Arizona State faces the task of improving on consecutive 6-5 seasons, both of which included disastrous starts, while trying to find a replacement for last season's leading rusher Mario Bates, who is now in the NFL.
The job of replacing Bates, who last year was ASU's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1986, falls to a committee of rushers, including former Tucson Salpointe star Chris Hopkins, now a junior, sophomore Michael Martin and freshman Marlon Farlow.
Leading the offense will be sophomore quarterback Jake Plummer, who was surprisingly effective last season, passing for 1,243 yards while leading the team to a 4-2 record in the final six games.
Coach Bruce Snyder expects great things from his quarterback in the years to come.
"With all due respect (to the star QBs in the conference), I don't believe right now I'd trade Jake Plummer for anybody in our conference," Snyder said. "He's not at their level yet, but he has talent. He's potentially a terrific football player."
Clyde McCoy returns as the Pac-10's leading punt returner (11.3 yards) and punter Lance Anderson (39.3 avg.) and kicker Jon Baker (18 field goals) give the Sun Devils a solid kicking game.
Defensively, the Sun Devils are somewhat thin. The loss of Shante Carver, who registered a third of ASU's sacks last year, to the NFL, and the season-long suspension of Brian Easter, leave holes. Brian Proby is a solid tackle and Justin Dragoo, who missed 10 games last year because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, may regain his starting linebacker position. The secondary is anchored by cornerback Craig Newsome, one of the best in the Pac-10.
With seven starters back on defense, the starting unit looks to be solid, but a severe lack of depth after the first 11 has Snyder concerned.
"I think we have enough talent to have a heck of a year, but it's going to take some players playing better than they think they can," Snyder said.
In the last six years, ASU has become an average team, going 34-31-1 over that span. In that time, every other Pac-10 team except Oregon State has gone to bowl games.
In order to avoid another poor start, Snyder eliminated the traditional open date following the team's first game. But with all three non-conference opponents (Miami, Louisville and BYU) having played in bowl games last season, and four of their last six games on the road, another 6-5 campaign could be difficult.
Do you think Cal coach Keith Gilbertson tasted all of Golden Bear quarterback Dave Barr's food this summer before his star quarterback did?
It would make sense. After all, when Barr went down with a shoulder injury midway through last season, the then-5-0 Bears crumbled and went on to a four-game losing streak. When Barr returned, the Bears righted themselves, finishing with four straight wins that included a 37-3 thrashing of Iowa in the Alamo Bowl.
Keeping Barr (275 attempts, 187 completions, 2,619 yards, 21 touchdowns) healthy is simply the most important factor for the Bears' success this year.
"The key is to have Dave Barr start and finish 11 games," Gilbertson said. "He is the complete package. The bottom line for a quarterback is winning football games. Dave has proven he can win games for us with his arm, his intelligence and his savvy with the game on the line. He's as good as there is in college football this year. No question."
Injuries at any position could impact Cal severely.
"This is the smallest group of players I've had since I've been a coach," Gilbertson said. "It's about the same size we'd have when I was at Idaho. Obviously, my number one concern right now is our depth and our health."
Experience such as Barr's is at a premium this year, as the Bears return just three offensive starters.
A new name that will became one of Barr's main targets (which will give sta
dium P.A. announcers nightmares) is wideout Iheanyl Uwaezuoke.
On the other side of the ball, the principal components of the defense return, revolving around second team All-America Jerrott Willard, an inside linebacker and Butkus Award candidate who has led the Pac-10 in tackles the last two seasons. He will be joined by end Regan Upshaw and outside linebacker James Stallworth. This experience gives Gilbertson reason to be excited.
Said Gilbertson: "With our combination of experience and speed we have on defense, I like our chances of developing into a dominant group."
A soft non-conference schedule that includes San Diego State, Hawaii and San Jose State can only help this young team get its confidence up for the Pac-10 race.
Colorado State played last season like the month of March reversed, coming in like lambs and finishing like lions.
After a sluggish 2-6 start, the Rams exploded to win their final three games, including a 42-21 embarrassment of Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl. In the final four games, the Rams averaged 439 yards of offense.
This year, the task will be to play at that level all season long.
Being in the Western Athletic Conference, the Rams are not without their offensive weapons. Running back E.J. Watson had a higher yards-per-carry average (5.7) than Marshall Faulk (5.1) last year and will rotate with Leonice Brown in the Rams' one-back offense.
"Maybe we don't have the quality of running backs that other teams have," Coach Sonny Lubick said, "but we feel good about the running back situation."
The offense will be generaled by two-year starter Anthony Hill. Hill completed only 46 percent of his passes last year, and threw seven interceptions for every 10 touchdowns. He will have targets downfield, though, in receivers Paul Turner and speed-burner Donovan Burks.
Hill is a scrambler, and with three new starters on the offensive line, he will need every move he can muster.
The Rams' defense also showed signs of life late last season, giving up only 41 points in the last three games and allowing only 132 rushing yards per game. Lubick was the defensive coordinator at Miami before heading to Fort Collins two years ago, so improvement in that area can't be far behind.
"We have some strength here," Lubick said about his defense. "We've got seven or eight back. Maybe we're not as big as some schools, but we should be solid."
Solid but relatively thin on defense, the Rams need to stay healthy to defend against high octane offenses like perennial WAC power BYU. CSU could, however, be in the hunt for a Holiday Bowl bid if they stay healthy and get some help from their special teams.
The schedule is a little more forgiving this year, as the Rams replaced their annual sacrifices at Nebraska, Kansas and Oregon with Arizona and patsies Utah State and Arkansas State.
