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August 29, 2007

Picking the Winners - 2007 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.

Seven 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 six years of writing this piece (three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, the past two seasons, for USCFootball.com), I've been called more names than Nick Saban on an LSU fan site. 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)
• TOTAL: 323-123 (.724)

For the third 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 2007 Pac-10 game-by-game preview.

Thurs., Aug. 30
Oregon State 26, Utah 13: The Beavers are holding off a couple weeks on that annual I-AA opponent, but new QBs Sean Canfield and Kyle Moevao lean on kicker Alexis Serna, whose four field goals win it in Corvallis.

Fri., Aug. 31
Washington 20, Syracuse 17: If Tyrone Willingham's goal of a bowl bid is to be reached this season in Seattle, frosh QB Jake Locker must lead the Huskies to this crucial season-opening road win over a subpar Big East foe … especially considering that the next four games are against Boise State, Ohio State, UCLA and USC.

Sat., Sept. 1
UCLA 23, Stanford 13: While everyone raves about the Bruins' 20 returning starters, many forget this team was 1-5 away from the Rose Bowl in 2006. Jim Harbaugh's Cardinal gives a spirited effort, but the Bruins pull away in the second half thanks to a trio of defensive takeaways.

Arizona State 38, San Jose State 17: The Dennis Erickson Era gets off to a good start as Rudy Carpenter throws four touchdown passes against the Spartans in Tempe.

California 31, Tennessee 27: In the rematch of last season's em-Bear-assment, QB Nate Longshore rises to the occasion in front of a boisterous Berkeley crowd, outdueling Tennessee QB Erik Ainge to bring a measure of redemption to the conference.

Oregon 38, Houston 16: The Ducks' readjusted spread attack looks formidable, as Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart dominate in Eugene.

USC 59, Idaho 7: This game was scheduled as a boost to Nick Holt when he left USC for the Vandals a few years back. Now, Holt's in his second season as the Trojan defensive coordinator and the Idaho isn't too thankful for this "favor."

BYU 19, Arizona 10: On the road against a stingy Cougar defense is the last place Mike Stoops probably wanted his retooled Wildcat offense to get started. BYU's back seven is more than up to the task in Provo.

Wisconsin 29, Washington State 21: Bill Doba's Cougar offense has the firepower and speed to put an early shock into the highly touted Badgers. But by the fourth quarter, Wisconsin's big front line wears down Wazzu's smallish and inexperienced defense.

Thurs., Sept. 6
Oregon State 20, Cincinnati 14: Both teams have strong, attacking defenses that want to cause turnovers. Both have question marks on offense - but the Bearcats have installed a brand new spread attack. The Beavers have seen more talent playing similar offenses on the West Coast and should make the key plays to lead to a crucial early road win.

Sat., Sept. 8
Arizona 33, Northern Arizona 10: Antoine Cason's two interceptions and Mike Thomas' two TD grabs highlight the Wildcats' home opener.

Arizona State 27, Colorado 10: The Devils dominated the Buffs a year ago in Boulder. With Erickson calling the shots now, don't expect that to change.

UCLA 27, BYU 14: The Bruin defense scores once and sets up two other drives inside the Cougar 20-yard line with turnovers, as the Bruins cruise at the Rose Bowl.

Washington 27, Boise State 24: A year ago, the Huskies pulled off a home "upset" of WAC stalwart Fresno State. With the Broncos losing so much from their 2006 dream season (13-0), Locker adds to his "savior" hype with this win on Lake Washington.

Washington State 41, San Diego State 14: Meanwhile, across town, Alex Brink and Michael Bumpus lead the Cougs to a win in their annual Seattle "home" game.

California 38, Colorado State 17: After a bit of a slow start in Fort Collins - post-Tennessee letdown, perhaps - the Bears ride the 168-yard effort of tailback Justin Forsett to a convincing victory.

Michigan 34, Oregon 20: Much like 2006, turnovers kill the Ducks' chances of an upset in the Big House. Well, turnovers and the inability to cover Mario Manningham, who grabs three TD tosses from Chad Henne.

