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Pac Ten Week: Binding Picks

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The process here is important, so, like last week, a box has been added to each team's section that explains how I arrived at its rank. Here's what's up with the numbers, which take Athlon's classification of wins, losses and toss-ups to its extreme:

9: Likely blowout win; no conceivable defeat
8: Comfortable win; chance of competitive game
7: Competitive win; minor upset threat
6: Close win; major upset threat
5: Toss-up win (likely, but not specifically, awarded to the home team)
4: Toss-up loss
3: Close loss; major upset threat
2: Competitive loss; minor upset threat
1: Big loss; chance of competitive game
0: Blowout loss; no conceivable victory
At the conference level, there's no need to inject strength of schedule measures, though you'll see this later when we get into the top 25, etc. Each number is completely arbitrary based on my reading of that specific game, and inevitably more thought was put into, say, Cal-Oregon than into Washington-Stanford, but hopefully this idea injects an adequate level of nuance into the process, rather than just assigning 'win' or 'loss' with no regard to the widley varying degrees or probabilities. Every bit of it - especially the method - is susceptible to debate.

1. Southern Cal
I want to say the Trojans are vulnerable, that for all the backfield talent, there's no proven bellwether, that the receivers are young and therefore unreliable, that their string of one-score wins against the conference's lower middle class and turnover-prone lapses in road losses make them vulnerable at Cal and Oregon.

But we already knew what was going to happen to last year's team:

Most teams suffer noticeably from the departure of a Heisman winner; the Trojans will be the first team ever to try to replace two, along with five other all-Americans. As usual after the kind of three-year run by Leinart, Bush and Co., this squad seems strictly partitioned from the awe-inspiring continuity of the past three, which really felt like the exact same team from year to year.
[...]
HONESTLY, WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE, SMQ'S THINKING: 11-2, league championship, BCS mania, a little grumbling from Trojan fans spoiled by three straight years on the perilous wave of non-stop mythical title expectations. The departures make this definitely a mortal team again, but only barely.
By Game
8 Wash. State
9 at Washington
9 Stanford
9 Arizona
7 at Oregon
8 Oregon State
6 at California
7 at Arizona St.
7 UCLA
7.78 TOTAL
...because it only returned 11 starters, and was relying on the contributions of several true freshmen, and it was just time to take a year to groom the foot soldiers of the next inevitable trek across the bloodied corpses of the opposition. In the same preview, I used the analogy of Napoleon being banished to Elba, and it was plain to everyone who saw the physical dominance of the Rose Bowl win in January that the bitch is back for its hundred days of reinvigorated authority (uh, 128 days, actually, from the opener with Idaho to the mythical championship game. Maybe start counting from the Nebraska game on Sept. 15).

Same old song and dance. And splash.
- - -
Now, I was watching some ridiculous and shallow CBS preview this morning hosted in part by former Oklahoma star and part-time mannequin Spencer Tillman, who declared SC "unbeatable!" This, as anyone subscribing to the Worldwide Leader through December 2005 can confirm, is beyond hyperbole. No team anywhere has ever, or ever will be,"unbeatable," especially one with the questions addressed above. For all his teams' accolades, Pete Carroll has still only guided one undefeated season in six years, and this year's edition may fall a little short of the 2003-05 juggernaut that considered 40 points an okay afternoon.

But that doesn't mean this team is any more likely to actually lose a game. Based on youth and breaking in a new offensive coordinator and the overwhelming combination of experience, talent and depth on the other side, this might be more defensive-minded version than its championship predecessors, and subsequently might have to endure more close calls. Unless it gets too lose with the ball at the wrong times again, though - last year's respectable plus-four turnover margin was by far the worst of Carroll's tenure, which had averaged a staggering plus-19 over his first five years - it's still the pan-continental juggernaut until further notice(bitch).

