PAC-10 Preseason Media Poll
USC is picked to continue its domination of the PAC-10. The Trojans have won or shared the conference title for the past six seasons. But for the first time in four years the computer (about the computer) does not put USC in the national title game, although a projected 1-loss season will certainly have Pete Carroll's squad firmly in the hunt.
No team comes closer than 5.14 points to USC in beginning power ratings. Arizona State, the expected 4th-place finisher, trails the Trojans by more than 10 power points. 5th-place California is almost 5 points behind the Sun Devils. UCLA and Arizona are more than 18 points behind USC.
The schools holding the bottom three spots are Washington State, Stanford and Washington. Not one of those teams has posted a winning record in the past four seasons, and they have brought up the rear for the past two years.
We'll know quickly whether or not the computer's forecast for the Trojans is correct. The first four games are USC's toughest matches, throwing senior QB Mark Sanchez directly into the fire as he replaces John David Booty (5th round NFL draft, Minnesota). The Trojans' talent and depth support the computer's assertion that USC's only loss will occur in the non-conference home opener with Ohio State (+1.03) on September 13. USC will have two weeks to prepare for the Buckeyes after opening at Virginia (-12.96) on August 30.
On the heels of the Ohio State game, USC visits Oregon State (-5.45) and hosts Oregon (-8.14). After that, the Trojans are favored by more than 13 points in each of their final 8 games.
Of course, no one expected the Trojans to fall to Stanford last year in a game that proved anything truly can happen.
Oregon is the projected second-place team in the PAC-10, even though the Ducks went 1-3 after losing senior QB Dennis Dixon to a knee injury at Arizona. This year's team won't have Dixon, or running back Jonathan Stewart who rushed for 1,722 yards and 11 TD's 2007. Dixon was a 5th-round NFL draft by Minnesota while Carolina took Stewart as the 13th pick overall. Their absence makes the Oregon forecast a bit difficult to swallow as, somehow, the anticipated loss at USC is the only blemish on the schedule. For that type of season to materialize, Oregon must survive three contests where it is favored by less than a touchdown - at Arizona State (-2.09), at Cal (-6.53), and at Oregon State (-0.30) in the annual Civil War rivalry game.
For Oregon State, the only projected conference losses are the aforementioned defeats at the hands of USC and Oregon. The Beavers slip to No. 34 in the national rankings with non-conference setbacks at Penn State (-2.72) and Utah (-1.21) as they face one of the nation's toughest schedules.
Arizona State took 2nd-place in the conference last year with a record of 10-3 (7-2, PAC-10), winning 10 games for the first time since 1996. But after an 8-0 start, the Sun Devils were convincingly beaten by 12 points or more by Oregon, USC and Texas (Holiday Bowl). The 2008 forecast of an 8-4 season includes close wins at Cal (-1.44) and Arizona (-5.26), and narrow losses to Oregon (+2.09) and Oregon State (+4.79). To get to the next level, the Sun Devils will have to overcome the predictions of an 8.19-point home loss to Georgia, and a 13.24-point road defeat at USC.
California imploded in 2007 with a 1-6 collapse after a 5-0 start. The Golden Bears managed to end their season with a 42-36 Armed Forces Bowl win over Air Force, but a 7-6 record was far from the projected 10-win season. In fact, Cal hasn't met expectations for three straight years with regular season records of 7-4, 9-3 and 6-6 against predicted marks of 9-2, 11-1 and 10-2. This year's forecast of 7-5 still won't be a cinch to obtain, as it includes four wins and three losses with spreads of 7.56 points or less.
The conference welcomes two new head coaches - Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, and Paul Wulff at Washington State.
Neuheisel's first UCLA team will face the nation's toughest schedule. The computer forecasts a 4-8 season that includes losses to a trio of Top 26 non-conference opponents - Tennessee (+10.68), BYU (+12.46) and Fresno State (+5.69). Neuheisel, who is returning to the collegiate head coaching ranks for the first time since 2002, only had one losing season among his eight campaigns with Colorado and Washington.
Wulff moves up to Washington State from the FCS after posting a 53-40 record at nearby Eastern Washington. He is a former Cougar offensive lineman who graduated from the Pullman school in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in social science.
While Neuheisel and Wulff are just beginning careers at their new schools, there are a couple of coaches who must be filling some heat.
Tyrone Willingham is entering his fourth season at Washington with an 11-25 record, and a 6-20 mark in PAC-10 games. He is 1-2 against state rival Washington State, and his only other conference wins have come against Arizona (2), Cal (1), Stanford (1), and UCLA (1). All of the conference wins have come against schools that finished that season with a record of 7-6 or worse.
Mike Stoops must feel he's in dire straits at Arizona. In his four seasons, Arizona is 17-29 with a best mark of 6-6 in 2006. The Wildcats slipped to 5-7 last year and the current 3-game losing streak to state rival Arizona State is its worst since a four-game skid from 1975-1978.
Conversely, Jim Harbaugh begins his second year at Stanford with optimism in the air. His first team beat USC and Cal while improving to 4-8 after Walt Harris' last team went 1-11. The 2008 season will likely be made, or broken, by a stretch of five games from September 27 to November 1. The Cardinal is a single-point underdog in three consecutive games that include stops at Washington (+1.07) and Notre Dame (+1.19), and a home date with Arizona (1.29). Following that challenge, Stanford is a mere touchdown underdog at UCLA (+6.55) before getting spotted as a home favorite over Washington State (-4.73).