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Pac-12 Football PreviewPosted on August 16, 2012 at 02:44 PM.
The Pac-12 has been owned by Oregon the past two years with USC out of the picture for the post-season. Now, with scholarship reductions taking effect, USC has one more season of pretty normal activity before they have to manage life without a full slate of scholarship players.
Silas Redd's addition onto the USC roster will be a huge boost, but it wasn't as if the Trojans weren't already the favorite anyways. They boast the best offense and best defense in the conference -- and could easily be a National Title contender. USC was a three overtime thriller away from going 11-1 last season -- with most of their talent back for another season, it's National Title or bust for the Trojans.
Oregon will be reloading in the North, which will easily be the tougher of the two divisions. While Washington and Stanford look to be a clear notch below the Ducks, there remains enough doubt to say the race is far from decided.
The arrival of Mike Leach in Pullman will certainly make life interesting with his high flying offense and Mike Reily is sure to make Oregon State rather competitive once again this season.
In the south, there appear no serious contenders to USC this season. Utah is about as close as you get, and with a potentially stingy defense and experienced offense they could easily be among the conferences best teams. UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State will all likely float around Bowl Eligibility. And Colorado? Well let's just say they're going to have some issues winning this season.
Here's how the Pac-12 Conference stacks up this season:
1. Oregon 10-2 (7-2)
The Ducks won the Pac 12 last year by default, but won't get as lucky this season with a tougher schedule and a reloading effort ongoing on offense. No one knows who the starter is yet at QB, so I won't even begin to speculate -- although whoever it is will be inexperienced at the very least. With plenty of talent on campus, the question is how will that talent perform for Chip Kelly's team offensively. Oregon has the third best offense in the country last season, and while that type of a season isn't likely again -- neither is a complete falling off of the cliff. Look for the Ducks to reload effectively on offense to remain near the top of the conference. Defensively, there is a lot of experience returning, with six starters and several experienced upper classmen ready to fill in holes left by departing seniors. It's hard to find many losses on the schedule, and 11-1 is perfectly reasonable to speculate on. However, I'm erring on the side of caution and saying the Ducks will be upset at least once, but don't look for the win total to dip below 9 this season in a worst case scenario.
2. Washington 8-4 (6-3)
While the Huskies aren't 'back', in the sense of being a National Title contender -- they certainly are going to find the program on an upswing this season. Keith Price returns as the Huskies QB, but he will find all of his old favorite targets are now gone. Jesse Callier is on the pre-season Doak Walker awards watch list and will be playing his first full season as a starter at TB. On defense, the Huskies 3-4 scheme has just three players returning in the front seven. The secondary is in good hands, with impact newcomer Shaq Thompson set to start from the get go at Free Safety. The Huskies have a tough schedule, with road trips to Oregon and LSU along with a home game against USC on the schedule. I expect Washington to win one of those three and to generally win all of it's home games otherwise. From there, the Huskies simply have to find a few wins on the road, and with winnable road games at Colorado, Arizona, and California on the schedule -- there's no question Washington could exceed last year's win total of seven.
3. Stanford 8-4 (6-3)
There likely won't be a BCS Bowl run this year, sorry Cardinal fans. Andrew Luck is now playing in Indiana and his favorite targets last year are also long gone. That means whoever replaces Luck will have some growing pains for sure. Right now Brett Nottingham appears to potentially be the favorite, although Josh Nunes is also in the running. The line has plenty of returning talent as well, with three of five starters back. Sepfan Taylor and Ryan Hewitt will power a running game which was among the top in the Nation last season. The key to the offense is having the new faces in the passing game mature and gel in a way that it can compliment the run game. The defense is replacing three of its four starters in the secondary, which could pose a problem in the pass-happy Pac-12. The 3-4 set Stanford runs will benefit from having two starters back on the line and three starters back among the linebackers. The Cardinal could surprise some with another fantastic season, but I feel a bit more realistic scenario is likely to have some growing pains with tough games against USC, at Washington, at Oregon, and at Notre Dame on the schedule. Stanford could realistically play above my expectations and still finish 8-4 this year.
