Posted by Walter
For all of us, it's comforting to know that some things never change. The sky will always be blue. The LA Clippers will always be terrible. And the PAC-10 will always be filled with high octane offenses, and defenses that are only vaguely familiar with the word tackle. Oh yeah....and USC will always be better than everyone else. 2007 will, of course, be no exception. As far as offenses go, the PAC-10 roster reads like a who's who of heisman candidates. John David Booty, Nate Longshore, Jonathan Stewart, Rudy Carpenter, Ryan Torrain, DeSean Jackson, Patrick Turner, Alex Brink, Sammie Stroughter, the list goes on and on. But what about the defensive side? Well, to be honest the list of best defensive players in the conference reads like a who's who of USC's depth chart. Outside of the Trojans there just isn't a whole lot of defensive talent in the PAC-10, which, if nothing else, should make for a whole bunch of really fun conference games.
Does USC have the best offense in the conference? Yes. Does USC have the best defense in the conference? Yes. Is USC the best team in the conference? Yes. Is it even close?....NO. Frankly there isn't a whole lot to say here since there is just no debate about the top team in the PAC-10. Hell, the Trojan's three deep is filled with more former Parade All-Americans than the Houston Texans' roster. Is there concern about losing both Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett? Probably. But is there anyone in America that doesn't believe Pete Carroll and Co. have the depth to replace those special players in an instant? No way. Put it this way, when USC lost Carson Palmer they replaced him with Matt Leinart. When they lost Leinart they replaced him with John David Booty. I don't think the Trojans are too worried about losing a pair of WR, no matter how good they were. Look, USC isn't invincible. There is the very real possibility that they could lose to Nebraska when they have to travel to Lincoln to play in front of a rabid crowd. But looking at the rest of the schedule, there is NO WAY they should lose enough games to finish anything other than first in the conference. Going to Cal (the 2nd best team in the conference) will be tough, and I think USC's date at Oregon has all the marking of a trap game, but still the only way USC loses either of those games is if they beat themselves. The PAC-10 will be fun, but let's be clear.....there is USC and then there is everyone else.
We should probably be doing our pick for the second best team in the conference here. This is the definition of a no-brainer. If USC doesn't shit the bed against UCLA last year, they're the returning champs. I saw what they did to Michigan in person, they would have slaughtered Ohio St. So fine, they lose two great wide receivers. Patrick Turner was the most highly touted receiver in the country when he came out of high school. Vidal Hazleton was a top recruit. I mean, they still may have the best receiving corps in the conference. They also have the best quarterback. Also, they have the best running backs. They have TEN top recruits vying for playing time in the backfield. Joe McNight will be making plays by the end of the year. Either that, or one of the other super-talented players at his position will have usurped him. Finally, USC has the best defense in the conference, and it isn't close. This team is absolutely stacked. Frankly, the only team that can beat USC in the conference is USC. Avoid the stupid mistakes that cost them a pair of close games last year, and it'll be another PAC-1o title and a shot at the championship.
Ugh, they just can't get it right in Palo Alto. How do you turn around a once prominent program coming off a 1-11 season? Pump money into the program to improve facilities and lure some of the top in state talent. Hire a big name coach who is known as a recruiting ace (ahem ahem Butch Davis) and would definitely want to come work in beautiful California. Bring in a whole bunch of JUCO kids and get a few wins to put the team back on the national radar. All solid ideas, but none implemented by Stanford. Instead they went out and hired a 40 something year old former midwest QB with limited head coaching experience. Yeah sounds like a plan. Needless to say this will be a long, LONG year in Palo Alto. Jim Harbaugh is a nice guy and may eventually prove he was the right choice, but the returns are at least a few years away. Stanford is clearly the worst team in the PAC-10, and to boot they have loaded up with a pretty damn tough non conference schedule that includes San Jose State, TCU and Notre Dame. I mean what in the hell were they thinking scheduling those three teams? If they don't beat San Jose State or Washington at home, Stanford could be looking at 0-12.
BOOOOOO Harbaugh! Look, he seems like a friendly enough guy. Maybe some day he'll be a successful coach. But it won't be with Stanford, and it certainly won't be this season. Absolutely one of the most startling hires in recent history. Their non-conference schedule includes TCU and Notre Dame late in the season (when they may be dangerous). Frankly, the season may boil down to an early match-up against an underrated San Jose St. team. That could be their only shot at victory, and it won't come easily. I guess it's time to throw Stanford into the Baylor-Duke battle for worst BCS team. Ugh.
