Sunday, July 3, 2011

College Football Preview Part 4: Pac-12

The new look Pac-12 goes into 2011 as easily the 2nd best conference in the NCAA. Divisions and a conference championship game will be a new experience for west coast fans, but I love the way the conference has been set up. Let's break it down!

MY Preseason Rankings:


1. Oregon Ducks-
Fresh off a 12-1 season and BCS title game appearance, this team is still loaded and ready for another try. They have lost a couple starters o-line and defense, but the primary pieces stay in place, including QB Darron Thomas and one of the conference's two leading Heisman candidates in RB LaMichael James. While they have the Pac-12's best team, they will have an extremely tough challenge when they play @ Stanford, who gave them trouble last season. Still, I would be surprised if the Ducks don't become the first ever Pac-12 Champs.

2. Stanford Cardinal-
They've got the best QB in the nation, Andrew Luck, and the potential to win the Pac-12 if not go undefeated. They have a manageable schedule including the favored Oregon Ducks at home. The main thing working against them, besides the loss of some key starters on both lines, is the loss of Coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh provided this team with the discipline and toughness that made them so great. But will the 2011 Cardinal still be able to thrive under Luck's leadership? We'll have to see.

3. Washington Huskies-
Don't let the departure of Jake Locker worry you too much. The Huskies return 15 starters. Many have called this Washington's most talented team in at least 4 years. While last year they needed some luck to reach bowl season, it shouldn't be nearly as big of a challenge this year. Don't expect a conference championship though. The top of this division is simply too powerful. 

4. Oregon State-
The Beavers should be improved from last year, despite the loss of star RB JaQuizz Rodgers. His brother, James, does return at WR and Ryan Katz is starting his 2nd year as QB. This is a very scrappy team with the ability to pull off a few upsets before all is said and done. Their best opportunity to play giant killer is at home against Stanford. In the end, expect a mediocre season ending in a bowl trip. 

5. California Golden Bears-
This could be a season to forget for the Golden Bears. All of this year's home games will be played at AT&T Park and the team is fairly raw and inexperienced. Not to mention, their arch rival Stanford is not exactly beatable. There is some talent, but not enough to field a very competitive conference outing. Cal still may manage to reach the postseason though, if only to play in the "Toilet Bowl". 

6. Washington State-
They say there's always someone who has it worse than you, and in the case of the Pac-12, that someone is WSU. The Cougs are 2-25 in Pac-10 play over the last 3 years. While an arguement could be made that this team has improved, absolutely nothing is working in their favor for this season. For one, they only play 3 conference home games and are in the toughest division of the conference. Personally, I'm skeptical this team can exceed 2 wins in 2011.


1. Arizona State Sun Devils-
The Pac-12 South is a wide open race and, regardless of who wins, the champion will have a really hard time dethroning either Oregon or Stanford for the conference title. Still, after weighing the options, I like the Sun Devils to win the South. Last years team had a lot of talent, but was simply too young to make any waves. But now, with 15 returning starters, this group is more experienced and ready to give ASU fans their first winning season since 2007. Two tough road tests await however @ Oregon and Utah.

2. Utah Utes-
The Utes aren't a popular pick for success in their first year of BCS inclusion. But, despite the loss of a few great players, I believe people are selling the Utes short for many reasons. First, the schedule is great: Utah does not play Oregon or Stanford and gets 5 conference games at home (including ASU and Washington). People who have never associated themselves with the MWC have a tendency to not take altitude into account. This could increase an already significant homefield advantage, not to mention the late season cold, especially in this first year. Also this team is hungry and their division is mostly evenly split. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Utah pulled a coup and ended up in the Pac-12 title game in their first year.

3. USC Trojans-
Some are picking USC to win the South, but the fact is (due to their probation) they cannot play for a conference title this year anyway. However, that won't stop them from being competitive. They have some great talent, as is to be expected, but most of the talent is young. Another considerable setback is that they do have to play Stanford and will also have to face Oregon and Arizona State on the road. Give it another year, then I'll believe it when people say that USC belongs in the mix for conference title conversation.

4. Arizona Wildcats-
The Wildcats are getting picked everywhere from 1st to 5th in this division. But that's also a testament to just how wide open it will be in 2011. I'm putting Arizona at 4th for a few reasons. While they arguably have some of the division's best talent, they have the least returning starters in the conference. Not to mention they have to play the North's top 3 teams and almost all of their tough games on the road. The only thing they got lucky with as far as scheduling was that Utah, Oregon, and, Stanford are all home games. Still, I'd count those as loses. They'll make a bowl, and they'll be in the hunt for the South crown, but in the end, they'll come up short.