Falling well behind the Trojans, picks 2 through 4 should really be considered 2a, 2b and 2c, as the schedules should make clear:

2. Oregon
By Game
8 at Stanford
5 California
7 Wash. State
6 at Washington
2 Southern Cal
6 Arizona State
5 at Arizona
5 at UCLA
6 Oregon State
5.56 TOTAL
The offensive skill talent here rivals anyone's, including SC's, and if Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart can stay upright and in the lineup for more than a couple games at a time, Oregon should be really feared. Dixon's health and performance was a defining variable in winning and losing last year, and Stewart's too: he averaged 106 yards in wins (including a 144-yard game against Oklahoma, 142 at Arizona State and 121 against UCLA) and just 39 in losses. His carries dropped to about a dozen a game in the closing four-game losing streak, which is not a recipe for ongoing success. Throw a 230-pound tailback and a 240-pound receiver with the speed of Stewart and Jaison Williams at any defense, and it will tend to wilt.

But here also is exposed the murky, fatally arbitrary nature of this "prediction" business: I had to make a decision to move the Ducks ahead of Cal and UCLA, though my system (such as it is) showed Oregon tied in-conference with L.A. and actually slightly behind the Bears. I did this because, going through the games, I pegged Oregon as slightly more likely to win toss-ups against both of those teams, and in fact to beat every team in the league except USC. The fact that they still needed some special consideration to make up a gap with Cal is a testament to the risk I see in boarding this ship, and the necessity of the subsequent hedging: the Ducks, like UCLA (see below) have been a reliably mediocre team over the last five years, taking every possible road back to the middle with in-conference records of 3-5, 5-3, 4-4 and 4-5 since 2002 and ten conference losses in those years to unranked teams. The only exception to that trend was 2005, a near BCS-worthy effort with the only losses coming to USC and then Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl, and this team is reminiscent of that one in that it returns an experienced senior quarterback and a balanced offense that should average well over 30 points. But if Dixon is inconsistent again, or the defense struggles, recent history says trips to Arizona and Washington and the like are up for grabs, and this pick is null and void.

3. California
By Game
7 Arizona
4 at Oregon
7 Oregon State
4 at UCLA
5 at Arizona State
7 Wash. State
3 Southern Cal
7 at Washington
8 at Stanford
5.78 TOTAL
Even after getting wiped out at Tennessee, Cal did a lot through the first couple months of last season to solidify itself as the league's ancillary sledgehammer, beating Arizona State, Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA by an average of almost 23 points, and sitting at 5-0 in late October was still a chic pick to knock off USC for the conference title (the Bears shared it in the end, anyway, with a little help from their powder blue friends). This to me is why the loss to Arizona, far more than a good effort at SC, was a sign of trouble, because it served as evidence that the up-and-down teams of 2003 and 2005 were closer to Cal's "true" identity under Jeff Tedford than the 2004 killers, who had been impervious to the insurgent sniping that always claims so many of its peers. The difference may have only been the tip of DeSean Jackson's left shoe, but this team lost a lot of cache dropping a game like that.

That said, we're back to the Tedford Touch with Nate Longshore and the inevitable optimism accompanying his and Jackson's return. I don't think anyone's worried about Justin Forsett moving up for Marshawn Lynch, unless it's concerning Forsett's durability. The question here will always be the defense, particularly against the run and on the corners now that Daymeion Hughes has moved on. Show me a team that allowed 4.3 yards per carry to winning teams and loses five of its front seven on defense - especially the two who were most obviously worth a damn, Brandon Mebane and Desmond Bishop -  and I'll show you a team that is not happy to have Jonathan Stewart, Chris Markey, Yvenson Bernard or Ryan Torain coming its way.

4. UCLA
By Game
8 at Stanford
7 Washington
6 at Oregon St.
5 California
6 at Wash. State
6 at Arizona
6 Arizona State
4 Oregon
2 at Southern Cal
5.56 TOTAL
It's a strange fact of SMQ's short history that, in two full seasons, I've never picked UCLA to win a game that even sort of mattered. Occasionally, this coincidence has worked in my favor, and occasionally it's made me look like a fool, but maybe in the end it's not such a coincidence. I suppose I just have that little faith in Karl Dorrell fielding a serious challenger, born of the same doubt I had in Bob Toledo before him. Toledo's last three teams were 3-5, 4-4 and 4-4 in-conference, and Dorrell's first four are 4-4, 4-4, 6-2 and 5-4, where the 6-2 team was cumulatively outscored  in those games by five touchdowns. Hey, that's UCLA.