4. California 7-5 (5-4)
The Golden Bears have new digs in Berkely, sort of. With Memorial Stadium being heavily renovated last season the Bears played their home games in San Francisco -- this season they are playing their home games back on campus at one of the more scenic stadiums in the country. Celebrating that fact will be a team which returns just enough talent to be dangerous -- with Zach Maynard leading an offense which was middle of the road in the Pac-12 and Nationally. Isi Sofele will lead the offense at tailback, with Keenan Allen being a familiar face returning at WR. Defensively, the Golden Bears were (pardon the pun) a bear last season. While they only return five starters from that unit, with lots of new faces abound -- I'd expect Cal to at least have a pretty solid defense once again. I don't quite see Cal eclipsing last years seven win total, but I do see them matching it most likely. Back to back games against Ohio State and USC in September will mean the Golden Bears are likely 2-2 at that point in the season. If Cal can upset either Stanford or Oregon at home, they could be a surprise challenger in the North.
5. Washington State 6-6 (4-5)
Mike Leach, say hi to the Pac 12. Pac 12, say hello to Mike Leach. This is the beginning of a wonderful relationship, trust me. While Washington State will spend a year getting used to the Leach offense, it's very likely there will be some success in Pullman in year number one. The offense that will be running Leach's system returns just four players, but there is plenty of experience years wise to be sure. Jeff Tuel should be the starter at QB, although Connor Halliday has given him a push in Fall Camp. Defensively, Washington State has one of the top defensive backfields in the conference returning, with all starters back from last seasons team. Otherwise, the defense will be hard pressed with the front seven only returning two real starters from last season. I expect Washington State to have an up-and-down first season under Leach. They won't challenge for the conference crown, and likely won't be a factor in the conference race -- but a Bowl game should be the goal and I expect them to be playing a 13th game somewhere during the Holiday Season.
6. Oregon State 4-8 (3-6)
Mike Riley is entering his twelfth season in Corvallis with both good and bad news. The good news is his team is returning a lot of talent, including Sean Mannion at Quarterback. The bad news is, all of that talent was part of the problem last season with the Beavers finishing nearly dead last in statistical numbers on offense and dead last in the Pac-12 in defending the run. Riley was adamant in the offseason that Oregon State's young players had grown up a lot in the offseason and the team would be much improved -- that remains to be seen but there is a case that could be made for that. Markus Wheaton and Jordan Bishop are experienced targets for Mannion to throw to and defensively there is a lot of experience back to say the least. Oregon State has a tough road, with Wisconsin and BYU both on the schedule this season, so there aren't any real breaks. Worse yet, in conference Oregon State doesn't draw Colorado from the south, but they also don't draw USC. The schedule does set up for a surprise or two, and I honestly think 4-8 is my bottom line scenario for Oregon State. A surprise to the upside is incredibly possible. A bowl game might be a bit much, but it'd be a wildly successful season if that mark is reached.
1. USC 11-1 (8-1)
Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Silas Redd. It's almost unfair that the Trojans now have a big three on offense that'll challenge the likes of just about everyone. With this being likely the last relevant year for the Men of Troy for awhile thanks to crippling scholarship reductions which just went into effect this year -- look for there to be a go for broke attitude around the team. The schedule is primed for a National Championship run, with Oregon visiting the Coliseum and with the toughest road games being at Stanford, at Utah, and at Washington. The defense has a lot of talent across the field, the least of which is T.J. McDonald at safety. USC was quite possibly the best team in the Pac-12 last year, but was unable to show it thanks to a postseason ban. This season, look for USC to run away with the Pac-12 like it was the 2000s all over again. I have them dropping an odd game they never should have, but 12-0 is entirely realistic as well.
