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The incomparable 2009 SBN Pac-10 Football Preview

We SB Nation bloggers are quite proud of our independence. Yet, from time to time, an event so compelling comes along so as to draw us out from our communities and collaborate on a project of such import, the very future of SBN depends on it.

The beginning of football season is just such an event.


For seven years now, every Pac-10 football season has approached with the same question in mind: Is this the year that Oregon/Cal/Oregon State/ANYBODY supplants USC as the champion of the West Coast's premier conference? Not since 2002, when Washington State advanced to the Rose Bowl by virtue of its head-to-head victory over the Trojans, has someone other than USC represented the Pac-10 as the league's champion.

Could this finally be the year it happens? Can Jeremiah Masoli lead Oregon to the heights that Dennis Dixon's knee could not? Can Jahvid Best carry Cal there? Will Oregon State take that next step to elite status by competing for the conference title year in and year out?

In a lot of ways, this sure feels like the year. The Trojans will be breaking in another new quarterback, and while that hasn't exactly stopped them before -- a couple of guys named John David Booty and Mark Sanchez did OK -- you have to wonder if their luck doesn't run out at some point. Defensively, they'll have to replace three linebackers selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, and eight starters overall. Again, they've done this before ... but still.

Nationally, the take is that this string of dominance by USC says more about the rest of the conference than it does the Trojans. True or not, that's the perception. If this conference ever wants to get the respect it thinks it deserves, it's going to have to start consistently challenging the Trojans for that title, and occasionally taking one.

This just might be the year.

Predicted Order of Finish

As voted on by the Pac-10 SBN bloggers ...

  1. USC Trojans (90 points - unanimous)
  2. California Golden Bears (76)
  3. Oregon Ducks (71)
  4. Oregon St. Beavers (66)
  5. Arizona St. Sun Devils (44)
  6. Stanford Cardinal (43)
  7. Arizona Wildcats (41)
  8. UCLA Bruins (36)
  9. Washington Huskies (19)
  10. Washington St. Cougars (9 - unanimous)


Top Five Pac-10 Heisman Trophy Candidates

1. Jahvid Best

#4 / Running Back / California Golden Bears




Best is absolutely electric; he's been described as 'silly-fast'.  He's a human highlight reel who's a threat to take the ball to the house every time.  He's the leading returning rusher in college football, averaging over 8 yards every time he touches the ball.  If Cal wins 10+ games, he's the prototypical candidate, right?

- California Golden Blogs

2. Jacquizz Rodgers

#1 / Running Back / Oregon St. Beavers




Rodgers burst onto the scene last year with a sensational campaign as a true freshman, rushing or 1,253 yards in 2008. His small size and shifty moves make him a fun player to watch -- and a tough target for opponents to bring down.

- Building the Dam

3. Jeremiah Masoli

#8 / Quarterback / Oregon Ducks




Jeremiah Masoli is not your typical QB. He’s short, and a bit squatty, but does he ever produce. He can throw the ball, he can run the ball, and he doesn’t make mistakes. In his second year with Chip Kelly, look for him to become the most productive player in the Pac-10, and maybe run over a few safeties in the process.

- Addicted to Quack

4. Taylor Mays

#2 / Safety / USC Trojans




Normally, defensive players don't stand a chance in the Heisman race. But Mays never has really fit the mold. A freak of an athlete -- he hits like a linebacker but runs like a wide receiver -- Mays has two things going for him that every Heisman candidate needs: 1) A well-hyped reputation that proceeds him, and 2) He plays for one of the best programs in the country. A big game against Ohio State would set his candidacy into motion.

- Conquest Chronicles

5. Jake Locker

#10 / Quarterback / Washington Huskies




The Huskies likely won't be very good this year, but Locker is an undeniable talent and a dark-horse Heisman candidate. He's a run/pass threat who has been more run than pass so far. If new coach Steve Sarkisian can get his completion percentage up, and the Huskies can win a few more games than people think, Locker has the opportunity to put up some eye-popping numbers.



