Commentary

Breaking down the Pac-10

Originally Published: May 15, 2008
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

Who will emerge as playmakers for USC? Will Arizona State's offensive line improve? Can Washington handle its tough early schedule? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Arizona Wildcats

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Idaho
Sept. 6 Toledo
Sept. 13 @ New Mexico
Sept. 20 @ UCLA
Oct. 4 Washington
Oct. 11 @ Stanford
Oct. 18 California
Oct. 25 USC
Nov. 8 @ Washington State
Nov. 15 @ Oregon
Nov. 22 Oregon State
Dec. 6 Arizona State

2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
4-5

Returning starters
Offense: 10, defense: 3, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Willie Tuitama, WR Mike Thomas, TE Rob Gronkowski, OT Eben Britton, P Keenyn Crier
Key losses
CB Antoine Cason, LB Spencer Larsen, CB Wilrey Fontenot, DT Lionel Dotson
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Nic Grigsby* (704 yds)
Passing: Willie Tuitama* (3,683 yds)
Receiving: Mike Thomas* (1,038 yds)
Tackles: Spencer Larsen (131)
Sacks: Lionel Dotson (6.5)
Interceptions: Antoine Cason (5)

Spring answers

1. It's Tui-time-a: Quarterback Willie Tuitama, owner of one of the strongest arms in the Pac-10, and the Wildcats offense mostly broke through last year with a new spread scheme that averaged 309 yards per game through the air. The offense welcomes back 10 starters -- the lone loss coming on the offensive line -- and six players with at least 20 receptions in 2007. If the running game improves just a smidgeon, then count on Tuitama airing it out.

2. Gronkowski is an All-American: Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 28 passes for 525 yards with six touchdowns as a true freshman. He'll double that production this year. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder already looks like an NFL tight end. He should become one of the conference's best red zone targets, which is good because the Wildcats were lousy there a year ago.

3. Specialists are special: Sophomore punter Keenyn Crier led the conference with an average 43.7 yards per punt. Senior kicker Jason Bondzio connected on 21 of 26 field goals and 37 of 38 PATs. These two are as good as any combination in the conference.

Fall questions

1. Kitties on defense?: Just three unheralded starters are back from a defense that was surprisingly mediocre a year ago, surrendering 27 points per game despite a number of NFL prospects. Around the program, the newfound youth is being sold as a good thing -- the defense is faster and hungrier -- and there are more than a few whispers about how a few bad apples hurt last year's crew, particularly the talented but mercurial end, Louis Holmes. We shall see -- the youth up front seems particularly worrisome.

2. But can they run?: The offensive coaches don't hide the fact this is not a "run-oriented" offense. Still, it's rare, even in the pass-happy Pac-10, for a team to thrive with just 76.8 yards on the ground per game, the total from last season. Sophomore running back Nic Grigsby, who led the Wildcats with 704 yards rushing, has flashed some ability, and with four starters back on the line, there should -- and needs -- to be some space for him to run.

3. Stoops to conquer?: It's no secret that the heat is on embattled coach Mike Stoops, who's 17-31 after four seasons. Stoops has improved recruiting and conditioning and brought the Wildcats to the cusp of breaking through. Only they haven't done it -- see a 6-12 record in games decided by a touchdown or fewer during his tenure. He probably needs to lead Arizona to its first bowl game in a decade to retain his job.

Arizona State Sun Devils

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Northern Arizona
Sept. 6 Stanford
Sept. 13 UNLV
Sept. 20 Georgia
Oct. 4 @ California
Oct. 11 @ USC
Oct. 25 Oregon
Nov. 1 @ Oregon State
Nov. 8 @ Washington
Nov. 15 Washington State
Nov. 28 UCLA
Dec. 6 @ Arizona

2007 overall record:
10-3

2007 conference record:
7-2

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Rudy Carpenter, WR Chris McGaha, WR Michael Jones, DE Dexter Davis, SS Troy Nolan, CB Omar Bolden, K Thomas Weber
Key losses
C Mike Pollak, LB Robert James, CB Justin Tryon
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Keegan Herring* (815 yds)
Passing: Rudy Carpenter* (3,202 yds)
Receiving: Chris McGaha* (830 yds)
Tackles: Robert James (106)
Sacks: Dexter Davis* (10.5)
Interceptions: Troy Nolan* (6)

Spring answers

1. Spreading it out: Dennis Erickson didn't fully adopt his favorite spread offense last year for a variety of reasons, but he did this spring -- for a variety of reasons. The four- and five-receivers sets and quick-hit passes will spread out and slow down a defense, which should help a green offensive line. Also, he's got a veteran quarterback in Rudy Carpenter and a deep group of receivers, so winging the ball all over the field makes sense.