I'd think much higer of this version if it had finished last year's closing run by shutting down Florida State's impotent offense in the bowl game, which the Bruins had proven they were capable of doing and any team that had truly turned a corner would have done. Instead, Drew Weatherford and Lorenzo Booker had career games against the same defense that beat Southern Cal into pulp. If the momentum created by the job-saving wins over Oregon State, Arizona State and USC couldn't survive the three-week layoff prior to the Emerald Bowl, good luck carrying it through the interceding eight months.

Nevertheless: a buttload of returning starters is a buttload of returning starters, a great many of whom matured under DeWayne Walker's pro-style voodoo into one of the most fearsome Ds in the conference. I pointed this out in March, and it's still the most relevant point I can make about his influence on a unit that will roll out with six third-year starters, to whom this directly applies:

UCLA Defense 2005 2006
Points Per Game 34.2 19.9
Rush Yards 233 91.1
Yds. Per Carry 5.4 2.8
400-yard Games 9 4
500-yard Games 7 1
Rush Yards by USC 430 77
Points by USC 66 9

All of those numbers are likely to plateau, but even if the defense merely sustains last year's gains, Ben Olson's aged and proverbally statuesque presence should provide enough points to lift the team out of its mediocre rut. As long, that is, as it moves past the infathomable letdowns: under Dorrell, UCLA has lost a game every year - to Stanford in '03, Washington State in '04, Arizona in '05 and Washington last year - to a team that finished at least two game below .500 in the conference. At the same time, his teams have beaten six ranked opponents, at least one every year, so the inconsistency is a cultural problem, the kind not so easily solved by overwhelming experience. UCLA doesn't get the benefit of the doubt until it stops losing those kinds of games on a regular basis.

5. Arizona State
By Game
5 Oregon State
7 at Stanford
6 at Wash. State
7 Washington
4 California
3 at Oregon
3 at UCLA
2 Southern Cal
6 Arizona
4.78 TOTAL
ASU is always dangerous because of its offensive firepower, of which it has plenty again, but the Sun Devils defined their status in the conference in five games against the league's top five finishers. They were 0-5 in those games, and outscored by Cal, Oregon, USC, Oregon State and UCLA by an average of 23 points; the Cal, Oregon and OSU losses were bona fide ugly blowouts, as was the embarrassment at Hawaii in the bowl game. At least we finally have a team in this league that performs on some kind of predictable basis week-to-week.

Beyond the obvious records, it was a pretty simple equation, really:

7 Wins 6 Losses
R. Carpenter TD:INT 18:6 5:8
Sacks Allowed 1.6 4.3
Yds. Per Carry Allowed 2.6 4.8

ASU lacked the usual threats at receiver, despite the strong efforts of running backs Ryan Torain and Keegan Herring even in defeat, struggled to protect Carpenter and struggled to hold up physically against good running games. Defensively, personnel overhaul (minimum six new starters) doesn't offer much room for improvement, but Dennis Erickson and his old Miami glory days coordinator Rich Olson have each molded wildly successful college offenses, multiple times in Erickson's case, and the freshman who led the nation in passer rating off the bench and ran Sam Keller out of the conference is still in Carpenter somewhere. ASU averaged at least 29 points per game four times in Dirk Koetter's six years, and the offense should be balanced enough to win eight games, but Erickson is a big hit out of the gate if he does better than that, i.e. posts a winning record in-conference, which Koetter did only twice.


You can guess how this one ended.
- - -

6. Oregon State
By Game
4 at Arizona St.
3 UCLA
5 Arizona
2 at California
7 Stanford
1 at Southern Cal
7 Washington
4 at Wash. State
3 at Oregon
4.0 TOTAL
I pointed on Thursday to the Beavers' unusually good fortune in a string of unusually close games last year, much of it created by departed quarterback Matt Moore and likely to dissipate under the less sure guidance of Sean Canfield and/or Lyle Moevao, both sophomores. The passing game is in flux as long as Sammie Stroughter is still sorting through whatever it is that's keeping him out of practice.

