Round 2: Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State.
*Note: specialists are counted as returning starters.Stanford Cardinal
2005 Record: 5-6 (4-4) No bowl game.
Returning starters: 19 (11 on O, 8 on D)
Fact number 1: Stanford lost to UC Davis in 2005. Fact number 2: the Cardinal were three key defensive stops away from beating Davis, UCLA and Notre Dame, finishing 8-3 and enjoying the fruits of bowl season. Moments after the heartbreaking loss to The Fighting Irish, ground crews began demolishing Stanford Stadium and prepping for a $90 million renovation. Question: has head coach Walt Harris remodeled the team enough to return to bowl season for the first time since 2001?
Belief in each other.
This squad was picked to finish near (or at) the bottom of the conference a season ago and ended up about 5 solid minutes of defensive football away from a bowl game. They have a quarterback with star potential in fifth-year senior Trent Edwards, who, if healthy could be one of the best in the Pac-10. Senior T.C. Ostrander filled in admirably in his absence, leading the near upset of Notre Dame. And though depth and inexperience are concerns across the board, Walt Harris is a winner. And a program builder. And he believes in the method of his operation.
Wide receiver. Yes, senior Evan Moore (39 receptions, 616 yards, 6 touchdowns in 2004) returns from a season-ending hip injury suffered in the 2005 season opener. And yes, classmate Mark Bradford will line up opposite Moore, bringing his 108 career receptions, 1678 yards and 10 touchdowns with him. After that? 3 total catches from 2005 and 5 walk-ons on the depth chart. Somebody has at least play like they’re on scholarship for the Stanford offense to go anywhere in 2006. Most likely candidate: senior Marcus McCutcheon, a converted corner and former two-way star at Edison High School.
The Cardinal must find replacements in their defensive line for two four-year letter winners. Redshirt freshmen Ekom Udofia, a 6’2″ 335 pound space-eating prep star and incumbent Gustav Rydstedt should do. And the Cardinal return 7 offensive lineman with game experience. If the respective front lines hold up, it may allow Stanford to overcome their shortcomings on the second and third levels. A healthy Edwards is the key. Either way, year two of the Walt Harris era on The Farm is worth watching.
2005 Record: 10-2 (6-2) Beat Northwestern 50-38 in the Sun Bowl.
Returning starters: 11 (5 on O, 6 on D)
In 2005, UCLA proved that it’s more than just a basketball school, and bounced back nicely in the Sun Bowl after stumbling down the stretch against USC and Arizona. Its off-season was marked by losses across the board: a trio of departing All-Americans are gone from one of the nation’s most potent offensive attacks. A defense that struggled to hold leads lost several high profile performers. And head coach Karl Dorrell was forced to bring in six new assistant coaches after massive departures. But success does that, and Dorrell has no illusions of allowing the Bruins to slide from their place near the head of the Pac-10 table.
You may not be able to replace experienced production, but the saying goes: you can’t coach speed/height/etc. Out goes Drew Olson, insert Ben (no relation). Redshirt sophomore Ben Olson, a gifted 6’5″ 227 pound quarterback, was rated as the nation’s top prep in 2002. After serving a Mormon mission, transferring from BYU and waiting behind Drew, he received high praise for decision-making skills in the spring. Out with game-breaker Maurice Drew, in with junior all-purpose threat Chris Markey, who accounted for 1223 total yards last season. Markey burst onto the scene as a true freshmen against Oregon in 2004 (131 yards rushing, 84 receiving) and earned co-MVP honors in the Sun Bowl after posting 161 yards on 24 carries to close the 2005 season.
In 2005, the Bruins ranked in the triple digits in too many defensive categories, including: 116th in run defense (232.8 yards per game), 113th in total defense (468.1 yards per game) and 108th in scoring defense (34.2 points per game). Under new coordinator DeWayne Walker, who cranked up the defensive intensity all off-season, those numbers should improve dramatically. With the Washington Redskins in 2005, Walker coached the secondary and the Redskins led the NFL in opponent passing percentage (54.4%), ranked second in touchdown passes allowed (15) and 10th in pass defense (192.6 yards per game). He also coached under defensive gurus John Fox with the New York Giants and Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots. Stopping the run stops the bleeding on the other levels.
It all starts up front. UCLA must replace 3/5 of its offensive line and two starters on the defensive side. If the offensive line gels quickly, Markey will instantly make a name for himself on the national level and Olson will settle in nicely. The defensive line will be aided by the return of tackle Kevin Brown (ankle) and end Nikola Dragovic (ACL). If they can tie up blockers, Walker’s spring emphasis on increasing team speed will allow Eric McNeal, a converted safety, to make big plays. And if the talent-rich roster can play beyond its years, the Bruins will have a shot at matching their impressive 2005 run.
2005 Record: 12-1 (8-0) Lost, 41-38 to Texas in the Rose Bowl.
Returning starters: 12 (6 on O, 6 on D)
One series away from affirming their status as the greatest team of the modern college football era, the roof caved in. At least, that’s what the rest of the country wants you to believe. Because for the first time in almost three years, Troy has some serious chinks in its armor. Early-entries into the NFL draft, off-field disciplinary problems that have drawn the ire of the NCAA rules committee and questions about the “genius” of Pete Carroll’s defensive play-calling ability are all legitimate concerns.
Pete Carroll has been at USC for four years. Each season, his recruiting class has been ranked in the top 5; the past two have been consensus no. 1s. Re-read what I wrote about the talent level stepping in at UCLA. Then magnify it by 100. At almost every position, it’s not just one talented player waiting in the wings. It’s a player with game experience plus a prep All-American or three. It’s made possible because Carroll isn’t afraid to play anyone, regardless of academic class stading. And this year, more than any since his arrival, will test that notion of grandeur.