2. Devils ends: Defensive ends Luis Vasquez and Dexter Davis combined for 15 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss last year and their backups, James Brooks and Jamarr Robinson looked good this spring. This foursome, as good as any crew of ends in the Pac-10, should put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

3. Weber automatic: Kicker Thomas Weber connected on 24 of 25 field goals with a long of 53 yards and won the Lou Groza Award, which is a heck of a season for a freshman. He also was the Sun Devils' best punter, though the coaches would love to see him give that up in 2008.

Fall questions

1. Passing blockers: The Sun Devils' veteran offensive line surrendered a school-record 55 sacks in 2007, so it's probably a good thing that three new starters are needed. Still, when both tackles and an outstanding center like Mike Pollak have to be replaced with players with little to no experience, it makes a coach nervous. The biggest question is sophomore Jon Hargis, who converted from the defensive line to left tackle. After a slow start, he made big strides the final days of spring drills, but the Georgia defensive ends figure to offer a stouter measure in September.

2. Incoming tackles: While Jonathan English and David Smith did a serviceable job during spring practices, neither is a dominating presence at defensive tackle. With the defense expected to be more aggressive with stunts this fall, it's going to be important to have reliable plugs in the middle. That's why there's been a lot of chatter about incoming junior college transfers Eugene Germany and Spencer Gasu. Germany, who also plays end, signed with USC out of high school but never reported, then played two seasons at Michigan before bouncing to Mt. San Antonio Junior College.

3. Scheduling upgrade: Last year's schedule laid out perfectly for the Sun Devils, with eight home games and a fairly easy nonconference schedule. That's not the case this year. Georgia, perhaps the preseason No. 1, visits on Sept. 20, and that showdown leads into a stretch of four of five on the road, including visits to California, USC and Oregon State. Another 8-0 start doesn't seem likely.

California Golden Bears

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Michigan State
Sept. 6 @ Washington State
Sept. 13 @ Maryland
Sept. 27 Colorado State
Oct. 4 Arizona State
Oct. 18 @ Arizona
Oct. 25 UCLA
Nov. 1 Oregon
Nov. 8 @ USC
Nov. 15 @ Oregon State
Nov. 22 Stanford
Dec. 6 Washington

2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
3-6

Returning starters
Offense: 5, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
C Alex Mack, QB Nate Longshore, LB Zack Follett, CB Syd'Quan Thompson
Key losses
RB Justin Forsett, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Lavelle Hawkins, TE Craig Stevens, FS Thomas DeCoud
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Justin Forsett (1,546 yds)
Passing: Nate Longshore* (2,580 yds)
Receiving: Lavelle Hawkins (872 yds)
Tackles: Thomas DeCoud (116)
Sacks: Zack Follett* (5.5)
Interceptions: Brandon Hampton (2)

Spring answers

1. Chemistry experiments: Nearly all the stars were gone this spring, but the memory was still fresh of a complete collapse in which the Golden Bears went from national-title contenders to losers of six of seven games to end the regular season. It was baffling how a team that whipped Tennessee and won at Oregon could so completely implode. That's why rediscovering team harmony and chemistry was a chief goal this spring. It's also why coach Jeff Tedford surrendered play-calling duties. He wanted to keep his finger squarely on his team's pulse.

2. Three to the four: While they spent much of the spring acting like the 3-4 defense was just an experiment -- reporters' questions were met with coy dismissals -- it became clear that the Bears have a new defense, switching from last year's feckless 4-3. The new look takes advantage of good depth at linebacker -- led by Zack Follett -- and questionable talent up front, though ends Rulon Davis, Tyson Alualu and Ernest Owusu looked good this spring.

3. Anger is good: Punter Bryan Anger showed a huge foot this spring, one that's big enough to rate as an actual field position weapon. He's capable of booting the ball 60 yards on the fly and typically gets good hang time, though there were a few shanks mixed in.

Fall questions

1. Longshore or Riley?: Not long ago, senior quarterback Nate Longshore looked like a budding star, but he got beat up physically and mentally last year. Moreover, the pectoral injury that killed most of his spring session didn't help him reassert himself in the quarterback competition with sophomore Kevin Riley, who's become the fan favorite despite that poorly conceived scramble that cost the Bears the Oregon State game and commenced their downward spiral. Longshore, who owns 26 career starts, might be the underdog in the race that could go on until the final week of preseason practice.

