And the Pac-10 Champ Will Be…
USC has won the Pac-10 title every year since 2003, including a run of 33 victories in 34 games from October 12, 2002 through October 21, 2006. However, the Trojans’ complete and utter dominance has taken a wrong turn of late, with four losses in their last 14 conference tilts. They have also finished just 7-11 ATS the last two seasons in league play.
Arizona State has failed to defeat USC since 1999, when the Sun Devils went into the L.A. Coliseum as six-point underdogs and walked off with the 26-16 victory. Can lightning strike nine years later? Dennis Erickson’s squad will be even stronger than last season’s 10-3 club, and has a great chance to pull off the upset on October 11.
The Pac-10 finished with the highest winning percentage (67%) both SU and ATS among the BCS conferences in head-to-head matchups vs. the other five power leagues. (The 8-4 records topped the SEC’s 12-9 SU and 11-10 ATS marks.) This season will be a different story as the conference will not be as strong with the departure of three of the top four quarterbacks and the top four rushing leaders. None of the 10 member schools will court any serious BCS title aspirations.
Time now for the league breakdown with odds to win the conference, followed by National Championship odds:.
1) ARIZONA STATE (4-1, 60-1) - The Sun Devils began last season with eight straight wins but lost three of their final five while being outscored 168-125.
Offense – If Rudy Carpenter puts up his usual eye-catching numbers this season, he will finish his career as the second-leading passer in Pac-10 history behind Carson Palmer. The only offensive question mark is the line that allowed 55 sacks last season. Three starters have departed, so it’s possible for this unit to improve.
Defense – ASU returns seven starters to a defense that ranked third in the league in scoring, allowing 23 points per game. The secondary loses a pair of veterans but one of the top JC cornerbacks (Terrell Carr) comes to Tempe.
Outlook – Look for more four wide receiver sets and less play action passes to help cut down on the number of sacks. If it works, the Sun Devils will win the conference with a 7-2 mark. They are 9-13 ATS off a SU loss the last five years.
2) USC (2-7, 7-2) - The favorite to win the national title will struggle with an offense that’s vastly inferior to last year’s version.
Offense – USC failed to reach the top 25 last year in any key offensive categories for the first time since 2001. Now the club must move forward without its starting QB, receiving and rushing leaders, as well as four-fifths of its offensive line. In addition, Mark Sanchez (six picks in 121 career passes) dislocated his left kneecap last week and is questionable for the opener.
Defense – The Trojans defense is considered one of the best in the game. However, the unit will not be the same after losing Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, Keith Rivers and Terrell Thomas.
Outlook – USC had seven players drafted in the first two rounds this past April, which will soften the team more than most folks expect. The Trojans, who are just 15-17 ATS off a SU victory the last three seasons, will lose three games for the first time since ’01.
3) CALIFORNIA (8-1, 75-1) – The Golden Bears are just 14-13 in conference play the last three years after going 16-8 from ’02-’04.
Offense – California finished eighth in league play last season averaging 24 ppg. Nonetheless, both Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley return at QB and the line is one of the best in the country. Look for RB Jahvid Best to be the next Cal RB to topple 1,000 yards.
Defense – The Golden Bears allowed over 4.0 ypc for the first time this decade, but that was mainly due to injuries as the unit was forced to use eight different starters on the defensive line. Expect much better production in ’08.
Outlook – An improved campaign comes down to more consistent QB-WR play. If the untested receivers mature quickly, Cal will go 6-3 and finish third in the Pac-10. The Bears are 1-4 as an away dog the last three years.
4) OREGON STATE (30-1, 100-1) – Here’s a little known fact: the Beavers are number one in the conference (15-3) in games played in October, November and December the last two years.
Offense – The healthy return of WR Sammie Stroughter will do wonders for the QB duo of Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield, who threw a combined 21 interceptions last season. There are plenty of game-breakers on the roster and head coach Mike Riley will use them all to increase the talent level on the field.
Defense – OSU had the number one run defense in the nation as the unit held opposing teams to 35 yards or less in seven of the 13 games. That will change, however, as the entire starting front seven has to be replaced. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of stars remaining, including DE’s Slade Norris and Victor Butler, who had 19.5 of the defensive line’s 33.5 sacks.
Outlook – The Beavers have won six conference games in each of the last two years. Seven league wins might be asking too much, but there is still enough talent in Corvallis to finish above .500 in the Pac-10. OSU is 6-2 as an away favorite the last four years.
5) OREGON (7-1, 100-1) - The Ducks collapsed after Dennis Dixon was lost for the season, losing their final three regular season games.
Offense – The offensive numbers put up by Dixon and company will not be matched, but there still should be improvement (especially in the passing department) over the last quarter of the ’07 season.