Team Capsules (in predicted order of finish)

1. USC Trojans

By Conquest Chronicles

Overview: USC has faced using a new starting QB in the past and they have responded. The Trojans have all of their starters back on offense (except Patrick Turner) and although they are replacing most of the defense, the defense will be better in 2009 than a lot of people think. I do think the rest of the Pac-10 is catching up to USC, but until someone actually knocks USC out of the top spot ...

Key to Success: The QB position is the key to USC's success in 2009. With Aaron Corp out for a short time with an injury, don't go to sleep on true freshman Matt Barkley, who has really stunned many with quick grasp of the offense and his maturity at handling the pressure. Barkley has a ways to go, but he is a lot closer than others in his position in the past.

Potential Achilles Heel: See above ...

Best Case Scenario: USC Wins the Pac-10 but will probably have 1-2 losses.

Worst Case Scenario: USC loses the pac-10 because of some bone head lead loss in conference.

Likely Scenario: USC will have a tough time with their road schedule and their winning the Pac-10 will probably come down to the last week of the season.

2. Cal Golden Bears

By California Golden Blogs

Overview: The Nate Longshore era is over. For better or for worse, the Bears will be entering a new age of Tedford football at Strawberry Canyon, where faces have changed but the strategy remains the same: Run the ball, terrorize on defense. Those were the characteristics of the 2004 team that should've been Rose Bowl-bound, and while Tedford searches for the next great Cal QB to follow in Aaron Rodgers' footsteps, there is hope the 2009 team can finally put it all together. With eight returning starters on defense, eight on offense, plus one of the most spectacular players in the country, what's not to like?

Key to Success: The Bears' hopes to make it to the Rose Bowl remain firmly perched on the spectacular Jahvid Best. Best was the main reason for five or six of Cal's wins last season; with a battered offensive line and only sporadic quarterback play, everyone looked to Best to provide the offense with some spark. Get him the ball in space, and he's a threat to take it to the house every time, leaving defensive backs grasping at air. Cal's defense is good enough to keep the Bears in every game, but it will be up to Jahvid (and those who block for him) to put up enough points to win them.

Potential Achilles Heel: Kevin Riley still won't inspire many Cal fans until he can show he can complete a short route downfield consistently. He struggled with his command and mechanics all last season, and he and a green receiving corp never got on the same page. With another offensive coordinator coming in, it'll be most important to monitor his development as the leader of our offense. Anything the passing game can do to ease the pressure on Best will pay big dividends in the Pac-10 title chase. Runner-up: Our placekickers can't be trusted with a kick from over 30-35 yards, and kickoffs were a dicey proposition all last year.

Best Case Scenario: Pasadena. The default answer of a Cal fan. This year, though, there are two choices. We'll be happy with either one.

Worst Case Scenario: Beating USC, somehow nursing a one game lead in the Pac-10, everything going smoothly into the Big Game ... and blowing our Rose Bowl chances on the field of the Furdies. Yeah, brace yourself Cal fans. Less heartbreaking would be a repeat of the sort of meltdown that imploded the Bears' 2007 season.  Even in the worst case, however, I can't see this team limping to the finish line with less than a 7-5 record.

Likely Scenario: If Riley is good and everything else holds to form, we're finally BCS-bound. If Riley struggles, we get our pick of the ESPN bowl bonanza. The Trojans will never be more vulnerable than they are this fall. The Bears will never be stronger. I would put better than even odds on the Bears winning at least 10 games this season. Our chances rest with our quarterback. Haven't we been here before?

3. Oregon Ducks

By Addicted to Quack

Overview: Oregon is beginning a new era this season, but it really doesn’t seem like much has changed. New coach Chip Kelly will continue his offensive explosion that has averaged 475 ypg and 40ppg over the past 2 years. Duck fans expect great things, as Oregon is loaded with talent at the skill positions, and the inexperienced offensive line will be coached by the top offensive line coach in the country, Steve Greatwood.

