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Very Early 2012 Pac-12 Predictions

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Very Early 2012 Pac-12 Predictions

Pac-12 North

1. Oregon Ducks (4 home, 5 road conference games)

Key Returnees:
RB Kenjon Barner, RB/WR DeAnthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, DL Dion Jordan, DL Taylor Hart, LB Michael Clay, LB Kiko Alonso, DB John Boyett, DB Avery Patterson, K Alejandrio Maldonado, P Jackson Rice

Key Losses:QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, WR Lavasier Tuinei, TE David Paulson, OL Mark Asper, DL Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, LB Dewitt Stuckey, CB Cliff Harris, S Eddie Pleasant

Darron Thomas’ strange decision to leave school early creates a void at the most important position on the field. Most believe that Brian Bennett is capable, but until the bright lights are on, he has to be considered a relative unknown. Replacing 71 touchdowns and a 23-3 record at quarterback doesn’t happen over night. With Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff to help, however, he shouldn’t have to shoulder the entire offensive load. Chip Kelly’s offense won’t be as dynamic as it has been the last two seasons, but should still be plenty potent to win the North.

Defensively this team should be better. Oregon finished 67th nationally in total defense and 52nd in scoring defense, but there is solid talent returning to all three levels of the defense as only six total players depart from the defensive two-deep.

The schedule also sets-up for a hot start for with an easy non-conference schedule and five of the first six at Autzen Stadium, including North contender Washington. The schedule gets interesting in the second half with trips to Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State for the Civil War. However, the Game of the Century in the Pac-12, and possibly nationally, will be when Oregon heads to L.A. to battle USC on November 3. If Oregon wants to win its fourth-straight Pac-12 title, it will need to beat USC at least once, if not twice next fall.

2. Washington Huskies (4 home, 5 road)

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Key Returnees: QB Keith Price, RB Jesse Callier, WR Kasen Williams, WR James Johnson, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, DL Josh Shirley, DL Andrew Hudson, DL Hau’oli Jamora, LB Princton Fuimaono, LB John Timu, S Sean Parker, CB Desmond Trufant, DB Justin Glenn

Key Losses:RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse, WR Devin Aguilar, OL Senio Kelemete, DT Alamada Ta’amu, LB Cort Dennison

Steve Sarkisian didn’t liked what he saw from his defense in 2011. Anyone who watched the 777-yard, 67-point debacle in the Alamo Bowl to Baylor understood that. So he made sweeping changes that not only improved his staff but sent ripples down the West Coast. He hired Justin Wilcox to coach the defense and gave him two rising stars to work with in linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and line coach Tosh Lupoi (from Cal) — both of whom are considered elite recruiters. There is a lot of work that has to be done on that side of the ball if the Huskies expect to remove Oregon from the top of the North Division.

Sarkisian also hired Cal’s Eric Kiesau as his new offensive coordinator and QB coach. And he will have a good one to work with as Keith Price is back under center for the second year in a row. Losing Chris Polk will hurt the ground game but there is loads of talent left for Price in the form of Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Three starters should be back along the offensive line as well.

The schedule basically begins with what could be deemed the toughest non-conference game any preseason Top 25 will play when Washington heads to LSU in Week 2. Additionally, the Huskies have to face what should be the best three teams from the South: USC and Utah at home and at Arizona. It also has to battle Oregon and Cal on the road as well. Washington is making strides and is clearly committed to becoming a top-10 program. But with a brutal schedule and defense that needed a major facelift, Washington is likely still one year away.

3. California Golden Bears (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees:QB Zach Maynard, RB Isi Sofele, RB C.J. Anderson, WR Keenan Allen, OL Matt Summers-Gavin, DL Aaron Tipoti, LB David Wilkerson, LB Cecil Whiteside, LB Chris McCain, DB Josh Hill

Key Losses:WR Marvin Jones, TE Anthony Miller, OL Mitchell Schwartz, OL Justin Cheadle, DE Trevor Guyton, DL Ernest Owusu, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB D.J. Holt, DB D.J. Campbell, S Sean Cattouse, K Giorgio Tavecchio, P Bryan Anger

This fall will be a huge year for Jeff Tedford in Berkeley — despite being the school’s all-time winningest coach and being responsible for eight of Cal’s 21 bowl appearances (and five of its 10 wins). His job hasn’t gotten any easier over the past week as North rival Washington has stolen two of its star coaches in Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau. Filling those holes will be key heading into National Signing Day 2012.

Offensively, this team needs quarterback Zach Maynard to become more efficient and having half-brother Keenan Allen back to catch passes will go a long way to that end. Tailbacks Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson should be able to take some pressure off the inconsistent passer as well. Plugging holes along the offensive line will be the key to Tedford’s offense.

Defensively, this was the top unit in the Pac-12, but has big voids left by all-conference performers Mychal Kendricks and Trevor Guyton. Kendricks was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and other honorable mention candidates D.J. Campbell, Sean Cattouse and D.J. Holt will need to be replaced as well. There is plenty of talent in the linebacking corps and Tedford has recruited well over the last few years.

