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August 8, 2011
Pac-12 preview: Wild, wild year out West
MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions
The first season of the newly formed Pac-12 is fast approaching. And frankly, it can't get here fast enough for some league members.
More talk about the season may mean less talk about the offseason.
It has gotten ugly out West. Oregon is under scrutiny for its controversial relationship with Texas-based scout Will Lyles. USC RB Marc Tyler has been suspended for making inappropriate comments to TMZ, comments that implied he played for pay. Stanford QB Andrew Luck grew a beard.
But so what if Oregon has to justify paying $25,000 for an outdated scouting report from Lyles, who may have directed recruits to Eugene? So what if Tyler said the initials "USC" stand for "University of Sexual Ballers?" (Is an academic scandal coming next?) So what if Luck desperately needed a shave?
Oregon insists it has done nothing wrong. Tyler said he made a bad joke. Luck had no good explanation, but thankfully did lose the beard.
But with August camps opening, members of the Pac-12, which by the way announced a 12-year, $2.7 billion TV deal (so, not everything was ugly), can focus on the upcoming season in which two new teams (Colorado and Utah) are coming in and three coaches (UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Washington State's Paul Wulff) are in danger of going out if their teams don't enjoy successful seasons.
Next comes the three-month process of determining which teams will win the North and South divisions.
The only sure thing is that it won't be USC, which is ineligible because of NCAA sanctions stemming from the case involving Reggie Bush.
Oregon and Stanford, which both finished in the top five of last season's final rankings, are expected to battle it out in the North. The South race appears wide open, though the popular choice to prevail is Arizona State. That certainly would give Erickson some security.
Unlike other conferences, which play championship games at a neutral site, the Pac-12 title game will be played on the campus of the team with the best conference record.
But if the participating teams have identical conference records things could get ugly.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Stanford QB Andrew Luck. He was the runner-up for the Heisman last season and is the favorite to win it this season. Stanford is 20-5 in games he has started. He has a great passing arm with good touch and the ability to read defenses. Last season, he passed 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns with only eight interceptions while earning All-America recognition. He's a more than adequate runner, too.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict. He was heralded as a tremendous prospect when he first arrived at Arizona State, and he hasn't disappointed. In fact, the only knock is that he draws too many penalties. Can a linebacker be too mean? Burfict has vowed to play more under control, which will make him even better. A punishing hitter with great power and range, Burfict posted 90 tackles last season and was named all-conference.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler. Arizona State has high hopes for this season, which should be the Sun Devils' best since 2007. But they will need better play from the quarterback. Steven Threet gave up football because of recurring concussions and Samson Szakacsy left to pursue other interests. That leaves Osweiler, a 6-foot-8 junior, as perhaps the key to the Sun Devils' success. He started two late-season games, both wins, after Threet was hurt. If Osweiler, who is an excellent athlete and a running threat, plays at a high level, the Sun Devils could win the Pac-12. If he struggles, it could be another disappointing fall in Tempe.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Arizona CB Trevin Wade. He earned all-conference acclaim as a sophomore, but he had an off year as a junior in 2010. He even lost his starting job for a couple of games. He reportedly has improved his work habits. He'd better: The Wildcats have young corners who could take his job. In addition, Arizona may be without FS Adam Hall, who tore an ACL in the spring, which further underscores the need for other defensive backs to play at peak performance.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: California WR Keenan Allen. As a true freshman last season, he made a significant contribution to the Bears' offense with 46 catches for 490 yards. This season, he could emerge as a bona-fide star. Allen now has experience to go along with good size (6-3/200), excellent hands and game-breaking speed. He also has a terrific rapport with Cal's new quarterback Zach Maynard -- his half-brother.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: UCLA DE Datone Jones. He was expected to have a big season in 2010, but he was sidelined by a fractured foot suffered last summer. He's healthy now and eager to make up for lost time. He can be a disruptive force, posting 11 tackles for loss and four sacks as a sophomore in '09.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian likes to use the tight end, and he now has a big one in Seferian-Jenkins, a 6-7, 250-pound freshman who was one of the key signees in an an impressive 2011 recruiting class. Seferian-Jenkins, who had 126 receptions in his high school career, was the nation's No. 2 tight end prospect. He'll be an inviting target in the middle of the field for new Huskies starting QB Keith Price.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Utah FS Keith McGill. The Utes need help in the secondary and McGill, a junior college transfer, can provide it immediately. McGill was a JUCO All-American at Cerritos College (Calif.), where he had seven interceptions last season. He's a great athlete with a knack for making big plays. McGill was the 11th-ranked junior college prospect.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: USC LB Chris Galippo. Injuries have been a factor, but he just hasn't become the dominant force he was projected to be. Though his 119 career tackles aren't bad, that's a far cry from what was anticipated. He started seven games in 2010 and had 29 tackles. With Devon Kennard shifting back to end, Galippo will start in the middle and have the opportunity for a big season.