On the other side of the ball, the Ducks will rely on speed. Oregon has an experienced and talented group of linebackers, and the team is led in the secondary by All Pac-10 CB Walter Thurmond and hard hitting safety TJ Ward (Google "TJ Ward hits Zac Robinson;" you’ll be glad you did). Though Oregon’s defense has been a weak line in the past, it has the talent to improve from last season, when the Ducks’ D spent more time on the field than any team in the nation.

Key to Success: The passing defense. Oregon fans are always up in arms about the secondary, which they constantly feel is underachieving. Last year, the unit was supposed to be the best in the nation, but then gave up a combined 829 yards to BSU and USC.

This year, the unit must improve, which will be a very difficult task as Oregon lost two starters in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. The secondary is talented with a finally fully healthy Thurmond, who should be one of the top cornerbacks in the nation. But Oregon will need young players to step up at the opposite corner position, as well as at rover.

Potential Achilles Heel: Any follower of the Pac-10 knows that injuries have spelled disaster for the Ducks time and again in recent years, most notably when Dennis Dixon’s knee gave out on a terrible night in Tucson. This season is no exception, with only one experienced QB on the roster. QB Jeremiah Masoli is backed up by Nate Costa and Darron Thomas but Costa has injured his ACL three times and Thomas is an inconsistent true sophomore.

Health will also be vital at receiver and on the offensive line. The WR position has seen multiple injuries through the first week of fall camp, and the offensive line is still healing from spring ball. As the offensive line returns only 20 total starts, health will be vital in ensuring this unit can come together and help Oregon compete with the upper echelon of the Pac-10.

Best Case Scenario: Go undefeated and win the bowl game against anyone not named Florida. All the games on Oregon’s schedule are definitely winnable. Oregon has the talent to realistically stick with almost any team in the country, and has a very favorable schedule.

Worst Case Scenario: Oregon’s offensive line never comes together and neither does their defensive line or secondary. This means that Oregon can’t beat either USC or Cal at home, and drops a few games to teams like Arizona, UCLA, and Stanford. Oregon goes 6-7 after losing in Chip Kelly’s bowl debut.

Likely Scenario: Oregon goes 9-3, losing to USC, splitting Cal and BSU, and dropping another along the way. Oregon has a lot of talent, yet a lot of inexperience in a few key positions, which could mean inconsistency. But Oregon wins its bowl game, setting the stage for a big 2010.

4. Oregon State Beavers

By Building The Dam

Overview: For the second straight year, Oregon State will be looking to reload on defense. All four members of the secondary are gone from a year ago, as well as three from the defensive line. The linebackers, led by Keaton Kristick, will be the strength of the defense and should help stop this year's talented crop of Pac-10 running backs. Any pressure the defensive line (watch out for DT Steven Paea) can put on the quarterback will help the young secondary. On offense, the healthy quarterback is Sean Canfield, with Lyle Moevao taking a backseat -- for now. Jacquizz Rodgers returns at RB, but there is little proven depth behind him -- and the receivers are young.

Key to Success: Two things quickly come to mind. The first is the offensive line. LT Andy Levitre and LG Adam Speer are off to the NFL, leaving behind a young, inexperienced group-- especially on the left side. Highly touted recruit Michael Philipp has come into camp to compete for the LT spot, and has been turning some heads. According to HC Mike Riley, Philipp will either "start or redshirt", but at 6-3, 320, the Beavers need him to learn the system and start this year. The other key is Jacquizz Rodgers. He needs to stay healthy all year, or this could turn into a train wreck on offense with the inexperience at receiver, especially with Darrell Catchings going down with a wrist injury early in fall camp.

Potential Achilles Heel: The secondary, which isn’t young -- just inexperienced -- could be the achilles heel this year. It shouldn’t be quite like 2005, when the Beavers baptized freshmen Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis by fire at cornerback, but all four to-be starters don’t have much starting experience. It will be up to Tim Clark to hold down the group -- he has the most experience and should turn into the leader of the defensive backfield.