Defense – Oregon’s Red Zone defense was superb last year (69%), but the club still allowed three TDs or more in nine of the 13 games. Improvement must occur, since the offense will not be able to carry the load as it did in 2007.
Outlook – Interestingly enough, last year’s collapse was nothing new in Eugene as the club is 3-9 in its final three regular season games since ’04. The Ducks are 19-18 the last three even-numbered years, and should finish two games above .500 with five Pac-10 victories. They are 12-3 ATS as a home favorite the last three years.
6) WASHINGTON STATE (45-1, 25-1 Field) - The Cougars haven’t had a winning season since 2003. Expect immediate results with the hire of Paul Wulff.
Offense – Despite recent injuries to a pair of expected starting wide receivers, look for Washington State to deliver in its first season of the no- huddle, spread offense. Fifth-year senior Gary Rogers is raring to go after sitting behind Alex Brink the last few years, and there is still plenty of firepower left in Pullman.
Defense – Wazoo allowed 32 ppg last season but that was to be expected after losing five of its top seven tacklers. This year, nine of the top 11 return, which will limit the opposition to about 25 points per game.
Outlook – Paul Wulff wins Pac-10 coach of the year honors in his first season as the Cougars finally get that elusive seven-win campaign with four “W’s” coming in league play. They are 3-9 as home favorites the last four years, but 6-2 as a home dog the last three.
7) ARIZONA (20-1, 125-1) - Even though the Wildcats finished 4-5 in league play for the second straight season, they were only outgained by two yards, per game as opposed to 80 the year before.
Offense – It only took one season in the new offense for QB Willie Tuitama to break the school record for passing yardage and TDs. Arizona averaged 28 ppg, but still finished seventh in Pac-10 play in total offense. With 10 starters back and another year of experience, look for the ‘Cats to score 30 a game in ’08.
Defense – Aside from the safety position, only one player has started more than one career game on defense. True freshman cornerback Robert Golden has been a terror the first week of fall camp, but the front seven lacks any meaningful experience, save for MLB Ronnie Palmer.
Outlook – The offense is on track to break more school records, however its explosiveness will force the untested defense to be on the field more than necessary. The Wildcats, who are 1-7 ATS as home favorites the last three years, will finish 4-5 in league play.
8) STANFORD (30-1, 25-1 Field) – The Cardinal defeated USC, Cal and Arizona last year, but still finished 4-8 in Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach.
Offense – Injuries and inexperience throttled the offense, but the bulk of the walking wounded appears to be healthy, except for LT Allen Smith. That’s great news for a team that ranked dead last in the league in scoring and total offense.
Defense – The defense brings back 10 of its top 11 tacklers from a year ago, including a large majority of the unit that ended up fifth in the country in tackles for loss and 11th in sacks.
Outlook – The Cardinal is still a year away from making any real noise in the Pac-10, but the team is certainly capable of pulling off another upset or two. A .500 season is certainly well within reach, with three of its six wins coming in conference play. Stanford is 9-5-1 ATS in out-of conference games the last six years, but 5-13 in the Pac-10 the last two.
9) UCLA (8-1, 55-1) – Rick Neuheisel returns to UCLA, replacing Karl Dorrell after the Bruins combined to go 13-13 the last two seasons.
Offense – Former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow will try to revamp an offense that ranked ninth in Pac-10 play averaging just 348 ypg. Unfortunately, Ben Olson will not be around the first couple of months to help. The senior re-injured his foot and will miss up to eight weeks. Also, seven of the top 10 O-linemen have yet to play an offensive down on the collegiate level.
Defense – UCLA loses seven of its top 10 tacklers, including three of the four starting members of the defensive backfield. Not a great way to enter the season, especially with Tennessee, BYU, Arizona and Fresno State as the first four opponents.
Outlook – Injuries crippled this team last season, and inexperience will be its demise in ’08. The Bruins, who are 7-0 ATS as a home underdog since 2003, will lose their first six games of the year and go 2-7 in the conference.
10) WASHINGTON (20-1, 100-1) – This is the make-or-break year for Ty Willingham after just 11 wins in his first three seasons.
Offense – Jake Locker completed less than 50% of his throws despite setting a new team record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Not helping the cause is the fact his leading returning WR has six career receptions. Add in the fact that Louis Rankin and his 1,294 rushing yards are no longer with the team, and the offense will be in dire straits.
Defense – If there’s one area in need of improvement, it’s a defense that ranked last in Pac-10 play in scoring, allowing 36 ppg. Opposing rushers gained 5.4 ypc and quarterbacks nailed 62% of their throws, both 10th-place finishes as well. Making matters worse, leading tackler E.J. Savannah could miss the season due to academics.
Outlook – This is Willingham’s last hurrah, as the Huskies will win just three games, two in Pac-10 play. They are 0-5 as a home favorite the last two years, but 5-3 as a home dog.