Oregon over Arizona State
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. It's a tough call in this category. Washington State's Paul Wulff is certainly under fire after managing just five victories in three seasons, and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson is definitely feeling the heat - and that's not just the desert temperatures. Yet the pick is Neuheisel. So much more was expected from Neuheisel, who is 15-22 in three seasons. Neuheisel was supposed to get the Bruins' offense on track, but the line has been mediocre and quarterback play subpar. UCLA has endured two four-win seasons under Neuheisel. His predecessor won at least six games a year for five seasons. Patience is wearing thin in Westwood.
BEST STAFF: Oregon. The Ducks have posted 41 victories in the past four years, since coach Chip Kelly first arrived as offensive coordinator. That includes the past two conference championships. Every year, the Ducks seem to have a strong offensive line under coach Steve Greatwood. Running backs coach Gary Campbell has tutored 14 1,000-yard rushers, Nick Aliotti always has a good defense and secondary coach John Neal's group routinely is among the best in the country in interceptions.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Utah's Norm Chow. Don't hold the disaster at UCLA against him, as he and Neuheisel never seemed to be on the same page. That won't be an issue with Kyle Whittingham at Utah. Chow is a three-time national assistant coach of the year, has supervised some of the country's most explosive offenses and has taught several quarterbacks who've gone on to NFL stardom. He also has coached on three national championship teams - most recently USC in 2004.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Washington's Nick Holt. When he was USC's defensive coordinator from 2006-08, the Trojans did not allow more than 16 points per game in a season and ranked among the country's top 11 in scoring defense each season. He moved to Washington in 2009, and took over a defense unit that had allowed 451.7 yards per game and 38.5 points in 2008. The next season, those numbers decreased to 389.5 yards and 26.7 points. Clearly, there still is work to do, but Holt can get the job done.
BEST POSITION COACH: Oregon OL coach Steve Greatwood. The Ducks seem to have an exceptional offensive line very season. That's a testament to Greatwood, who typically has an effective unit with a sum that's greater than the parts. Oregon has ranked among the country's top 15 teams in rushing offense in each of the past five seasons. While the Ducks' wide-open offensive scheme gets much of the credit, no scheme works without the guys up front doing their job.
Oregon vs. LSU, Sept. 3
Utah at BYU, Sept. 17
Washington at Nebraska, Sept. 17
USC at Arizona State, Sept. 24
USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 22
Stanford at USC, Oct. 29
Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12
Washington at USC, Nov. 12
USC at Oregon, Nov. 19
Notre Dame at Stanford, Nov. 26
THE OTHER STUFF
TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Washington. The Huskies made their first bowl appearance in eight years last season, but without departed QB Jake Locker - a first-round NFL draft choice - some might expect the Huskies will take a step back. Yet don't be surprised if the Huskies are actually better in 2011. They could be contenders in the North Division race. Sophomore QB Keith Price is a first-time starter, which is a concern. But he's surrounded by excellent talent. RB Chris Polk is an All-America candidate, the receivers are good and three starters return along the offensive line. Eight starters are back from a defense that seemed to get better as the season progressed last fall and held Nebraska to seven points in the Holiday Bowl.
TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Arizona. The Wildcats, who once went an entire decade between bowl appearances, have qualified for postseason play in each of the past three seasons. Making it four in a row will be a tough task. The Wildcats' offensive line had to be rebuilt, there are three new starters along the defensive line and the absence of Hall is a significant loss to the secondary. Furthermore, the Wildcats face a treacherous September that could put them in a big hole early.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12. This is a matchup of the conference's top two teams from last season and the top-rated teams in the North Division this year. A year ago, Stanford jumped out to a 21-3 lead before Oregon stormed back for a 52-31 victory. It would come as no surprise if the winner of this game ultimately wins the conference championship.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Arizona. If the Wildcats can just get through September ... well, then they will face a challenging October. After a gimme opener against FCS member North Arizona, the Wildcats enter arguably the toughest four-game stretch in the nation. They face Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC. Those teams were a combined 43-9 last season, return star quarterbacks and enter the season in the top 25. Later, the Wildcats travel to Washington and Arizona State, and they play Utah, too.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Utah. As a welcoming gift to the Pac-12, Utah doesn't face North Division favorites Stanford or Oregon. Season-opening opponent Montana State went 9-3 a year ago, but none of the Utes' FBS opponents won as many as nine games in 2010. Only two - USC and Pittsburgh - managed eight. Utah's FBS opponents were a combined 64-73 last season.
We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the Pac-12. Here are their responses:
3. USC: Matt Barkley is an elite quarterback. The Trojans have impressive depth at tailback.
6. Oregon State: Second-year OSU starting quarterbacks typically flourish, so beware of Ryan Katz. Tailback is a concern, though.
8. Utah: Durability is a question for QB Jordan Wynn. Tailback is an even bigger question for the Utes.
9. UCLA: Quarterback has been a problem area for years, but RB Johnathan Franklin is a 1,000-yard rusher.
11. Arizona State: Running back depth isn't bad. QB Brock Osweiler is athletic, but still very inexperienced.
12. Cal: This season, the Bears don't have a big-time threat at tailback, and QB Zach Maynard sat out last season.
3. USC: Robert Woods is a certified star, but Trojans need receiver another to emerge.
9. Stanford: TE Coby Fleener is a weapon in the middle, but Cardinal's wide receivers are so-so.
10. Arizona State: Senior Gerell Robinson could have a big year, but Sun Devils will miss injured T.J. Simpson.
11. Utah: DeVonte Christopher had 39 catches in 2010; no other returning receiver had more than 18.
12. Oregon: Though Lavasier Tuinei is a big target, Ducks figure to have trouble replacing departed Jeff Maehl's production.
2. Oregon: The Ducks line always works well as a unit and always produces 1,000-yard rushers.
3. USC: Trojans can run block and pass protect. T Matt Kalil and C Khalen Holmes are among best in the conference.
5. Colorado: G Ryan Miller is a bulldozer. Still, the Buffs could be better in run blocking.
6. Washington: Three starters return from unit that helped Chris Polk gain 1,415 yards.
7. Cal: The Bears return four starters up front, but only ranked 90th in total offense in 2010.
8. Arizona State: The unit is solid, which is a step up from recent seasons, when it was a gross liability.
9. UCLA: The Bruins are inconsistent up front and G Stan Hasiak is academically ineligible.
10. Oregon State: Although four starters are back, the line underachieved terribly last season.
11. Arizona: The Wildcats' offensive front is completely rebuilt and relying heavily on redshirt freshmen.
12. Washington State: The Cougars allowed 51 sacks last season.
1. USC: Devon Kennard's shift to end makes an already-imposing line look meaner.
5. Oregon: Sophomore T Ricky Heimuli appears on the brink of a breakout year.
6. Stanford: The Cardinal's three-man line was good in 2010, but E Matthew Masifilo is the lone returning starter there.
8. Arizona: T Justin Washington can provide an inside rush, but the Wildcats will have new starters on the edges.
9. Washington: Although T Alameda Ta'amu is a warhorse, the Huskies' front four must get a better pass rush and play stronger vs. the run.
