The balance of power in the Pac-10 could see a drastic shift in light of the NCAA sanctions that descended upon USC.
After an NCAA investigation concluded the school was guilty of various violations, relating most notably to the alleged actions of Reggie Bush and former basketball star O.J. Mayo, the school’s football program was struck with the bitter penalty of a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.
This new burden for USC will obviously open a door for other Pac-10 teams. But USC was already losing its grip last year, finishing fifth in the conference with a 5-4 Pac-10 record, so it’s not like the rest of the conference was helpless to begin with.
Oregon is the current favorite to establish itself as the new Pac-10 superpower. The Ducks finished atop the conference last year, as quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LaMichael James carried the team to a 10-3 record. Of course, a series of boneheaded maneuvers earned Masoli a dismissal from the team, and now the Ducks are crossing their fingers and hoping either Nate Costa or Darron Thomas can even slightly imitate Masoli’s 28-touchdown season from 2009.
But there are at least three other schools within range of Oregon and USC.
The team the Ducks are probably most concerned with is the Oregon State Beavers. The in-state rivals almost took down the Ducks last year in a 37-33 shootout, and the 2010 Beavers bring back the two crucial players who fueled that effort: the impossibly good Rodgers brothers. Jacquizz and James combined for 3,299 yards from scrimmage and 33 total touchdowns last year. The defense could use some improvement, and the team needs to replace Sean Canfield’s very good quarterback play from last year, but if newcomer Ryan Katz is at all up to the task, the Rodgers brothers should take the Beavers to a relatively successful 2010.
The most intriguing Pac-10 team to keep an eye on might be UCLA, perhaps the program most likely to directly benefit from the sanctions placed on USC. The defense, a unit headlined by star linebacker Akeem Ayers and exceptional safety Rahim Moore, has the potential to be one of the best. But there are major concerns over whether the defense can replace who was perhaps the team’s best player in defensive tackle Brian Price, not to mention cornerback Alterraun Verner and the Bosworth twins in the front seven. Still, the team brought in a lot of good recruits in recent years, and UCLA is in a good position to close in on Oregon if sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince builds on the improvement he showed in the second half of last year.
Although it lost one of its historically best players in running back Toby Gerhart, Stanford should bring back an excellent offense in 2010. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck was superb as a redshirt freshman last year, posting the conference's highest passing efficiency rating and throwing 13 touchdowns to just four interceptions. With Gerhart gone, look for Stanford to lean more heavily on Luck’s obvious talents, which should result in bigger numbers for the team’s skilled pass-catchers — Ryan Whalen, Chris Owusu, Coby Fleener and Konrad Reuland. But even the running back spot remains in good hands. Watch out for Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 306 yards and two touchdowns on just 56 carries as a freshman last year. He should hit 1,000 yards this year and instantly reassure Stanford fans that panicked about Gerhart’s departure.
Of course, anything can happen in college football, so it’s not like the other teams in the conference can’t jump in on the race.
California features two talented runners in Shane Vereen and Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, and the Bears reeled in two of the best recruits from the 2010 class in safety Keenan Allen and defensive end/linebacker Chris Martin.
Although Washington’s defense isn’t going to stop anyone, the Huskies’ offense could wind up being the best in the conference. Quarterback Jake Locker isn’t the only big name on the unit, as the running back and receiver groups are also strong. Running back Chris Polk and receiver Jermaine Kearse should be among the Pac-10’s best at their respective trades.
Arizona worked its way to an 8-5 record last year, led by the promising Nick Foles at quarterback and the excellent running back combo of Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin. The Wildcats should be competitive in most of their games, even if they don’t finish at the top.
But despite what these various squads have going for them, it remains reasonable to expect Oregon to come out on top this year. James is nothing less than jaw-dropping as a runner, and the team has Kenjon Barner and five-star recruit Lache Seastrunk providing even more big-play ability behind him. Replacing Masoli is obviously a concern, but whoever takes over at quarterback will need to do little more than hand it to the running backs and watch them take off.