2. And whither the skill?: Nearly all of last season's production is gone at both receiver and running back. Elusive tailback Jahvid Best will try to return from a worrisome hip injury, with Tracy Slocum, Shane Vereen and Covaughn DeBoskie -- and zero carries to their collective credit -- in the mix behind him. At receiver, a pecking order needs to be established between Jeremy Ross, Michael Calvin, Nyan Boateng, LaReylle Cunningham and Drew Glover.

3. Bounce back: The 2007 implosion represents the first real crisis of the Tedford era, which includes one of the great turnarounds in recent memory. Not too long ago he was a genius, but he didn't look like one when he failed to halt the Bears' downward spiral. He's admitted to much offseason self-reflection, and it's clear that he doesn't want to get distracted by Xs and Os when he needs to monitor his team's state of mind. A year after leading a crew laden with stars, perhaps this no-name bunch will get things back on track.

Oregon Ducks

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Washington
Sept. 6 Utah State
Sept. 13 @ Purdue
Sept. 20 Boise State
Sept. 27 @ Washington State
Oct. 4 @ USC
Oct. 11 UCLA
Oct. 25 @ Arizona State
Nov. 1 @ California
Nov. 8 Stanford
Nov. 15 Arizona
Nov. 29 @ Oregon State

2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-4

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
C Max Unger, WR Jaison Williams, TE Ed Dickson, OT Fenuki Tupou, ROV Patrick Chung, DE Nick Reed, CB Jairus Byrd
Key losses
QB Dennis Dixon, RB Jonathan Stewart, OT Geoff Schwartz, DT David Faaeteete
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jonathan Stewart (1,722 yds)
Passing: Dennis Dixon (2,136 yds)
Receiving: Jaison Williams* (844 yds)
Tackles: Patrick Chung* (117)
Sacks: Nick Reed* (12)
Interceptions: Jairus Byrd* (7)

Spring answers

1. Blount-force trauma: Burly JC transfer running back LeGarrette Blount was the big story this spring. He ran over, around and past defenders and thereby helped Ducks fans relax over the early departure of Jonathan Stewart. Blount will offer the power element in the spread backfield, with elusive and versatile senior Jeremiah Johnson, who sat out spring while rehabbing a knee injury, countering with the scatback quickness. That means the Ducks again will have a potent one-two punch in the backfield, and, by the way, the depth behind them isn't too shabby either.

2. No secondary concerns: The secondary welcomes back three starters from a crew that grabbed 20 interceptions last year. It should be one of the best units in the Pac-10, led by first-team all-conference rover Patrick Chung and ball-hawking corner Jairus Byrd. T.J. Ward was impressive this spring and appears poised to fill the lone vacancy at free safety.

3. Specialists are Syria-ous: It's fair to say that Oregon's special teams have been inconsistent through the years, but that doesn't appear to be the case in 2008. Coach Mike Bellotti repeatedly praised punter Josh Syria and kicker Matt Evensen during spring drills. Though Syria, who was third in the conference with a 41.7-yard average per boot, doesn't own a huge foot, he gets the ball off fast and is good at pinning opponents deep in their territory. Evensen hit 16 of 20 field goals last year with a long of 47, but he demonstrated that his range extends outside 50 yards during spring scrimmages.

Fall questions

1. Is Costa doing business?: Nate Costa won the backup quarterback job behind Dennis Dixon last year before blowing out his knee, and Ducks fans aren't shy about proclaiming that Oregon would have played for the national championship if that injury hadn't happened -- and, yes, that includes Dixon's own season-ending injury. Costa didn't participate in any contact drills during the spring, but no other quarterback, most particularly Justin Roper, played well enough to shake up the pecking order. The late addition of JC transfer Jeremiah Masoli indicates the coaches are hedging their bets on fall 2009.

2. Who gives and who receivers?: There's talent at receiver, but there's also concern. Consider Jaison Williams, who has etched his name into the Ducks' record books while infuriating fans with his tendency to drop at least one critical pass per game. He could become an early NFL draft choice. Or he could languish due to sagging confidence. Behind him there's inexperience: Jeff Maehl, who caught nine passes last year, emerged as the No. 2 option, while USC transfer Jamere Holland flashed promising skills. Still, don't be surprised if tight end Ed Dickson continues to operate as a hybrid receiver and splits 100 receptions with Williams.

