Sunday, August 1, 2010

PAC-10 Predictions

The PAC-10 writers had their say this week, and they've been right 24 of 46 times since they started polling:

1. Oregon (15)... 314
2. USC (12)... 311
3. Oregon State (3)... 262
4. Stanford (1)... 233
5. Arizona (2)... 222
6. Washington (1)...209
7. California… 175
8. UCLA (1)... 134
9. Arizona State… 81
10. Washington State… 39

Seven teams got a first place vote, and Cal didn't get any despite having lots of talent and a senior quarterback. One writer voted the Ducks ninth, which makes little sense.

Two things jump out at me. One, the writers got it right. The Ducks return 18 starters and two competent quarterbacks. The champion is the favorite until someone beats them. I don't have any doubt Chip Kelly will have them ready and focused. Two, far too many people are still blinded by the USC mystique. Lane Kiffin is not Pete Carroll, and even if he were there will be an adjustment period at USC. Ineligible for bowls, and victimized by a few key defections, there will be chinks in the Trojans armor this year. In Carroll's last year they lost four conference games, and it wouldn't surprise me to seem them do the same this year. After a couple of losses, it will be very hard to keep that team motivated with nothing to play for, and everyone in the conference gets up for the Trojans. Most all the teams have a significant part of their roster from Southern California, and those kids want to look good before their families and hometown fans. Many players come to the Coliseum with something to prove. USC passed on them. This year, with the mystique broken and the sanctions cutting into their profile and motivation, the men of Troy will slump.

It's odd to me that the Ducks have more doubters over the loss of one player than the Trojans do over the loss of Mays, Griffin, McKnight, Williams, Hazelton and McCoy. In all seven Trojans were drafted by the NFL this Spring and four transferred to other schools. A five-star linemen opted out.

People underestimate the flexibility of Oregon's spread offense and Chip Kelly's genius as a developer of quarterbacks. Kelly has said the spread can be tweaked to complement the strengths of the quarterback and the other offensive players available. Without Masoli the spread will morph. Costa is an accurate passer with a short compact motion and will be more consistent in the passing game. He'll get the ball out of his hands to the playmakers from sideline to sideline. He'll throw with more touch and consistency.

Of course he's not the threat Masoli was running the football, but he doesn't have to be. James, Barner, Seastrunk and Huff will provide the balance. Oregon will run the football effectively. What they lose in the zone read they'll gain in an improved passing attack. Three senior receivers will emerge. Lavasier Tuinei and Brandon Williams will play a bigger role than anyone anticipates. In the Spring game Costa showed a knack for crossing routes and checkdowns to the underneath receivers. I think he can run the Spread and be effective, more Chase Daniel than Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli's offense will be missed, but Barner and Seastrunk will get some of his touches and his yards. In the Rose Bowl Kelly unveiled a fly sweep that has eye-popping potential. In the Civil War he had Barner slipping back as a trailing pitch back from the slot. He has a gift for adding dimensions and weapons. In the 2008 Sun Bowl, with Dixon gone and skinny-slow Justin Roper his only available quarterback, he used the stretch play and the zone read and mixed it with some timely downfield passing to neutralize and then rout a highly-touted South Florida defense.

Another huge factor is, the Ducks defense will be dramatically better in 2010, not that they were bad last year. They're deep and fast, with senior leadership at linebackers and impressive athleticism in the secondary. They'll be opportunistic. The new 3-4 scheme has them flying to the football.

Oregon's schedule is end-loaded, and that's perfect for a team with depth and talent but a couple of critical question marks. They face USC at the Coliseum in game 7, and have a reasonable chance of entering that game 7-0. By then Ricky Heimuli will be an experienced defensive tackle, and the starter at quarterback will have found his rhythm.

The Ducks will repeat as PAC-10 champions. They'll have to earn it, but they will. Jeremiah Masoli will be missed, but by now it's just like losing a key player to graduation. Nate Costa and Darron Thomas have had a spring and a summer to get ready, and they will be.

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