Offensive Player of the Year
Walter: DeSean Jackson, WR California
John David Booty does have all the numbers and the hype, but frankly Jackson is the most explosive offensive player in the conference......if you define offense as any phase of the game that puts points on the board. Booty is a great QB, but Jackson is a great wideout AND a great kick returner. As a WR, Jackson is the deep threat to end all deep threats. In 2006 Jackson went over the 1000 yard mark despite his small stature (6'0'' 166 lbs) and limited receptions (only 59 catches in 13 games). How'd he do this? By averaging 18 yards per catch and ripping off a slew of highlight reel touchdown plays. More impressive, however, was Jackson's prowess as a kick returner. Not only does he consistently give the Bears outstanding field position, but Jackson returned an absurd 4 punts for touchdowns in 2006, including an absolutely electric 95 yarder!!! The one knock on Jackson is that he needs to play better in big games. He didn't fare well against USC or UCLA, but he did come up big in Cal's bowl game win against Texas A & M. With Marshawn Lynch gone to the NFL, expect Jeff Tedford and Cal to open up the passing game more, and let Jackson loose vertically. More looks from Nathan Longshore mean more yards and more TD's. If Jackson continues to average nearly 20 yards per catch (and there is no reason to think he can't) we could be looking at a 70 catch, 1400 yard season before we even factor in his kick return stats. 15 total TD is not out of the question with Jackson's explosiveness.
Frazier: John David Booty, QB, USC
Sometimes the big man likes to outsmart himself. Jackson is a fine player as far as that goes, but he isn't going to have the kind of year Booty will. Booty was the top passer in the conference last season by a wide margin, and it won't be any closer this year. You KNOW USC is going to put up a ton of points, and you KNOW that Booty is going to be responsible for that. Carroll puts a lot of trust in his quarterbacks, and expects them to be leaders on the field. This USC team will succeed or fail as Booty takes them. Booty's numbers last season were almost as good as Leinert's before him, and so you can expect improvement this year, and a trip to NY for the Heisman ceremony.
Defensive Player of the Year
Walter: Antoine Cason, CB Arizona
No surprise here as any 323 reader knows I harbor a huge man crush on Cason and dream of the day the Patriots make him a first round draft pick (if ever there was a corner born to be a NE Patriot it was Cason). Cason was hands down the best cornerback in the conference last season, and there is no reason to expect him to slow down. No he doesn't have a ton of picks (only 3 in each of the past two seasons) or passes broken up but that is because other teams simply don't bother with his side of the field. Arizona returns 10 starters to a stingy defense so there is no reason to think Cason won't continue his excellent play. The most impressive part of Cason's game, though, is just how physical he covers. At 6'0'' and 190 lbs. Cason is a tough as nails corner who excels in press coverage. His 4.5 speed is solid, but he's one of those guys who plays the game a lot faster than he runs the 40. Cason is the rare defensive back who can completely take away an entire half of the field, and he is the even rarer breed who does that AND helps out in run support. The Arizona Wildcats have been improving steadily these past few years, but the 2007 team will only go as far as Cason and the defense takes them.
Frazier: Antoine Cason, CB Arizona
Let's see, I picked him as an all-American last year. So it would make sense that he's my top defensive player this year. It's hard to go against the big man on this one. We're just in agreement. Let's take a look at what I wrote last December: He had 11 tackles, an interception, two passes defensed, and forced a fumble. That's an incredible stat line. Yep. It's still incredible. Nothing has changed here. Cason is a game-changer. He will make an entire side of the field disappear for a quarterback. There's simply no reason to go messing with Antoine. He's incredibly talented, and should probably be playing on Sundays this year. But since he's not, he's clearly the best defensive player in this conference. In the land of the shoot-outs, the man making the interceptions will be king.
