Welcome to The Ciskie Blog's 2008 College Football Preview. As usual, you can expect a rundown of every Division I-A (or "Football Bowl Subdivision", if you prefer) conference, as well as a brief look at the independents. Some of the information used to compile these previews came from various football preview publications that I took the time to review this summer. I give a full endorsement to Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the national edition, as well as his various regional magazines). I also have looked at Sporting News, Athlon Sports, and Blue Ribbon (via ESPN Insider). Information was also gathered from local newspapers and school websites. Please use the comments section or e-mail for feedback, questions, and any corrections you feel need to be noted.
4. Arizona State
7. Oregon State
10. Washington State
TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN THE PAC-10
Serious losses at Cal, Oregon. The job of chasing down USC atop the league certainly became more difficult for the two next-best teams in the league. There's no question that Jeff Tedford still has a talented team in Berkeley, but the Bears are going to have to make due without leading rusher Justin Forsett (1,546 yards, 15 TD), along with the top five pass receivers. That list includes DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins, who combined for 127 catches a year ago. They doubled as Cal's top punt and kickoff returners, respectively. Nate Longshore is back under center, and everyone is high on sophomore RB Jahvid Best (pictured), who averaged 7.6 yards per carry in spot duty last year. Meanwhile, Mike Bellotti doesn't have it much easier. QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart, who combined for almost 4,500 yards from scrimmage and 40 touchdowns last year, have both moved on. There is talent abound at both positions (including impressive-looking sophomore QB Nathan Costa (among seven candidates in the spring) and senior RB Jeremiah Johnson, but the Ducks have to find a way to integrate the new starters quickly, as Washington, Purdue (away), and Boise State are among their first four games.
No one schedules better. More schedule whining here. When I wrote up this idea, I was astounded to see how much better the Pac-10 was at non-conference scheduling when compared to everyone else in the country. Even the league's worst programs in recent years (Arizona, Washington, and Stanford) have done a pretty good job. Arizona plays solid mid-major Toledo and travels to New Mexico. Washington gets BYU, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame (!) at home. Stanford hits the road for TCU and Notre Dame. That's not bad. The only Pac-10 team to play a I-AA (er, FCS) opponent is Arizona State (Northern Arizona), and they make up for that by hosting possible preseason #1 Georgia September 20. Other marquee matchups include Ohio State-USC, California-Maryland, Oregon-Purdue, Oregon State-Penn State, and Tennessee-UCLA. Other leagues should be ashamed of their scheduling, especially considering they have an extra non-conference game (the Pac-10 plays a nine-game league schedule, meaning teams only have three NC games to schedule).
The hot seat returns for Ty Willingham. He never seemed to get off it at Notre Dame, and now he has to deal with it at Washington. Willingham (pictured) took over a mess of a program when Keith Gilbertson got fired, and while he's made some progress in three years, a step back in 2007 leaves his future in doubt. A promising 2-0 start was quickly shot to hell by six straight losses, including four at home. Willingham is 11-25 at UW, and he probably needs a bowl appearance to feel good about things. That will be a problem, thanks to that aforementioned non-conference gauntlet, along with five road games in league play. While the seat is hot for Arizona's Mike Stoops, he is probably in better shape. The hiring of Sonny Dykes to coordinate the offense worked out last year, and ten starters return. Among them is senior QB Willie Tuitama, who's been through quite a bit in his first three years. Leading rusher Nicholas Grigsby and 1,000-yard receiver Mike Thomas are both back, along with four offensive line starters. If Stoops can make something of a depleted defense that was abused in Pac-10 play last year, the Wildcats should go bowling for the first time since 1998.
Rick Neuheisel returns to coaching. I'm sure Washington fans will welcome him back to Seattle with open arms on November 15. Well, open arms and middle fingers, that is. Neuheisel, who caused a few problems at Washington in his last college head-coaching gig, is now at UCLA, where success might not be immediate, but it's probably imminent. If nothing else, Neuheisel has two of the top coordinators in the game. He got Norm Chow back to college football to run his offense, and DeWayne Walker sticks around to handle the defense after coaching the Bruins in their bowl game. Last year's team was jam-packed with experience, so there is some building to do, but it won't take long to get this program going strong. USC now has competition in Los Angeles, though Neuheisel has some work to do before people start confusing him for Pete Carroll.
USC reloads on offense. The league champs (again) and Rose Bowl champs (again) have never had any serious problems replacing star players. Matt Leinart stepped in for Carson Palmer. John David Booty followed their act. Chauncey Washington got some serious help over the last two years filling in for Reggie Bush and LenDale White. This year, they're going to do it again. Booty is gone, giving way to Mark Sanchez, who will be shadowed by Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain. Washington leaves, but Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight (pictured) lead the charge to be the Trojans' feature back. While leading receiver Fred Davis, a tight end, is gone, the top wideouts all return for Sanchez. Where Carroll's recruiting magic better have worked is along the offensive line, where only LG Jeff Byers returns from last year. Of course, the Trojans return enough great players to field the league's best defense, and if that happens, Sanchez can go ahead and play with a blindfold on and it probably won't keep USC from winning nine or ten games again.
BEST OF THE REST
If Arizona State gets it done against Georgia, look out. The Sun Devils are deep and talented at the skill positions. While they're still a bit smallish up front on defense, they could be a darkhorse threat to win the league. Five returnees in the Oregon State secondary have combined for 98 career starts. The bad news? That's pretty much it for experience on defense. Re-energizing a passing attack that flat-out stunk last year has to be a priority for the Beavers' offensive coaches. While Jim Harbaugh led Stanford to a world-shocking win over USC last year, the Cardinal did still manage to finish 4-8, and they lost to one of the worst Notre Dame teams any of us will ever see. Don't be shocked if Michigan transfer Jason Forcier gets a shot at unseating incumbent starter Tavita Pritchard if the latter struggles early. Welcome to big-time college football, Paul Wulff. The former Eastern Washington coach takes over at Washington State this year. His program lost eight scholarships because of another bad APR. Legal problems have taken a few other guys away. Only 36 letterwinners return from a 2007 team that underachieved and ended up 5-7. Wulff will need time to fix up his alma mater.
PRESEASON AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Offensive Player of the Year: Rudy Carpenter, QB, Arizona State
Defensive Player of the Year: Rey Maualuga, LB, USC
Coach of the Year: Mike Bellotti, Oregon
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike Stoops, Arizona, and Tyrone Willingham, Washington
Best Non-Conference Game: Ohio State at USC, September 13
Worst Non-Conference Game: Northern Arizona at Arizona State, August 30