Best Case Scenario: The best case scenario this year is that the Beavers win all their home games (it’s doable), and then go out and win most of their tough games on the road. With road trips to Cal, Arizona State, USC, and Oregon, it’s not going to be easy, but the Beavers know they have the talent and the wherewithal to do it.

Worst Case Scenario: The worst-case scenario would be that the Beavers can’t win the games they need to win at home, and they struggle against the Pac-10’s best on the road -- which could mean that Jacquizz Rodgers goes down with an injury.

Likely Scenario: Most likely, the Beavers will win seven or eight games. It's very possible that this squad could win more-- and it probably wouldn't surprise many, based on what Riley has been able to do in the past. Look for the Beavers to get off to a better start in years past with the more favorable pre-season schedule, have a solid season, and win their sixth straight bowl game.

5. Arizona State Sun Devils

By House of Sparky

Overview: 2008 is known as the year of disappointment in Tempe. After an extremely promising 2007 campaign where they finished 10-3 and won a share of the Pac-10 with USC, the Sun Devils found themselves overconfident and overmatched, going 5-7 and missing the postseason for the first time in years. 2009 brings a new quarterback in senior Danny Sullivan, and a highly touted recruiting class that could pay instant dividends on the playing field.

The Sun Devils are headed to Athens, Georgia to play the Bulldogs in a highly anticipated rematch of the drubbing of 2008. Going into a vaunted SEC stadium and pulling off the victory would give the Sun Devils a huge vote of confidence. In all likelihood, however, this team is a year away from legitimacy, after the recruiting class gets some experience in 2009

Key to Success: If the defense can live up to its massive potential, ASU will be a sleeper pick to finish in the top 3 of the Pac-10. If true freshman LB Vontaze Burfict is eligible for the 2009 season, he and fellow true freshman DT Corey Adams will join an experienced, tenacious D led by LBs Gerald Munns and Mike Nixon. Given the uncertainty on offense, a reliable defense would give ASU a fighting chance against any competitor. Stop the run in the Pac-10, and you can put up wins. There isn't a single QB in the Pac-10 that can break down a great defense on his own.

Potential Achilles Heel: In a fairly obvious move, House of Sparky picks the quarterback position. Danny Sullivan is currently the guy, but Samson Szakacsy and Brock Osweiler are both breathing down his neck on the depth chart. In terms of talent, Osweiler is king. But as a true freshman, it's a spotty idea to even consider him for the role. As for savvy, it might just be Szakacsy. He's a laid back dude who enjoys surfing while at home in California, but he has the resolve to lead this team in the desert. As for experience, Danny is the only one who has ever played college football. Hopefully, Sullivan assumes the role nicely and takes us to a nice 8-win season. But with this lack of control over the circumstances, the QB position will be worth watching for the Devils in 2009.

Best Case Scenario: Sullivan catches onto the starting role, and the defense destroys the pretenders in the Pac-10. ASU goes into Georgia and gives them a heck of a fight, earning the respect of SEC fans everywhere. ASU wins 9 games, culminating in a victory over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl. Thomas Weber wins his second Lou Groza Award.

Worst Case Scenario: Sullivan breaks down against Georgia, and we're embarrassed once again by the Bulldogs. Pac-10 competition brings about the emergence of Szakascsy, but he cannot fulfill the fans' expectations. Vontaze Burfict is deemed ineligible for competition, and has to sit out 2009. ASU wins 4 games, and Dennis Erickson is fired

Likely Scenario: Sullivan is an average Pac-10 QB, and we win 6 games, making it into the postseason, but lose to BYU in the Las Vegas bowl. Osweiler gets some reps, and is named starter going into the 2010 season. The defense scores 10 defensive touchdowns, the main bright spot on the team.

6. Stanford Cardinal


Overview: Jim Harbaugh's program is one on the come. The Cardinal were living in the bottom of the Pac-10 in the wake of Tyrone Willingham's departure and the disaster that was Walt Harris, but after steady gains the past two seasons and one of the nation's top recruiting classes, Stanford has its eyes set on the top half of the conference. Harbaugh's got people believing down on The Farm.