Sat., Sept. 15
Arizona 21, New Mexico 20: This border war lives up to its billing, as two tough defenses battle it out for much of the night in Tucson. In the end, cornerback Wilrey Fontenot strips and recovers the ball from a Lobo receiver late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.

Arizona State 49, San Diego State 23: The Sun Devils' home cooking continues to help build Erickson toward possibly earning bowl eligibility before the end of October.

California 42, Louisiana Tech 9: The Bulldogs are no match for the Bears in Berkeley, as Cal rounds out its non-league slate in fine form.

Oregon 37, Fresno State 28: Another shootout between these two squads, this time in Eugene, ends with the Ducks on top thanks to the legwork of Stewart, who scores twice on the ground and once through the air.

Oregon State 51, Idaho State 10: There's that I-AA opponent, Beaver Fans!

Stanford 28, San Jose State 24: The Cardinal pulls off a home "upset" of its recent Bay Area nemesis to the south.

Ohio State 24, Washington 10: While the Buckeyes may not be as strong as they were a year ago, their defense is a huge step up from Syracuse and Boise State - and the Huskies can't find an answer.

Washington State 40, Idaho 10: Once again, the Vandals play punching bag for a Pac-10 foe, but this time it's a nice short bus ride home from Pullman.

Utah 22, UCLA 20: A veteran Utah offense has enough to overcome their shaky counterparts from Westwood. This battle in Salt Lake City turns when safety Steve Tate picks off a Ben Olson pass late in the third quarter and takes it 77 yards for a touchdown.

USC 27, Nebraska 16: The Huskers ride the wave of their crowd into a halftime deadlock, but the Trojan defense forces a pair of key interceptions from Nebraska QB Sam Keller, allowing USC to pull away midway through the second half.

Sat., Sept. 22
California 27, Arizona 17: The Bears get revenge for the second time this month, as DeSean Jackson's two scores, including one on a punt return, lead them past the Wildcats in Strawberry Canyon.

Arizona State 30, Oregon State 28: Carpenter is carrying the Sun Devil offense, and he has just enough to lead Erickson's new team over his old one in Tempe.

Oregon 31, Stanford 10: At least it shouldn't be as ugly in Palo Alto as last season's 48-10 demolition in Eugene.

UCLA 30, Washington 17: The Bruins bounce back in Pasadena, avenging last season's upset in Seattle. RB Chris Markey has a huge night, with 152 yards and two scores.

USC 42, Washington State 13: The Cougars historic troubles in L.A. continue, as only two late scores against the Trojans' subs keep this from being a whitewash.

Sat., Sept. 29
Arizona 30, Washington State 20: QB Willie Tuitama has his biggest night yet in the Wildcats' spread, lighting up the Cougar defense for 323 yards through the air and 63 on the ground.

Arizona State 34, Stanford 19: The Sun Devils hit the road for the first time, but its only to visit the Cardinal - meaning Erickson's team hits 5-0 before the end of September.

California 37, Oregon 31: Ever since Jeff Tedford left Mike Bellotti's staff to take over the Bears, this game has been one to circle on the Pac-10 schedule. The 2007 edition should be no different, as the Bears handle the Autzen crowd and survive a late flurry by the Ducks.

Oregon State 24, UCLA 21: The Beavers' swarming defense plays with a chip on its shoulder after hearing all the hype about their counterparts from UCLA. Forcing four Bruin turnovers, Oregon State is able to scramble for its second home upset of a ranked L.A. school in the past two seasons.

USC 35, Washington 9: The Trojan defense makes Locker look like a freshman in his first month as a starter. Meanwhile, Trojan frosh wideout David Ausberry has a breakout performance with 11 catches, two for scores.

Sat., Oct. 6
Oregon State 17, Arizona 14: The conference's two best defenses outside of L.A. put on a show, but the Beavers' Alexis Serna hits a 46-yard field goal in the final minutes to pull out another home win for the Beavers.