Players to Target
Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Locker still has work to do as a passer, as he completed just 58.2 percent of his passes last year and averaged a barely adequate 7.1 yards per attempt. Still, he tied the conference lead with 21 passing touchdowns and should be even better this year. What makes Locker the potential top quarterback option in the Pac-10, however, is his running ability. He ran 112 times last year, going for 388 yards and seven touchdowns, an excellent perk in addition to his improving passing ability. Locker looks destined to be a first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, so he’ll be looking to be at his best this year as the 2011 quarterback class could be very, very talented. With a nice running game led by Chris Polk and a talented group of receivers led by Jermaine Kearse, Locker will have plenty of help in 2010.
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Luck was excellent as a redshirt freshman last year, averaging 8.9 yards per pass attempt and throwing 13 touchdowns to four interceptions. He also displayed superb running ability, probably even better than that shown by Locker. Luck took 62 carries for 354 yards and two touchdowns. With Toby Gerhart gone, Stanford will probably utilize Luck more as a passer this year. He showed he could pick apart any defense put in front of him last year, and Stanford has no reason not to use his talent to the fullest extent. Don’t be surprised if Luck outdoes Locker this year, or even if he has such a great season that he emerges from 2010 as the top NFL Draft-eligible quarterback prospect.
Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
Foles started 2009 backing up Matt Scott, but Scott was terrible as a passer and Arizona turned to Foles. He provided the desired improvement, completing 64.3 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,465 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He needs to improve on his yards per attempt average after posting a very weak 6.2, but he throws more touchdowns than interceptions and should improve heading into this season.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Oregon State
There might not be a more impressive player in college football than Rodgers. Despite being listed at a generous 5-7 and weighing just 190 pounds, he runs with tremendous aggression and always finds a way to grind out the tough yards. He also possesses surreal change-of-direction ability and has great speed. He totaled 1,962 yards from scrimmage last year and accounted for 23 touchdowns, and it’s hard to not consider him the top fantasy running back prospect with that in mind.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Although Rodgers is an incredible player, James isn’t far behind, if at all. Like Rodgers, James is an undersized runner with unreal elusiveness and surprising power for a player his size. He’s suspended for the first game of the season, but he’ll put up staggering numbers after that. Oregon faces a weak schedule and James is almost a lock to put up big numbers every single week. He ran for an absurd 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns last year despite only playing a featured role in 11 games. He also averaged a mammoth 6.72 yards per carry, with his lowest rushing average in a given game being 4.67 yards per carry against the suffocating Ohio State defense. He averaged at least 5.62 yards per carry in his other 12 games. Even though he’s out for Week 1, you can’t fault anyone too much for taking him over Rodgers.
Allen Bradford, RB, USC
Bradford is a bit unproven, but he certainly looked impressive in a limited role in 2009, averaging 5.81 yards per carry while running for 668 yards and eight touchdowns. Bradford’s a bruiser in the 230-pound range and was moved to running back by USC after being a five-star linebacker recruit in 2006. He doesn’t offer anything as a receiver, but he’s surprisingly explosive and fast and should put up big numbers on the ground. He could be in for a huge year if Lane Kiffin runs Bradford as much as he did Montario Hardesty at Tennessee last year.
Shane Vereen, RB, California
Vereen could be poised for a huge season in 2010. While some observers have him ranked right below Jacquizz and LaMichael James, we’re not quite as high on him. He shows good vision and balance as a runner and is fairly tough to bring down, but he’s not as elusive as past California running backs like Justin Forsett and Jahvid Best, so we’re skeptical that he has as much upside as those two. Plus, Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson and Isi Sofele are good runners for California who could steal carries from Vereen. Still, Vereen should hit double-digit touchdowns this year, and you can’t go wrong with him.