Key to Success: Quarterback Andrew Luck. The highly regarded reshirt freshman has supplanted senior Tavita Pritchard, and by all accounts has the ability to be a star. If he can live up to the hype and provide a legitimate compliment to the already potent running attack led by Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal offense could take a quantum leap this year. And if it does, there's no telling what kind of noise Stanford can make.

Potential Achilles Heel: The offense ought to be good, but there are some nagging questions. The aforementioned quarterback battle could spell trouble if Luck doesn't pan out -- Pritchard has had plenty of issues over the years. And while Gerhart is a freight train, the offensive line has some new faces. The defense should be solid again, but if the offense can't come up to speed, the Cardinal might lose some games they might otherwise win.

Best Case Scenario: The Cardinal make the most of their relatively soft landing to begin the year, winning their first five against WSU, Wake Forest, San Jose State, Washington and UCLA. Emboldened by their fantastic start, Stanford goes 4-3 the rest of the way, winning a game or two against the conference's heavyweights to finish the year 9-3 and in the Sun Bowl. 

Worst Case Scenario: That soft landing? Yeah, not so soft. WSU upsets Stanford after Luck throws a trio of interceptions, and it's a portent of things to come, as the Cardinal head to Wake and lose there, too. The bad start throws a wrench in the Cardinal improvement plan, and they take a step back to 4-8.

Likely Scenario: Stanford wins four of its first five, and goes 3-4 over the final seven to get to 7-5 and Las Vegas.

7. Arizona Wildcats

By AZ Desert Swarm

Overview: The 2009 season will be all about momentum.  Nic Foles and Matt Scott battle out the quarterback position while the receivers, running backs, and offensive line return tons of experience. Our defense should be solid as well with a D-line that will be strong, aggressive backers, and anchors on the defensive backfield in Cam Nelson and Devin Ross.  Arizona's recruiting class is the strongest since Stoops has been in Tucson.  Three guys could make immediate impacts as true freshman (C.J. Parish, Trevor Erno, and Adam Hall).  The Cats brought in Jonathan Hollins as a Junior transfer as  well as Jack Julsing and Shane Zink for immediate experience and upper classmen strength.

Key to Success: The key to our success will definitely be the offensive line play, giving our young quarterbacks the time to throw the ball.  I think that Matt Scott will be the starter at the beginning of the year.  Scott will have the mobility factor that Foles isn't able to bring to the team.  Nic Grigsby and Keolin will be dominant out of the backfield and  shouldn't miss a beat on the offensive end.  Wide receivers are deep (minus Mike Thomas) and will be open, they just need a QB to get them the ball.  Defensive line is really deep with the return of Elmore, Mitchell, Horton, Reed, and the addition of Hollins.  Linebackers is the weak point, with our DB's returning two guys who have lots of experience.

Potential Achilles Heel: Arizona's achilles heel is the lack of cohesiveness with the offense.  We will have a new QB in Scott, or Foles.  Our offensive line lost three guys, and will be making patchwork of returning backups from last year and juco transfers in Zink and Jusling.  The receivers will need to find a man to step up and take Thomas' spot, most likely Delashaun Dean or Terrell Turner.  Arizona's offense faces plenty of tough teams in the Pac-10 this year, will have to play a scary Central Michigan team, and travel to Iowa to play a Big-10 team on their third week of the year.

Best Case Scenario: Take care of business in the non-conference schedule by taking out Central Michigan, Northern Arizona, and Iowa without missing a beat.  The next three games are Oregon State, Washington and Stanford.  The Cats will probably win 2 out of 3 of these.  I think our best case scenario for the Cats is to start out the season 5-1 heading back to Tucson to play UCLA.  A win at home against UCLA is definitely winnable.  Taking out UCLA, then lowly Washington State could lead the Cats to 7-1.  I think that's where the honeymoon stops and the Cats struggle the rest of the way out.  At California, home against Oregon, at Arizona State, then to USC will be a brutal way to end the year.