3. Is the seven fronting?: There's lots of try hard for the defensive front seven, best personified by undersized but amazingly productive end Nick Reed -- see 22.5 tackles for a loss in 2007 -- but there isn't anyone who's going to frighten opponents, particularly up the middle. Outside linebacker Jerome Boyd is no slouch, nor is end Will Tukuafu, and tackles Cole Linehan and Ra'shon Harris had solid springs, but it's hard to imagine this group will improve upon last season's mediocre run defense.

Oregon State Beavers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 @ Stanford
Sept. 6 @ Penn State
Sept. 13 Hawaii
Sept. 25 USC
Oct. 2 @ Utah
Oct. 11 Washington State
Oct. 18 @ Washington
Nov. 1 Arizona State
Nov. 8 @ UCLA
Nov. 15 California
Nov. 22 @ Arizona
Nov. 29 Oregon

2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
6-3

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 3, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
WR Sammie Stroughter, LT Andy Levitre, CB Brandon Hughes, DE Victor Butler, FS Al Afalava, DE Slade Norris
Key losses
RB Yvenson Bernard, OT Roy Schuening, DE Dorian Smith, DE Jeff Van Orsow, LB Joey LaRocque, LB Alan Darlin, LB Derrick Doggett
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Yvenson Bernard (1,214)
Passing: Sean Canfield* (1,661)
Receiving: Anthony Brown (550)
Tackles: Derrick Doggett (93)
Sacks: Victor Butler* (10.5)
Interceptions: Derrick Doggett (4)

Spring answers

1. Welcome back Sammie: Receiver and return savant Sammie Stroughter, a dynamic talent, looked great this spring. And, better still, he seemed upbeat and motivated after a tumultuous ordeal in 2007 when a series of personal issues got him off track before a lacerated kidney ended his season for good. Granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, he figures to lead a talented but fairly inexperienced receiving corps. Count on James Rodgers breaking out.

2. Running backs Mc-Can: While the graduation of tailback Yvenson Bernard is about more than losing one of the most productive runners in conference history -- he also was a rock of leadership and dedication -- spring made it clear that tailback isn't a huge area of worry. Ryan McCants, all 236 pounds of him, passes the sight test both with and without the ball, while Jeremy Francis is a capable backup and incoming freshman scatback Jacquizz Rodgers -- brother to James -- probably will insinuate himself into the game plan.

3. Not defensive about front seven: A curiosity of spring was how mellow the defensive coaches were about entirely replacing a dominant front seven. Here's why: The secondary figures to be as good as any in the conference, ends Victor Butler and Slade Norris combined for 19½ sacks in 2007, there are big bodies ready to step in at tackle and the linebackers looked great, particularly Bryant Cornell and Keaton Kristick.

Fall questions

1. Moevao or Canfield?: Beavers fans are funny. They ranted about Derek Anderson. They groused about Matt Moore. They couldn't wait for touted recruit Sean Canfield. And then they could, with many now believing the less prototypical but more charismatic Lyle Moevao is the better choice at quarterback. Canfield sat out spring with a shoulder injury, while Moevao turned in an impressive performance. It will be his job to lose when fall camp begins.

2. OL M.A.S.H. unit: The Beavers offensive line will be a strength if everyone's healthy. But the pained look on coach Mike Riley's face suggested that's far from a sure thing, particularly because all-world guard Jeremy Perry's multiple knee problems are starting to be a big concern. Andy Levitre is an elite tackle, but there are a lot of fingers crossed over this unit.

3. Kick me: After a 14-year career (kidding), Alexis Serna is gone, which means the Beavers need a new kicker and punter. This was a bigger source of fretting before kicker Justin Kahut booted four field goals in the spring game -- including a pair of connections from outside of 50 yards. Still, it remains to be seen what happens under game pressure. And the situation at punter is murky with redshirt freshman Kyle Harper competing with Western New Mexico transfer Sean Sehnem.