Nic Grigsby, RB, Arizona
Grigsby, Rodgers and James are pretty much clones. Grigsby’s listed at 5-10, but he looks more like 5-8 and, like the other two, runs surprisingly strong despite having a tiny build. He ran for 1,153 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2008, but injuries got in the way of his attempt to match those numbers in 2009. Still, he saw the field briefly and put up huge numbers, running for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games. Despite the injuries that followed, he finished the year with an extremely impressive 7.18 yards per carry average, running for 567 yards and five touchdowns. If Grigsby were less of an injury worry and didn’t need to split some carries with Keola Antolin, he’d probably be ranked ahead of Taylor.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington
As low as he is in the Pac-10 running back list, there’s still a good deal to be said about Polk’s fantasy value. He ranked fourth in the conference with 1,113 yards on the ground last year, though he averaged a modest 4.92 yards per carry and scored just five times. Furthermore, he could lose a few carries in 2010 to four-star running back recruit Deontae Cooper. But there’s reason for optimism with Polk because he ended the 2009 season on a strong note, running for 576 yards and three touchdowns on just 99 carries in the last five games. If he keeps running at the 5.82 YPC average he posted in that five-game stretch, he could be huge in 2010.
James Rodgers, WR, Oregon State
James is Jacquizz’s brother, and each is an almost exact copy of the other. James also checks in at a very undersized 5-7, 185 or so, and he provides at receiver what Jacquizz does at running back: big plays. He caught 91 passes last year for 1,034 yards and nine touchdowns while adding 303 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He also returns punts and kicks for the Beavers, something he has proven to be dangerous at, as well. While last year’s starting quarterback is gone and it’s not clear how effective the new Ryan Katz will be, James is probably the top receiver option in the Pac-10 and one of the best nationwide.
Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington
If Jake Locker can take the next step as a passer in 2010, Kearse could be in for a huge season. He was an excellent big-play threat in 2009, taking 50 receptions for 866 yards and eight touchdowns. If the final six games of 2009 are a preview of what’s to come, Kearse should be one of the best in the nation this year. In that span he caught 30 passes for 568 yards and six touchdowns, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he picks up in 2010 where he left off last year. Although James Rodgers ranks ahead of Kearse, look for Kearse to be a big deal this year.
Ryan Whalen, WR, Stanford
Whalen was the best player in Stanford's big-play passing game in 2009, taking 57 receptions for 926 yards and four touchdowns. Stanford has one of the country’s best quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, and the passing game could get more work this year with Gerhart gone. Expect Whalen’s yardage numbers to increase slightly in 2010 with perhaps twice as many touchdowns as last year. However, Whalen might not be Stanford’s best wideout by season's end, and if you’re a gambler you might want to instead go with …
Chris Owusu, WR, Stanford
Owusu probably won’t see the ball as regularly as Whalen, but he’ll almost definitely make more of the opportunities he does get. He averaged 18.43 yards per reception as a sophomore last year, going for 682 yards and five touchdowns in the receiving game. He's also an incredible kick returner, averaging 31.54 yards per return and taking three back for touchdowns last year. Look for Stanford to make a serious effort to get Owusu more involved on offense this year, as he has the ability to be a game-breaker.
Nelson Rosario, WR, UCLA
Rosario is a big target at about 6-5, and he emerged as a very good big-play threat for UCLA last year. He created 723 yards out of just 42 catches, though he caught only two touchdowns. Expect that total to increase significantly in 2010, as Rosario proved his ability to be a factor near the end zone by scoring twice on two-point conversions. He improved significantly in the second half of the year, too, catching 30 passes for 526 yards and both touchdowns in the last six games. The potential for a big season is there for Rosario if his quarterback, Kevin Prince, improves this year.
Juron Criner, WR, Arizona
Criner quietly scored nine touchdowns last year, which tied him with James Rodgers for the conference lead. He’s a big wideout who could put up bigger numbers in 2010 if quarterback Nick Foles keeps improving, so there’s definitely upside here. The problem with Criner is that Arizona really spreads the ball around and he might not have a consistent workload. He caught two or fewer passes in six games last year, so you’ll probably have to live with his inconsistency if you draft him.
Joe Halahuni, TE, Oregon State
Halahuni is almost definitely the Pac-10's best tight end entering 2010. He caught 35 passes and went for 486 yards and three touchdowns last year, which ranked second among Pac-10 tight ends behind Ed Dickson. With Dickson gone this year, Halahuni is quite valuable in Pac-10-only leagues and is worth consideration in other formats, too.