This is dangerous territory in a conference with such parity, though, because this is an experienced team that could quite easily wind up beating two or three of the teams I have ranked in front of it without fanfare. If they can figure out a way to keep defenses from loading up eight guys in the box - Stroughter's presence alone would take care of that - the intact offensive line ought to keep the offense on its tracks. But Yvenson Bernard is a very low-fi plugger, consistent, capable and invaluable with a lead, but ultimately not the kind of weapon the league's top offenses have at their disposal. The defense rebounded from awful games against Cal and Boise State in the middle of the year, but the equally lackluster finish against Oregon, Hawaii and Missouri is discouraging, especially with Moore moving on after career-defining efforts in each of those wins.

OSU is another team in a telling little rut: conference records since the "breakthrough" BCS season in 2000 are 3-5, 4-4, 4-4, 5-3, 3-5 and 6-3 (a very close 6-3). A young quarterback in a league packed to the brim with veteran starters is enough to swing the Beavers' fate back towards the low end of that scale.

7. Arizona
By Game
2 at California
5 Washington State
4 at Oregon State
0 at Southern Cal
7 Stanford
4 at Washington
3 UCLA
4 Oregon
3 at Arizona St.
3.56 TOTAL
Arizona's stretch run resembled UCLA's: three sudden, momentum-building wins out of nowhere, ending in a thud that undermines any notion of significant breakthrough. I could be convinced the `Cats' stellar November was a sign of resurgence, if it weren't for the egg they proceeded to lay in Tempe (or the plus-nine turnover margin in two games over Cal and Oregon).

The defense should be in pretty good shape again and keep 'Zona in most games; it's probably worth an upset of UCLA or Oregon, if the last two years are an indication of this team's mental cycle (painfully slow start, strong closing push, out of gas at the finish). One obvious problem last year was the total inability to run against any mildly competent defense, and I think it's a good move to abandon the smashmouth mindset to put the ball into the oft-concussed hands of Willie Tuitama, who's led some impressive wins (Oregon State, UCLA, BYU, Cal, Oregon) in essentially a year-and-a-half on the job. He's also led two consecutive losses to Washington and been knocked out of both losses to Arizona State. It's one step forward and one step back, over and over, and the competition immediately ahead of the 'Cats is too crowded to bank on a team that hasn't had a winning record, in conference or out, since 1998.

8. Washington State
By Game
1 at Southern Cal
4 at Arizona
3 Arizona State
2 at Oregon
3 UCLA
2 at California
7 Stanford
5 Oregon State
5 at Washington
3.56 TOTAL
Anybody remember the week Washington State slipped into the top 25 last November? It was 6-3 and had just rocked Oregon and UCLA in consecutive weeks...and subsequently lost its last three and missed a bowl for the third year in a row.

It was close, but you can't fool me twice: I thought the Cougars' unbelievable string of bad luck in close games in 2005 (six Pac Ten losses by an average 4.3 points) was a sign of an imminent turnaround last year, and maybe I would have been justified if they hadn't blown winnable games against Arizona and Washington at home and been thrashed at Arizona State with tangible rewards at stake. Turnovers were not to blame (WSU was plus-six last year), nor was the schedule (WSU missed 3-8 Arizona in `05, but of course played everybody last year). The offensive line broke down - eleven sacks allowed in the last three, while overall yards per carry plummeted to 2.3 - and the defense had its three worst games (considering the competition) since the opener at Auburn.

I like senior Alex Brink, who's always been productive in the pass-first offense and returns some quality receivers, but this team is possibly the least talented in the conference and in the same position as Arizona: competitive, tempting for the bandwagon, but struggling in a crowded pond to make the step up in class when the opportunity presents itself - and if only having to win one of three games against Washington, Arizona and Arizona State, two of them at home, to get into a bowl isn't a golden opportunity, I don't know what is. They don't come gift-wrapped like that very often.