For three years, Matt Leinart has taken the snaps. LenDale White ran inside; Reggie Bush ran outside. Mike Williams begat Dwayne Jarrett, and so on. In 2006, two former top-rated prep quarterbacks, redshirt junior John David Booty and redshirt freshmen Mark Sanchez will battle for the top spot. They’ve authored 56 career pass attempts, will Sanchez yet to see game action. Further complicating the matter is Booty’s back surgery (forcing him to miss spring ball) and Sanchez’s disciplinary problems. Not counting specialists, only 4 starters return in 2006.
Whoever ends up under center may still have the most talented supporting cast in the country. Redshirt junior running back Chauncey Washington aced summer school and appears fit to finally live up to his advanced billing. He’ll be complimented by a pair of freshmen speedsters, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable. Junior Dwayne Jarrett is already a record-breaking receiver (29 career touchdowns), likely playing a final tune-up season before heading to the NFL. Senior receiver Steve Smith (60 receptions, 957 yards, 5 touchdowns) may be the most underrated player in the nation. Junior defensive end Lawrence Jackson (10 sacks in 2005) returns as an All-American candidate and a group of young, versatile linebackers should help restore Carroll’s genius image. USC will get everyone’s best shot in 2006, as conference foes and traditional rivals (see: Notre Dame) look to exact three year’s worth of revenge.
2005 Record: 2-9 (1-7) No bowl game.
Returning starters: 17 (7 on O, 10 on D)
From UW’s Spring Media Guide: “in nature, spring represents new growth, new life and a re-awakening. In Husky football, the “newness” of spring in 2006 isn’t nearly as stark as it was in 2005.” Fast-forward a year, and the second stanza of the Ty Willingham era is all about confidence. This rebuilding job is about restoring a once-proud, national superpower to its rightful place among the nation’s elite. Sound familiar to anyone?
The capricious senior quarterback’s career has been equally marked by highlight reel plays and head scratching ones. Blessed with size (6’3″ 205) and 4.4 speed, Stanback has moonlighted on the Washington track team, narrowly missing a spot at the NCAA national track finals after posting a 10.48 100 meter dash. He was also drafted in June by the Baltimore Orioles. Oh, and he threw for 2136 yards and 9 touchdowns (adding 353 yards and 5 scores on the ground) in 2005. In an effort to get Stanback to step up his leadership abilities, Willingham gave him a DVD of Vince Young’s Rose Bowl performance. Stanback responded with an excellent spring, going 6-for-9 with 190 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Spring Game.
Overall talent level.
In the wake of Rick Neuheisel’s firing, many of his recruits jumped ship. Others went pro early. Still more never panned out. Willingham was hired to be the stabilizing force and reshape the public image of this once proud football program. Confidence really only comes by winning games and getting this group of seniors to its first bowl game would do wonders on next year’s recruiting trail.
Skill players with play-making ability do exist on the roster. Duke transfer Chancellor Young hauled in a 55-yard bomb in the Spring Game and Sonny Shackleford has doubled his production annually, grabbing 41 balls a season ago. A pair of oft-injured tailbacks return in 2006: Senior Kenny James (702 yards in 2004) and junior Louis Rankin (3 100-yard games in 2005) can absolutely fly. Freshmen J.R. Hasty was the prize of Willingham’s recruiting class. The return of sophomore linebacker Trenton Tuiasosopo (head injury) could give the Huskies a formidable linebacking corps, with incumbent senior Scott White and sophomore Chris Stevens proven commodities. If Stanback can channel his inner-Vince Young, he could carry UW back to respectability.
Washington State Cougars
2005 Record: 4-7 (1-7)
Returning starters: 16 (8 on O, 8 on D)
Washington State’s 2005 season ran parallel to Oregon State’s: fast start sparked by a prolific offense (489 yards per game) gave everyone in Pullman reason for optimism as the Cougars bounded out to a 3-0 start. Bowl aspirations faded quickly in the aftermath of seven consecutive conference losses before winning the season finale, The Apple Cup. Despite losing the nation’s leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, the offensive cupboard remains stocked. Senior wide receiver Jason Hill said no to the NFL and returns for a record-breaking senior season.
Opponents hate playing at Martin Stadium. Though it only seats 40,000, WSU students and the Pacific NW weather make it one of the toughest places to play in the country. Factor in consistently tough-minded teams in search of respect and it’s easy to see why. Several members of the defensive front seven just play flat-out salty, led by senior defensive end Mkriso Bruce (67 tackles, 15 for-loss, 10 sacks in 2005) a pre-season Nagurski watch list member. In all, it’s a solid, if not spectacular group looking to keep up with the offense in 2006.
In 2005, Washington State lost five games by four points or less. Spin the wheel of lucky bounces, and this team is anywhere between 9-2 and their 4-7 record. But teams lose close games for a reason. Head Coach Bill Doba must get his troops to focus for the full 60 minutes.
The offense figures to score with anyone on the schedule. Redshirt junior quarterback Alex Brink (2891 yards, 24 touchdowns in 2005) has star potential and a pair of All-Pac10 candidate receivers in senior Hill (back-to-back 1000 yard seasons) and junior Michael Bumpus. 6’8″ senior tight end Cody Boyd is a legit threat when healthy. In all, five of the defensive front seven return. If Doba can find a pair of cover corners and a new running threat to replace Harrison (bowling ball sophomore DeMaundray Woolridge posted two 100-yard games in 2005), the schedule lines up for Washington State to be the surprise team in the Pac-10.