The Sixth Annual 'Picking the Winners' 2006 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.
Six 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 five years of writing this piece (three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, last season, for USCFootball.com), I've been called more names than Pete Carroll on a Notre Dame fan site after "Ricky Bobby" visited practice earlier this month. 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)
TOTAL: 272-98 (.735)
For the second time, the Pac-10 "Picking the Winners" column is appearing exclusively on USCFootball.com (thanks, Ryan). 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 2006 Pac-10 game-by-game preview.
Thurs., Aug. 31
Arizona State 52, Northern Arizona 10: Can Sam Keller transfer to Northern Arizona in time to face his mutinous former teammates in this game?
Oregon State 49, Eastern Washington 6: Big August wins over I-AA opponents won't cool Mike Riley's ever-warming seat too much.
Sat., Sept. 2
Oregon 38, Stanford 23: An early conference opener in Eugene bounces the Ducks' way when Dennis Dixon breaks free for an early second-half TD scamper.
Arizona 28, BYU 17: Reports say that BYU is close to being "back." Unfortunately for the 2006 Cougars, Willie Tuitama is back for his sophomore season in Tucson, and he tosses three touchdowns in the season opener.
California 23, Tennessee 13: How about that poor Vols offense that was much to blame for Philip Fulmer's agony in 2005? It may be improved this season, but only after a misstep against the Golden Bears' strong front seven. Marshawn Lynch scores twice as the Bears score one for the conference in the never-ending duel between Pac-10 and SEC fans.
UCLA 27, Utah 21: The Utes aren't what they were two seasons ago, but they are among the best defenses the Mountain West can offer. However, Ben Olson does just enough to get the Bruins past the stubborn Salt Lakers.
USC 28, Arkansas 10: The Trojans' star-studded (and, most importantly, healthy) defense forces four Razorback turnovers, including a Josh Pinkard interception for a touchdown. New QB John David Booty is efficient and USC's stable of young running backs has a solid first outing.
Washington 35, San Jose State 13: Can Ty Willingham take the next step with the moribund Husky program? Even though that step is merely a three-win season (after UW won once in 2004 and twice in 2005), not many believe it will happen.
Auburn 31, Washington State 17: Give the Cougs credit for taking this one on. However, with so many question marks on defense and a team that is prone to turnovers, winning a game at Jordan-Hare is highly unlikely.
Thurs., Sept. 7
Boise State 38, Oregon State 20: Regional match-ups with non-BCS conference schools are no fun for the Beavers when that school has become a small-time football factory that's nearly unbeatable on its blue field.
Sat., Sept. 9
LSU 35, Arizona 13: The Cats are coming on under Mike Stoops. However, a trip to Baton Rouge shows they aren't quite there just yet.
Arizona State 42, Nevada 10: Northern Arizona and Nevada? Hey, Dirk Koetter, don't tax yourself too much, ok? Just take it easy, buddy.
California 38, Minnesota 14: Unfortunately for Glen Mason, Laurence Maroney is in the NFL now. Fortunately for Jeff Tedford, Lynch was not yet eligible to head to the pros. Therein lies the difference this Saturday in Strawberry Canyon.
Fresno State 38, Oregon 28: Traveling to Fresno is always a tough trip, especially for big conference foes. And the Bulldogs will be amped for this one after last season's nail-biter of a loss at Autzen.
Stanford 35, San Jose State 28: Danger zone: the Spartans always give the Cardinal all they can handle. And this game was moved to Spartan Stadium to give construction crews extra time to finish the new Stanford Stadium. Fortunately for Walt Harris, Trent Edwards' hot hand carries Stanford to a tight victory.
UCLA 63, Rice 21: Why is Rice on a Pac-10 team's home schedule two years in a row? So the Bruins can get matching victories, of course!
Oklahoma 45, Washington 14: Even without Rhett Bomar, the Sooners should cruise in this one … unless the Sooner Schooner takes out the entire Oklahoma defense with an awe-inspiring recreation of its infamous 1985 Orange Bowl ride.