9. Washington
By Game
2 at UCLA
0 Southern Cal
2 at Arizona St.
3 Oregon
5 Arizona
6 at Stanford
2 at Oregon State
2 California
4 Wash. State
2.89 TOTAL
I can't think of much good to say about Washington after its 4-1 start turned bad, other than that the Huskies were kinda close: they played USC within six points and took Cal to overtime on the road and lost to Arizona State in overtime in Seattle. This was obviously not the same team, though, once Isaiah Stanback went down with the lead against Oregon State, after which UW blew that game and went into a five-game tailspin. As high as they are on redshirt freshman Jake Locker, he is by far the youngest and most inexperienced quarterback in the conference, and he has no reliable running threat to ease the pressure.

Dude, you're sure you don't have another year? You've asked, specifically?
- - -
The defense is a far greater concern, because the front seven didn't hold up physically - the Huskies had two great games against the run, stuffing the atrocious ground games of Arizona and Stanford, and were ruthlessly gashed by everyone else. Oklahoma, Fresno State, UCLA, USC, Oregon State, Cal, Arizona State and Oregon all went well over four yards per carry, and the yields got much worse at the end of that stretch, when the Ducks ran for 316.

Bottom line: for all the expectation of improvement, this is the least successful team in the Pac Ten since it fired Rick Neuheisel (8-25 in four years, 4-13 under Tyrone Willingham), and excepting the extreme outlier that was Stanford's offensive collapse last year, also the lowest-scoring. Redshirt freshmen are not usually the answer to that sort of malaise.

10. Stanford
If you were making a remake of Necessary Roughness or The Waterboy or any other feature that revolved around a team of lovable but hopeless misfits, I don't think you could conceive of a better model out of the BCS conferences than Stanford 2006:
• Of the 14 non-special teams stat categories tracked by the NCAA, the Cardinal finished 115th or worse - among the bottom five teams in the nation - in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense and tackles for loss. It was also dead last in the Pac Ten in passing offense, total defense, scoring defense, turnover margin, sacks and sacks allowed.
 • The 10.6 points per game was easily the worst in the Pac Ten since 2000, more than a field goal less than Washington managed in 2004, and just shy of a point per game from matching 2005 Temple (9.7 ppg) as the single lowest-scoring effort of any Bowl Subdivision offense anywhere in that period. The Cardinal were held to ten points or less in nine of twelve games and shut out twice.
 • The running game averaged 2.1 yards per carry, just 1.7 in the Pac Ten, and produced a national-low three touchdowns. There were only three runs all season longer than 20 yards, none of them on third down, when the Cardinal lost yardage on average.
 • The offense scored almost as many touchdowns (5) in a 35-34 loss at San Jose State as it scored in nine games against Pac Ten opponents combined (6). Navy, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Southern Cal all kept the Stanford O out of the end zone entirely.
 • After Trent Edwards went down for the year, T.C. Ostrander was sacked 30 times in the last six games. The conference average, by comparison, was 24 sacks allowed over the entire season.
 • In the age of facilities arms racing and expanding stadium capacities, Stanford went 0-5 last season in an edifice whose seating had been reduced by roughly 35,000 to create a cozier, less cavernous homefield advantage. Construction began to take 85,000-plus seat Stanford Stadium down to 50,000 literally minutes after the 2005 finale against Notre Dame, and still only the crowd for visiting USC came close to filling that.
By Game
1 UCLA
1 Oregon
2 Arizona State
0 at Southern Cal
2 at Arizona
2 at Oregon State
3 Washington
2 at Wash. State
1 California
1.56 TOTAL
At some point, obviously, the Hollywood angle of the story has to include a miraculous turnaround, which qualifying for a bowl game under a young coach with zero major college or pro sideline experience would frankly represent.

I think Stanford can be optimistic about the fact that things can't possibly be worse than they were, and that there is a little talent on hand. The receivers, especially, Evan Moore and Mark Bradford, are legitimate threats if they can stay on the field (both missed far more time last year than they saw, and Bradford only played one full game before he was lost for the year). The defense has eight starters back, a couple of them VHTs, with a few more waiting in the wings.

But it would be a demonstrable, significant improvement just to win two conference games. This team has so far to go just to get out of the cellar, it's not worth a second thought until it makes some kind of positive move on the field.