10. UCLA: The return of E Datone Jones from injury will boost a line that needs help.
11. Oregon State: The Beavers are counting on new starting T Kevin Frahm to strengthen the run defense and get an inside rush.
12. Washington State: The Cougars were last in the Pac-10 in rushing defense in 2010.
1. Arizona State: A deep linebacker corps is headlined by Vontaze Burfict, who is as mean as a sidewinder and strikes like one, too.
5. Utah: The Utes' linebackers aren't big, but they are productive.
6. USC: Oft-injured Chris Galippo aiming to close career with an impressive senior season.
8. Oregon: The Ducks are undergoing a changing of the guard at the position. Senior Josh Kaddu is the only returnee with starting experience.
10. Washington: The Huskies are unproven on the outside, but Cort Dennison is an anchor in the middle.
12. Washington State: Sophomore C.J. Mizell had a good debut season. Still, the Cougars' linebackers must improve against the run.
1. Stanford: The Cardinal secondary returns three starters, including star SS Delano Howell.
2. Oregon: The Ducks, especially CB Cliff Harris, have a knack for interceptions and big plays.
3. Cal: The Bears led the Pac-10 in pass defense last season and could be solid again if CB Steve Williams continues to improve.
7. USC: The Trojans figure to make improvement in the second year of Monte Kiffin's scheme.
8. Oregon State: FS Lance Mitchell will contend for postseason honors. Still, the Beavers must cut down on the 23 touchdown passes they allowed.
9. Arizona State: Safety play is shaky and star CB Omar Bolden tore an ACL.
10. Utah: The Utes are counting on JC transfer Keith McGill at safety to boost an inexperienced defensive backfield.
11. Washington State: Sophomore FS Deone Bucannon heads a young unit that returns intact.
12. Colorado: The Buffs were torched by Big 12 offenses. We'll see if they fare better against Pac-12 passers.
1. Oregon: Punter and kicker are adequate, and Cliff Harris is the most dangerous return man in the country.
3. UCLA: Though the Bruins are breaking in a new kicker, P Jeff Locke has all-conference credentials and the return teams are solid.
4. Washington: K Erik Folk can hit from long range and has had game-winning field goals against USC in each of the past two seasons.
5. Oregon State: If James Rodgers comes back healthy, the Beavers have one of the best kick returners in the nation.
6. Stanford: Chris Owusu can take it the distance on kickoffs - he has several times. Stanford has a new kicker, though.
7. USC: The Trojans have a new punter and kicker. They also have explosive Robert Woods on returns.
8. Arizona: K Alex Zendejas is inconsistent. He missed five PATs in 2010, including two that were blocked in an overtime loss to Arizona State. The Wildcats typically are good in kick coverage.
11. Colorado: The Buffs have been prone to getting kicks blocked and have a new kicker and punter.
12. Washington State: The Kicking game is shaky and Cougs have had issues with punt coverage.
1. Oregon: The Ducks have won two championships in two seasons under Chip Kelly.
2. Oregon State: Mike Riley's teams typically overachieve. Remember, USC was interested in hiring him.
4. Washington: Steve Sarkisian and his staff turned a winless team in 2008 into a bowl winner in 2010.
9. Stanford: David Shaw is a first-year head coach with a largely new staff. Give him the benefit of the doubt because Shaw was part of Jim Harbaugh's successful staff.
10. Colorado: Much the same as above. Jon Embree is in his first season as a head coach. But he has assembled a largely veteran staff of assistants that have had success at other programs.
11. UCLA: Rick Neuheisel took over a program that had won 23 games in three seasons. Under Neuheisel, the Bruins have won 15 games in three seasons. He has new coordinators to help right the ship.
12. Washington State: The Cougars have managed just five wins in three years under Paul Wulff. But injuries have been a major issue.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.