Athlon looks back at what we learned about the Pac-12 in 2012.
Please raise your hand if you had UCLA at Stanford in the 2012 Pac-12 championship game? I am still waiting. Oregon and USC were overwhelming favorites to win their respective divisions out west this fall and neither was able to reach the promised land. Oregon is still the highest-rated team in the league and should land in a BCS bowl game, while USC took a very different route to disappointment this fall. That said, a host of new coaches and freshmen quarterbacks have this league poised for a run at the mighty SEC over the next few seasons.
Offensive Player of the Year Standings
1. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona – The Arizona sophomore led the nation in rushing at 146.4 yards per game and he scored 21 total touchdowns (second in the Pac-12). He set a Pac-12 single-game rushing record with 366 yards and set the Arizona single-season rushing record with 1,757.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – Mariota might be the best quarterback Chip Kelly has ever coached and he is just a freshman. The Oregon quarterback led the best offense in the league to an 11-1 mark and was the Pac-12's top-rated passer (165.36). All of this while rushing for 690 yards and four scores on the ground as well. He is going to be a good one.
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC – It might be weird to see Lee at No. 3, but a wide receiver on a five-loss team can't be as important as a guy who touched the ball 308 times (Carey) and the league's best quarterback on the top-rated team. That said, Lee was unreal in 2012, leading the league in receptions, receiving yards, kickoff returns and all-purpose yards.
Defensive Player of the Year Standings
1. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford – His defense led the league in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense and is poised to win the Pac-12 championship behind his leadership. He posted 61 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.
2. Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State – The versatile inside-outside talent posted 58 tackles, a league-leading 20.0 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks to go with three forced fumbles and five passes deflected.
3. Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State – He posted 44 total tackles, 4.0 tackles for a loss, a sack, six interceptions, returned eight punts and deflected six passes. He led a massive turnaround in defense production in Corvallis this fall.
Coach of the Year Standings
1. Mike Riley, Oregon State – One of the better guys in all of college football did a masterful job in a key season for the Oregon State Beavers. This team was 3-9 last year and finished dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, rushing defense and turnover margin. The rushing defense was third to only Stanford and Utah this season as Oregon State stares at a potential 10-win season.
3. David Shaw, Stanford – The Stanford coach has proven his success wasn't just Jim Harbaugh or Andrew Luck. His team led the nation in rushing defense and led the league in total defense and scoring defense. He will host the league title game — all with quarterback issues for most of the season.
2. Jim Mora, UCLA – Clearly, the Bruins' roster has loads of elite talent. But Mora took a bunch of underachievers and got big-time results by winning the South. A win over Shaw in the title game moves him to No. 2 on my ballot.
10 Things We Learned From the Pac-12 in 2012
1. The Ducks' offseason could be anything but smooth
The Oregon Ducks are the top-rated team in this league in the polls but won't even win its division. It could be the best team in the nation not playing in the BCS National Championship game. So after what could be a great season trimmed with disappointment, fans in Eugene might need to brace for what could be a very anxious offseason. Chip Kelly has long been rumored to have lustful eyes for the NFL and could easily jump at the chance to coach well-stocked offensive cupboards in San Diego or Philadelphia. The NCAA will also be investigating the Willie Lyles scandal and could be ruling sometime this spring. Maybe the NCAA finds nothing (which seems highly unlikely) and maybe Kelly returns for another season. But after dominating the West Coast for the last half-decade, the Ducks could be dealing with NCAA sanctions and a coaching search in the same offseason.
2. David Shaw might not be in Palo Alto too much longer
Be it in the SEC where fans in Knoxville, Auburn and Fayetteville are pining for Shaw, or more likely in the NFL, Shaw proved this season that he belongs amongst football's coaching elite. Without Andrew Luck, an NFL tight end and two All-American blockers, Stanford still won 10 games and is hosting the conference championship game. More importantly, it is the toughness and physicality that Shaw has instilled in his program that has been the most impressive. His team led the nation in rushing defense and sacks while leading the league total defense and scoring defense. Their only two losses came against Notre Dame on a questionable goal-line stand and an early season road trip to Washington in which they led late. Certainly, Jim Harbaugh gets loads of credit for building the Cardinal brand nationally on the recruiting trail, but so does Shaw. Much like Harbaugh, his teams play great defense and pound the ball on offense. There is a chance that big dollars and commitment could keep Shaw at his alma mater, but much like Harbaugh, the call of the NFL could be too much for Shaw to resist.
3. No league has as much offensive talent
Marqise Lee could be a Heisman finalist and may not even be deserving of Offensive Player of the Year honors in the Pac-12. The quarterback position was deep with both seniors (Matt Barkley, Matt Scott) and a host of talented youngsters set to return (Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Kevin Hogan, Travis Wilson). Carey led the nation in rushing while Kenjon Barner (4th), Johnathan Franklin (9th) and Stepfan Taylor (14th) all finished in the top 15 nationally as well. Then there is De'Anthony Thomas, Bishop Sankey, John White and a trio of talented Arizona State backs. Lee was the top wide receiver in the nation, but Brandin Crooks, Markus Wheaton and Austin Hill landed in the top 13 nationally in receiving yards too. Marquess Wilson (quit), Keenan Allen (injury), Robert Woods (nagging injuries) and Kasen Williams (QB play) are all elite wideouts as well. Add the nation's top two tight ends in Zach Ertz and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and no league in the country can match the level of athlete playing the skill positions in the Pac-12.
