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Pac-10 Preview A-O

2006 Pac-10 team breakdowns for:  Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon and Oregon State.
*Note: specialists are counted as returning starters.Arizona Wildcats
2005 record: 3-8 (2-6) No bowl game.  
Returning starters: 17 (8 on O, 9 on D)

Preface:
Throw numbers, records and pretty much everything else out the window heading into 2006.  For the first time in recent – and really, distant memory – there’s real reason for optimism at Arizona.  Entering his third year as head coach, Mike Stoops has implemented the “Stoops Way,” and a self-described “violent” defense may finally have the offensive skill players to match.  The Wildcats’ 2005 recruiting class was ranked in the Top 20, and featured 15 players who lettered as true freshmen.  What began as the definition of a rebuilding process is starting to take shape: depth, courtesy of talented young players forced into battle, actually exists.  Everyone at Arizona believes they’re a bowl team in 2006.

Biggest strength:
Youthful exuberance.  

Many of the Wildcats’ key players weren’t around to experience the fallout from the “Desert Swarm” days.  The rest simply don’t care.  The biggest reasons?  Two absolute studs who plan on driving the 2006 Arizona bowl bus.

On offense, quarterback Willie Tiutama traded in his red-shirt practice jersey in Week 7 and started the final four games of 2005.  The true freshmen quickly set the stage in his first start (on the road at Oregon State) with a 335 yard performance.  A week later, he spearheaded a 52-14 rout of No. 7 UCLA.  Tuitama finished with a 58% completion percentage, connecting on 82 of 142 passes for 1105 yards with 9 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions.  His 136.99 rating ranked sixth all-time at Arizona and earned him honorable mention Freshmen All-America honors.

On defense, cornerback Antoine Cason is a pre-season All-American, courtesy of Rivals.com.  The two-time All-Pac 10 performer rang up 50 tackles, 5 pass breakups and 3 interceptions in 2005.  More importantly, he’s a lock-down defender in the mold of Arizona great and NFL All-Pro Chris McAlister.  Cason paired his pre-season AA honors with watch-list nominations for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.  

Biggest weakness:
Youthful exuberance; they lost 5 games by a touchdown or less last year.    

And while the “Willie Factor” appears poised to avoid a sophomore slump with fellow Freshmen All-America, sophomore wide receiver Mike Thomas (52 catches, 5 touchdowns in 2005) and All-Pac 10 all-purpose threat, senior Syndric Steptoe (1271 total yards in 10 games), the returning rushing attack features players who combined for 49 total attempts last year.

Synopsis:
This team is young, talented and hungry.  They’re also extremely well-coached and stocked in the special teams department.  Kicker Nick Folk is an All-Pac 10 talent who vied with departed punter Danny Baugher (a 2005 Ray Guy finalist) for the national punting lead.  And Steptoe is an electrifying return man.  All the pieces are in place for a resurrection at Arizona.

Arizona State Sun Devils
2005 Record: 7-5 (4-4) Beat Rutgers, 45-40 in the Insight Bowl.  
Returning starters: 15 (10 on O, 5 on D)

Preface:
Saturdays in the fall in Tempe, Arizona have become synonymous with Arena Football, indoor track meets and the parlance of new age football – basketball on grass.  In 2005, Arizona State’s box scores featured games of 63, 52, 45, 44 and 42 points.  They won those games.  But the Sun Devils also scored 30-plus three times and lost.  Head coach Dirk Koetter will have one of the most talented offensive teams in the country in 2006, and Monday Morning Quarterbacks from coast to coast believe this is the year Arizona State has the ammunition to out-gun opponents (think: USC a season ago).  

Biggest Strength:  
A two-headed monster under center.  

Arizona State returns two of the nation’s top 5 passers in 2006.  Senior Sam Keller hit on 59% of his passes for 2165 yards, 20 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.  Redshirt sophomore Rudy Carpenter (68%, 2273, 17/2) stepped in after Keller was injured and promptly paced the NCAA in passing efficiency.  Keller’s their leader and Koetter doesn’t believe starters lose their spot because of injuries.  Either way, ASU will have a true star playing chuck and duck.  

Biggest Weakness:  
Consistently inconsistent defensive play.  

Fact is, the Sun Devils had LSU and USC beat last year.  But a defense that allowed an NCAA worst 289 yards passing per game faltered down the stretch.  Overall, the unit finished 116th in total defense.  

