In football, all it takes is one crucial cog to fall out of line, and then everything turns off-kilter. When you go from experienced seniors to first-time players in a crucial spot, anything can happen.
Here are 12 trouble spots for Pac-12 teams this season.
Jordan Holmes, center, Oregon Ducks: Center tends to always be an underrated position in football (look at how Cal's offense has performed since Alex Mack departed), and Oregon might be the team facing the biggest downgrade in the position this season. Stanford also loses Chase Beeler and USC loses Kristofer O'Dowd, but the Cardinal have two solid replacements and the Trojans are shifting over the massive Khaled Holmes from guard. Oregon has Prussian warlords named Karrington Armstrong and Hroniss Grasu fighting for this spot. They might be great for planning a tactical invasion of Sweden, but they could struggle in their first significant starting action.
Sione Fua, nose tackle, Stanford Cardinal: The 3-4 defense requires a nose tackle to either be a disruptor in single-teams or occupy double teams, and Fua fit those expectations in 2010, shifting from his typical 4-3 defensive tackle spot and giving his linebackers lanes with which to plug the run game (particularly down the stretch). Terrence Stephens is about 30 pounds lighter and will be asked to do the same things, which probably means he won't do the same things.
Adam Grant, left tackle, Arizona Wildcats: Arizona loses all their starting O-linemen, which is such a grand, grand recipe for calamity. Grant's presence on the left side helped keep Nick Foles protected on the blindside, but now there's nothing but impressively built man-children to replace him. Mickey Baucus is massive and could be a great left tackle in time, but the redshirt freshman might need some time before he's able to catch up with everyone else.
Tryon Smith, right tackle, USC Trojans: I expect to hear this phrase a lot next year:
"Matt Barkley dropping back to pass, man in his face, has to throw it away!"
USC has the recovering (although massive) Kevin Graf and midyear enrollee David Garness taking over for Smith. The Trojans might have to start running bootlegs/rollouts toward Barkley's weakside to avoid the pressure defenses will likely send from his right. Or maybe they'll make him run with the football.
Projects future NFL Draft scouting profile based on this assessment.
"Matt Barkley needs to learn to run with the football less."
Caleb Schlauderaff, guard, Utah Utes: Not a good sign for Utah that one of their guards is moving on and another one is moving to center. Utah has two behemoths ready to suit up in the interior, but they are young, and raw, and haven't played much at all. Expect Utah to struggle to run inside this year if the guards can't get their footing. Defensive tackles will also have a lot of chances to disrupt the inside and force Jordan Wynn to move around.
Mason Foster, linebacker, Washington Huskies: No, it's not Jake Locker. Perfectly capable quarterback at UW, he was hardly a lynchpin, and any semi-competent quarterback should be able to replicate his numbers with the personnel he has around him. Foster kept Washington's defense afloat, particularly down the stretch in must-win games. Cort Dennison should be an adequate replacement at middle LB, but the edge linebackers will be huge question marks going into next season with Foster and Victor Aiyewa gone.
Omar Bolden, cornerback, Arizona St. Sun Devils: Omar ain't comin. Bolden's out for the season, and Arizona State doesn't have many capable corners to take his place. ASU might have a solid front seven, but if there are offensive lines that can hold them down, expect pass offense to take advantage of the flats and the deep vertical routes and test the sidelines.
Chris Conte, strong safety, California Golden Bears: Conte was tossed around from cornerback to safety to singing minstrel to cornerback, before finally reaching his calling manning the backline last season. Conte had a breakout year and was crucial in holding down some of the most efficent offenses in the country like Arizona and Oregon. Cal will have a hard time replacing him. Senior Sean Cattouse has the height and adaptability to be a great safety on the next-level, but his decision-making has been spotty and his playing time has been sporadic.
Jacquizz Rodgers, running back, Oregon St. Beavers: How do you replace the Quizz? The Beavers rode him to two Pac-10 second place seasons in 2008-09, and there's no real replacement for Oregon State to consider. OSU has two potential starting tailbacks--senior Ryan Mccants, who hasn't played much in two years, facing off with the speedy Jovan Stevenson, who's returning from a shoulder injury (Terron Ward and Jordan Jenkins also have injury issues). The Beavers do not want to put too much of a load on Ryan Katz to win football games.
Akeem Ayers, strong side linebacker, UCLA Bruins: If Ayers had returned for his senior season, UCLA might have challenged for "best front seven in the West Coast", but instead they'll have to settle for "most promising front seven in Los Angeles." Jordan Zumwalt has a lot of promise to take over for Ayers, but he's still a young bud, and Glenn Love seems to be the incumbent starter coming out of spring. UCLA should have one of the best defenses in the conference, yet tiny holes like the one Ayers leaves seem to always leave this group one or two noticeable flaws.
Nate Solder, left tackle, Colorado Buffaloes: Colorado did not have a great offensive line last year. It's probably not going to be much better in 2010, particularly with Solder out. CU now has David Bakhitari there, and although he has the ability to replace Solder, that forces the young Jack Harris and overweight Sione Tau to find something to do themselves. Dominoes.
Reid Forrest, punter, Washington St. Cougars: Other than the emergence of Jeff Tuel, Forrest has probably been the happiest thing to happen to Cougar fans during the Embrace of Pain era. While Dan Wagner won't be a scrub, Forrest's absence could make Washington State fans very very sad, and that's before they have to think about the rest of their team.