2. Utah 8-4 (5-4)
Utah debuted in the Pac-12 with reasonable success, going 8-5 last season. The thing about making the transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 is that it's tough to quantify how much tougher it is to play better teams week in and week out. You saw the effects of that with Utah losing to Colorado last season, a game which they were favored heavily to win. This season, the newness is gone and the team knows what it has to do to win each week. With plenty of talent returning, including seven starters on what was the Pac-12's best defense last season, Utah has a real chance to become one of the better teams in the Pac-12. They won't quite be able to challenge USC this season, but they do get the Trojans at home and could give them fits as they did last season. John White is a talented and experienced starter at RB with Jordan Wynn expected to start -- even though he hasn't been announced as the starter just yet. Look for Utah to start off fast, and then to struggle a bit against Pac-12 competition at times once again. However, I had a hard time finding more than two sure losses on their schedule, which means the Utes could easily surprise to the upside of my 8-4 call.
3. UCLA 6-6 (4-5)
There is talent on campus at UCLA, and now after a pretty public and grandiose pursuit -- Jim Mora is the coach of the Bruins. Mora will be inheriting an offense which is in the middle of rebuilding with just four starters returning. Defensively, plenty of talent is back from last year's squad -- the only problem being that last year's squad was ranked 92nd Nationally in total scoring defense. UCLA will play Nebraska early in the year, as well as Houston -- which should result in a 2-1 start with them losing the former and winning the latter. After that, the conference slate will be full of ups and downs. Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley was named the starting QB earlier last week, which means there will be a Freshman maturation process involved with the offense. The real question is how do the Bruins react to Mora's system. I'm looking for a .500 year for UCLA -- but I wouldn't be surprised at a few wins to the upside.
4. Arizona 5-7 (3-6)
Arizona lacks serious depth in Rich Rodriguez's first year at the helm in Tuscon. But the Wildcats return numerous experience in the trenches and this could play in their favor to win a game or two they aren't supposed to. However, history shows teams typically struggle the first year out of the gate with Rich Rodriguez. Arizona has a key early season game against Oklahoma State at home, which if they could win that would be a huge boost to the team's confidence heading into the Pac-12 slate. Arizona is going o have to figure out how to beat a pretty good team this year (something they couldn't figure out last year) in order to go bowling. Eight home games will help the cause, but I have Arizona falling just short of a bowl game this season.
5. Arizona State 5-7 (3-6)
It's rebuilding time in Tempe, and while Arizona State isn't rebuilding from much, they certainly will need to mature quickly with a tough non-conference schedule with games against Illinois and at Missouri in the first three weeks. If Arizona State can win just one of those two games, they will have a shot at going bowling. The league slate includes road trips to California and USC, and the Sun Devils will travel south to take on Arizona in Tuscon. With Brock Osweiler declaring for the draft unexpectedly, the Sun Devils are going to have to figure out how to replicate what was the tenth best passing offense in the Nation last year in order to compete in the Pac 12. Cameron Marshall does anchor the run game, which was middle of the road last season in the conference. I think it's safe to say Arizona State will have a tough time making a bowl this season, but an upset or two along the way could change those fortunes.
6. Colorado 2-10 (0-9)
Colorado is perhaps in a big world of trouble this season. After unsuccessfully debuting in the Pac-12 last year with a 3-10 season which included just a two win run through their conference slate -- the Buffaloes are replacing tons of talent on both sides of the ball. Perhaps the best player returning on either side is Linebacker Jon Major, who will anchor a defense which ranked 109th nationally last season in scoring defense -- giving up 36 points per game. The offense is starting over, and Jon Embree's team doesn't look like it's going to be able to improve much from what was the worst scoring offense in the Pac-12 last season. Look for Colorado to drop a game either against Colorado State or at Fresno State, then look for them to struggle to find a win on the Pac 12 slate.
Pac 12 Championship
USC 31 Oregon 21
Offensive Player of the Year
Matt Barkely - QB - USC Trojans
Defensive Player of the Year
Star Lotulelei - DT - Utah Utes
Coach of the Year
Steve Sarkisian - Washington
Coach on the Hot Seat
Jeff Tedford - California
Team on the Rise
Team on the Decline
Teams Going Bowling
USC, Utah, UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Washington State
Steve says I'm Pitiful
BORN: November 10, 1986 (26)
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