The question is, will the Pac-12 deliver a team with the chops to be a national title contender? Maybe. Oregon and Stanford must show they haven't dropped off. Southern Cal still can't go to a bowl. Washington and Arizona State are on the rise, but have yet to prove themselves against the league's best.
One thing will not change, however. The Pac-12 will continue to feature wide open offenses led by great quarterbacks. Andrew Luck is the nation's best quarterback, while Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, and Darron Thomas are veterans who will continue to give defensive coordinators headaches. Here's how it's gonna go down:
New head coach John Embree and his staff have their work cut out for them. They must adjust to playing in a new conference where they lack the familiarity with its teams. They have one of the nation's toughest schedules with road games against Hawaii, Ohio State, Stanford, and Arizona State. And they must figure out a way to slow down Pac-12 offenses with a pass defense that was among the worst in the Big-12 last season. It's not all bad news. The offense returns four starters on the O-line, a senior quarterback, and a dependable, if undersized running back.
I still find myself confounded at how this program, with its proud history, and arguably the nation's best high school talent in its backyard, continues to flounder year after year. I was among those who thought Rick Neuheisal would elevate the program. Obviously that hasn't happened. With his job on the line, he has thrown himself into improving the single biggest weakness on the team - quarterback. Last season, the Bruins ranked an anemic 116th nationally behind sophomores Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut. Neuheisal has doubled down on the Pistol Offense by hiring Nevada running backs coach Jim Mastro to improve it. He will be helped in his task by a solid stable of backs led by 1,000 yard rusher Jonathan Franklin, while experienced, potentially dangerous receivers lay in wait for a quarterback to make it go. Defensively, the losses of playmakers Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore will be offset by what Neuheisal hopes will be a better overall squad under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey.
The Wildcats finished last season with five straight losses, including an embarrassing Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. Unfortunately, it's hard to see how their fortunes improve in 2011. Problem #1? The Wildcats must replace their entire offensive line. This is problem for a team that already ranked 8th in the conference in rushing, and must therefore keep their star quarterback upright at all costs. On defense, the 'Cats will struggle to replace the quarterback-hating tandem of Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore that created so much havoc for opponents. If they aren't able to address the problems soon, the Wildcats could get eaten up by an early, brutal four-game stretch against Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC. Head coach Mike Stoops will rely heavily upon senior quarterback Nick Foles to create offense. Fortunately for him, they have the league's best pass catcher in Juron Criner who will lead what may be the league's deepest and best receiving corps.
Although the Utes are coming from a weaker conference than Colorado, I suspect their transition will be an easier one. Not only has Utah been a top 25 program for the better part of a decade, notching BCS bowl victories over Pitt and Alabama, but they have been playing Pac-10 teams annually for more than a decade going 7-3 against the conference since 2003. Add to that an outstanding head coach in Kyle Whittingham, sage offensive coordinator Norm Chow who will have a veteran quarterback to work with. The challenge will be the transition from the spread offense the Utes have employed for years, to Chow's west coast offense. Defensively, the Utes return all three starting linebackers. The bad news is they return no one else. The defensive line will likely be fine, as they rotate some ten players up front, but the secondary's lack of experience makes them vulnerable.
The Trojans welcome back the three top skill position players to an offense that averaged 31 points a game last season. Quarterback Matt Barkley has demonstrated remarkable poise and improvement in his first two years. Marc Tyler distinguished himself from a talented stable of running backs to gain 913 yards, 9 TDs last year. And wide receiver Robert Woods is one of the league's most electric playmakers. Whether they improve upon last year will depend on replacing three starters on the O-line from a group of candidates that's thin on experience. On the other side, head coach Lane Kiffin must find some ways to plug holes in a defense that let opposing players run wild, particularly in the secondary. Despite this, the Trojans somehow managed to win eight games last year. But matching or improving upon that will be difficult when they must go on the road to play Arizona State, Cal, Notre Dame and Oregon. How will the manage? Like the Men of Troy always do, dump ridiculous amounts of talent into their roster and stir vigorously.
1. Arizona State
Once again, the Sun Devils enter the season loaded with talent and aspirations, but fans have no patience for excuses this year. At the unveiling of their new uniforms, the program reemphasized this sentiment with the slogan "It's Time." But in order to make a run at the roses, Dennis Erickson will have to prove he can bring another one of his notoriously undisciplined teams to heel. And it starts on defense. All-world linebacker Vontaze Burfict was the epicenter of the most penalized team in the conference last season (4th nationwide). They can't afford that. Not when a pass defense that got burned so much last year loses its all conference corner Omar Bolden with a torn ACL. Not when they have to find three news starters on the line. It will fall on Burfict and league's meanest linebacking crew to hold that defense together.
Offensively, the Devils could be scary good. With all five starters returning, ASU may have the best offensive line in the conference. They have a solid running attack with 223 lb. Cameron Marshall and mercurial change-up man Deantre Lewis. Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, and budding star Jamal Miles will spread the field for Erickson's single back offense. And to make all go, the Devils will count on junior signal caller Brock Osweiller. At 6'8", he's surprisingly mobile and has a big arm. He's not yet a proven commodity, but he did lead ASU to wins over UCLA and Arizona to finish the season.
