The Pac-12 is in the best position to challenge the SEC's strangle-hold on college football. Both USC and Oregon are ranked in the top five and have eyes not only on the Pac-12 title, but also the BCS National Championship. The Trojans are the nation's No. 1 team but the Ducks are the three-time defending conference champs. Something has to give. Additionally, this league added four new head coaches that will bring electric new offenses to a conference that already gives defensive coordinators nightmares. While there isn't a marquee showdown in Week 1 like years past, there are still plenty of intriguing match-ups that could be closer than the experts think.
Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 1:
1. Lane Kiffin's Quest for a National Championship
The high profile coach has been dealing with maturity questions since leaving Tennessee in unorthodox fashion in 2010. After recruiting and coaching in the face of NCAA sanctions, his 2011 team showed marked improvement after the five-loss debut of two years ago. With Matt Barkley's return to Heritage Hall, Kiffin has all the pieces in place to challenge the SEC's run at national supremacy. A trip to the championship game would begin to validate his brash attitude and coaching style. The Hawaii Warriors and new head coach Norm Chow — who is a former Kiffin co-worker at USC — won't pose much of a threat this weekend, but Barkley's Heisman campaign and Kiffin's quest for a championship begins in primetime on FOX's first-ever network regular-season college football broadcast.
2. The West Coast gets more offensive
The Pac-12 has always been labeled as an offensive-minded conference that fails to play elite defense. While that argument may never have a definitive answer, one thing is certain: The league's four new head coaches will cause plenty of additional headaches for defensive coordinators. Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham are widely considered three of the top offensive minds in the game today and all three will begin their tenures this weekend. Leach's air raid, RichRod's zone read option and Graham's spread will do nothing to shift the national perspective that this is an offensive league only. While Jim Mora Jr., may not be thought of on the same level in terms of game-planning as his three new Pac-12 peers, his offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone should do plenty to ignite a recently dormant UCLA offense.
3. What will life be like without Andrew Luck?
The best pro prospect since John Elway has traded in his Cardinal red for Colts blue, leaving David Shaw and Stanford with arguably the biggest void in the nation. Junior Josh Nunes battled with sophomore Brett Nottingham all summer long for the right to fill those big shoes and Shaw named the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Nunes the starter. When he attempts his first throw Friday night against San Jose State it will be his first pass since November 20, 2010, and so some rust should be expected. The Spartans should rollover relatively easily, so it is a perfect chance for Nunes to ease his way into the starting line-up. However, on a team that has gone 23-3 over the last two seasons under Luck's leadership, the pressure to win on The Farm has reached unprecedented levels. Nunes needs to prove quickly that he will be ready for Pac-12 play. USC comes to town in Week 3.
4. Redshirt freshmen set to lead conference contenders
Okay, calling UCLA a conference contender might be a small reach in 2012. Yet, the two teams that met in the inaugural Pac-12 title game will turn their hopes for a return trip over to redshirt freshmen quarterbacks. The Bruins will start Brett Hundley, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound Chandler, Ariz., native, against Rice on the road to open the year. He is charged with stabilizing a position that has been a complete mess for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile, national title hopeful Oregon will unleash Marcus Mariota on the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Mariota is a dynamic 6-foot-4, 195-pound dual-threat who has drawn Dennis Dixon comparisons — and possibly forced Darron Thomas to declare early for the NFL. Both players are highly-touted, upside prospects who enter the starting line-up with loads of expectations. And pressure to win.
5. Fireworks-a-plenty in Provo
Mike Leach, a former BYU undergraduate who learned his craft from famous Cougars LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow, returns to Provo with an offense that could be one of the most dangerous in the nation. Jeff Tuel and a host of talented receivers will give Bronco Mendenhall, who is also the defensive coordinator at BYU, all he can handle. The blue and white Cougars won nine of their final 10 games last fall, but against the top two offenses it faced, Utah and TCU, Mendenhall's defense allowed 92 points in two losses. Washington State will also struggle to stop Riley Nelson and company, but Leach understands this game could decide bowl eligibility at the end of the yeart. Wazzu will keep this one much closer than the two-touchdown spread indicates and just might pull the upset outright.