Anthony Miller, TE, California
It probably wouldn’t be prudent to take Miller ahead of Halahuni, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he put up the bigger numbers in 2010. He caught 26 passes for 357 yards in just 11 games last year, and his yardage per game average was only about five yards less than Halahuni’s. If Miller can become a factor in the red-zone, he could be in line for a big year in 2010.
Kai Forbath, K, UCLA
You laugh, but you won’t when another team in your Pac-10-only league beats you in the championship because they had Forbath and you had some other bum playing at kicker. Of course, this cautionary tale is an exaggeration you shouldn’t take seriously, but Forbath is a glaring exception to the rule of kicker irrelevance. He was given 31 field goal attempts last year and he hit 28 of them, six more than the next Pac-10 kicker in line (Justin Kahut for Oregon State).
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
Taylor is not Toby Gerhart, but he could still be a productive fantasy option this year for Stanford. Taylor was a four-star recruit in 2009 and reportedly chose Stanford over schools like TCU, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Wisconsin. He made the most of his limited workload in his true freshman season, averaging 5.46 yards per carry while taking off for 306 yards and two touchdowns. That included a combined effort of 14 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown against two of the Pac-10's tougher defenses in Arizona State and USC.
Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
Barner is on this list only because he figures to have a big game in the first week of the season due to LaMichael James' suspension. Oregon takes on New Mexico in that game, which should mean huge numbers for Barner. If you want to pull a fast one on your Week 1 opponent in any league format in 2010, go ahead and use your last pick on Barner. He’s worth a depth/gamble pick in Pac-10-only leagues at the least, because he’ll probably get at least five carries per game.
Marvin Jones, WR, California
Jones led California last year with 43 catches for 651 yards and six touchdowns, numbers he could definitely improve on this season. The former four-star recruit has the talent to be one of the top producers in the conference, but he needs better quarterback play from Kevin Riley to do it. Even if he only matches last year’s numbers, Jones is worth a significant pick in Pac-10-only leagues.
Ronald Johnson, WR, USC
Johnson will be flying a bit under the radar this year after catching just 34 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns last year. His season was significantly compromised by a collarbone injury, but Johnson is productive when he’s on the field. Don’t expect him to be as good as Damian Williams was, but he has value in Pac-10-only leagues.
James Johnson, WR, Washington
Johnson was very good as a true freshman last year, catching 39 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns as Washington's third wideout. He had his best performances in Washington's most important games, totaling 20 receptions for 201 yards and two touchdowns against LSU, USC and Oregon. Look for Johnson to carve out a bigger role as a possession receiver for the Huskies this year, making him a good depth pick in Pac-10-only leagues.
David Paulson, TE, Oregon
We could have just as easily put Paulson in the Players to Target section, but he is a bit unproven. Still, he inherits Ed Dickson’s spot at tight end for Oregon this year, and he was very good in limited time last year. He caught just 12 passes, but he took them for 185 yards. Look for him to produce similarly to Halahuni and Miller this year.
Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
Many observers have Franklin pegged for a breakout season in 2010, but we’re not at all sold on him. He has skills as a runner, but he was an incredibly bad fumbler last year, coughing it up eight times. He only touched the ball 133 times in 2009, so that’s one fumble every 16.6 touches. In other words, if he had gotten the ball as many times as Pittsburgh running back Dion Lewis did last year, Franklin would have been on pace to fumble 21 times. Franklin will be on a very short leash in 2010, and if last year is any indication, he’ll drop the ball.
Malcolm Jones, RB, UCLA
Jones isn’t guaranteed to suit up in 2010, but the Bruins need help at running back and Jones has the look of a potential star. He’s a consensus top-20 running back from the 2010 class and should play as a workhorse right away. Jones has the build to take 20 carries per game, but he’s shifty and explosive enough to be a big-play threat, too. If it’s confirmed that Jones won’t redshirt this year, look for him to be UCLA’s top runner.