After a great Rose Bowl run, the Oregon Ducks again look like a strong contender to return to Pasadena, and it's easy to see why. The offense is once again loaded, and the defense should be strong enough to improve on 2009's surprisingly good campaign. The schedule doesn't give them a lot of favors, with five Pac-10 road games, including tough trips to USC, Cal and Oregon St, but they're good enough to have a solid shot of winning the league for the second straight season.
The only thing missing from the Duck offense is former quarterback Jeremiah Masoli; the rest of the unit will be ready to rock and roll. As long as either Darron Thomas or Nate Costa can step up and do well (and stay healthy), this will be another outstanding offense. As usual, it's a run-heavy unit, emphasizing the spread option over the passing game. Running back LaMichael James is probably the best player on the team, and is a dangerous weapon every time he touches the ball. The offensive line is deep and experienced, and both quarterback possibilities should be good running the option.
The passing game definitely isn't the strength of the offense, but they can still move the ball through the air, and have solid receivers that should again put up decent numbers. It should be a solid complement to the outstanding run game, as usual.
The untold story of Oregon's great 2009 season was the defense, which substantially improved on 2008's numbers despite heavy personnel losses. With most of the key players returning, they should take another step forward and could very well be the league's best defense in 2010. Their big strength will be pass defense, as they should have the best secondary in the league. Safety John Boyett was a Freshman All-American, the two starting corners should both be very good, and Rover Eddie Pleasant will be solid as well.
The front seven won't be quite as good as the secondary, but will still be strong. Tackle Kenny Rowe and linebackers Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews will be the anchors of the run D, and the rest of the roster fills out nicely. There isn't as much raw talent here as, say, USC, but it's hard to find another team that ought to have a better run defense (though a number should be close).
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Forget huge upset win, the only potential upset win of any sort is at USC. I lean towards the Trojans in that one, but Oregon absolutely has a solid shot to win that game.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
That week two trip to Tennessee is dangerous. No, the Vols probably won't be good, but that's a very tough road trip to a very hostile environment (just ask 2006 Cal). Another potential landmine is a late-season trip to Cal, coming after back to back games against USC and rival Washington.
I would rate this as the best team in the Pac-10. The schedule doesn't set up very nicely, especially with road trips to USC and Oregon St, but I'm still pegging them to win the league title outright and earn a Rose Bowl trip. The Pac-10 will be too tough for them to run the slate, but 10 wins should be enough to send them back to Pasadena.
OREGON STATE BEAVERS
Oregon St has been a consistently good team the last four seasons, and this should continue in 2010. They won't likely be good enough to win the league title, but if they can somehow develop at QB (a big issue for them in the Riley era), then they'd have as good a shot as anyone not named Oregon or USC.
Last year, Oregon State featured a balanced offensive attack that found a lot of success both on the ground and through the air. This year, they'll be a bit more run-focused, but should overall again have a good offense. They return Quizz Rodgers, who only gets better every year; James Rodgers, who is a strong complement to Quizz and a very good receiver; and an offensive line that should be pretty decent. So running the ball, they should be even better than they had been the past couple years.
However, the big question is the passing game, specifically new quarterback Ryan Katz. The one big problem Mike Riley has had over and over again as a coach is that new starting quarterbacks tend to be mediocre to lousy. And there's no particular reason to think that this is about to be different with Katz. Sure, there's a good running game to take the pressure off. And yes, there is talent at receiver and a line with experience. However, until proven otherwise there's little reason to not think that the passing offense will be a weakness for the Beavers.
As usual, the defense should be pretty good. They lose a few key players, but there's enough talent and experience remaining to think that they should once again be one of the better defenses in the league.
The pass defense should be the big strength here. They return three of their four linemen, as well as most of the contributors in the secondary. The unit was rarely excellent but was consistently solid, and that should more or less contribute, except with a bit better set of numbers in 2010.
The run defense should be good, but not great. Losing Keaton Kristick and David Pa'aluhi are big blows to the linebacker corps, though the defensive line should still be solid, and Dwight Roberson should be pretty good as well.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
They'll have late-season home games against both USC and Oregon, and have a good chance at both of those games.
Probably I'll regret even typing this, but I actually think the Boise game might be winnable, IF (and it's a huge if) Katz plays at least decently early on. Boise's run D was shredded by Fresno, and struggled against Idaho and Nevada. If they have a down game against the Beavers, and if the Beaver secondary holds up against a Boise team that's more of a passing than running team (they run the ball a lot against bad defenses but against the better ones tend to rely on their main strength, throwing the ball), there's at least a chance of a stunning upset.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
This team always, ALWAYS struggles in early season road games. However, at this point TCU and Boise are expected losses. A more dangerous outing is their mid-October trip to a Washington team that should be hungry to end Oregon St's six-game winning streak against the Huskies.
This should be a pretty good, but not very good, team. The non-conference is nasty enough to expect that they'll suffer their usual early-season swoon, but in the end, they should recover and make a run, which is why I'm projecting 7-5 despite a likely 1-2 non-conference record. If Katz develops quickly, though, they could outperform my projection.
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