Well, all of the UCLA fans who didn't like what they got in fired coach Karl Dorrell and wanted an upgrade in the head spot certainly got their wish when the Bruins scored a major coup over the offseason in landing Rick Neuheisel. However, before they can make a move towards the top of the league standings they're going to have to find a way to keep their heads above water while dealing with a nasty schedule and a roster chock full of holes.
The good news here is that Kahlil Bell is still around, and still a very good back, and will have plenty of other running backs to trade carries with. Wide receiver should be decent, as Marcus Everett comes back from an injury-plagued 2007, Dominique Johnson showed promise as a freshman and should improve, and there are plenty of talented players to fill out the group, though no others have done much yet.
The bad news is everywhere else. At quarterback, Patrick Cowan's career is done after getting hurt in the offseason, and Ben Olson will be out for a while, and may or may not be 100% when he finally does get back. In their absence, it's tough to see a lot of production. Maybe there'll be a surprise (again, there's talent), but until proven otherwise this looks like at best a weakness, and at worst a major issue.
But even that pales in comparison to the offensive line, a unit that lacks not only experience but also much in the way of talent. If the coaching staff does a fantastic job they'll be mediocre. And if not, it's going to be a very long year. With a good but not great running back, and a bunch of inexperienced quarterbacks fighting for time, the last thing they'll need is a line that can't support them, but that's what they're going to get.
The defense should overall be better than the offense, but there are definitely issues here as well. The Bruins were good on defense last year, but now they have to replace almost all of their best players, and will need big-time production from all of their heralded recruits if they are going to be the strength of the team.
The run D should be pretty good. Led by a good pair of tackles in Brian Price and Brigham Hartwell, and a good linebacker in Reggie Carter, the Bruins should be fine down the middle.
The pass defense, however, could be a real issue. They'll have a serviceable set of ends in Tom Blake and Korey Bosworth, but the pass rush won't be nearly what it used to be without Bruce Davis. And secondary looks like a major weakness. Alterraun Verner is a very good young cornerback, but after that there's nothing but question marks. They'll need a few players to step up in a big way in order to have success against pretty much everyone they face in the air.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Nothing looks all that promising, but they'll have a shot against Tennessee in week one. The Vols have to travel across the country, and are breaking in a new quarterback. If UCLA can avoid mistakes on offense and find a way into Tennessee's backfield, they can force a few mistakes and maybe pull the stunner.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
I'm wondering what exactly could be called a "huge upset." They ought to win home games against Washington St and Stanford, but neither is a guarantee.
Take a deep breath, Bruin fans. Things are going to get better. But not this year. Maybe a really good coaching staff brings up the level of play, maybe all the recruiting talent they've accumulated pays off quickly, but the more likely scenario is that they have to fight tooth and nail to escape the cellar. With most of their winnable games at home, they should succeed, but probably not by much.
In 2004, the USC Trojans won the national title. In 2005, they just missed, losing one of the most exciting college football games ever played to Texas. In 2006, they went 10-2, getting bounced out of the national title game on the season's last week by UCLA. In 2007, they also went 10-2, but it was pretty clear that they just weren't the same as they used to be, struggling against Washington and Arizona, and actually losing to Stanford. So does 2008 portend a return to dominance, or another step downward on the slow slide from the top?
Honestly, it looks like the second option. Obviously, there's plenty of talent here, and obviously, the coaching is still very good. But this looks like a bit of a rebuilding year, especially on offense. USC always has the potential to surprise, but there are too many question marks and too few great players to expect another national title run.
Every year USC has holes to fill, and every year they find a way to fill them. This year, the biggest holes are on offense. The questions start at quarterback, where they'll miss departing QB John Booty. No, he wasn't in the same class as Palmer and Leinart, but he was still pretty good. Mark Sanchez has talent, but he still has to prove himself, and now he also has to fight his way back from an offseason injury (though at worst he should be ready for Ohio St). Mitch Mustain also has talent, but again needs to prove himself if he ends up winning the job.
Fortunately, they have a massive stable of very talented running backs, which will be a huge strength as the season wears on. Moreover, they have a bunch of talented receivers, though production hasn't quite been up to the standard that they usually like to see. Another year of experience should help, but it's still a minor question mark.
The biggest question mark here is the offensive line. Only Jeff Byers has a lot of experience, though a few others have played some. Ultimately, the line will have to be good to support whoever ends up playing QB, and it's no longer the slam dunk it usually is. The line should still be good, but it won't be a rock.
As usual, defense is the strength of the Trojans. Led by linebacker Rey Maualuga, this is as usual a good unit. But it doesn't look quite as scary as it's been in the past.
The run D should be excellent, led by Maualuga in the middle. Nose tackle is a bit of a question mark, but their excellent linebacker corps will more than make up for it. As usual, this is going to be a very nasty unit to try and run against, especially up the middle.
The pass defense, on the other hand, should just be good instead of excellent. The safeties are both very good, but the corners aren't. They're going to miss standout corner Terrell Thomas and his four picks, but what they're really going to miss are defensive ends Lawrence Jackson and Sedric Ellis. The replacements will be good, but there's just no replacing that kind of awesome production. The unit should still be good, but they're going to be a bit vulnerable, especially to teams which are really good at passing the ball.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
The three game stretch at Oregon St and home against Oregon and ASU just looks nasty. They'll be expected to win them all, but I'd guess they drop one (if Costa gets healthy, Oregon would be my guess). A road trip to Arizona could also be a landmine; as wildly inconsistent as they are, the Wildcats are always good for a late-season run and a big home win.
But there's another team that could pull a big stunner, who might be lousy, but also could be very good and pose matchup problems for USC with a high-powered passing attack. Yes, it's a bit of a longshot, and yes, they probably won't be good enough to make the discussion, but I can't escape a gut feeling that Notre Dame could come out and find a way to win this game.
The Trojans are still the class of the Pac-10, but the gap has clearly closed a lot. In two straight years, they've lost twice in conference and tied for the league title. Even with a rebuilding offense and a defense not quite as nasty as usual, they should still win the league. But even with the major challengers all having to visit the Coliseum, don't be stunned if someone finds a way to knock them off their perch. At the least, another 7-2 league record and tie at the top seems eminently doable.
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