Oh the irony of ironies. 323 faithfuls will remember how consistently and furiously I derided Oregon last year as the most overrated team in the nation. And sure enough, after starting the season 7-2 Oregon went into the tank losing its last 4 games including three blowouts (35-10, 37-10, 38-8). Oh how sweet vindication was for me. But this is 2007, not 2006, and nobody is really talking about the Ducks despite the fact that 14 starters (7 on each side of the ball), including three superb offensive skills players and their best offensive lineman. In fact, QB Dennis Dixon, RB Jonathan Stewart, and WR Jaison Williams may be the best troika of skill players in the entire conference (and that includes USC). Particularly Stewart who has shown flashes of brilliance during his time in Eugene, and needs only good health to burst onto the national scene. At 5'11'' and 230 lbs. with blazing speed, Stewart is the complete package who will run behind future NFLer Max Unger and a big and nasty offensive line and might run himself all the way into the Heisman race by season's end. Dixon and Williams also had a monster 2006 campaign, and the passing game should be in good hands. I can't lie, it does worry me a bit that Dixon decided to play minor league baseball this summer instead of practicing with the Ducks football team, but he is just so damn talented that he should still be able to run this team. If he falters you could do worse that strong armed Senior backup Brady Leaf (yes, Ryan's little bro). The offense should put up points, which is good because the defense has a ton of holes. However, the strength of the D is in the secondary where Oregon returns 4 starters (out of 5 since they use a rover) including potential all conference, and human missile, Patrick Chung. While teams may be able to run on the Ducks, if Dennis Dixon, Jonathan Stewart and Co. live up to their potential, the Duck's opponents will have to play catchup. An early season game at Michigan will be tough and could put the Ducks under the gun right off the bat, but with California and USC visiting Eugene the Ducks will have plenty of opportunities to reestablish themselves as a national elite.
Dammit! Ok, I got talked into this one. First, I refuse to pick UCLA, because I think they're going to blow a couple of games they should win. What's the use of returning so many players if you couldn't get anything out of those players last year? Dorrell is a bum. I was hot on picking Oregon St. until the Sammie Stroughter situation, and a peak at their schedule. That thing does not look promising. Going to Cal, USC and Oregon is a tall task. So I'm going to go with the Ducks. First off, because they actually have a balanced offense. This is a proven group, and Dixon should improve his decision making. Belloti is really an underrated coach, and I love bringing in a UNH guy to guide the offense. They are going to score lots of points, and they'll be a blast to watch. The defense isn't going to be great, but I think a big upgrade in their second year can be expected from a pair of young corners. They get Cal and USC at home (which is a brutal place to visit) with their only tough conference road game against UCLA (more on that in a moment). Overall, the Ducks have a chance to be very good, and with an upset against one of the leagues elite in their formidable home environs (a definite possibility) they could be in the mix for the conference title.
Walter: Oregon State
Before the news of Sammie Stroughter's departure from the team Oregon State was still being overrated. Yes Yvenson Bernard is a great back who is vastly underrated, but the Beavers simply have too many holes to be a real contender in the PAC-10. In fact, their dismantling of USC may be their undoing as it has ratcheted up expectations to a level that the team simply cannot reach. Last year's team was outstanding, but a huge part of that was QB Matt Moore who was a warrior and an outstanding performer. He was underrated from the beginning of his career and the Beavers simply cannot replace such a huge part of their team. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that Oregon State has the most brutal schedule in the entire conference. Their opening game is a doozy with a very tough Utah team coming into Corvallis to play a team breaking in a new QB without his top WR. It doesn't get any easier after the opening game with road trips to California, USC and Oregon, arguably the top three teams in the conference. Add in tough games at Washington State and at Cincinnati (a huge trap game in week two that Oregon State could need to avoid starting 0-2) and Oregon State has the makings of a very long season.
Everyone is getting all excited about the Bruins, and I just don't get it. What have Dorrell and company done to get everyone so stoked? If it's the win over USC last year, I'm unclear why that same anticipation hasn't been applied to Oregon St. Also, UCLA got BLASTED by FSU in their bowl game. That Florida St. team was terrible, and couldn't score points to save its' life. They were one of the most offensively inept teams in the country and the vaunted Bruins D gave up a staggering 44 points. Well, fool me once... I am no longer buying this bill of goods. Olson has started 5 games since 2001 (the first five of last year, when he had mediocre stats). That doesn't exactly indicate tremendous success to me. This team has been up and down for a couple of years now, and I don't see 2007 being any different. UCLA is going to choke badly on a couple of games this year despite their favorable schedule. It's the Karl Dorrell way.