4. Monte Kiffin might not be cut-out for the college game
Lane Kiffin won't get the benefit of the doubt from fans across the country. He has used some sophomoric behaviors that have opened him up for criticism. Hiring his father to coach the defense, however, has never been viewed as anything but a great move. It worked in the SEC against NFL pro-style attacks where his deceiving blitz schemes are effective. In the wide open, spread-heavy Pac-12, Kiffin has failed to adjust. Yes, depth on this roster became a major issue and likely cost USC a couple of wins. While the NCAA sanctions have nothing to do with either Kiffin, they obviously played a major role in 2012. A change on the defensive side of the ball could be coming soon at Heritage Hall. Imagine having to call your father into your office to tell him that he is fired? I couldn't do it.
5. More people need to Be Like Mike...Riley, that is
Certainly, the old phrase about the greatest hoops star of all-time was more about his on the court play than his off-the-court lifestyle. And while Mike Riley doesn't have six championship rings on the field, he is one of the better people in college football off of it. Oregon State had 26 straight losing seasons before Riley's first stint in Corvallis in 1997, and after 12 years at the helm, he is the Beavers' all-time winningest coach. And he has done so with class, grace and respect. Few coaches are thought of as highly off of the field as Riley is amongst his coaching peers and student athletes. He has always been genuine, thoughtful and gracious with his time whenever I have interviewed him. I don't root for too many individual coaches in college football because, generally speaking, they are abrasive, distant and disingenuous (for obvious reasons). But it's easy to get behind a guy like Mike Riley, even if you are a fan in Eugene.
6. The previous regime at UCLA was entirely too laid back
Jim Mora instilled a level of toughness and work ethic that Bruins fans hadn't seen in years in just a few short months. Which certainly wasn't the case under former laissez-faire head coach Rick Neuheisel. The previous regime recruited extremely well, so the cupboard wasn't bare, but Slick Rick obviously failed to develop talent in Westwood. Mora and his well-assembled coaching staff not only got the most out of their talent, they did so in style with one of the league's top offenses. UCLA far exceeded expectations by winning the South Division championship, and with star quarterback Brett Hundley returning next fall for only his sophomore (redshirt) season, the expectation level has now officially been raised in Los Angeles.
7. Rich Rodriguez got a bad rap at Michigan
The boosters, administration and fan base never really got behind Rich Rodriguez. His teams missed bowl games and had losing records — which isn't allowed in Ann Arbor. But much of the blame for those issues has to go to Lloyd Carr. No, RichRod's aggressive nature and spread offense didn't really fit at Michigan, but he is a quality football coach who was a bit of a scapegoat for the Maize and Blue-bloods. At Arizona, he took a 4-8 team that failed to compete against good teams to an 8-4 record that features the nation's leading rusher. Matt Scott won't be back next year, but Ka'Deem Carey, the country's most underrated running back, will be. And fans can bet he won't be underrated next fall.
8. Washington fixed its defensive problems
Justin Wilcox was hired as the defensive coordinator. Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi were also brought on as defensive assistants and star recruiters. A fourth-quarter choke against Washington State notwithstanding, the changes made by Steve Sarkisian on the defensive side of the ball clearly worked. In 2011, Washington finished 11th in the Pac-12 and 106th nationally in total defense by allowing 453.3 yards per game. It also ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 108th nationally in scoring defense at 35.9 points allowed per game. The Huskies allowed exactly 100 fewer yards per game (353.3) and nearly two touchdowns less per game (23.8 ppg). The offense took a step back without Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse and a long list of major injuries to the offensive line, but the defense has been elevated to a championship level. The next step for Coach Sark is to put it all together — like in 2013 with a glut of talented defenders and a senior quarterback.
9. Cal is better suited to win under a new regime
Jeff Tedford is arguably the most successful coach in Golden Bears history. He led Cal to its first conference championship (2006) since 1975, has won more games (79) than any coach in program history and has the highest winning percentage (62 percent) since Pappy Waldorf in the late 40s. He also should be given direct credit for the massive upgrades in facilities in Berkeley. Yet, after losing star coaches and recruits this offseason, an extremely uncompetitive 3-9 mark forced the administration's hand. Whoever is hired at Cal is much better suited to win quickly, however, due to the decade-long growth of the program under Tedford.
10. Mike Leach has a long way to go in Pullman
Year number one at Washington State didn't exactly go the way Leach planned. Locker room turmoil, a star defection, no ability whatsoever to run the football are just a few of the issues this team dealt with in 2012. Yet, the season finished on a high note with a huge fourth-quarter comeback in The Apple Cup — and it might have been just the boost Leach needed to kick start his offseason. The win not only came against a bitter rival, but it gave Leach his first career Pac-12 win. In a year marred with poor performances, Washington State understands it needs to improve across the board in every way if it expects to compete in the stacked North Division.
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