USC, ASU, Cal and Oregon State figure to make life tough for Bellotti's crew.

Year two of the Sonny Dykes offense at Arizona figures to bring even greater improvement for the Wildcat offense. Ten returning starters, led by Tuitama and WR Mike Thomas, are feeding great expectations for a team that improved its scoring average by more than 10 points per game a year ago. However, Stoops, who is rumored to be facing a "bowl-or-else" season, sees only three returning starters on defense - and only one in the front seven. The Wildcats also lost the best pair of CBs in the Pac-10, as Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot graduated. A manageable schedule, Stoops defensive expertise and a possibly explosive offense figure to get the Wildcats that much-desired bowl bid.

Many have Arizona State penciled into a second-place finish a year after Erickson's first Devil squad won 10 games. Reaching that 10-win mark figures to be a bit tougher in 2008. Carpenter is a gamer, Herring is a talent at tailback and the Devils have experience on defense. But the offensive line must improve (ASU allowed 55 sacks in 2007). A schedule that features road trips to California, USC and Arizona, as well as a home tilt against preseason No. 1 Georgia will also make the Sun Devils' road back to a bowl that much tougher.

Oregon State loses its entire starting front seven on defense - but does return 19.5 sacks in the persons of defensive ends Slade Norris and Victor Butler. The Beavers have created a recent tradition of solid defenses, so I expect the newbies to get up to speed by midseason. However, while they are in transition, the question marks on offense - who is the starting QB, Moevao or Sean Canfield; who replaces stud RB Yvenson Bernard - are likely to mean another slow start. Can Mike Riley's team recover in time for a bowl bid? Possibly, thanks to a schedule that brings the conference's big boys to Corvallis and presents a slew of winnable road games.

While Locker was everything Washington fans expected, he needs to improve his passing accuracy (47 percent completed in 2007). And in a hurry. The Huskies backs and receivers are extremely green - bad news with a schedule that kicks off with three ranked opponents (at Oregon, home to BYU and Oklahoma). Willingham, much like Stoops, is fighting for his job. But the talent and schedule are working against him. A 3-9 finish, predicted above, would take a couple of unexpected wins to achieve.

UCLA's offensive line situation can be generously described as troubling. Every day, it seems another defensive lineman is switching to the OL. At the same time, UCLA is breaking in another new offensive system, with a JC-transfer QB who ended spring third on the depth chart. There is some talent on defense and special teams, and DeWayne Walker will coach up the defense the best he can. Still, Bruin fans would be well advised to remain patient with the dawning of the Neuheisel Era. Five wins appears to be the max here, with three or four much more likely.

Stanford beat USC and Cal last year - about the best way a Cardinal coach can go 4-8, as far as Stanford fans are concerned. He's bringing in more talent, has a fairly solid and experienced (if not spectacular) group on defense and clearly has the program believing in itself again. However, the offense is still a work in progress. Quarterback remains a question mark, the talent at running back is limited and outside of Sherman, there are a slew of no-names to catch the ball. Stanford's play may improve overall, but a schedule that features road trips to ASU, TCU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Cal bodes ill for an improvement 2007's four-win total.

Wulff's first season at Washington State should be a year of transition. A new offensive scheme may take time for adjustment, Rogers may not be the best QB for the system and, outside of Gibson, the rest of the skill position talent is average at best. The Cougars defense is experienced - but that experience isn't anything special as Wazzu gave up 32 points per game a season ago. A reasonable non-conference slate gives the Cougs hope, and they get Cal, Oregon and USC at home. But when you look at the match-ups, it's hard to find many conference wins.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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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