Bottom line: The Sun Devils may be good enough to win the South, maybe the conference, but that's been the story of Erickson's tenure in Tempe. And every year they disappoint. Why should this year be different? Well, it's all laid out for them. The Pac-12 South is relatively weak, so even a team with two losses might well win the division. And even if the Trojans have a better record, they can't participate in the conference championship game which means a second place finish for ASU earns them the right to play the winner of the North on Dec. 2. Even more providential is the Sun Devils' schedule that features seven home games (including USC). And most importantly: no Stanford.
6. Oregon State
The Beavers just came off the finest decade in its history, and yet I can't help but feel this is a program in decline. The caliber of players that once propelled the Beavers to eight, nine and ten win seasons between 2006 and 2009 are noticeably absent, particularly on defense. This year, the Beavers return three starters from a squad that finished 8th in total defense last year. And one of those, cornerback Brandon Hardin may be out for the season with an injury. It gets worse. Injuries have so devastated the defensive tackle position they are rotating d-ends to shore things up.
Offensively things are somewhat better. Most of the line comes back. Quarterback is solid with Ryan Katz primed to improve upon last year, but who will he throw to? Star receiver James Rodgers and tight end Joe Halahuni are still out, and there's no other proven pass catchers. And I haven't even mentioned the gaping hole in backfield left by the great Jacquizz Rogers. With three or four guys in the mix, it's anyone's guess who will carry the ball. Get ready for a long year Beaver fans.
In 2010, the Cougars showed some fight that's been absent for several years. Despite only winning two games, they were competitive in all but three, which is a huge improvement. Junior quarterback Jeff Tuel is a rising star who completed 60% of his passes despite being sacked 51 times. And he's got two solid targets in Marques Wilson and Jared Karstetter. The Cougars once again finished last in nearly every defensive category. If the D tightens up, this team could notch five, possibly six wins. That may not sound like much, but considering they haven't finished with more than two wins in three years, it's a big step. And with the team opening against Idaho State, UNLV, San Diego State, and Colorado, a 4-0 start is a real possibility.
The Golden Bears face a lot of uncertainty on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they must replace Shane Vereen's production on the ground. Iso Safele is the leading candidate. Coach Jeff Tedford is hoping Buffalo transfer Zach Snyder will end the uncertainty and inconsistency that has plagued the quarterback position ever since Aaron Rodgers graduated. On the other side, the Bears will struggle to find the muscle up front as they must replace the leading tackler Mike Mohamed and three out of four on last year's monstrous defensive line.
The Huskies head in to 2011 riding high after their astonishing Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. Coach Steve Sarkisian took over a team that was winless, and in just two years produced the first winning season in Montlake since 2002. To keep this momentum going, Sarkisian must get some solid quarterback play of sophomore Keith Price, who looked good in limited action last season. Fortunately he has Chris Polk, one of the nation's best tailbacks lining up behind him, who will run straight at opposing defenses, grinding away tough yards. On the edges, Price should be able to count on hands of Jermaine Kearse and and Devin Aguilar. The defense looked positively awful at times last year before pulling together and making the difference in the Huskies four game win streak to end the season. The Dawgs have a solid secondary led by junior corner Desmond Trufant, but it's not clear whether the front seven will be stout enough to cause trouble.
A heartbraking 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS National Championship capped the best season in program history. For the Ducks to repeat that success, they must find playmakers on both sides of the ball. That will prove difficult. Darron Thomas is a proven performer, but who among his receivers will step up and deliver the consistency and clutch effort of Jeff Maehl? LaMichael James' credentials are unquestioned, but will a rebuilt offensive line be able create space like last year? The Ducks' secondary looks outstanding on paper with superstar corner Cliff Harris and safety John Boyett, but how effective will they be if the defensive line cannot match the harassment of Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe? And how can you possibly replace the speed and smarts of linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger? Answers: No one. No. Not as. They can't.
The Cardinal have some questions on their offensive and defensive lines, as well as uncertainty at wide receiver, but there's only one question that really matters. Does Stanford still have the same blood & guts attitude Jim Harbaugh brought to this program and that animated its players for the last three years? Or did it leave with him? The promotion of offensive coordinator David Shaw to head coach goes along way in answering 'yes.'
Of course, having a guy who turned down the #1 pick in the NFL Draft doesn't hurt. But Andrew Luck won't have to do it alone. He has a solid running attack led by junior Stepfan Taylor. If he gets anything like the push he had last season from the retooled O-line, the Cardinal will run down the throats of opponents. And if they can do that, then Luck will dissect defenses throwing to Griff Whalen, field-stretcher Chris Owusu, and tight end Coby Fleener.
Defensively, the Cardinal return most of their secondary and linebacking corps, led by last year's two leading tacklers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. But they will need to find some new muscle on the line to make their 3-4 scheme effective.
Pac-12 Championship Game (12/2): Stanford vs. Arizona State
Winner and Pac-12 Champion: Stanford
Pac-12 Bowl Predictions:
Holiday: Arizona State
Las Vegas: California
Fight Hunger: Utah
New Mexico: Arizona