Washington State 34, Arizona State 30: The Sun Devils find the calendar change unlucky, as Brink picks apart the questionable ASU secondary to lead the Cougars in an old-school Pac-10 shootout.

USC 52, Stanford 0: Harbaugh messed with the wrong coach when he started spreading those Pete Carroll rumors.

UCLA 27, Notre Dame 10: The Bruins' Jekyll-and-Hyde act continues as they dominate the Irish in the Rose Bowl to avenge last season's bitter defeat in South Bend.

Sat., Oct. 13
USC 31, Arizona 7: Stoops' defense puts up a brave fight in the Coliseum, but to no avail as the Wildcat offense goes nowhere against Carroll's All-American defense. Tailback Stafon Johnson has his first 100-yard game in the Pac-10 as the Trojans score 21 third-quarter points to put the game away.

Arizona State 35, Washington 24: Now comes the hard part for the Sun Devils - Cal, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Arizona are all that's left.

California 28, Oregon State 13: The Bears break the road-winner hex in this series, finally toppling the Beavers at Berkeley behind another big game from Jackson and Forsett.

Oregon 38, Washington State 28: Stewart is making his case for first-team All Pac-10 a no-brainer after running up 177 yards and two long scores against the Cougars in Eugene.

TCU 24, Stanford 7: All these home games really don't help when you just don't have the players, as Harbaugh is fining out. The Horned Frogs show off their stellar 4-2-5 and confuse the Cardinal offense into a series of embarrassing turnovers.

Sat., Oct. 20
Arizona 31, Stanford 13: Of course, going on the road isn't much fun either for the Cardinal.

UCLA 33, California 30: The Bruins extend their Rose Bowl hex on Tedford, as freshman placekicker Kai Forbath's late field goal sends the Bears to their initial loss of 2007.

Washington 28, Oregon 27: The "Tall Tale of Jake Locker" gets its first chapter in the Husky history books, as Willingham's team takes down its hated rival to the south on a last-minute TD run by the freshman quarterback.

USC 35, Notre Dame 13: Speaking of last-second victories, the Trojans won't need a quarterback sneak with three seconds to play as they did in South Bend in 2005. No, John David Booty has his first signature game of 2007, tossing for 340 yards and four scores as the Trojans down the outmanned Irish.

Sat., Oct. 27
Arizona 27, Washington 14: Another Husky letdown in Seattle, as UW rides the elevator from euphoria one week to dismay the next. Of course, the Wildcat defense helps that ride out, picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles to give the U of A offense a distinct field position advantage all day.

California 44, Arizona State 24: The Bears face no hex at Sun Devil Stadium, and Longshore's 300-yard passing night leads Cal to a much needed bounceback victory.

USC 38, Oregon 21: After a slow start, thanks in part to the severity of back-to-back road games in environments as tough as South Bend and Eugene, the Trojans get rolling in the second half, outscoring the Ducks 28-7 to run away and hide.

Oregon State 34, Stanford 6: The Beavers simply manhandle the Cardinal in Corvallis.

UCLA 28, Washington State 20: One place the Bruins have had some luck on the road in recent years is Pullman, and Olson's two TD passes lead them to their first road victory since week one.

Sat., Nov. 3
Arizona 23, UCLA 17: In a game very reminiscent of the Wildcats' upset of Cal a year ago in Tucson, Arizona's defense makes the biggest plays in this battle. The Bruin defense puts forth a valiant effort, but has it's back put to the wall by one too many UCLA turnovers.

Oregon 39, Arizona State 27: A week off and a visit from the Sun Devils, who have struggled against the Ducks in recent years, help the Ducks get well in a hurry.

California 41, Washington State 20: The Cougars are simply not in the Bears' league. Similar styles, similar schemes, but there's just better talent in Berkeley.

USC 30, Oregon State 10: This Homecoming game has been circled on many Trojans' calendars since 2006's stunning defeat in Corvallis. With young quarterbacks and (perhaps) without Sammie Stroughter, the Beavers don't have enough firepower against USC's stunning defense.