5. UCLA Bruins-
This is another team that has been picked all over the map. Many experts expect them to be vastly improved from last year's 4-8 mark, but they will have to go through the ringer to do so. The Bruins are looking at two tough OOC games against teams thirsting for revenge in Texas and Houston. Then after that, they play Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona, Utah, and USC all on the road. Their conference home schedule consists of three crappy teams and ASU. Let me just say, IF the Bruins can manage to survive this schedule and still compete for a Pac-12 title, they deserve every bit of it. However, I don't think it's likely.

6. Colorado Buffaloes- 
From the doghouse to... well, the doghouse again. The only conversation CU will be in is whether or not they are worse than WSU (a score which will be settled when the two teams meet in October). If the Buffs were still in the Big 12, their 16 returning starters might be a strong indication of an improved season ending with a bowl trip. But with their Pac-12 schedule gifting them matchups of @ Stanford, @ Washington, Oregon, @ Arizona State, USC, Arizona, @ UCLA, and @ Utah back-to-back and in that order (oh ya, and throw in an early season trip to Ohio State), Colorado will be fortunate to get 3 or, if I'm being generous, 4 wins. I'm anticipating 2. Hope the Pac-12 pays well...

MY All Conference Team:
Andrew Luck, Stanford

QB- Andrew Luck, Stanford

RB- LaMichael James, Oregon

RB- Chris Polk, Washington

WR- Juron Criner, Arizona

WR- Jermaine Kearse, Washington

WR- Robert Woods, USC

TE- David Paulson, Oregon
LaMichael James, Oregon

C- Garth Gerhart, Arizona State

OG- Ryan Miller, Colorado

OG- David DeCastro, Stanford

OT- Matt Kalil, USC

OT- Jonathan Martin, Stanford

DE- Junior Onyeali, Arizona State
Justin Washington, Arizona

DE- Nick Perry, USC

DT- Justin Washington, Arizona

DT- Alameda Ta'amu, Washington

LB- Mychal Kendricks, California

LB- Shayne Skov, Stanford

LB- Sean Westgate, UCLA

CB- Cliff Harris, Oregon
TJ McDonald, USC

CB- Nickell Robey, USC

S- Delano Howell, Stanford

S- TJ McDonald, USC

K- Erik Folk, Washington

P- Jeff Locke, UCLA

Ret- Cliff Harris, Oregon

5 Games to Watch:

1. Oregon @ Stanford: This game comes down to not only a battle for the North division, but the first ever Pac-12 champion. Last year's game was a shootout and Stanford put up a heck of a fight on the road. This time Stanford's at home and Andrew Luck is a senior, but will it be enough to topple the Oregon juggernaut?

2. Utah @ USC: The Utes' first ever conference game as a BCS school, and it's on the road against a traditional power. I'm anticipating a Utah victory, but I'm also anticipating a great, emotionally charged game. This game will also have considerable bearing on the final Pac-12 South standings and it's only in the 2nd week of the season. It's nice to that kind of drama early.

3. Oregon vs LSU (Cowboys Stadium): Another early season game that could make or break a team. This is a great matchup of two very talented teams with a lot of speed. While it is a neutral site game on paper, you can bet that the Tiger fans will be out in full force at Jerry World, and the Ducks might as well be playing in Death Valley. Even with the hostile environment considered, I still think Oregon can pull this one off. Either way, it will be fun to watch.

4. Arizona State @ Utah: The crowd will be hostile and the oxygen particles will be few. ASU isn't used to playing in high altitude and it could prove to be a problem. Take the weather out of the equation, and this will still be a war, likely with the South division title on the line. If both these teams can stay competitive in years to come, this could develop into a nice little, hate-filled conference rivalry.

5. Arizona State @ Oregon: This one's worth watching, if for no other reason, because there is a strong chance it could be a midseason preview of the first ever Pac-12 Championship game. I can't guarantee a tightly fought game, but there is a level of intrigue. It will be interesting to see how evenly matched the divisions are in 2011, assuming these two are the best of each. 

If you don't think the Pac-12 is the NCAA's best conference, than you won't be disappointed next. Coming up, I'll tackle the ever butt-kissed SEC!

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