Stanford Cardinal

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 Oregon State
Sept. 6 @ Arizona State
Sept. 13 @ TCU
Sept. 20 San Jose State
Sept. 27 @ Washington
Oct. 4 @ Notre Dame
Oct. 11 Arizona
Oct. 18 @ UCLA
Nov. 1 Washington State
Nov. 8 @ Oregon
Nov. 15 USC
Nov. 22 @ California

2007 overall record:
4-8

2007 conference record:
3-6

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
WR Richard Sherman, OG Alex Fletcher, DE Pannel Egboh, FS Bo McNally, OLB Clinton Snyder
Key losses
WR Mark Bradford, C Tim Mattran, CB Nick Sanchez
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Anthony Kimble* (509 yds)
Passing: T.C. Ostrander (1,422)
Receiving: Richard Sherman* (651)
Tackles: Bo McNally* (114)
Sacks: Clinton Snyder* (8)
Interceptions: Nick Sanchez (4)

Spring answers

1. The defense should be better: The Cardinal defense, though it ranked eighth in the conference in scoring (28.2 ppg) and ninth in yards allowed (435.5) didn't completely stink in 2007. It was pretty good on third down, forced 26 turnovers and recorded a respectable 37 sacks. It could be argued, in fact, that the defense looked bad because the offense was horrible. So, the return of nine starters, including end Pannel Egboh, safety Bo McNally and linebacker Clinton Snyder, as well as three others who started at least four games, suggests the going should be tougher for Stanford opponents.

2. Time to be physical: Lots of starters are back -- between 16 and 21, depending on how you count -- but coach Jim Harbaugh, a Big Ten refugee as a former Michigan player, wants those experienced players to reinvent themselves, particularly up front, as roughnecks. The theme of spring was physical play and the returns were mostly positive, at least in terms of intent. Ultimately, physical teams are recruited, not reinvented.

3. Reason to run: The top four rushers are back as are fullback Owen Marecic and four offensive line starters, though tackle Allen Smith's knee injury is troubling and might prevent him from playing early. The Cardinal, ninth in the conference in rushing a year ago, should be able to run the ball better. On the line, the leader up front, Alex Fletcher, moved from guard to center, which makes sense because he'll be making the line calls. Moreover, all three quarterback candidates are good athletes who can run.

Fall questions

1. To Tavita or not to Tavita: Tavita Pritchard came into spring as the most experienced quarterback and he left spring appearing to be more than merely a first among equals in the three-man quarterback derby with Jason Forcier, who looked like the No. 2 after a strong spring game, and Alex Loukas. Harbaugh said he'd like to make a decision a week or 10 days into fall camp. That's good because there's no easy preseason warmup -- see an August 28 opener vs. Oregon State.

2. Sherman's march through Palo Alto: Richard Sherman is the Cardinal's only proven receiver. He looked good this spring, grabbing nine receptions for 96 yards in the spring game, but the departures of Mark Bradford and Evan Moore leaves a fairly wide production gap. Whoever plays quarterback, he'll need for guys like sophomores Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen to step up.

3. Nothing special: Stanford needs a new kicker and punter, and it appears that those jobs will fall to Aaron Zagory and David Green mostly by default. Zagory was the starter in 2006 and fared poorly, connecting on just 8-of-13 with a long of 37 yards and missing two of his 15 PAT attempts. Green, a redshirt freshman, was a highly touted kicker coming out of high school, but he might be challenged by freshman Daniel Zychlinski.

UCLA Bruins

2008 Schedule

Sept. 1 Tennessee
Sept. 13 @ BYU
Sept. 20 Arizona
Sept. 27 Fresno State
Oct. 4 Washington State
Oct. 11 @ Oregon
Oct. 18 Stanford
Oct. 25 @ California
Nov. 8 Oregon State
Nov. 15 @ Washington
Nov. 28 @ Arizona State
Dec. 6 USC

2007 overall record:
6-7

2007 conference record:
5-4

Returning starters
Offense: 5, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Kahlil Bell, WR Marcus Everett, TE Logan Paulsen, CB Alterraun Verner, DT Brian Price, LB Reggie Carter, K Kai Forbath
Key losses
RB Chris Markey, WR Brandon Breazell, DE Bruce Davis, SS Chris Horton, CB Trey Brown, FS Dennis Keyes
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kahlil Bell* (795 yds)
Passing: Ben Olson* (1,040 yds)
Receiving: Brandon Breazell (810 yds)
Tackles: Dennis Keyes (115)
Sacks: Bruce Davis (12)
Interceptions: Trey Brown (5)

Spring answers

1. Tough up the middle: The Bruins lost six defensive starters and an outstanding secondary was gutted, but they will be as tough as anyone up the middle with tackles Brian Price and Brigham Harwell and middle linebacker Reggie Carter. Harwell sat out nearly all of 2007 with a knee injury, while Price quickly transitioned from touted freshman to rotation regular. Carter moved from weakside to middle linebacker after recording 12 tackles for a loss as a sophomore.