Worst Case Scenario: Lose at home to Central Michigan (scary team) to start the season, and then at Iowa two weeks later.  I think a slide in the beginning of the year could snowball the Cats downward and cause problems for them at Oregon State and Washington.  I think a 1-4 start would be the worst case scenario for Arizona.  After Oregon State, UCLA and Washington could prove formidable foes.  I already talked about our year end schedule, which could easily be 4 losses for the Cats this year.

Likely Scenario: A middle ground of the above scenarios. The Cats will take out Central Michigan and Northern Arizona no problem.  Travel to Iowa will be a challenge.  Oregon State in Corvallis will be a huge win, but unlikely.  The Cats will finish 8-4 this year, but will need to find a way to put up point like they did last year.  Sonny Dykes has done a great job installing the spread offense in Tucson and Matt Scott could be an unbelievable fit in the system.

8. UCLA Bruins

By Bruins Nation

Overview: To say Rick Neuheisel was handed a program that had to be built from the ground up is a massive understatement and last season couldn't even be called building a foundation. Last season, Neuheisel just cleared the scraps off the lot. This season, he will begin to build his foundation. With the infusion of talent thanks to great recruiting, some fantastic offseason work and a year of development, this program will take a major step forward this year. They won't compete for a Pac-10 title, but they'll be competitive in every game and that's progress.

Key to Success: The Bruins' key to success will be the man under center, Kevin Prince. While the offensive line is the unit that needs to take the biggest step forward, the quarterback position is still the most important on the football field and UCLA will send a redshirt freshman who hasn't played in two years (season-ending injury in the first game of his senior year of high school) into the fire. He does have a good arm though and has drawn rave reviews for his football smarts and leadership qualities. His ability to keep the turnovers at a minimum and handle the pressure sure to come from dropping back behind a green offensive line will tell the tale of the offense.

Potential Achilles Heel: The Bruins' potential achilles heel is the same as last season. While the team had issues last year, no unit caused UCLA more problems than the offensive line. The running backs never had holes to run through and last year's quarterback, Kevin Craft, showed as much toughness as anyone in the country just to make it through each game with the beating he was taking. The offensive line's first job this year will be to open some holes to get a running game going. If the Bruins have a respectable running game, then UCLA will have a chance to take advantage of the talent at the skill positions.

Best Case Scenario: The UCLA offensive line, which is amazingly inexperienced, but has some talent, could come together and provides decent play. Kevin Prince could maximize his talent a little earlier than expected and mature quickly, while the defense remains as injury-free as possible to be led by Brian Price, Reggie Carter and Alterraun Verner to an eight-win season.

Worst Case Scenario: Kevin Prince and the offensive line's play leans more towards inexperience than talent, while the linebacking core, which is strong but thin, falls prey to injury. With the offensive line and QB unable to take advantage of the talent on the perimeter, the offense flounders and the lack of linebackers lets opposing teams control possession as UCLA fails to go bowling again.

Likely Scenario: The Bruins will be inconsistent as they mesh some extreme inexperience in with their handful of great players. The offense will be much improved and keep from turning the ball over too much, but is never explosive. The defense should be steady and help the offense out with field position and special teams is stout to win UCLA seven games.

9. Washington Huskies

By CougCenter

Overview: The 2009 Huskies are in rebuilding mode under new head coach Steve Sarkisian after going through total destruction mode under the Willingham and Gilbertson eras.  There is hope on Montlake, as Sark has shown the ability to bring in big recruits.  If he can get those recruits to execute his offensive plan the same way his USC superstuds did, then Husky fans may see the glory of the Don James days return.  Of course, having Joe Montana roaming the sidelines watching his son, all the while bumping into a few recruits and boosters, probably won't hurt.

Key to Success: Jake Locker's arm.  We all know Jake can run.  Last year we saw what happens when Jake relies on his legs too much.  The problem is Locker has only been effective when he has made plays with his legs.  Unfortunately, he has not impressed when putting the ball in the air.  His most famous throw is a behind the back toss that led to a 15 yard penalty against BYU last year.  If Jake can improve his throwing accuracy, the Husky offense would become difficult to stop.