6. Early barometer for reworked Husky defense
There are a lot of new faces playing for and coaching the Washington defense this fall. Justin Wilcox, Peter Simon and Tosh Lupoi were off-season hires that made national waves for Steve Sarkisian. After allowing 777 total yards of offense and 67 points in the bowl loss to Baylor, Coach Sark knew something had to be done. Six new starters, including uber-recruit Shaq Thompson, will be asked to execute the new staff's scheme in an effort to improve last season's 106th-rated defense. And while San Diego State won't come close to the upset, Wilcox should get a quality gauge of his unit's development against former Pac-12 passer Ryan Katz. The Aztecs are used to being a competitive team and have been strong on offense over the last few years, so Coach Sark should get a solid picture of his defense right out of the gate. A strong showing will lead to optimism heading into a Week 2 trip to LSU. A poor showing against the Oregon State transfer will have Les Miles licking his chops.
7. Is Jeff Tedford's job at stake in Week 1?
The last time Nevada and Cal got together, Colin Kaepernick and the Wolfpack rolled-up 316 yards rushing and 52 points in a home win over the Bears. Two seasons later, Jeff Tedford enters the season needing to win and show improvement to keep the temperature on his coaching seat to a minimum. While Kaepernick is now in the NFL, Chris Ault's pistol system has a new star in quarterback Cody Fajardo – who led the team in rushing and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground last fall as a freshman. Tedford also turned to the ground game down the stretch last fall and Isi Solfele led this team to a bowl after a 3-1 finish to the season. The Golden Bears will once again need the rushing game in order to take pressure off starting quarterback Zach Maynard and a rebuilt, Mychal Kendricks-less defense.
8. Upset Alert: RichRod's offense better be ready
Rich Rodriguez begins his tenure as the Arizona Wildcats head coach on upset alert against the Toledo Rockets. His offense, led by a senior dual-threat quarterback, five returning starters along the offensive line and a future star in tailback Ka'Deem Carey, will need to be sharp right out of the gate to beat the MAC contender. Toledo averaged over 42 points per game last year on offense, and while wideout Eric Page and coach Tim Beckman are no longer present, the Rockets will still be able to score plenty under new coach Matt Campbell. This should be a high-scoring affair with plenty of big plays, so the Wildcats' Matt Scott will have to play well in the new zone read scheme.
9. Gus Malzahn vs. Chip Kelly, Part II
It wasn't that long ago that Guz Malzahn was standing on the sidelines of the national championship game watching Michael Dyer pirouette his way to a BCS Championship Game MVP award. Chip Kelly was there, too. And there is no chance Kelly has forgotten that night. The Red Wolves of Arkansas State could be in for a long night as Kelly, defensive coordinator Nick Allioti and Kenjon Barner exact their revenge on the former Auburn offensive coordinator. The first half should be entertaining as Mariota and Ryan Aplin go head-to-head, but the second half could be a bloody Red Wolf massacre.
10. Can Utah find a passing game?
The Utes are considered the top challenger to USC in the Pac-12 South this fall. They have one of the league's top defenses and a record-setting tailback in John White. Yet, this team was incredibly one-dimensional last fall once quarterback Jordan Wynn got injured. If Utah and Kyle Whittingham expect to compete with Barkley and Kiffin, a more balanced offense is a must. Wynn won't need to be great against Northern Colorado, but should he play poorly — or as soon as the game gets out of hand — fans should expect a long look at heralded freshman back-up Travis Wilson.
Week 1 Pac-12 Predictions:
Week 1 Pac-12 Games
N. Colorado (off) at Utah
UCLA (-16) at Rice
Washintgon St (+13) at BYU
Wash. St, 31-30
N. Arizona (off) at Arizona St
Arizona St, 31-14
Arizona St, 30-14
Arizona St, 45-10
Arizona St, 28-24
San Jose St (+25.5) at Stanford
Nevada (+10.5) at Cal
Nicholls St (off) at Oregon St
Oregon St, 31-10
Oregon St, 41-14
Oregon St, 41-7
Oregon St, 35-10
Colorado St (+6.5) vs. Colorado*
Hawaii (+38) at USC
Toledo (+10) at Arizona
San Diego St (+14.5) at Washington
Arkansas St (+35.5) at Oregon
* - game played in Denver.
by Braden Gall
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