Washington 24, Stanford 16: The Huskies get a measure of revenge for last season's inexplicable 20-3 defeat at the hands of the Cardinal. RB Louis Rankin has a big day in Palo Alto.

Sat., Nov. 10
UCLA 31, Arizona State 17: The Bruins continue to shine in Pasadena, as Erickson's team drops its third straight - and USC looms.

USC 31, California 20: USC's offense is able to find enough holes in a Bear defense that has taken a step back in 2007. Though a vociferous Berkeley crowd roars its approval of a Jackson punt return for a score early, the Trojan defense slowly sucks the life out of Memorial Stadium as the evening goes on.

Oregon State 35, Washington 17: The Beaver defense is too strong for the Huskies' still growing offense. And RB Yvenson Bernard has a field day, topping the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season.

Washington State 37, Stanford 17: Badly in need of a victory, Mr. Doba? Don't fear, the Cardinal is here!

Thursday, Nov. 15
Arizona 28, Oregon 17: Stoops is guaranteed of his first bowl since coming to Tucson, as the Wildcat defense suffocates the Ducks' spread attack in the desert.

Sat., Nov. 17
California 27, Washington 24: The Bears almost let the lingering sting of the loss to USC knock them out of their chance at a second-place finish and possible Rose Bowl berth. But two late scoring drives help seal the come-from-behind victory.

Oregon State 25, Washington State 16: Is the party over for Bill Doba on the Palouse? A loss to Washington in Seattle could seal his fate, as the Cougars are already bowl ineligible for the fourth consecutive season.

Thurs., Nov. 22
USC 42, Arizona State 17: The Trojans take second helpings of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce before the Sun Devils and their fans can even murmur in protest.

Sat., Nov. 24
UCLA 28, Oregon 19: The Bruins close out another strong season at home, holding the Ducks to just 240 total yards in preparation for next weekend's crosstown showdown.

Washington 34, Washington State 30: The Huskies nip the Cougars in a classic Apple Cup. Maybe someday soon, this rivalry will mean something on a conference-wide level again.

Notre Dame 34, Stanford 17: Even the Irish, who are barely stumbling into a non-descript bowl in Charlie Weis' third season, can handle the Cardinal at Stanford Stadium.

Sat., Dec. 1
Arizona State 27, Arizona 24: The Sun Devils' eighth home game of 2007 pays off, as Carpenter's late sneak catapults ASU over their desert rivals and into a better spot in the Pac-10 bowl picture.

California 28, Stanford 13: An eighth home game doesn't mean quite as much for the Cardinal, as the Bears win the Big Game … again.

Oregon 24, Oregon State 23: The home team still rules in the Civil War, as the Ducks edge the Beavers to garner possible bowl consideration.

USC 34, UCLA 10: The Trojans have listened to UCLA crow about "13-9" and its "better" defense for a year now. That ends today, with one decisive defensive performance by USC.

Hawaii 44, Washington 28: A nice trip for the Huskies to celebrate their Apple Cup win. But will the Rainbow Warriors still be holding on to BCS dreams after this win at Aloha Stadium?

Predicted Pac-10 Standings 2007

1. USC 12-0, 9-0 (BCS Championship Game)
2. California 10-2, 7-2 (Rose Bowl)
3. UCLA 8-4, 6-3 (Holiday Bowl)
4. Oregon State 8-4, 5-4 (Sun Bowl)
5. Arizona 7-5, 5-4 (Emerald Bowl)
6. Arizona State 7-5, 4-5 (Las Vegas Bowl)
7. Oregon 6-6, 4-5 (Armed Forces Bowl)
8. Washington 5-8, 3-6
9. Washington State 4-8, 2-7
10. Stanford 1-11, 0-9

Most believe the 2007 Pac-10 season is a three-horse race between the Trojans, Bears and Bruins, with a tightly bunched group falling in line directly behind them. Truly, based on returning talent and differing strengths and weaknesses, a case can be made for any of the four schools from Oregon and Arizona leading that second-division pack. In the lower tier, Washington State has a lot of question marks that don't seem to have easy answers, especially on defense, while Washington is improving but faces perhaps the toughest schedule in America. And Stanford, simply, has a long way to go before it is consistently competitive.