The schedule will be bittersweet for Cal fans. Trips to Ohio State, USC and Utah will be very challenging, but the Golden Bears’ top contenders from the North — Oregon, Washington and Stanford — will all have to visit Tightwad Hill.

4. Stanford Cardinal (4 road, 5 home)

Key Returnees: RB Stepfan Taylor, RB Tyler Gaffney, RB Anthony Wilkerson, WR Ty Montgomery, WR/PR Drew Terrell, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OL Cameron Fleming, OL David Yankey, DL Ben Gardner, LB Shayne Skov, LB Jarek Lancaster, LB A.J. Tarpley, LB Trent Murphy, K Jordan Williamson

Key Losses:QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, WR Griff Whalen, TE Coby Fleener, OL Jonathan Martin, OL David DeCastro, DL Matthew Masifilo, LB Chase Thomas, S Delano Howell, DB Michael Thomas

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In year one A.L. (After Luck) and year two A.H., David Shaw will have his work cut out for him. The North appears to be getting stronger and the top four players on his offense are departing, including the best player in the nation. Finding a replacement that can even attempt to fill the void left by Andrew Luck will be virtually impossible. There is a solid stable of backs and tight ends still to work with, but the offensive line will have to continue to develop young talents like Cameron Fleming and David Yankey.

The return of linebacker Shayne Skov should help ease Stanford into the post-Luck era. Skov is an absolute stud and will be the heart of this defense in 2012. In fact, this linebacking corps could be on the league’s best and will have to make up for losses along the line and in the secondary.

Stanford does have to face two of the top three from the south, but gets USC and Arizona at home. However, the those are the only favors the schedules affords as the Cardinal will have to visit Notre Dame as well as the top three North contenders Oregon, Cal and Washington.

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5. Washington State Cougars (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees:QB Jeff Tuel, QB Connor Halliday, RB Ricky Galvin, RB Carl Winston, RB/PR Leon Brooks, WR Marquess Wilson, OL John Fullington, DL Travis Long, LB C.J. Mizell, LB Sekopi Kaufusi, DB Deone Bucannon, DB Tyree Toomer, DB Casey Locker, DB Damante Horton, K Andrew Furney

Key Losses:QB Marshall Lobbestael, WR Jared Karstetter, WR Isiah Barton, OL David Gonzalez, OL B.J. Guerra, DL Brandon Rankin, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, P Dan Wagner

Fans have to be excited about the Mike Leach era beginning in Pullman. And they won’t have to wait long for fireworks as the pieces are in place for Leach to build an incredible offense in year one. Quarterback, running back and receiver should be well-stocked for Leach’s spread attack. Facing BYU in Week 1 on the road will set the tempo for a team that is craving postseason play. If Wazzu can return from Provo with a win, it could easily start 4-0.

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There is a lot of experience returning to the defense, but major improvements will have to be made to a unit that ranked 82nd nationally in total defense and 95th in scoring defense. Should this unit show growth and toughness, the Cougars could easily be bowling in 2012.

A 4-2 record is reasonable heading into the Week 7 bye week. Therefore, late season road trips to Stanford, Utah and Arizona State packaged around home games with UCLA and Washington will likely determine if the Cougs can reach a bowl for the first time in nearly a decade. Either way, with Leach in town, this team will once again be a blast to watch push for the postseason.

6. Oregon State Beavers (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Sean Mannion, RB Malcolm Agnew, RB Jovan Stevenson, RB Terron Ward, RB Jordan Jenkins, WR Markus Wheaton, WR Jordan Bishop, WR Brandin Cooks, DL Scott Crichton, DL Dylan Wynn, DL Rusty Fernando, LB Feti Unga, LB Michael Doctor, LB Rueben Robinson, DB Anthony Watkins, DB Jordan Poyer, K Trevor Romaine

Key Losses:WR James Rodgers, TE Joe Halahuni, OL Grant Johnson, CB Brandon Hardin, DB Cameron Collins, S Lance Mitchell, P Johnny Hekker

Mike Riley is coming off arguably his worst season in Corvallis. The good news is he found a quarterback in sophomore-to-be Sean Mannion. The freshman posted 3,328 yards last fall and will have a plethora of young, talented running backs behind him in the backfield. Wideouts Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Brandin Cooks give him plenty of depth at wideout as well. Filling holes along the line will be the key to offensive improvement.

The defense returns plenty of names with loads of playing time. However, many of those names were responsible for the Pac-12 worst rush defense and 84th total defense nationally. Riley will have to improve on his 30.1 points allowed per game if he expects to return to a bowl game.

And the schedule isn’t offering him any favors. Two non-conference games against Big Ten power Wisconsin at home and a road trip to BYU make it difficult to see a postseason trip for the Beavers. The conference road slate includes Washington, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA with Utah, Oregon, Cal, Arizona State and Wazzu visiting Corvallis.

