The first football season of the newly formed Pac-12 Conference 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 running back Marc Tyler has been suspended for making inappropriate comments to TMZ, comments that implied he played for pay. Stanford quarterback 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But so what if Oregon has to justify paying $25,000 for an outdated scouting report from Lyles, who may have directed recruits to Eugene?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, though thankfully he did lose the beard.
But with camps open, 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 former Trojan star 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 again.
Best offensive player: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. He was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy 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 linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He was heralded as a tremendous prospect when he first arrived at ASU, 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 quarterback 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 cornerback 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 free safety Adam Hall, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the spring, which further underscores the need for other defensive backs to play at peak performance.
Breakout offensive star: California wide receiver 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 defensive end 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 2009.
Best offensive newcomer: Washington tight end 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 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 quarterback Keith Price.
Best defensive newcomer: Utah free safety 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 linebacker 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 should have the opportunity for a big season.
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 scorching 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 below par. 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 coaching staff: Oregon. The Ducks have posted 41 victories in the past four years, since current head 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 almost always has a good defense, and secondary coach John Neal's group routinely is among the leaders 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 have 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 to 2008, 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 defensive 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 offensive line coach Steve Greatwood. The Ducks seem to have an exceptional offensive line every season. That's a testament to Greatwood, who typically has an effective unit with a sum that is 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.
The other stuff
Team that will surprise: Washington. The Huskies made their first bowl appearance in eight years last season, but without departed quarterback 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 quarterback Keith Price is a first-time starter, which is a concern. But he is surrounded by excellent talent. Running back 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 just 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. Arizona's offensive line had to be rebuilt, the defensive line includes three new starters, 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. Last year, 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 Football Championship Subdivision member Northern 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 last season, but none of the Utes' Football Bowl Subdivision 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.
The 10 best games
Oregon vs. LSU (at Arlington, Texas), 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 predicted order of finish for the Pac-12 divisions, by the website Rivals.com:
North Division1. Oregon 2. Stanford 3. Washington 4. California 5. Oregon State 6. Washington State
South Division1. USC 2. Arizona State 3. Utah 4. Arizona 5. UCLA 6. Colorado Championship game Oregon over Arizona State.
Pac-12 Conference: 2011 season
A look at the divisions for the Pac-12 Conference:
Pac-12 ScheduleThe daily schedule for all Pac-12 teams (x-nonconference game):
Thursday, Sept. 1
x-Montana State at Utah
x-UC Davis at Arizona State
Saturday, Sept. 3
x-Northern Arizona at Arizona
x-Minnesota at USC
x-UCLA at Houston
x-California vs. Fresno State (at Candlestick Park)
x-San Jose State at Stanford
x-Oregon vs. LSU (at Arlington, Texas)
x-Sacramento State at Oregon State
x-Eastern Washington at Washington
x-Idaho State at Washington State
x-Colorado at Hawaii
Thursday, Sept. 8
x-Arizona at Oklahoma State
Friday, Sept. 9
x-Missouri at Arizona State
Saturday, Sept. 10
Utah at USC
x-San Jose State at UCLA
California at Colorado
x-Stanford at Duke
x-Nevada at Oregon
x-Oregon State at Wisconsin
x-Hawaii at Washington
x-UNLV at Washington State
Saturday, Sept. 17
Stanford at Arizona
x-Arizona State at Illinois
x-Syracuse at USC
x-Texas at UCLA
x-Presbyterian at California (at AT&T Park)
x-Missouri State at Oregon
x-Washington at Nebraska
x-Washington State at San Diego State
x-Colorado vs. Colorado State (at Denver)
x-Utah at BYU
Saturday, Sept. 24
Oregon at Arizona
USC at Arizona State
UCLA at Oregon State
California at Washington
x-Colorado at Ohio State
Saturday, Oct. 1
Arizona at USC
Oregon State at Arizona State
UCLA at Stanford
Washington at Utah
Washington State at Colorado
Thursday, Oct. 6
California at Oregon
Saturday, Oct. 8
Arizona at Oregon State
Arizona State at Utah
Washington State at UCLA
Colorado at Stanford
Washington State at UCLAe_SClBThursday, Oct. 13
USC at California (at AT&T Park)
Saturday, Oct. 15
Arizona State at Oregon
Stanford at Washington State
Colorado at Washington
x-BYU at Oregon State
x-Utah at Pittsburgh
Thursday, Oct. 20
UCLA at Arizona
Saturday, Oct. 22
Utah at California (at AT&T Park)
Washington at Stanford
Oregon at Colorado
Oregon State at Washington State (at CenturyLink Field)
x-USC at Notre Dame
Saturday, Oct. 29
Arizona at Washington
Colorado at Arizona State
Stanford at USC
California at UCLA
Washington State at Oregon
Oregon State at Utah
Saturday, Nov. 5
Utah at Arizona
Arizona State at UCLA
USC at Colorado
Washington State at California (at AT&T Park)
Stanford at Oregon State
Oregon at Washington
Saturday, Nov. 12
Arizona at Colorado
Arizona State at Washington State
Washington at USC
UCLA at Utah
Oregon State at California (at AT&T Park)
Oregon at Stanford
Saturday, Nov. 19
Arizona at Arizona State
USC at Oregon
Colorado at UCLA
California at Stanford
Washington at Oregon State
Utah at Washington State
Saturday, Nov. 26
California at Arizona State
UCLA at USC
Oregon State at Oregon
Washington State at Washington (at CenturyLink Field)
Colorado at Utah
x-Louisiana-Lafayette at Arizona
x-Notre Dame at Stanford
Friday, Dec. 2
Pac-12 Championship Game, site TBD