2012 should be an interesting year in the Pac-12.
First, this year featured the launch of the national and regional Pac-12 Networks that will ensure every conference football game is televised.
Secondly, USC is off probation and Lane Kiffin’s Trojans come limping into the campaign after the harsh NCAA penalties that crippled their program. Yes, that was dripping with sarcasm. USC is loaded offensively, has a favorable schedule that features three non-conference home games, and they get Oregon in L.A.
Thirdly, there are four new, high-profile (one high-octane) coaches in the conference that will certainly make things more interesting, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
This year, the conference features a powerhouse in each division (USC and Oregon), three good teams (Washington, Stanford, Utah) and a whole lot of uncertainty (the rest of the bunch).
So here’s my look at what should shake out this season in the “Conference of Champions.”
1. USC Trojans (12-0, 9-0) – Off of probation, 19 starters back (including Matt Barkley) and they pick up Penn State’s best player in Silas Redd? Lane Kiffin’s team has the best chance of anyone to break the SEC stranglehold on the BCS title.
2. Utah Utes (10-2, 7-2) – QB Jordan Wynn returns from injury and workhorse RB John White is back. The schedule isn’t too daunting either as the Utes miss Oregon and Stanford (for the second straight year) and get USC at home in SLC.
3. Arizona Wildcats (5-7, 4-5) – If Matt Scott is as good as people in Tucson seem to think he is, the ‘Cats offense will be fun to watch. However, let’s remember he’s lost the starting job once before. If Scott doesn’t live up to the hype, it’ll be trouble for new coach Rich Rodriguez, because the QB cupboard is otherwise bare.
4. Arizona State Sun Devils (5-7, 4-5) – Look for the Devils to run and run a lot in Todd Graham’s first season. Taylor Kelly won the QB battle in a surprise and doesn’t inspire much confidence with his passing ability. ASU is loaded at RB and Graham’s Pitt team ran 55% of the time last season.
5. UCLA Bruins (4-8, 2-7) – Can Brett Hundley hold off challenges from incumbents Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut at QB? Can Jim Mora stop putting his foot in his mouth? It’s not wise to make your cross-town rival angry, Jim. Just ask Rick Neuheisel.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (2-10, 0-9) – The good news is the Buffs will open the season 2-0 after wins over Colorado State and Fresno State. The bad news is they’ll lose ten straight after that, including a brutal stretch of three games at USC, at Oregon and home against Stanford in late October to early November.
1. Oregon Ducks (11-1, 8-1) – Still have no idea why Darron Thomas left the Ducks to go to the NFL. He’s not even in an NFL camp right now. If Thomas would have stayed, the Ducks may have won another Pac-12 championship. With Marcus Mariota (or Bryan Bennett) at the helm they’ll still be very good, but won’t knock off USC.
2. Stanford Cardinal (9-3, 7-2) – How do you fill the shoes of Andrew Luck? You don’t. But don’t feel too bad for head coach David Shaw. Stepfan Taylor is still around and will carry the ball a lot and take pressure on new QB Josh Nunes. Defensively, the Cardinal have six starters back and will also get LB Shayne Skov back from injury.
3. Washington Huskies (8-4, 6-3) – Keith Price was absolutely outstanding in his first year as the starting QB for head coach Steve Sarkisian. Despite the loss of a lot of firepower, the Huskies will still be formidable. And look for big-time defensive improvement with Justin Wilcox taking over for the overpaid Nick Holt as DC.
4. California Golden Bears (5-6, 3-6) – The Bears, and maybe Jeff Tedford’s stint as head coach, will be derailed by a late-season five-game losing streak.
5. Oregon State (3-9, 2-7) – Last year at this time, I thought the Beavers were on the right track. Instead, they lost their season opener to Sacramento State and went in the tank. If Mike Riley’s team loses its opener to Nicholls State this season, look out.
6. Washington State Cougars (4-8, 2-7) – I’m not sure I feel good about this pick. Mike Leach was one of the top coaching hires in the country, and the Cougs have a lot of offensive talent back, namely wide receiver Marquess Wilson. But it’ll be tough to outscore everyone on their schedule.
• USC will defeat Oregon in Pac-12 Championship Game.
• USC in BCS Championship Game
• Oregon in Rose Bowl
• Stanford in Alamo Bowl
• Utah in Holiday Bowl
• Washington in Sun Bowl
* According to above projections, the Pac-12 will fail to have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill slots in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and the New Mexico Bowl.
• Offensive Player of the Year – Matt Barkley, USC – Barkley is coming off a magical season and has possibly the two best receivers in the country to throw to.
Others to watch: De’Anthony Thomas (Oregon), Kenjon Barner (Oregon), Marqise Lee (USC), Robert Woods (USC), Stepfan Taylor (Stanford)
• Defensive Player of the Year – Chase Thomas, Stanford – The linebacker had 17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and forced 5 fumbles in 2011. Look for him to pick up where he left off a year ago.
Others to watch: Dion Jordan (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Star Lotulelei (Utah), T.J. McDonald (USC)
• Coach of the Year – Lane Kiffin, USC – Oh sure, he’s unlikable, but Kiffin has built a team that is stacked with talent. He could be the national coach of the year as well.
• Toughest non-conference schedule – Washington – Look, nobody in the conference is playing truly a killer slate of games. In fact, only Arizona State, who plays Illinois and at Missouri, is taking on two BCS-conference foes. But the Huskies are traveling to Baton Rouge, easily the toughest single road game a Pac-12 team will face this season.
• Easiest non-conference schedule – Oregon – I’ve gone on record and said under the current BCS system, if I was a national championship contender I wouldn’t schedule anyone tough in the non-con portion of my schedule that could derail the quest. Apparently Oregon has followed suit. The Ducks don’t leave Autzen Stadium for the first month of the campaign, and will welcome Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech to Eugene.
• Toughest conference stretch – Colorado – In a three-week stretch in late October to early November, the Buffs play (get their heads kicked in by) USC, Oregon and Stanford, with two of those games on the road.
• Best uniforms – I’ve always had a soft spot for the unique nature of Washington’s color combo (I can’t think of anyone who wears metallic gold and purple), but I’ll give the nod to USC. It’s hard to argue with that tradition.
• Best helmet – Never been a fan of the Oregon superhero uniforms, but their green helmets are the nicest in college football — if they still wear them, that is. I mean, who can keep track? Honorable mention: Arizona State’s alternate black helmet.