Synopsis:
This team is flat-out loaded on offense.  Whoever starts under center with throw to All-Pac 10 tight end Zack Miller, whose 94 catches over the past two seasons are tops in the country.  A bevy of talented young receivers are eager to step in for departed All-American wide receiver Derek Hagan.  And sophomore tailback Keegan Herring set a freshman school-record with 870 yards rushing in 2005.  All five starters return up front, featuring 86 starts between them.  Return specialist Terry Richardson is a legitimate home run threat.  If safety Zack Cantanese can coordinate an infusion of JUCO talent on defense , they will challenge USC’s stranglehold on conference supremacy.  

California Golden Bears  
2005 Record: 8-4 (4-4) Beat BYU, 35-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl.  
Returning starters: 16 (8 on O, 8 on D)

Preface:
Three yards and a cloud of dust mentality, although his explosive play makers chew up far more than three yards per carry.  Head coach Jeff Tedford is renown for his quarterback pedigree (claiming grooming rights to Joey Harrington, David Carr and Aaron Rodgers, among others), but insane production from the tailback position has marked his tenure at Cal.  In 2005, the Golden Bears missed having a pair of 1000 yard rushers by a single yard.  Tedford has revived a program that won a single game in the season before his arrival, winning 33 games in four years.  It’s time for Cal to take the next step on the national scene.

Biggest strength:
The 1-2 punch at tailback.

Junior Marshawn Lynch slashed his way to 1246 yards and 10 scores in 2005 despite playing with a broken finger.  A true all-purpose threat, Lynch is also a capable receiver and return man.  SI.com’s eight-best player in America is on the short list for the Maxwell and Walker awards and should garner considerable consideration in the Heisman Trophy race.  His backup, junior Justin Forsett raced to 999 yards and 6 touchdowns last year, posting the nation’s second best yards-per-carry average, 7.6.  Lynch pounds between the tackles while Forsett runs in the Barry Sanders stop-and-start mold.  

Biggest weakness:
Quarterback play.

Redshirt sophomore Nate Longshore started the 2005 opener and was off to a fantastic start (8-for 11, 131 yards and a touchdown) before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.  Senior Joseph Ayoob stepped in and struggled, failing to complete 50% of his passes while tossing almost as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (15), and the Bears went 5-4 in his nine starting assignments .  Senior Steve Levy stabilized the offense down the stretch, leading Cal to victories in the “Big Game” against Stanford and playing error-free in their bowl victory (16-for-23, 228 yards and 2 scores).  Longshore, a prototype 6’5″ signal caller, was listed as the starter in the spring.  Levy, a gritty player who earned a varsity letter as a fullback in 2004 is slated as the backup.  And Ayoob, the most athletic of the bunch, figures to battle throughout fall camp.  Tedford also continues to praise redshirt freshmen Kyle Reed, further clouding the picture.  

Synopsis:  
Bet on Longshore to return to form and improve the Bears’ passing attack.  Levy is proven, capable backup.  Lynch and Forsett may be the most talented tandem in the country.  Sophomore DeSean Jackson (38 catches, 601 yards, 7 scores) leads a talented receiving corps.  And the defense features several players on pre-season award watch lists.  Senior cornerback Daymeion Hughes (62 tackles, 12 pass breakups and 5 interceptions in 2005) may be the best in the country. You’ll find him on watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lott awards.  Senior defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is a second team pre-season All-America selection who registered 7 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss in 10 starts a season ago.  If Tedford can find replacement for three graduated stars on his always impressive offensive line and Cal avoids the injury bug, this is a Top 5 team.

Oregon Ducks
2005 Record: 10-2 (7-1) Lost, 17-14 to Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl.  
Returning starters: 15 (8 on O, 7 on D)

Preface:  
A senior-laden 2005 squad won 10 games and could have run the table.  The 2006 Ducks are a drastically less-experienced team, but by all accounts more talented.  Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton’s brainchild, a multiple, spread-option offense continues to evolve.  Head coach Mike Bellotti in the dean of the Pac-10, poised to become Oregon’s all-time winningest coach.  2006 is a statement campaign trail for the Ducks, who are looking to rebound from an embarrassing Holiday Bowl effort against Oklahoma after being left out of the BCS picture despite a 10-1 regular season.  

Biggest strength:  
The beefy brethren of the offensive line.

From left to right: Sophomore Max Unger, a lithe, athletic tackle (6’5″ 296); Junior Josh Tschirgi, a blue-collar guard (6’4″ 311); Senior Enoka Lucas, a sturdy anchor on the pre-season Outland watch list (6’4″ 299); Senior guard Palauni Ma Sun, a true road grater (6’6″ 335); Junior Geoff Schwartz, an absolute mammoth tackle (6’7″ 359).

