Pac-10 Preview

The Pac-10 conference is often labeled as a high scoring, no defense league. Last team with the ball wins. While this is usually an unfair generalization, 2005 provided pretty good ammunition for critics of the conference. Three teams were in the top ten nationally in Total Offense, but no defense was ranked higher than Oregon at 44. The worst disparity was Arizona State, second in total offense, and 114th (out of 119 D1 teams) in total defense. Imagine how good the Sun Devils could be with even a mediocre defense.

Even USC wasn’t exempt. A number one ranked offense couldn’t cover all the holes of their poor defense. While offensive stars like Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Mike Williams received the headlines the past three years, the defense made them National Champions. Players like Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson and Lofa Tatupu controlled the line of scrimmage and made running impossible. Last year USC did not have the dominating front seven and Texas finally made them pay.

Sadly the defenses won’t be much better in 2006. The good news is the conference will be more competitive. USC lost 13 starters, including 11 draft picks. That’s a lot of talent to replace, especially at critical positions like quarterback, offensive line (3), and the secondary (3). The Trojans will fall back to the pack slightly, but don’t expect a rebuilding year. USC’s talent is still deep, it is just unproven.

First off, let’s be clear on a few things: USC is not going to shrivel up become UW, and collapse. Contrary to some opinions, the Pac-10 is not wide open. In fact, until someone rips it away, the Trojans still hold the title belt. Sure USC looks vulnerable, but only Cal and Oregon have realistic shots at dethroning the 3-time defending champs. That’s it. Three teams vying for first and everyone else hoping for an Insight.com berth.

Both challengers have many things in common: dynamic, balanced offenses, workhorse running backs (Marshawn Lynch-Cal, Jonathan Stewart-Oregon) and return solid defenses (relative to the conference). Both teams travel to LA in consecutive weeks in November. The team managing to topple the Trojans will deserve it. Reflecting the rest of the conference, all three will have plenty of offensive weapons. The team with the soundest defense will rise to the top.

While USC must replace its entire backfield, all the replacements are talented. It is a mirror image of 2003. A sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart replaced Heisman winner Carson Palmer, young running backs Hershel Dennis, Reggie Bush, and Lendale White replaced Justin Fargas, Malaefou Mackenzie, and Sultan Mccullough. It worked out pretty well and there’s no reason why it won’t work this time. The Trojans have two Prep All-American quarterbacks and four highly recruited running backs to choose from. The one difference is the offensive line. Losing Fred Matua, Winston Justice and Deuce Lutui to the NFL leaves large holes.

USC best hope for a conference title is based on a resurgent defense. Last year USC relied on outscoring teams. Considering their offensive firepower, it wasn’t a terrible plan. The lack of a defense was more obvious versus Notre Dame and Texas, teams with high-scoring offenses that could match the Trojans. The secondary was especially porous, and losing All Conference safety Darnell Bing won’t help. For all the attention paid to the offensive backfield, the weak spot once again is the defense and it will cost them two games this year.

The only thing missing from Cal’s offense last year was a stable quarterback. After starter Nathan Longshore broke his ankle in the season opener, Joe Ayoob struggled. Entering the year, some called Ayoob the “white Michael Vick”. He was closer to a “white, collegiate Aaron Brooks” (49% completion percentage, 14int, 114 passer rating).

If Longshore is at worst competent, the Bears will be scary. Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett should combine for over 2000 rushing yards. Sophomore receiver Desean Jackson is the main man after injuries stole part of his freshman year.

Of the top three contenders, the Bears have the best defense front-to-back. The secondary is especially strong with corners Daymeion Hughes and Tim Mixon. Pass defense is vital in a conference where every team minus Washington is a threat to throw for 300 yards.

Coach Jeff Tedford has the Bears on the verge of a national power. This may be the year they leap into the BCS. With a challenging schedule including games at Tennessee and USC, a national title is unrealistic. The Bears last made the Rose Bowl in 1958, but it’s a reasonable goal this year.

Oregon’s offense has talent everywhere, but much of it is unproven. Dennis Dixon got experience last year after Kellen Clemens was injured. Dixon’s quickness is a nice fit for the spread. His supporting cast gives him every reason for comfort. RB Jonathon Stewart takes over full time. He spent his freshman year returning kicks and backing up senior Terrence Shaw. It is similar to Marshawn Lynch’s situation at Cal, when he had a breakout sophomore year. The Ducks hope junior Cameron Colvin will also finally become the big play receiver expected out of high school. Dixon should also feel at home behind a strong line returning intact.

The defense loses a lot, especially up front. Haloti Ngata freed up linebackers to make plays, but the Ducks also lost four year starter Devan Long. There is talent, especially safeties JD Nelson and Patrick Chung. Like the Trojans, the Ducks will fall because of their inexperienced corners. It will be especially tough if a pass rusher is not found.

Of the three contenders, USC hosts both Cal and Oregon, while Oregon is on the road for both contests. Since all three are similar when comparing offensive firepower, the difference is defense. This is where Cal has a decided advantage and for that reason, is my choice to top the Pac-10.

Conference Standings
1. Cal
2. USC
3. Oregon
4. Arizona
5. Arizona St
6. UCLA
7. Washington St
8. Oregon St
9. Stanford
10. Washington

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