Trojans Named Consensus Pick to Win Their Sixth Straight Pac-10 Title
BY Ryan Gorcey
LOS ANGELES—It came as no surprise that when the conference’s annual media rankings were passed out at Thursday’s Pac-10 Media Day, USC was ranked first. It’s been that way for the past five years now. For the fourth consecutive year, the Cal football team was ranked second. Again, no surprise there. And it is also no surprise that, even though the Bears shared the conference crown with the Trojans in 2006, it was the Men of Troy who garnered the lion’s share of the attention.
Despite the fact that last season, junior Bears quarterback Nate Longshore passed for 3,021 yards, 24 touchdowns and a 60.2 completion percentage, numbers very close to USC’s senior quarterback John David Booty (3,374, 29 and 61.7), only one coach other than Cal’s Jeff Tedford mentioned Longshore’s name, whereas almost every other coach gushed about Booty and the revamped Trojans offense. “I think they should be in that league I was so successful in,” said new Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson, referring to his unsuccessful stints as an NFL head coach for the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.
“USC’s not only the best team in the country, but maybe the best team in the history of college football,” Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said of USC’s 2007 squad. While the new Cardinal head coach’s praise may be a bit overstated, there is no denying the fact that in many preseason polls, the Trojans are the top team in the country. USC is projected to be so good that it garnered only the third unanimous No. 1 conference ranking in the 46-year history of the media poll. The other two teams? The 2004 and 2005 Trojans which featured Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Despite the previous season’s shared conference crown, the Bears will once again play second fiddle to USC, despite returning the 3,000-yard passer Longshore and the nation’s top-rated wideout in Heisman Trophy-candidate DeSean Jackson. “This is the first time we’ve had a returning quarterback who’s played the previous season in our five years (with the team),” Tedford said. “Nate is a student of the game, he has experience now in really all environments. Starting out last year at Tennessee is really as tough a look as you’re going to get and I think he’s very comfortable with the offense.”
Booty, Longshore’s opponent in Cal’s Nov. 10 clash with the Trojans at Memorial Stadium, will, like the Bears’ junior gunslinger, be in his second year guiding his team’s offense.
“A year ago, John David was recovering from back surgery and really was unable to put together an off-season where he could really feel confident about his physical makeup,” USC head coach Pete Carroll said. “But now coming out of last season, he’s really had a seamless off-season, he’s in the best shape of his life and he’s the fastest and strongest that he’s ever been.” Booty for his part was not so quick to overlook Cal, especially since USC will be playing in Berkeley in 2007. “It’s a loud place to play when it’s packed,” said Booty of Memorial Stadium. “You’ve got people up on the hills and all around up there. It’s really a great environment, a lot of fun. We did lose there a few years back and the place went crazy, but we were able to get out of there with a win two years ago and most of our starters have been there and played there before and know what to expect.”
Coming in third behind the Trojans and the Bears is UCLA, which, though it lost the Emerald Bowl to Florida State, is coming off of a 13-9 win over rival USC in the regular season finale, the first time in eight years that the Bruins have defeated the Trojans. “John David Booty hasn’t even looked at me yet,” UCLA defensive end Bruce Davis said at the post-press conference luncheon. “We’re definitely in their heads.” The Bruins return one of the nation’s strongest defenses from last season, including 10 starters. Among those is Davis, who was ranked fourth in the NCAA in sacks per game (0.96) last season. Despite the strength of UCLA’s defense (last year, they tied for first in the nation in rush defense and were second in total defense) and their 10 returning starters on offense, the Bruins will have a tough road to travel this season if they wants to stay in the top tier of the conference. UCLA’s non-conference schedule includes BYU, Notre Dame and Utah, who went a combined 29-10 last season. “We have this motto on the wall in our team room that says, ‘You don’t have to be the best team in the country, you just have to be the best team every time that you play,’ and that’s how we approach it,” Davis said. “We’re going to study, we’re going to do our work on the field in practice and off the field in the film room and we’re going to prepare ourselves and try to win every game we play.” The fourth team picked in the poll, Arizona State, has a slightly easier schedule ahead of it. With new coach Erickson at the helm, the Sun Devils will play eight home games at Sun Devil Stadium, including a Thanksgiving night tilt against the Trojans. Erickson returns to the Pac-10 for the first time since 2002, the last of his four seasons at Oregon State. He coached in the NFL for six years and is a two-time national champion in the collegiate ranks, guiding Miami to titles in 1989 and 1991. Erickson was named the 1988 Pac-10 Coach of the Year with Washington State and in 2000 with the Beavers.
“The thing that’s changed a little bit since I’ve been at Oregon State is that everyone is even,” Erickson said. “Anybody can beat you, and that’s just how it is. You’d better be able and be ready to play every week, or else you’re going to get your rear end beaten.” Rounding out the top five is Oregon State, which went 10-4 last season, including a victory at Reser Stadium over the Trojans that ended their 27-game Pac-10 winning streak.