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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: USC
USC fans justifiably thinking this is a National Championship year (but then that's the same every year), which isn't something people usually say about a team with only four returning starters on offense. Of course, the new talent is outstanding, with Mark Sanchez three 7 TDs last season in partial action, RB CJ Gable is back from injury are barely getting an opportunity last season, Joe McKnight looked explosive, and Gable's injury allowed Stafon Johnson to get some notable time in 2007. So the backfield are no rookies. Even the offensive line has supreme talent, though both starting tackles and center Matt Spanos are gone. Defense doesn't miss a beat, even with Sedrick Ellis and Keith Rivers playing Sundays, because USC are loaded with talent There are seven starting returnees, including LB Brian Cushing and Ray Maualuga, both of whom could have followed Rivers, and Kaluka Maiava will step in as a starter for the first time, despite 98 tackles over the past three years. USC are clearly the class of the Pac–10, and many people's pick for the National Championship game, but the Trojans face Ohio State early with the new offensive starters still settling in. Even if they lose (and I'm calling that upset) it's early enough in the season that USC have a chance to go the rest of the way unbeaten and make it to the big game. But there must be no slipping up on Stanford or Oregon as last year, or UCLA and Oregon State as the year before. For a perennial top 3 pick, they need to make sure they're in that top 2 after the UCLA game.
Tier 2: Arizona State; Oregon; UCLA; California
If long–tenured Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter wants to take his game to the next level, this season will make a fine crucible for testing his tenaciousness. The middle part of the schedule has Georgia, California, USC and Oregon back–to–back — that stretch is test no.1. Test no.2 will be surviving his own offensive line, which wasn't good before departures. If he's upright long enough, Carpenter can pick out some decent targets in Michael Jones and Chris McGaha. The defense will grit its teeth and hang in there, but — Test no.3 — will probably be asking Carpenter to keep pace with opposing offenses. Lou Groza winner Thomas Weber had better be a busy man. Its a measure of the Pac–10's competitive mess that I have Arizona State second to USC here, but be under no illusions: this isn't a close second. The Sun Devils better spend the year celebrating Carpenter, because when he's gone, they could get over–run by the competition.
No Dennis Dixon, no Jonathan Stewart. Those two departures will be tough to overcome, but with a great senior line, the Oregon Ducks will be vie for no.2 in the Pac–10. The defense is built on ball–hawking (20 interceptions last year) and most of that secondary is back. Oregon's special team is also genuinely special with kicker Matt Evensen and Josh Syria at kicker and punter respectively. The schedule is not kind, and Oregon will have to fight to keep its chin above the Pac–10 waters, but another 9–win season isn't unattainable.
UCLA is back to Ben Olson after the ACL injury of Pat Cowan, and they might be better off for it. However, right tackle Sean Sheller is also missing after a recreational vehicle accident. RB Kahlil Hill will be back from injury, but how back. If all the way, Hill will be worth 1400–1500 yards. And if UCLA can avoid the injury bug that seems to be plaguing them, New coach Rick Neuheisel and new offensive coordinator Norm Chow could start to close that wide gap between UCLA and USC. For now the schedule's no help at all, with pre–conferences games against Tennessee and BYU, with Fresno State September 27. At least the defense is something. If everything comes together, UCLA could surprise.
It might be worth comparing California and the Philadelphia Eagles this year. The swing between the two is DeSean Jackson, who may look like a small NFL receiver, but leaves a huge whole on Cal. The receiving game in general is a refit, as is the backfield, with the exception of QB Kevin Riley (barely beating out Nate Longshore for the job), who has more than half of his O–line guardians back, albeit in a shuffled alignment. Deficiencies on defense will covered by a hugely capable set of linebackers, and the secondary will be fine enough to keep Cal in the picture. They don't feel like a USC–beater, but then the USC–beaters usually don't.
Tier 3: Oregon State
Oregon State's line is solid, there's a smattering of receiving talent, and Ryan McCants will try to replace Yvenson Bernard. The secondary is good, but other than that, the defense is fresh, so this will be a learning curve. A bit better than a rebuild, this is one of the best 'Tier 3' teams in the nation, but the schedule is a monster. Non–conference opponents include trips to Penn State and Utah, and the easier enemies are all on the road as well. More than six wins would represent a gutsy effort.
Tier 4: Washington; Stanford; Arizona; Washington State
The story in Washington is Tyrone Willingham, and his prospects don't look good. The offense is incomplete, with two line starters gone, and a new set of receivers to install. QB Jake Locker, who scored 27 combined TDs last season is back, but he had more picks than TD passes then and, with the changing cast, is unlikely to look much smoother. The defense was poor last year, but the secondary may be solid. The schedule makes another disappointing start likely, at Oregon, then hosting BYU and Oklahoma. That 3–0 start will have people contemplating the next Washington coach unless Willingham's team go on an unlikely tear the rest of the season.
Stanford had 4 wins last season, and those included USC and California. If only they play at that level more consistently. The defense at least does, with talent and experience at all three levels, but if Stanford are to make it to six wins, they need a lot more passing scores than the 12 they managed last year. Tavita Pritchard is now the starter after sharing time last season, but may still be regarded as a weakness. The running game is similarly unspectacular.
One of the most overlooked QBs in America is Arizona's Willie Tuitama, who passed for 28 TDs last season and threw only 12 picks. He is surrounded by much the same players as last year, but the defense graduated en masse, meaning Tuitama will have to put up even bigger numbers if Arizona is even to repeat their 4 wins in the Pac–10.
Washington State has a new coach and a new starting QB. That passer is Gary Rogers, a senior who would know the system if the system wasn't changing to coach Paul Wulff's spread attack. Most of the line returns as does WR Brandon Gibson who had almost 1200 yards last year. If everything clicks quickly, the offense may make up for a patchy defense, but Washington State has some recruiting classes to get through before it turns the corner.