Washington State 33, Idaho 13: A little cross-border battle is just what Bill Doba's Cougars need after a tough trip south a week ago.
Sat., Sept. 16
Arizona 45, Stephen F. Austin 3: Up next for Stoops and Co.: Pete Carroll. Unfortunately, he's the coach of four-time defending Pac-10 champion USC, not just the name of an entire college.
Arizona State 35, Colorado 34: The Sun Devils take on their first real test: traveling to Boulder to face Dan Hawkins' reinvigorated Buffs. Rudy Carpenter's late TD pass spares Koetter all the questions that come with an early upset.
California 56, Portland State 3: The Bears get quite a breather before the Sun Devils arrive for the conference's first big showdown.
Oregon 27, Oklahoma 23: The Sooners find out what many other big conference foes have in recent years: the Ducks don't only play better at Autzen, but there can be a magic to the place. Patrick Chung's fumble return for a touchdown turns the tide in UO's big revenge game.
Stanford 42, Navy 24: The Cardinal christen their new digs by humbling a group of Midshipmen still bent on revenge for Stanford's late win on the East Coast in 2005.
USC 35, Nebraska 17: Just imagine, when this game was scheduled, I actually thought to myself, "Well, at least it will be cool to see Nebraska play in the Coliseum." My, how times change. In what will be hyped as a tight match-up, the Trojans slowly slip away from a game group of Huskers in the second half.
Fresno State 34, Washington 17: UW needs more Idaho and Eastern Washington on its non-conference slate right now and (much) less Oklahoma and Fresno State. The Bulldogs win at Husky Stadium for the second time in three years.
Washington State 37, Baylor 13: Baylor – also known across the southwest as, "A nice way to get a 'W' against a BCS conference team."
Sat., Sept. 23
USC 28, Arizona 20: The Wildcat defense and a Trojan tradition under Pete Carroll – struggling in the conference opener – almost spell upset in Tucson. But the USC defense comes through with two fourth-quarter takeaways and the Trojans survive.
California 38, Arizona State 13: Koetter just can't win in the Golden State. This time, the Bears' defense throttles Carpenter and Keegan Herring, while Nate Longshore finds DeSean Jackson for a 62-yard score just before the half to propel a Cal avalanche in the final 30 minutes.
Stanford 34, Washington State 31: The Cardinal win an old-school Pac-10 shootout in Palo Alto. Edwards is the difference for Stanford, tossing four TD passes, two to big target Evan Moore.
Washington 24, UCLA 23: The Huskies pull off the conference's first shocker of the season. UW's defensive front holds the Bruins' running game in check and Husky QB Isaiah Stanback runs for two scores and passes for another.
Oregon State 41, Idaho 19: As has been the case in recent years, the Vandals cure whatever ails a northwestern Pac-10 squad. Matt Moore throws for two scores and Yvenson Bernard runs for two more.
Sat., Sept. 30
Arizona 31, Washington 14: UW crashes back to earth, as the Wildcats bounce back to garner payback for 2005's embarrassing home loss to the Huskies.
Arizona State 38, Oregon 34: Last season, the Ducks stomped the Devils in the desert. This time around, ASU senses its season slipping away early after the previous week's debacle in Berkeley. Herring exposes the Ducks' defensive front without the departed Haloti Ngata and the Devil defense does just enough to hold on.
California 38, Oregon State 21: Beaver QB Moore throws three interceptions, two by Daymeion Hughes, and Justin Forsett carries the load for the Bears on offense, rushing for 127 yards and a score to quiet the Corvallis crowd.
UCLA 31, Stanford 21: The Bruins bounce back, while the Cardinal still look like the same up-and-down bunch under Harris that they were a year ago.