2. Did we say gutted?: While junior cornerback Alterraun Verner is the only returning starter in the secondary, the talent on hand suggests the pass defense won't fall apart. Bret Lockett, who saw extensive action a year ago, and Aaron Ware, as well as impressive 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Glenn Love, appear solid at safety, while senior Michael Norris will step in opposite Verner, though diminutive but spunky redshirt freshman corner Courtney Viney raised some eyebrows.

3. Especial specialists: Here's one area where the Bruins have no concerns: kicker and punter. Senior punter Aaron Perez -- all 6-foot-4, 229 pounds of him -- ranked second in the conference a year ago, averaging 42.3 yards per boot, while sophomore kicker Kai Forbath connected on 25 of 30 field goals and was perfect on five attempts beyond 50 yards.

Fall questions

1. QBs need a rabbit's foot: It seemed like a great thing that new offensive coordinator Norm Chow had two experienced quarterbacks to work with. Then -- poof -- he had none, with Patrick Cowan, the designated starter, and Ben Olson going down practically simultaneously the day before the spring scrimmage with injuries. Cowan's knee injury ended his 2008 season before it began, while Olson had foot surgery the first week of May and will be out six to eight weeks. Olson should be ready to re-take the reins at the start of fall practices, but his injury history suggests JC transfer Kevin Craft needs to be ready for the opener against Tennessee.

2. Try to block it out: The offensive line looked, well, terrible this spring. Part of that is learning on the fly vs. a quick defense. The other part: A lack of talent and experience. It further hurt when veteran Aleksey Lanis retired because of on-going knee problems. The only sure-things are Micah Reed, an eight-game starter at guard who moved to center, and tackle Micah Kia, also an eight-game starter last year.

3. Scheme and motivation enough?: New coach Rick Neuheisel didn't inherit a full cupboard of talent. No matter how much his optimism and motivational tricks force grins upon his players and no matter how much his coordinators Chow and DeWayne Walker can outflank foes, the personnel is lacking. The question is can their smoke-and-mirrors sustain the positive momentum the new coaching staff engendered when it arrived in Westwood?

USC Trojans

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Virginia
Sept. 13 Ohio State
Sept. 25 @ Oregon State
Oct. 4 Oregon
Oct. 11 Arizona State
Oct. 18 @ Washington State
Oct. 25 @ Arizona
Nov. 1 Washington
Nov. 8 California
Nov. 15 @ Stanford
Nov. 29 Notre Dame
Dec. 6 @ UCLA

2007 overall record:
11-2

2007 conference record:
7-2

Returning starters
Offense: 4, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
OG Jeff Byers, WR Patrick Turner, DT Fili Moala, LB Rey Maualuga, LB Brian Cushing, FS Taylor Mays
Key losses
QB John David, Booty, OT Sam Baker, OG Chilo Rachal, TE Fred Davis, DT Sedrick Ellis, LB Keith Rivers, DE Lawrence Jackson, CB Terrell Thomas
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chauncey Washington (969 yds)
Passing: John David Booty (2,361 yds)
Receiving: Fred Davis (881 yds)
Tackles: Rey Maualuga* (79)
Sacks: Lawrence Jackson (10.5)
Interceptions: Terrell Thomas (4)

Spring answers

1. Sanchez the man: As far as epic quarterback competitions, the touted showdown between Mark Sanchez and Mitch Mustain -- both former national prep players of the year -- didn't exactly go all "Ben-Hur." Sanchez seemed to have a huge head start from the beginning and never relinquished it, his significant experience running the Trojans offense last season when John David Booty was hurt giving him a decided edge. Of course, if Sanchez falters, Mustain will be there waiting -- unless the Arkansas transfer opts to hit the road again.

2. Trojans own a Firstary: It's hard to imagine any team owning a better secondary than the Trojans, with safeties Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison, both All-American candidates, and corners Cary Harris and Shareece Wright. This physical crew gave up only nine touchdown passes a year ago -- the second-best total in the conference was 17.

3. Linebacker U: Of course, the linebackers might be even better than the secondary. Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing are both leading Butkus Award candidates, while Luthur Brown or Kaluka Maiava will capably man the weakside linebacker spot. Also, senior Clay Matthews was impressive this spring manning the hybrid "Elephant" position, which allows him to either rush from an outside position or drop into coverage. Maualuga's backup, sophomore Chris Galippo, by the way, is phenomenal talent. It's hard to imagine him not seeing some playing time.

