Sunday, August 5, 2007

2007 Preview: Pacific 10

There's a lot of ways to do a conference preview. I'm trying to avoid the cliche ones that list how each team will fare and the bowls at the end of the year. I'll try to offer my predictions in prose form just because I am trying really to force myself to approach college football from the storytelling side.

I've always been a big fan of underdogs and comebacks. So, when Thursday's rankings came out and named a number one from the Pac-10, I couldn't help thinking about the other schools in the conference.

For the past few seasons, well, the past decade according to ESPN, USC has been the cream of the crop. It is definitely a hard thing to argue against. A handful of championships and Heismans to fill the trophy case will definitely put some targets on a team's collective backs. Reloading at 'SC has been second nature for Pete Carroll and the running joke of the talking heads is one upping each other with the number of blue chip running backs that the Trojans have at its disposal(it's usually reported as somewhere between five and seventeen).

There's one other thing that USC has on its back: a pesky northern neighbor. In recent years, USC and Cal have gotten into some pretty entertaining offensive contests. In '04, it was a goal line stand that kept Cal from knocking off the champions to be. The Bears got rocked in '05 at home before acting as a doormat to USC's apparent national title shot (which was shattered the following week by a UCLA team that can't be ruled out in '07 either).

A few years ago, I was saying that 12-teams-to-get-a-conference-championship rule was ridiculous. It was because, simply, of these two teams. I really wanted to see Cal get another shot at the Trojans. That triple overtime game in 2003 (which the Bears won) was the crux of my argument. Who wouldn't have wanted to see the teams square off again? That was coach Jeff Tedford's second year, and except for the close call in 04, the games have been leaning toward the Trojans. Almost so much that USC might be looking past Cal and could get caught sleeping.

The thing is, in the Pac 10, that could be enough for Cal to sneak into the BCS. The two games that will separate Cal from a big time bowl are both at home (the Labor Day weekend contest with Tennessee is definitely the game I'll be watching after BC-Wake). By the time mid-November rolls around, if Cal can avoid any hiccups, there is a perfectly good chance that the game could be a battle of unbeatens.

I give Cal credit this year mainly because of their offense. The Pac-10 and its style of gunning the ball downfield put a premium on great receivers and pro style quarterbacks. I'm sure we will be saying "Longshore to Jackson, touchdown" plenty this season.

The question for Cal is the same one that ASU and Oregon have had in recent years and just as the offense is all about the air ball, there seems to be a difficulty in retaining a decent secondary. USC was flashy with Bush, Leinart and Palmer, but they won those championships because of a Tenacious Dee. Cal is strong in the middle of the front seven, but they don't have a lockdown guy. The guy who just left, last year's Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Daymeion Hughes, leaves a massive hole.

The Bears are an underdog in this league but still have great positioning because they have a chance to take out two big programs and catapult into the top five. I'm so intrigued I may even ditch my old tongue-in-cheek rule that "If your games are shown on ESPN2 at 10 p.m., it doesn't count." This team might be worth staying up late just to watch what's happening in the Pacific Time Zone.

Do I have the stones to call the upset? No.
Win: USC
Place: Cal
Show: UCLA

And my upset special, coming around the last corner into the stretch is a scrappy Stoops team in Tucson. And that's not a homer pick (U of A was my school away from Boston after growing up in Phoenix and not really feeling love for the hometown Devils). No doubt they make a bowl and potentially a good one if they can steal one on the road from BYU or Washington. The 'cats may even end up ranked...

Bear Down. Spend the next week figuring out how Rutgers got ranked 16th.

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