Potential Achilles Heel: There is a common thread that connects all historically bad football teams.  Poor line play.  The Husky offensive line was very ineffective in 2008 (2.9 YPC).  It doesn't matter how talented Jake Locker or any other skill player on the UW offense is, if the line doesn't  block, the offense won't move.

Best Case Scenario: Jake Locker stays in the pocket a little more, hits some open receivers, continues to make some plays with his legs, and keeps his leg out of a cast for all twelve games.  The lines on both sides hold up just enough and the Huskies go 5-7.

Worst Case Scenario: Another 0-12 season is unlikely thanks to the scheduled W known as Idaho.  Worst case, the Huskies go 1-11 with a historic third straight Apple Cup loss to the Washington State Cougars.

Likely Scenario: The Pac 10 is down this year, but UW was just flat out bad last year.  It would be a lot to ask to challenge for a bowl game.  The Huskies will most likely beat Idaho, Wazzu, and either Arizona or Oregon at home.  On the road, they could get one from either Stanford or UCLA.  UW ends the season at 4-8.

10. Washington State Cougars

By CougCenter

Overview: The Cougs are coming off of perhaps the worst season in the history of the program. A roster already low on Pac-10-caliber talent was made worse by a plethora of injuries, especially on offense: Five different quarterbacks saw action for the Cougs and seven different offensive line combinations started games. The result was ugly: The Cougs' eight Pac-10 losses were by a combined score of 440-61. Ouchy.

But there is hope that this year can be better. There is a lot of experience returning on offense, and a number of transfers join the defensive ranks. Additionally, the team dedicated itself to strength and conditioning in the offseason, making gains that have been noticeable to observers close to the program. It should add up to the team being more competitive in 2009.

Key to Success: The biggest problem for this team last year was that it was physically dominated at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. The defensive allowed a whopping 5.78 yards per attempt last year (dead last in FBS), most of which you can lay at the feet of the line. Add in the fact that they had just 15 sacks against FBS competition, and you can that the rest of the defense never really had a chance. The story was much the same on the offensive side: 2.75 yards per rushing attempt (No. 116), 42 sacks allowed (No. 117).

If the big fellas on the offensive and defensive lines can put those strength gains to good use -- holding their own in the trenches and avoiding injury -- this team stands a real chance of being a lot more competitive.

Potential Achilles Heel: Injuries, plain and simple. This team still is paper thin at just about every position not named running back -- the Cougs are loaded there, led by explosive Cal transfer James Montgomery -- and if any unit suffers a sudden spate of injuries, it could undermine the effort of the entire team. The positive news is that it's so far, so good in camp, as no key players have suffered notable injuries; at this time last year, the training table was already overflowing. The Cougs will need that to continue in order to make the strides they want to make this year. Otherwise, it could be a replay of 2008 until more reinforcements come next fall.

Best Case Scenario: With last year's experience fresh in their minds, the Cougs play inspired football. The strength and conditioning gains made in the offseason are real, and the team is able to withstand the physical punishment of Pac-10 play. They also get a little lucky in avoiding major injuries. The offense is able to move the ball well on the ground and adequately through the air, and the defense employs a bend-but-don't-break philosophy that allows them to give the offense a chance. It all adds up to the Cougs shocking some people en route to a 5-7 season.

Worst Case Scenario: Injuries pile up again, and so do the losses. Another string of embarrassing defeats has fans questioning Paul Wulff's ability to turn the program around, and worse than that, the players' commitment, which looked so strong in the offseason, begins to waver. WSU finishes the year without a win, and Wulff never gets to see the rebuilding job come to fruition.

Likely Scenario: The team is better. Not great, but better. They're not winning a whole lot more games, but they're in a lot more games than they were a year ago. There still are some lopsided scores, but clearly, progress has been made and things are heading in the right direction. The Cougs get a couple of non-conference wins against SMU and Hawaii, jump up to bite either Arizona State or UCLA, and finish up the year with yet another win over Washington. Four wins? We'll take it.