USC 37, Washington State 16: Could the Cougs pull one of their famous Palouse Surprises? Yes, with weapons like QB Alex Brink and receivers Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus making plays, the Wazzu offense can put up points. However, Bill Doba's team also makes its share of errors. USC capitalizes on three turnovers and a punt return by Desmond Reed to get through a September many were wary of for months.
Sat., Oct. 7
UCLA 24, Arizona 17: It sure isn't pretty, but the Bruins get a measure of payback for their 2005 whipping in Tucson. The Wildcats have yet to learn how to win consistently on the road, and two costly fumbles deep in UCLA territory kill their chances in Pasadena.
California 31, Oregon 27: A second-consecutive tough road loss for the Ducks as one of the Pac-10's best budding rivalries lives up to its recent history. And one week into October, it has become clear that the Cal-USC battle on Nov. 18 is clearly going to decide the conference championship, if not a berth in the BCS title game.
Oregon State 24, Washington State 19: An ugly game between two inconsistent teams is decided on a Sabby Piscitelli interception in the end zone with 4 minutes left.
USC 49, Washington 7: C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Chauncey Washington roll up more than 300 yards rushing and the road looks even longer to Willingham and Co.
Notre Dame 45, Stanford 17: It was a little too close for comfort when the Irish visited Palo Alto last November. Brady Quinn's four TD passes sink the Cardinal in the first of three Pac-10 battles for the Irish.
Sat., Oct. 14
Arizona 28, Stanford 21: The Cardinal suffer from a little Irish hangover, turning the ball over three times early, and the Wildcats survive a late rally to hold on.
USC 41, Arizona State 21: When Rudy Carpenter goes out with a concussion following a sack by LB Rey Maualuga, Koetter wishes he had Keller to turn to.
California 49, Washington State 23: The Bears keep on rolling, with Lynch busting out for 223 yards on the ground.
Oregon 42, UCLA 24: The Ducks' roller-coaster ride of a season continues, as Cam Colvin burns his hometown Bruins for 3 scores.
Washington 17, Oregon State 10: In a heavy rainstorm, the Huskies notch their third win of the season – as many as they've had the past two seasons combined – when Stanback sneaks over the goal-line with just under a minute to play. Beaver fans wonder if Dennis Erickson would leave Idaho again.
Sat., Oct. 21
Arizona 30, Oregon State 16: Things keep sliding downhill for the Beavers, but Stoops' Wildcats are a win away from their first bowl bid since 1998.
Arizona State 31, Stanford 21: The Sun Devils are thrilled that Cal and USC aren't on the schedule again until 2007.
California 52, Washington 17: It's the Bear defense's day to enjoy itself. Seven forced turnovers and two defensive scores later, the Huskies are destroyed.
Oregon 29, Washington State 20: The Ducks win in Pullman when Brady Leaf connects for three touchdowns. For the first time this season, UO has won back-to-back games.
Notre Dame 49, UCLA 23: "Look big brother, we can play your rivals, too!"
Sat., Oct. 28
Arizona State 34, Washington 14: Herring has another big day at Seattle, and 2007 Heisman whispers start in the desert.
Oregon 53, Portland State 14: Does it really count as a three-game winning streak if Portland State is the victim in the third win?
USC 31, Oregon State 24: The Beavers put their heart and soul into one season-saving effort at Corvallis. But a Dwayne Jarrett touchdown grab puts USC ahead to stay early in the fourth quarter, keeping the Trojans on track for their showdown with Cal three weeks hence.
UCLA 28, Washington State 17: After a couple of nightmarish weeks on the road, some home cooking feels good to the Bruins – especially when the main course is fresh Cougar. Doba's club is still winless in the conference.
Sat., Nov. 4
Washington State 21, Arizona 17: Did I just write that the Cougs were still looking for their first Pac-10 win? Well, that's nothing a little freezing rain and a still inconsistent Arizona club can't fix on the Palouse.
Arizona State 34, Oregon State 10: After laying it all on the line against USC, the Beavers have very little left for the Sun Devils – and Riley's job is seriously in trouble.
