Friday, August 28, 2009

College Football Insiders Preview: Pac-10

The Pac-10 conference looks to bounce back after what was an extremely disappointing season as a whole. The lone bright spot, USC, shouldn’t be the only team shining in 2009. Several other teams look poised to having promising years and are looking to be crowned the new Pac-10 champs. This conference is loaded with talent and should be an exciting conference to watch this upcoming season.

The Favorite: USC: No surprise here. USC has been the perennial powerhouse of the Pac-10 for years and has not finished second in the conference standings since 2001. That will likely not change this year even though the Trojans will have a couple of tough conference contests. They play all of the other contending teams, Cal, Oregon, and ASU away from the Coliseum. They also have to travel to Columbus to play the Buckeyes on September 12th and South Bend on October 17th to play Notre Dame. Even though they lost many key players in the draft last season, notably Mark Sanchez, Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing, they seem to always have a new crop of incredible athletes to replace them. Pete Carroll is the best in the business at recruiting players that will fit nicely into his system. He is always thinking ahead and this season’s group will be the poster child of that concept. He has only nine seniors on offense and defense combined, but just about every position seems to be stacked with talent. Tailback, for example, has Stafon Johnson as the starter. But if he needs to be spelled or replaced due to performance then he can bring in Joe McKnight, who is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Therefore, injuries shouldn’t be too much of a factor for this Trojan team. The offense will be run by true freshman Matt Barkley, who was the prize quarterback coming out of high school. He has made great strides in learning the intricacies of the offense and was rewarded with the starting job. The fact that a true freshman is running the offense may worry some, especially after Jimmy Clausen came to Notre Dame and had little success in his first season. But one must remember that Notre Dame didn’t have the same talent surrounding Clausen as Barkley now has with the Trojans. He should be able to settle in nicely and utilize the weapons he has on offense. On the other side of the ball, their stout defense shouldn’t miss a step. Taylor Mays, arguably the best defensive back in the country, will control the secondary while defensive linemen Everson Griffen and Averell Spicer will look to control the line of scrimmage. The only way the Trojans don’t win the conference is if they have a collective mental lapse, but with Pete Carroll running the show, that would be a stunner.

The Contender: California: California looks to be the top contender to knock off the mighty Trojans this season. Tailback Jahvid Best may be the top playmaker in the country and will be a vital part of the Golden Bears’ offensive success. The Trojans have had a tough time dealing with smaller tailbacks, shown last season when Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers tore up USC’s defense for 186 yards and two scores in the Beavers’ upset victory. Senior wide out Nyan Boateng will be the primary receiver for quarterback Kevin Riley and that could be the combination needed to slice up the strong Trojan secondary. Cal does have more experience than the Trojans, with seven returning starters on offense and eight on defense. This could play a large role if their October 3rd matchup with USC becomes a tight contest. If Cal truly wants to play the dark horse of the conference and upend USC, they need to get the running game going with the best back in the conference. They would then end the Trojans’ seven-year run as Pac-10 champs.

The Sleepers: ASU & Oregon: ASU is a veteran squad that could be the surprise of the conference. With 14 returning starters on both offense and defense experience runs deep with the Sun Devils. The entire offensive line is back from 2008 and should be able to protect quarterback Danny Sullivan long enough to keep him from forcing the ball and making mistakes. They have good possession receivers in Kyle Williams and Chris McGaha and should be able to control the clock and tempo of the game. But their defense will have to step up for them if they are to make a move in the conference. Having only five seniors on defense and five players getting their first full-time gigs could prove costly, but if they can force turnovers and have their offense hold on to the ball, ASU could be the ones to take the title away from USC. This year’s Oregon squad looks ready for the challenge. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount could prove to be the lethal dose that downs the Trojans. Blount is built like Brandon Jacobs, at 6’2” and 229 pounds he can absorb contact and run over just about any defender that gets in his path. Masoli started settling in nicely toward the end of last season, throwing for 572 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in his final two regular season games. The veteran defense knows what is expected of them and they should be one of the most solid units in the conference. If all these pieces come together, this will be a team no one wants to deal with.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Jahvid Best (California) vs. RB LeGarrette Blount (Oregon): Everyone loves a good running back battle and this conference brings one, featuring two of the best college football has to offer. One back offers speed and finesse, while the other offers brut power and a downhill running style. The different style of these two backs is what makes this matchup so appealing. Fans will get to see which (if either) can take down mighty USC. Jahvid Best is a complete back in a small package. He managed 1,580 yards on just 194 carries—that’s a tremendous 8.1 yards per carry. He also grabbed 27 catches for 246 yards, showing he can be a receiving threat out of the backfield. He will be the player defenses key in on, but may end up leaving them with one mighty headache. LeGarrette Blount played back-up to Jeremiah Johnson last season, but still managed 1,002 yards rushing on just 137 attempts. He also served as the Ducks’ goal line back, scoring 17 touchdowns. He takes over the starting role this season and will showcase his skills as a punishing runner, one who never shies away from contact and requires several players to bring him down. Both backs can get yardage and score with ease, but the question here is—which style is best suited to take down a giant? If one back can have their way with the Trojan defense like Rodgers did a year ago, then they will be the front runner of this matchup.