Fall questions

1. Trojans go hog hunting: Four new starters are needed on the offensive line -- including replacements for NFL first- and second-round draft picks. Guard Jeff Byers is the only true returning starter, but last year's talented crew was drubbed by injuries, so many of the names on the depth chart saw action in 2007. Leading that list is center Kristofer O'Dowd, who was surprisingly poised as a true freshman starting three games before going down with an injury. Sophomore Butch Lewis and Charles Brown both started games at tackle last year, as did sophomore Zack Heberer. Still, this will be a very young crew.

2. Who's ready for their close-up?: The offensive depth chart is laden with prep All-Americans, but who will become the go-to playmakers at tailback and receiver? Which receiver will make Sanchez a star: Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton, David Ausberry or newcomer Damian Williams? Who's the money tailback(s) among Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson, Allen Bradford or Broderick Green? There needs to be a pecking order. Someone needs to step up.

3. Championship or bust?: Does anyone really believe USC won't win an unprecedented seventh consecutive Pac-10 title? In fact, doesn't it seem like, despite welcoming back just 13 starters, the Trojans' season won't be successful without another national title? After all, it's going on four whole years since they won one. And, finally, doesn't it feel like the winner of the USC-Ohio State game on Sept. 13 instantly becomes a front-runner to play in the BCS title game?

Washington Huskies

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Oregon
Sept. 6 BYU
Sept. 13 Oklahoma
Sept. 27 Stanford
Oct. 4 @ Arizona
Oct. 18 Oregon State
Oct. 25 Notre Dame
Nov. 1 @ USC
Nov. 8 Arizona State
Nov. 15 UCLA
Nov. 22 @ Washington State
Dec. 6 @ California

2007 overall record:
4-9

2007 conference record:
2-7

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Jake Locker, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, LB E.J. Savannah
Key losses
RB Louis Rankin, WR Anthony Russo, WR Marcel Reese, DT Jordan Reffett
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Louis Rankin (1,294 yds)
Passing: Jake Locker* (2,062 yds)
Receiving: Anthony Russo (766 yds)
Tackles: E.J. Savannah* (111)
Sacks: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim* (8.5)
Interceptions: Mesphin Forrester (2)

Spring answers

1. Locker might not be empty: Even with dramatic improvement after an impressive freshman season -- a 47 percent completion percentage notwithstanding -- quarterback Jake Locker can't do it on his own, which is why many were worried about an offense that lost its entire receiving corps as well as 1,000-yard rusher Louis Rankin. With a solid line up front, however, it became clear during spring that there's pretty good young talent at the skill positions. Brandon Johnson figures to be a meat-and-potatoes tailback, but receivers D'Andre Goodwin, Chris Polk, Devin Aguilar, Anthony Boyles, Alvin Logan and Curtis Shaw each had their moments.

2. Hope on defense: The arrival of new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was widely hailed, and the defense looked surprisingly stout during the spring, considering five starters were lost from the worst unit in school history. There were a number of position changes, including moving end De'Shon Matthews to tackle, moving underachieving 270-pound tight end Johnie Kirton also to tackle and switching safeties Quinton Richardson and Mesphin Forrester to cornerback. Tackle Cameron Elisara was consistently disruptive, and linebacker E.J. Savannah looked like a potential all-conference player after he returned from a suspension.

3. More special: The Huskies' special teams have been mostly lousy in recent years, which cost coach Bob Simmons his job. Former Syracuse offensive coordinator Brian White was brought in to fix things, and he promised a more aggressive, sound approach in kick and punt coverages. Jared Ballman will be the punter, but kicker Ryan Perkins continues to labor with injury issues. Softening his potential retirement is Erik Folk, who's got a bigger leg than Perkins though is less accurate.

Fall questions

1. How much can the D really improve?: The facts feel too overwhelming: The Huskies surrendered nearly 32 points and 446 yards per game in 2007, and they lost three of four starters from a defensive line that was often impotent. A few scheme tweaks and personnel changes can foster improvement, but will it be enough? Playing a handful of freshman also doesn't tend to pave the way to a transformation, either.

2. The irreplaceable Juan: Senior center Juan Garcia was the Huskies' leadership centerpiece and losing him to a severe foot injury that likely ended his 2008 his season is a huge blow. It's more than the inevitable switching of personnel to accommodate his loss -- the Huskies' best unit might still be the offensive line, even without Garcia. It's about an inspirational player who likely would have been drafted in April opting to come back for a sixth year of eligibility and seeing his plan blow up in his face. Perhaps that will motivate his teammates to not take anything for granted.

