By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
At the midpoint of the 2011 season, it's time to take a look at the first half and predict how the second half will turn out in the Pac-12.
Coach of the Year — Steve Sarkisian, Washington
David Shaw of Stanford should be in the discussion, but Sarkisian is the choice. Washington is off to a 5–1 start with the only loss coming at Nebraska. The Huskies have been consistently strong on offense, scoring 30 points or more in every game, and have improved on defense as the season has progressed. Sark went 12–13 in his first two seasons at UW; barring a late-season collapse, the Huskies should win (at least) eight games for the first time since 2001.
Freshman of the Year — Dion Bailey, USC
A redshirt freshman who spent 2010 on the scout team as a safety, Bailey has started all six games at strong-side linebacker and leads the Trojans with 48 tackles. He had 14 tackles against Arizona two weeks ago and intercepted two passes in USC’s win at California last Thursday night.
Newcomer of the Year — Zach Maynard, California
He’s struggled in recent weeks against quality competition, but Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo, has put up solid numbers in his first season running Jeff Tedford’s offense. He is averaging 264.2 yards per game and has thrown for 11 touchdowns with six interceptions.
Offensive Player of the Year — Andrew Luck, Stanford
The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft has been nearly flawless for a Stanford team that is flying under the radar despite a 6–0 start. The junior is completing over 70 percent of his passes and has thrown 18 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Luck has tossed at least two TD passes in each game this season and has topped the 320-yard mark in three of the last four games.
Defensive Player of the Year — Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
His numbers aren’t great — 36 tackles and 4.5 sacks — but the 6-3, 252 junior is a disruptive force and an intimidating presence from his middle linebacker position. Burfict plays with too much fire far too often, but when he plays under control, he is a true difference-maker for the Sun Devils.
Midseason Disappointment — Oregon State
Mike Riley has the reputation of doing more with less, but his 2011 Oregon State club is failing to live up to even modest expectations. The Beavers opened the season with a shocking 29–28 loss in overtime to Sacramento State (which lost by 21 points to Southern Utah the next week). Oregon State has played better in recent weeks, but this team is still 1–5 overall and 1–2 in the league. The remaining schedule isn’t kind, either — four of the final six games are on the road, and the home games are against Stanford and Washington.
Midseason Disappointment — Ryan Katz, Oregon State
The folks in Corvallis have been raving about Katz’s arm strength since he stepped foot on campus, but a strong arm doesn’t guarantee success on the field. Katz had a solid sophomore season (2,401 yards, 18 TDs, 11 INTs), but struggled out of the gate in 2011. He threw for only 87 yards on 22 attempts in the Week 1 loss to Sacramento State and was benched (for good) following the Beavers’ loss at Wisconsin.
Midseason Surprise — Washington State
Since we gave Steve Sarkisian the nod for midseason Coach of the Year for his work with Washington, we will go with Washington State as the surprise. The Cougars are only 3–3 overall and 1–2 in the league, but this team is competitive for the first time in the Paul Wulff era. Washington State already has a Pac-12 road win (Colorado) and lost in the final minutes at UCLA. Also, the Cougars played relatively well against Stanford last week; the score was 10–7 at the half before Stanford flexed its muscles in the final two quarters.
Midseason Surprise — Keith Price, Washington
Andrew Luck will end the season as the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback, but Price is having a remarkably efficient season — and he’s in his first season as the starter. Despite playing through injuries to both knees, the sophomore has completed 118-of-170 passes for 1,466 yards with 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions. In three Pac-12 games, Price has thrown 10 touchdowns and only one INT.
What Athlon Sports got right — We figured Colorado would struggle in its first year in the Pac-12, and the Buffs are off to an 0–3 start (which doesn’t include a ‘non-league’ loss at home to Cal). We predicted a 1–8 Pac-12 record for Jon Embree’s club.
What Athlon Sports got wrong — We didn’t expect Stanford to be quite as dominant with Jim Harbaugh no longer around. We picked the Cardinal to finish in a tie for second in the Pac-12 North with a 6–3 league record. Stanford is already 4–0, and while it has yet to face the most difficult part of the schedule, it’s tough to envision this team losing more than one game in the league.
Athlon projects the wins and losses for each team for the rest of the season. Here's how we think the final standings will look before the Pac-12 Championship.
1. Oregon 11-1 (9-0)
2. Stanford 11-1 (8-1)
3. Washington 8-4 (6-3)
4. California 6-6 (3-6)
5. Washington State 5-7 (3-6)
6. Oregon State 1-11 (1-8)
1. Arizona State 10-2 (8-1)
2. USC 8-4 (6-3)
3. UCLA 5-7 (4-5)
4. Utah 6-6 (3-6)
5. Arizona 5-7 (3-6)
6. Colorado 1-12 (0-9)
Pac-12 Championship: Oregon vs. Arizona State
Three Things to Watch
Can the Cougars make a bowl? Paul Wulff is no longer on the hot seat thanks to his team’s 3–3 start. The Cougars have proven they can now compete in the Pac-12, but can they take the next step and reach bowl-eligibility? It will be tough. Can you find three wins the rest of the way, with Oregon State, Arizona State, Utah and Washington at home and trips to Oregon and Cal? Me neither. Looks like a 5–7 team at best — which is still a huge improvement.
Can Washington win the Pac-12 North? Everyone assumes that the Pac-12 North will come down to either Stanford or Oregon — and with both teams ranked in the top 10, that’s not a bad assumption. But don’t forget about Washington. The Huskies, 3–0 in the league, are dynamic on offense and improving on defense. They travel to Stanford this weekend and should give Stanford its most difficult test to date. Don’t be shocked if the Huskies head back to Seattle in first place in the North.
Can anyone threaten Arizona State in the South? Arizona State has seized control of the Pac-12 South with a 3–1 start that includes a win over USC. And with the Trojans, also 3–1, ineligible to play in the first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game, Arizona State would have to implode not to win the division. UCLA is the only other team in the South with less than three losses, but the Bruins aren’t very good. They are 2–1 in the league, with the wins coming against Oregon State and Washington State. Arizona State does have to travel to UCLA on Nov. 5, but right now you’d have to make the Devils the overwhelming favorite in the South.