As Pete Carroll has grown fond of saying in recent weeks, USC's defense features more like 17-18 starters rather than just the 11 on the traditional first team. Talent-wise, this is the best defense in America - it's up to them to go out on the field and prove it, week in and week out. When you have a schedule like the Trojans', which features the toughest games away from home, it's a huge boost to have such a strong defense. On the other side of the ball, the biggest question mark on the team is USC's solid but thin offensive line. Any injury problems up front could spell trouble for Troy - trouble being a loss or two, rather than the expected undefeated march to New Orleans on Jan. 7, 2008.

At California, the question marks are on defense, as Cal lost several of its key playmakers and leaders. With Longshore throwing to Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins, I expect Forsett to have a big year replacing Marshawn Lynch. However, the Bears just haven't been able to win the big one that puts them over the hump under Tedford, and I don't see it happening this year.

UCLA has ridden last season's upset win against USC and its 20 returning starters to much media hype heading into the season opener this Saturday. What many analysts conveniently forget - or, perhaps, don't even know - is that the Bruins are, once again, working under a new offensive coordinator and utilizing a still unproven QB in Olson. The Bruins' depth is also suspect, even on its justifiably revered defense. The schedule sets up nicely, but until Karl Dorrell's team shows more consistency in its preparation and execution, those baffling upset losses on the road could continue.

Meanwhile, last season's upset leader, Oregon State, returns a slew of talent on both sides of the ball - but loses QB Matt Moore. It appears, at least at the start, that Mike Riley will go with a two-QB set up featuring Canfield and Moevao. A big question mark is the availability of game-breaking WR/PR Sammie Stroughter, who may be rejoining the Beavers this week after going through some personal issues during camp. A good schedule and stellar defense give the Beavers a chance to put together another good season as long as the offense comes together under the new quarterback(s).

Arizona fell one win short of a bowl game a year ago, thanks to a bitter loss to rival ASU. Stoops' shift to a spread offense under new coordinator Sonny Dykes (late of Texas Tech) should allow Tuitama to avoid those big hits that have put a damper on his early career. The Wildcats' defense should join Oregon State, USC and UCLA in the conference's top four. Anything less than a bowl bid will be a major disappointment in Tucson.

A cushy early schedule should Arizona State to reach a bowl in Erickson's first season in Tempe. ASU's offense has big weapons in Carpenter and Ryan Torain, and should be able to take advantage of some of the weaker defenses on its schedule. But against the better defenses, when the Devils find it harder to score, ASU's defense must play over its head. Otherwise, the Sun Devils will continue to struggle against the conference's upper echelon.

Oregon's Bellotti has made a living bouncing back from tough seasons to post big years (see 2002 to 2003 and 2004 to 2005). And the Ducks have the offensive weapons to excel in their newly readjusted spread attack. But Dixon needs to prove he can take care of the ball, rather than putting Oregon's questionable defense in tough spots over and over. That Duck defense may end up being the difference from another middling finish and a very good season.

Locker is already seen as the savior at Washington, where Husky fans haven't been this excited about a season since the end of the Neuheisel Era. However, Willingham cannot allow a brutal early schedule to derail his team's confidence. While UW should definitely be better than it was a year ago (no way they can lose to Stanford again, right?), it will be hard-pressed to win the seven games necessary to make a bowl.

Washington State still has plenty of offensive weapons. Brink improved on his mistakes from 2005 to 2006, but the Cougars still struggled late in close games. Defense is a huge problem for the 2007 Cougs - the talent level appears to be down from recent editions, and even though Doba has reinserted himself into the scheming there, Wazzu will have a tough time stopping most opponents.

Stanford needs to have patience in Harbaugh. He's got the right attitude for the program, but he just doesn't have the players after the destruction that was wrought to the depth chart under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. The Cardinal is most likely to pull an upset (if they do) early in the season, before confidence wanes.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the television 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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