3. Can the Huskies survive the early schedule? The season begins at Oregon, shortly followed by visits from BYU and Oklahoma. That's two top-25 teams and a national title contender. Most prognosticators will foresee an 0-3 start, which will surely reignite the booster crowd that wanted coach Tyrone Willingham fired last winter. If the Huskies could manage a single win, however, the run thereafter is far more manageable, with four winnable games preceding a trip to USC. Still, will Willingham and the Huskies be able to weather a brutal opening stretch and retain their confidence when the schedule becomes more manageable?

Washington State Cougars

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Oklahoma State
Sept. 6 California
Sept. 13 @ Baylor
Sept. 20 Portland State
Sept. 27 Oregon
Oct. 4 @ UCLA
Oct. 11 @ Oregon State
Oct. 18 USC
Nov. 1 @ Stanford
Nov. 8 Arizona
Nov. 15 @ Arizona State
Nov. 22 Washington
Nov. 29 @ Hawaii

2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
3-6

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
WR Brandon Gibson, LT Vaughn Lesuma, DE Andy Mattingly, LB Greg Trent
Key losses
QB Alex Brink, TE Jed Collins, WR Michael Bumpus, FS Husain Abdullah, DT Ropati Pitoitua
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Dwight Tardy* (676 yds)
Passing: Alex Brink (3,818 yds)
Receiving: Brandon Gibson* (1,180 yds)
Tackles: Husain Abdullah (93)
Sacks: Andy Mattingly* (8)
Interceptions: Husain Abdullah (4)

Spring answers

1. Wulff in Cougar clothing: New coach Paul Wulff implemented his no-huddle spread offense during spring practices, and Gary Rogers only solidified his hold as the No. 1 quarterback replacing the departed Alex Brink. But Wulff repeatedly made the point that scheme changes and even wins and losses aren't his end-all. He wants to foster better team cohesion and discipline, which needs a boost considering five players have been arrested since December.

2. Gibson gets a Robin: Brandon Gibson might be the Pac-10's best receiver, but he's going to need at least one complement to keep defenses from constantly bracketing him with two or even three defenders. That's why Michael Willis' emergence was so important. Willis, a former defensive back who sat out last year because of academic problems, was the breakout player of spring, with the junior hauling in six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in the final spring scrimmage.

3. D can't be worse: The Cougars gave up 32 points a game last season. They registered just 27 sacks and forced just 23 turnovers. Opponents converted 51 percent of their third-down plays. Those numbers surely will haunt the eight returning starters. And the return to a 4-3 scheme after an unsuccessful flirtation with a 3-4 last year also might help. The linebackers were strong enough, led by Greg Trent in the middle, that Andy Mattingly was moved to end due to his pass rushing skills. Also, Chima Nwachukwu was moved from cornerback to free safety and strong safety Alfonso Jackson was switched to corner. Matt Eichelberger played well enough to earn a tackle spot beside A'i Ahmu.

Fall questions

1. RBs are Tardy: With the quarterback situation mostly settled, a solid group of receivers and four returning starters on the offensive line, the offense's biggest question was obvious: Who's the tailback? At the end of spring, it was redshirt freshman Joe Campbell by default because of injury and academic issues. Last season's two leading rushers, Dwight Tardy and Chris Ivory, should be back, but both are banged up and Ivory must resolve some academic issues. An improved rushing attack -- the Cougars ranked eighth in the conference on the ground in 2007 -- would take some pressure off a new quarterback and questionable defense.

2. Special teams issues: The Cougars were bad to inconsistent on special teams during former coach Bill Doba's tenure, and questions remain heading into 2008. Sophomore Reid Forrest punted reasonably well in 2007 -- though ranking seventh in the conference is hardly something to crow about -- but there are voids at kicker and the return game, in which Michael Bumpus excelled. At the end of spring, Patrick Rooney, despite a forgettable final scrimmage, held the edge at kicker.

3. A program not in the depths: The Cougs lack depth, and that wasn't helped when they were docked six scholarships in 2008 for falling short in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate measure. A few injuries at any position could ruin the season. And they haven't helped themselves with a series of off-field woes. Andy Roof looked like a big body for the defensive line until another alcohol-related problem -- this time an assault -- made his return seem doubtful. Free safety Xavier Hicks was sentenced to 45 days in jail after pleading guilty to third-degree theft and third-degree attempted assault for pouring rubbing alcohol on a teammate's contact lenses. Ivory and cornerback Devin Giles topped a list of players with academic problems. The Cougars just can't afford to lose that many potential contributors, for whatever reason.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

ALSO SEE