California 42, UCLA 28: This match-up has been a shootout the past few years. Unfortunately for the Bruins, the Bears are packing a couple extra clips in 2006. Lynch runs wild on UCLA's struggling defensive front.
Oregon 38, Washington 17: The conference's ugliest border war goes the Ducks' way as Leaf and Dixon dominate the Washington secondary.
USC 30, Stanford 10: At least one L.A. school gets out of the Bay Area with a victory this weekend.
Sat., Nov. 11
California 28, Arizona 27: The Bears survive a huge scare in Tucson, as Brandon Mebane bats Willie Tuitama's fourth down pass down at the Cal goal line with 45 seconds to play. Looking ahead to the USC game almost costs Tedford's team their shot at national glory a week early.
Arizona State 42, Washington State 24: If only this were the Pac-8 and USC and Cal were in another conference, Koetter thinks.
USC 35, Oregon 24: The Trojans kick off their brutal three-game homestand with a hard-fought win against the Ducks. Allen Bradford scores three times in the second half.
UCLA 29, Oregon State 13: The Bruins get bowl-eligible by handing the Beavers their fifth straight loss. Ben Olson throws for 323 yards, his biggest game yet in powder blue.
Washington 28, Stanford 19: The Cardinal have always had problems in Seattle, and Edwards' three interceptions help the Huskies to their fourth win of the season.
Sat., Nov. 18
Oregon 26, Arizona 20: The Wildcats will have to upset their hated rivals from Tempe to become bowl-eligible after the Ducks hand them a third-consecutive close loss.
Arizona State 44, UCLA 20: Carpenter throws four TD passes in the first half as the Sun Devils pile up a 21-point halftime edge. Fortunately for ASU, that lead is safe against the other L.A. team.
USC 24, California 20: In what most national analysts expect to be a shootout, Pac-10 fans know will turn on which of these highly ranked defenses has a better day. When Lawrence Jackson sacks Longshore at midfield with three minutes left, it's the Trojans who are still standing in the race for the BCS title game, while the Bears must beat Stanford to gain consideration for a deserved Rose Bowl bid.
Stanford 38, Oregon State 19: The up-and-down Cardinal offense has a field day against the downtrodden Beavers.
Washington State 25, Washington 17: Brink goes out an Apple Cup winner, tossing two TD passes and notching 283 yards against the rival Huskies.
Fri., Nov. 24
Oregon State 24, Oregon 16: Can one upset against the Ducks help Riley keep his job? It's unlikely, but his players go out and play like they believe it can. Bernard runs for 153 yards and the Beaver defense stifles Oregon's spread attack for much of the final three quarters.
Sat., Nov. 25
Arizona 31, Arizona State 21: Stoops gets the best of Koetter again in Tucson, rocking the Sun Devils' chances for a 10-win season and gaining a bowl bid in the process.
USC 38, Notre Dame 28: The Irish offense is something to behold under Charlie Weis. Unfortunately, the slow-footed Notre Dame defense is still second-rate after facing the speed of the California defense a week before. No long grass this time, and a Desmond Reed punt return for a TD early in the fourth quarter puts the exclamation mark on a Trojan victory.
Sat., Dec. 2
California 42, Stanford 22: The Bears take out the frustration of the USC loss on the poor Cardinal. Roses for the first time since the 1950s? Let's check down south …
USC 34, UCLA 17: A Trojan win puts USC in its third straight BCS title game, while it also boosts the Golden Bears into Pasadena on New Year's Day. The Bruins? Well, there's always the chance to avoid a ninth-straight defeat at the hands of the Trojans next year.
Hawaii 38, Oregon State 23: Looks like the Beavers took a nice little vacation as reward for topping the Ducks. Unfortunately for Riley's team, Hawaii is waiting to play a football game at the end of that OSU luau.