Honorable Mention: QB Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon), QB Jake Locker (Washington), RB Jacquizz Rodgers (Oregon State), RB Stafon Johnson (USC)

Defensive Player of the Year: S Taylor Mays (USC) vs. CB Syd’Quan Thompson (California):
Two of the most exciting defensive backs in college football will go head to head for this honor. Both have incredible speed, athleticism, and playmaking ability that have opposing quarterbacks aware of their presence on nearly every play. Taylor Mays is considered by many to be the best overall defensive player in the country. He had 53 tackles and eight pass deflections last season, but failed to register an interception. This year, with all of the defensive stars of 2008 gone to the NFL, he should thrive in the secondary and feast on shorter pass plays. Syd'Quan Thompson is considered to be one of the best shut-down corners in football. He totaled 70 tackles to go along with four interceptions and two sacks. If teams get smarter this season, they will stay away from Thompson at all costs. Both players will be stars in the secondary, but total team defense and their head-to-head matchup will be the determining factors on who brings home this award.

Honorable Mention: DE Dexter Davis (Arizona St.), DE Everson Griffen (USC), LB Reggie Carter (UCLA), Alterraun Verner (UCLA), CB Walter Thurmond (Oregon)

Breakout Seasons: RB Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon), RB Joe McKnight (USC), QB Matt Barkley (USC): Jeremiah Masoli will be let loose this season after playing a more conservative role in 2008. He is a dual-threat quarterback with great instincts, gaining 718 yards on the ground last season. His ability to throw an accurate ball or tuck it and run makes Masoli a nightmare for opposing defenses. During the final four games of last season, he totaled 14 touchdowns (rushing and passing), only one interception, and posted a 170.75 efficiency rating. He has the offensive skill set and the smarts to be a top quarterback in the conference and will likely turn the tables on an abysmal 2008 season. Joe McKnight is a speedster with good change of direction. He will play the backup role to Stafon Johnson, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get his touches. Pete Carroll likes a two-back system (think Reggie Bush and LenDale White), especially when he has runners with two different styles. McKnight can be utilized as a third-down back thanks to his pass catching ability. He has totaled 44 receptions for 396 yards and two touchdowns in his short two-year career. He has yet to crack the 100 carry mark in his two seasons with the Trojans, but look for that to change in 2009 and for McKnight take full advantage of the increased workload. Matt Barkley steps in as USC’s starting quarterback after the departure of Mark Sanchez. He is a true freshman running one of the most prestigious programs in football, but the Trojans’ coaching staff is great at turning good quarterbacks into great ones. He also has good wide receivers and a two-headed monster in the backfield to work with so he will not be short of offensive weapons. Barkley will have to become the leader of the group immediately, but should pick up where seemingly all recent USC quarterbacks have left off…leading his team toward a national title.

Best Pro Prospect: S Taylor Mays (USC):
At 6’3” and 235 pounds, Mays possesses the size NFL teams would kill for at the safety position. He is one of the best, if not the best, defensive playmakers…and that was said about him in 2008. Now he will have another season to fine tune an already-potent skill set. He has incredible closing speed and hits like a Mack truck. It is his lack of interceptions that worry some, but when you have played on a dominant defense that is so good at getting to the quarterback, there is really not much you can do when the opportunities aren’t there. Those skills will be there when the NFL comes knocking, and if they aren’t then that is why there are coaches and practices. Either way, he was NFL-ready last season so there shouldn’t be many questions remaining about him when he enters the 2010 draft.

College Football Insiders' Picks:

Conference Champion: USC Trojans:
(Yawn)…Yes the Trojans will win another Pac-10 title this year to make it eight straight. There is too much talent and athleticism here to go with a different team in a conference that was criticized a year ago for being weak. The fact that a true freshman will be running the show on offense shouldn’t scare you, mainly because Pete Carroll knows what he is doing and if things start to get dicey, he has two very capable quarterbacks waiting in the wings. It may not look as easy for them this year, but the ending is inevitable.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Jahvid Best, California: Jahvid Best
is too quick to defend and always seems to make something out of nothing. This year will be no different, except the size of his workload. He will receive more touches on offense, thus eclipsing his stats from 2008.

Defensive Player of the Year: S Taylor Mays, USC:
Whoever didn’t see this one coming must have skipped this entire preview…or been hiding under a rock for the past year.

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* Click To Read CFI’s Big East Preview
* Click To Read CFI's Big Ten Preview
* Click To Read CFI's Big XII Preview

Photos Courtesy of and College Press Box