An eclectic, athletic and experienced unit with capable backups.  Junior guard Pat So’oalo is listed on some depth charts as the starter at left guard.  This unit, combined with Uberback Jonathan Stewart and dual-threat quarterback Dennis Dixon should shift the offensive attack to the ground.  

Biggest weakness:
A dearth of experience on the front and the corners of the Oregon defense.

The best thing about talented freshmen?  They become sophomores.  And so the thinking goes: hugely talented performers as upperclassmen.  Oregon watched that scenario play out up front, highlighted by the play of All-American Haloti Ngata, who went pro a year early.  In all, they’ll have to find three new starters on the d-line.  Ditto for the defensive backfield, where senior J.D. Nelson (a pre-season Nagurski watch list member) is the lone returning starter.  

Synopsis:
Oregon has sheer athleticism on their side.  At quarterback, choose between the dual-threat Dixon and the rocket-armed Brady Leaf.  At tailback, Stewart is a 235-pound wrecking ball with 4.35 speed who led the nation in kickoff returns in 2005 (33.7 yard average).  The receiving corps has two sprint champions, 6’5″ Jordan Kent (Pac-10 champion) and incoming recruit Derrick Jones (who may have eligibility issues) but averaged 37.9 yards per catch as a high school junior (Long Beach Poly).  Blair Phillips should emerge as an athletic force in the middle of a solid linebacker unit, which figures to be the strength of the defense.  A trip to Fresno State and a revenge game against Oklahoma will set the table for this statement campaign.

Oregon State Beavers
2005 record: 5-6 (3-5) No bowl game.    
Returning starters: 18 (10 on O, 8 on D)

Preface:  
2005 was marked by insane optimism at the outset as fans flooded the renovated Reser Stadium in record numbers and the Beavers jumped out to a 4-2 record; it closed with major disappointment as Oregon State lost five of its last six games and missed a bowl game.  Injuries, turnovers and too many big plays allowed was the second half story.  But head coach Mike Riley has great reason for optimism heading into 2006.  Almost everyone’s back and healthy.  And one year older.

Biggest strength:  
That year of experience.  

Riley has been adamant about this fact.  Both for quarterback Matt Moore, who showed flashes of brilliance (2711 yards passing) between his penchant for turning the ball over (19 interceptions), and his secondary, a group long on talent and short on playing time heading into last season.  The passing of the calendar year also brought health: All-American candidate tight end Joe Newton returns after missing all of last season and do-everything tailback Yvenson Bernard (1321 yards, 37 receptions) had his knee cleaned out.  The biggest benefactor may be the offensive line, who played together increasingly better with each passing week.  All five starters return.

Biggest weakness:  
Play makers: who steps up in 2006?

The graduation of all-world wide receiver Mike Hass means two things: no more go-to guy and someone (or several “someones”) have to produce at this position.  Graduation also took All Pac-10 linebackers Trent Bray and Keith Ellison and stalwart defensive lineman Sir Henry Anderson.

Synopsis:  
Moore was rusty in 2005 and it showed.  He hadn’t played a full season of football since his senior year of high school in 2001.  That year under his belt, a solid line in front of him and the plug-along play of Bernard should help him live up to his ballyhooed SuperPrep career in 2006.  Newton is a legitimate threat between the hashes, and should make replacing Hass easier for the quintet of receivers vying for playing time.  Again, experience can’t be downplayed in the secondary.  All four starters return, and figure to improve on the 3286 yards and 31 touchdowns surrendered in 2005.  Senior Sabby Piscitelli is a ball-hawking safety with 10 career interceptions.  Kicker Alexis Serna, the 2005 Lou Groza award winner is the best kicker in the nation.  And if Oregon State can turn some of Serna’s nation-leading 23 field goals into redzone touchdowns, the Beavers will return to a bowl game in 2006.

3 replies on “Pac-10 Preview A-O”

YEAH!!! Someone other than me finally wrote about the PAC. Good Preview, UofA as much as it pains me to say it, is going to be the surprise team in all of college football. The day the wildcats got Stoops, I cringed and knew it was only a matter of time before they became a legitimate threat.  

The PAC You know, living on the west coast an all, I felt it appropriate.  More to point:  I love wide-open, offensive football.  Finally, is there a more wide-open league that the Pac-10 in 2006?

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