The Pac-10 has become the Pac-12, bringing the first alignment change to the conference in 33 years. There are divisions for the first time. There is a new league championship game. However, in the middle of all this massive renovation are the familiar faces of Oregon, Stanford and USC, lately the West Coast’s power teams, each flexing considerable football muscle once more.
A three-point loss to Auburn prevented Oregon from claiming a national championship and perfect season in 2010. A three-touchdown road defeat to the Ducks kept Stanford from a perfect season. They will be top-15 teams again, BCS contenders, shadowing each other, though the Ducks should have the edge for the North Division title.
In 2010, NCAA probation kept things complicated for USC, which is ineligible to claim the first Pac-12 championship and can’t go bowling. With the Trojans unable to participate in the conference title game, the door is open for Arizona State to claim the South division crown.
Outside of the newness, quarterbacks will be a recurring theme for the conference. Eight of the 12 teams offer an established leader in the huddle, beginning with Stanford’s gifted Andrew Luck, who chose to return to The Farm for one more year rather than become the first player taken in the NFL Draft, as projected.
Washington is a wild card team, returning enough marquee players following a long-overdue bowl victory to cause problems for everyone else, but likely still not enough to contend. Oregon State and California are rebuilding following bowl-less seasons. Arizona went to the postseason, but enters the season on a five-game losing streak.
Stanford and Colorado will break in new coaches, in David Shaw and Jon Embree, guys who haven’t been head coaches before, while UCLA and Washington State will see if they can hold on to their veteran guys in charge, Rick Neuheisel and Paul Wulff.
Utah and Colorado will be watched closely to see how they transition into a new league, especially the Utes, who should find the Pac-12 a lot more challenging, from top to bottom, than the Mountain West.
Athlon's 2011 Pac-12 Previews
THEY’RE NO. 1
At Oregon State, No. 1 apparently is a jersey the whole family can wear. Before taking early entry to the NFL, running back Jacquizz Rodgers pulled on this digit for the past three seasons. It now belongs to his older brother, James, a receiver who previously answered to No. 8 for four seasons and is returning after suffering a knee injury, having two surgeries and receiving a fifth season of eligibility by claiming medical hardship. He insists there’s no sibling tribute involved in the new number. “I just wanted something different, that’s it,” James Rodgers says. “He didn’t drive me to change my number. I just felt like it. … I’m doing it for myself.”
The latest career path for Norm Chow didn’t make sense, and then it did. Faced with an unsightly demotion from UCLA offensive coordinator, as one of the coaching scapegoats for a 4–8 season, Chow moved seamlessly across the Pac-12 to Utah. He couldn’t have been more welcome in Salt Lake City. Chow, 65, was a first-team All-WAC offensive guard and two-year starter for Utah. He met his wife at the school and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees there. “Not many people get a chance to go full circle,” says Chow, whose coaching résumé also lists stops at BYU, NC State, USC and the Tennessee Titans.
Andrew Luck actually said this in the offseason: “I’d look like an idiot if I didn’t.” He was talking about earning a Stanford degree in architectural design. Still, outside appearances don’t drive the Cardinal quarterback or his thinking. Otherwise, Luck wouldn’t have passed up a chance to skip his junior season and likely become the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick and accept untold riches. His Stanford coach left for the pros. Not Luck. He consulted with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who 14 years earlier wasn’t ready to leave Tennessee a season early. As a junior, Luck will stand in the pocket surrounded by a new offensive line and multiple insurance policies. “I think I knew pretty much all along what I was going to do,” he says.
Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State’s overly emotional linebacker, has a temper that would make Dick Butkus or Ray Lewis proud, but causes everyone else to cringe. As a freshman, Burfict had five personal foul penalties in a two-game stretch, including three against Washington. As a sophomore, he drew three penalties against Stanford, one of them costing his team the game. He has impulsively head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz. He has ripped the helmet off Stanford fullback Owen Marecic. Burfict doesn’t do interviews, but Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson says his linebacker is remorseful. “It’s a reactionary thing more than anything,” Erickson says. “We’ve just got to get him through it.”
It wasn’t too long ago that USC was nine scholarship players deep at tailback, but lately pickings have become a little thin, at least by Trojans standards. There are no Heisman Trophy candidates, no certain first-round draft picks among the stable of runners. Senior Marc Tyler, whose father Wendell played at UCLA and in the NFL, is the returning starter. He’s solid but hardly a star. Sophomore Dillon Baxter has settled in as a backup behind Tyler, and there are high hopes for redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan, who sat out last season while recovering from a major knee surgery performed when he was in high school. The Trojans don’t need any reminding they once had a commitment from Washington junior tailback Chris Polk, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, but lost him when they floated the idea that Polk should become a receiver.
FEEDING THE HOMELESS
While Memorial Stadium undergoes a $321 million renovation, California will play its home games this season at two baseball stadiums — its opener vs. Fresno State will be played at Candlestick Park and five games will be played at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park — and use six different practice sites. The 45,000-seat AT&T Park won’t be an entirely new experience: The Golden Bears beat Miami 24–17 there in the 2008 Emerald Bowl. Washington, faced with an upcoming $250 million renovation of Husky Stadium, will move its season-ending Apple Cup game against Washington State and six 2012 home games to the Seattle Seahawks’ Qwest Field. The Huskies played their 2005 season opener at Qwest and lost to Air Force 20–17.
Washington State has been one of the least competitive teams in the country for the past three seasons, which sums up the coaching tenure for Paul Wulff. In that time, the Cougars have compiled a 5–32 record, 2–25 in conference play. Two victories came over FCS teams. Of the FBS victories, one was in overtime, another in double-overtime. If the Cougars can’t put up more resistance than that, and win, say four or five games, second-year athletic director Bill Moos should be looking for a new coach.
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