How can the Big West be won?
Maybe with the addition of six junior college linemen.
That is how many new offensive linemen the Aggies will have this season, boosting their line to about 300 pounds a man and boosting the hopes in Las Cruces of their first-ever league title.
"The biggest improvement on the team has been in the offensive line," New Mexico State coach Jim Hess said of the unit, which features Brian Blair and Tim Holland. "That should be the strength of the team."
The size up front will provide quarterback Cody Ledbetter and running backs Brian Pizula (334 yards rushing, 33 pass receptions) and Lawrence Truehill room to operate.
Give ample time to throw to Ledbetter, the premier quarterback in the Big West, and he will hook up with big-play receiver Lucious Davis, whose 36 receptions went for 766 yards and eight touchdowns last year. If the line holds, the offense will be solid Ä the problem is the defense.
"If Ledbetter stays healthy and the line comes together, then we could be fantastic on offense," Hess said.
The Aggies ranked 96th out of 106 Division I-A teams in total defense last year, surrendering 432.8 yards per game. Eight newcomers may improve their fortunes here.
The defensive line lost all three regulars, but Hess is so high on junior college transfers Bernie Johnson, Nesinali Tuipuloto and Dwayne Waltower, that he will probably switch from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 to take advantage of their skills.
The Aggies' kicking game is solid, as they return punter Chad Zecha (39.5 yards a punt) and kicker Bubba Culin, the team's second-leading scorer last season.
The Aggies (5-6 last season, 4-2 in conference play, tied for third) should challenge for the conference crown this year, but by mid-September, they will probably be wishing they had stayed with Big West games rather than branching out to play national powers.
Oregon State has spent the last couple years trying to plug the holes in their game, and this year they may finally be able to see some positive results.
Coach Jerry Pettibone's crew used to get made fun of for running the wishbone, but the Beavers were the second-best rushing team in the nation last year, led by J.J. Young, who averaged seven yards a carry on his way to a 995-yard season.
The veteran offensive line will be back, and should provide quarterback Don Shanklin time to throw to receivers Chris Cross and Sylvester Green.
But the real question in Beaverland is whether they will be able to muster any sort of competent passing game to take the pressure off the run.
"We're working real hard at adding a passing game that we need to have," Pettibone said. "In this conference, it's such a great league that if you don't have that balance in the offense and throw the football, people will stuff you at the line of scrimmage."
Defensively, a solid secondary led by cornerback William Ephraim returns, as do most of the linebacking corps. But a relatively new defensive line will have to withstand severe tests.
"The line is a real concern," Pettibone said. "We don't have a lot of experience so we need some young players Ä redshirt sophomores or true sophomores need to stand up and be counted."
Last year is last year, but the signs were promising in Corvallis. A 4-7 record included losses to UCLA, Stanford and Washington by a combined 14 points. The Beavers might actually be able to see someone underneath them in the conference standings by the end of November.
"It's real encouraging," Pettibone said. "We've improved to a point where we feel that we can be competitive in the Pac-10 week after week, and the last seven weeks of last year, we were. We were 17 points away from 7-4. We still need to grow to a point where we will be able to make the big plays at the end of the game. But we're good enough."
Pac-10 tri-champions and Rose Bowl representatives last year, UCLA returns with a young offensive line and several question marks on defense.
The main man however, is still J.J. Stokes. The All-America wide receiver last season is a Heisman Trophy candidate this year and is deadly at finding the open spot on the field. By being 6-foot-6, he has shown that he doesn't have to shake his defender to make catches.
While Coach Terry Donahue is looking for Stokes to repeat his brilliant 1993 season, he still remains realistic about his chances, knowing that former UCLA first-round draft choice Mike Sherrard's numbers dropped after his junior year.
"We have to try and take advantage of J.J. Stokes," Donahue said. "I want to prevent as much as possible his being eliminated from the game. Teams will be saying that they won't be beaten by him, so we need to be creative to make sure he's not always in the same spot. We had difficulties getting Sherrard the ball, and he was as good as we've had."
Quarterback Wayne Cook returns to lead the offense, and if last year is any indication, the offense is in good hands, as evidenced by his 18-4 touchdown to interception ratio.
The Bruins return four of last year's top six rushers, but team leader Skip Hicks is probably out for the year after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament while running track in the spring.
"Early, we will have to ride the arm of Wayne Cook and hope that we are able to develop a running game that we can be happy with," Donahue said.
Who the running backs will run behind is the problem. Three starters on the line are gone, and it will be up to 6-8, 315-pound junior tackle Jonathan Ogden to anchor the group.
"We have to rebuild the offensive line. We need to get players replaced to establish a running game to take the pressure off of the pass," Donahue said.
On defense, the Bruins lost All-America linebacker Jamir Miller to the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, and his absence will be felt, especially now that Donnie Edwards is the only tested linebacker. The defensive line, with noseguard George Case, is solid.
The cornerbacks, led by Carl Greenwood, will make it tough on opposing quarterbacks, but both safeties will be new after the early departures of Othello Henderson and Marvin Goodwin to the NFL each of the last two years.
"We have a lot of holes because of graduation and the NFL," Donahue said. "We have a lot of rebuilding to do. There are some players who have played in the program, and we need to surround them with new faces."
The Bruins led the nation in turnover margin last year. With a schedule that includes Tennessee and trips to Nebraska, Washington, Cal and Arizona, before ending with rival USC, UCLA will need several breaks again this year to match last year's success.
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