Predicted Pac-10 Standings 2006
1. USC 12-0, 9-0 (BCS Championship Game)
2. California 11-1, 8-1 (Rose Bowl)
3. Arizona State 9-3, 6-3 (Holiday Bowl)
4. Oregon 7-5, 5-4 (Sun Bowl)
5. UCLA 6-6, 4-5 (Emerald Bowl)
6. Arizona 6-6, 4-5 (Las Vegas Bowl)
7. Washington 4-8, 3-6
8. Stanford 4-8, 2-7
9. Washington State 4-8, 2-7
10. Oregon State 4-9, 2-7
The 2006 Pac-10 season should clearly break into a two-horse race if the inexperienced USC offense survives its early road schedule. After the Trojans and Bears, the Sun Devils and Ducks are a step ahead of faltering UCLA and rising Arizona. The bottom four have a number of question marks heading into the season – but each club has enough to pull an upset or two out of its hat, especially at home.
USC's defense, if healthy, will be among the top five in the nation. Many pundits think the Trojans will be weak in the secondary, but expect Pinkard to lead a surprising group that will make big hits and big plays. The Trojans' freshmen running backs should round into form by October, and if Booty can remain efficient in a tough opening road stretch, the Trojans can enter November – where they've been unbeatable under Carroll – with a chance to play for another national title.
If California gets decent quarterback play, the Bears also have a chance to play for the national championship. Nate Longshore has to be the guy after poor Joe Ayoob's performance ended up benching him in favor of a former fullback at the end of 2005. Cal is loaded everywhere else and has the only defense this side of USC that could threaten the top 10 in every national statistical ranking.
Arizona State just can't beat Cal and USC under Koetter. The Sun Devils are loaded on offense, even with the controversy surrounding the apparent exit of former starting QB Sam Keller. But ASU's defense will again struggle against decent offenses. Sun Devil fans have to wonder if Koetter will ever take the next step.
Oregon's schedule is its biggest problem this side of losing stud lineman Ngata. Road trips to Fresno State, ASU, Cal, USC and Oregon State will make things tough on Mike Bellotti's club. While the offense may be even better than it was 2005, the defense will need to step up for the Ducks to rise higher than fourth.
On the other hand, UCLA's schedule is one of few things that argue for the Bruins chances of avoiding a precipitous drop from last season's 10-2 mark. Key playmakers on offense and defense must be replaced, and UCLA's coaching staff underwent a total upheaval. However, the schedule should allow for the Bruins to be bowl-eligible before USC comes calling.
Arizona's Stoops has the Wildcats believing again, especially with Tuitama showing some big time tools late in 2005. The defense is nipping at the heels of Cal and USC. Learning how to win close ones and away from Tucson is the next step. Expect the 'Cats to do enough to make their first post-season appearance in eight seasons.
An improved Washington defense should help the Huskies take a couple baby-steps away from sheer hopelessness. Some beatable foes visit Husky Stadium this year. However, depth is still a huge problem in Seattle, and Willingham's club is a couple key injuries away from falling back.
Stanford needs QB Edwards to become a consistent force this year. He has some excellent receiving weapons and a veteran offensive line in front of him. You have to figure that the Cardinal must improve their rushing attack from 2005's anemic showing. However, a young, untested defense will likely keep Stanford from breaking into the upper half of the conference.
Washington State also has offensive weapons. But the Cougars are also very mistake-prone and have to have some shaky confidence after all those tight losses a year ago. They have their biggest games at home, though, and if they can pull an early upset or two, might have the tools to push for a bowl bid.
Oregon State, on the other hand, is in trouble. QB Moore is an interception waiting to happen, and while the home schedule brings the big boys to Corvallis, the Beavers just don't measure up talent-wise or coaching-wise on either side of the ball. If Moore can keep the turnovers down and the Beaver pass defense can muster some improvement, OSU might be good for an upset or two.
Tom Haire (Tom4SC) has been writing for USCFootball.com for six 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, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.