Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks.
The Pac-12's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
1. Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota: Who Will Start at Quarterback for Oregon?
Regardless of whether Bennett or Mariota takes the first snap, Chip Kelly shouldn’t have too much concern about his quarterbacks. Sure, anytime that you replace a starter there is bound to be a few ups and downs. However, both players are more than capable of keeping Oregon’s offense as one of the best in the nation. Bennett played in eight games last season, including one start against Colorado. He finished the year with 369 passing yards and six touchdowns, along with recording 200 yards on the ground. Bennett entered spring practice with an edge, but Mariota closed the gap. The redshirt freshman dazzled in the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and one score, while adding 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Both players should be more dynamic on the ground than their predecessor (Darron Thomas). It could be a mystery as to which Oregon quarterback will be in the opener against Arkansas State, and both players could play significant snaps in 2012. Regardless of whether Mariota or Bennett starts the year, it’s unlikely the Ducks will have many concerns under center.
2. How big of a concern is USC’s defensive line?
The Trojans’ best defense in 2012 may be the offense. With Matt Barkley back under center and Robert Woods and Marqise Lee catching passes, USC will have no trouble averaging around 40 points a game in 2012 – which is important since the Trojans will have to win with offense. The defense made improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin last season but suffered some key departures on the line. End Nick Perry and tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris depart, while end Devon Kennard suffered an injury in summer workouts and could miss 2012. With the personnel losses and Kennard’s injury, the Trojans are very thin up front. Wes Horton and George Uko are two solid building blocks, but the defense needs big contributions from freshmen Greg Townsend and Leonard Williams. USC’s issues in the trenches may not be a concern in Pac-12 play, but a national title appearance against a team from the SEC could expose the concerns up front.
3. How quickly will Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State reap the benefits from their new coaches?
We’ve heard it enough, and we’ve said it enough: The Pac-12 had an influx of good offensive coaches this offseason. But now that it’s time for fall camp, Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach and Todd Graham have to get down to business. As much as Jeff Tuel/Marquess Wilson may fit Leach’s system or much as Matt Scott/Ka’Deem Carey may fit what Rodriguez wants to do, they still have to learn the offense. And those are just front-line skill position players. What about developing depth and the offensive line (an issue in particular for Wazzu)? At Arizona State, Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell take over a team with an entrenched running back (Cameron Marshall), a shaky quarterback situation -- not all that different from Pitt last season.
4. Will fresh faces on defense be enough to repair Washington this season?
The Huskies could at least be thankful for Clemson. Before the Orange Bowl, Washington’s 67 points and 777 yards allowed allowed to Baylor was the most embarrassing defensive performance of the postseason (and in terms of yards allowed, it was the third-worst of 2012). Coach Steve Sarkisian responded by cleaning house defensively, adding four new assistants including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and recruiting whiz/line coach Tosh Lupoi. The new coaches will start from scratch for better or worse -- the Huskies’ defense will be young with only a couple of projected senior starters and a handful of freshmen on the depth chart. The defense may be a long-term fix, which could be trouble with LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC all on the schedule in the first half.
5. If Stanford is going to rely on Stepfan Taylor to run the ball, who’s going to pave the way?
Wait, Stanford lost more than Andrew Luck in the offseason? Yes. David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, both taken in the first 42 picks on the NFL draft, are gone. The other three starters (left guard David Yankey, center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming) are back to form a solid foundation for the line. There’s healthy competition among returning players for the two vacant slots. Stanford’s impressive freshman line class -- which included three linemen in the Athlon Consensus 100 -- will be worth watching as well. True freshmen rarely start on the offensive line anywhere, but we should note Martin and DeCastro both started as redshirt freshmen at Stanford.
6. Can Utah depend on quarterback Jordan Wynn?
The Utes basically lost their passing offense after Wynn was injured in the 31-14 loss to Washington. Although Jon Hays ended the year with 12 touchdowns, Utah wasn’t able to stretch the field. Wynn was off to a solid start last season, throwing for 727 yards and six touchdowns through the first four games. However, he has dealt with shoulder injuries in each of the last two seasons and has never started a full 12-game regular season slate. If healthy, Wynn clearly gives Utah the best chance to win. The Utes have an underrated group of receivers, led by senior DeVonte Christopher, so there’s no reason for Utah to struggle like it did last season through the air. New coordinator Brian Johnson will use more spread looks, but the Utes have to find a way to keep Wynn healthy and on the field to have any shot at winning the Pac-12 South crown.
7. Will California develop other receivers outside of Keenan Allen?
The Golden Bears didn’t have much depth at receiver last season, and this unit suffered some losses with Marvin Jones and Michael Calvin expiring their eligibility. Allen was clearly the No. 1 target for quarterback Zach Maynard, catching 98 passes for 1,343 yards and six scores. While Allen should have another big season, California has to find some other weapons to help take the pressure off of him. Freshmen Maurice Harris and Bryce Treggs are intriguing possibilities, while tight end Richard Rodgers is an emerging weapon. The Golden Bears could make some noise in the Pac-12 North race, but Allen can’t be the team’s only receiver in 2012.
8. How has Jim L. Mora adjusted to the college game?
It’s no secret NFL coaches struggle in the college game -- Bill Callahan, Mike Sherman, Dave Wannstedt, Chan Gailey, to name a few. Working with 18-22 year olds with class demands and practice time limitations isn’t anything like working with professionals. Mora seems to understand some of these limitations, and he surrounded himself with a handful quality veteran college assistants. The first indications of whether he’s adjusted to the college game may be felt in fall camp. He’s already hoping to build team chemistry and camaraderie by taking the Bruins off-campus to Cal State-San Bernardino for two weeks of practice while UCLA’s practice field is renovated. And he’s pledged to bring toughness to the Bruins. Mora will have a chance to find out what he’s jumped into when the Bruins face Nebraska in Week Two.
9. Is there hope in Boulder?
Defeating Arizona at home and Utah on the road in the final three games at least gave Colorado something on which to build for 2012, but the Buffaloes still look to be grasping for answers. The Buffs likely will play a significant amount of freshmen and sophomores, a tough proposition for a team that went 3-10 and visits USC and Oregon in October. Wide receiver Paul Richardson, Colorado’s top offensive player, is hopeful he’ll make a quick recovery from a torn ACL from spring practice to play this season. Colorado can hope for that, but a bowl game might have to wait until this core group of freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors.
10. Can Oregon State generate a rushing attack?
For the first time since 2004, Oregon State failed to have a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Malcolm Agnew burst onto the scene in the opener, rushing for 223 yards and three touchdowns in the 29-28 loss to Sacramento State. However, hamstring injuries limited Agnew for most of last season and he managed only 200 yards the rest of the way. Jovan Stevenson and Terron Ward each chipped in just over 200 yards, and the Beavers finished with only 1,043 rushing yards as a team last year. For Oregon State to make a run back to a bowl game, the offense has to find some balance. Quarterback Sean Mannion and receiver Markus Wheaton is a dangerous combination, but the Beavers need to escape the Pac-12 cellar in rushing offense. Agnew is the team’s best option, but he also needs to stay healthy. A committee approach would not be a surprise, especially if incoming freshman Chris Brown impresses in fall practice.
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