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Pac-12 South

1. USC Trojans (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Matt Barkley, RB Curtis McNeal, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, TE Randall Telfer, C Khaled Holmes, DE Wes Horton, LB Dion Bailey, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Nickell Robey, S T.J. McDonald

Key Losses: LT Matt Kalil, DE Nick Perry, DT Christian Tupou, DT DaJohn Harris

2012 represents an interesting point for USC football. The Trojans are finished with their two-year postseason ban, but are about to embark on the reduction of 30 scholarships over the next three seasons. Although the scholarship losses are huge for 2013 and 2014, it won’t slow the Trojans down in 2012.

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Coach Lane Kiffin got an early Christmas present when quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for another year in Los Angeles over the NFL. The senior will be one of the frontrunners to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy and is expected to have the Trojans in the mix for the national title. Barkley has plenty of weapons to choose from on offense, as Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are two of the best receivers in college football. Sophomore tight end Randall Telfer is also an up-and-coming threat for the USC passing attack. The Trojans have to be concerned about the depth behind starting running back Curtis McNeal, particularly after Amir Carlisle’s decision to transfer to Notre Dame. The offensive line brings back four starters, but losing Matt Kalil to the NFL was a huge loss.

The Trojans struggled mightily on defense in Lane Kiffin’s first year (2010), but showed progress in 2011. The defense ranked 18th against the run and ranked third in the Pac-12 by allowing 23.6 points a game. Although this unit made some improvement last year, there are concerns heading into 2012. End Nick Perry decided to bolt for the NFL, while DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou have finished their eligibility. Replacing three key contributors up front is going to be coordinator Monte Kiffin’s biggest task in spring practice. The freshman linebacker trio of Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard should be among the best in the Pac-12 next year. The secondary ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12, but returns all four starters in 2012, including All-American safety T.J. McDonald.

2. Utah Utes (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Jordan Wynn, RB John White, WR DeVonte Christopher, C Tevita Stevens, DT Star Lotuleiei, LB Trevor Reilly, CB Ryan Lacy, FS Eric Rowe, SS Brian Blechen

Key Losses: LT John Cullen, RT Tony Bergstrom, DE Derrick Shelby, LB Matt Martinez, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black

Despite losing quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the year, the Utes nearly won the Pac-12 South Division and a trip to Eugene to play in the conference title game. Considering Utah nearly won the South with a backup quarterback, coach Kyle Whittingham deserves a ton of credit for the 8-5 record and a Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. The Utes’ coaching staff suffered a blow this offseason, as offensive coordinator Norm Chow became the head coach at Hawaii.

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Wynn is expected to return for spring practice, which is good news for a Utah offense that needs a full year from him. Wynn was averaging only 181.8 passing yards per game before his injury, but he is an upgrade over backup Jon Hays. The receiving corps should be a strength for Utah next season, as DeVonte Christopher is back after catching 42 passes in 2011, while Josh Gordon is eligible after transferring from Baylor. The heart and soul of the Utes’ offense is 5-foot-8 running back and workhorse John White. The former JUCO transfer carried the offense in 2011, rushing for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns on 316 attempts. The offensive line returns three starters, but losing tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom is a big blow for this group.

The Utes led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2011, allowing only 20.2 points a game and return most of their core for 2012. Nose tackle Star Lotulelei dominated opposing offensive lines on his way to earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 and will anchor the defense in 2012. The Utes need to replace Derrick Shelby’s production at end, but will have one of the top defensive lines in the Pac-12. Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker depart at linebacker, but Trevor Reilly could be one of the top breakout players in the conference next year. The secondary loses cornerback Conroy Black, but returns promising safeties Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. 

3. Arizona Wildcats (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Matt Scott, RB Ka’Deem Carey, WR Dan Buckner, C Kyle Quinn, LB Jake Fischer, CB Shaquille Richardson, DB Tra’Mayne Bondurant, S Adam Hall

Key Losses: QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner, WR David Douglas, LB Derek Earls, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade, S Robert Golden

USC and Utah seem to be the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams returning in the conference for 2012, but ranking the rest of the division is anyone’s guess at this point. The early nod goes to the Wildcats, who scored one of the top coaching hires in former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.

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Moving from a pass-first offense to more of a spread-rush attack will be an interesting transition for Arizona, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. In order for Rodriguez’s offense to click, the Wildcats a big year from quarterback Matt Scott. After redshirting in 2011, this is Scott’s team for 2012. Running back Ka’Deem Carey had a solid freshman year and will become the go-to guy in the rushing attack. All five starters are back on the offensive line, but this group will be the under the microscope with the scheme changes.

If hiring Rodriguez was a grand slam, then pulling defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from West Virginia was a home run. Casteel will be bringing a 3-3-5 scheme to Arizona, which should fit well with the returning personnel in 2012. The Wildcats’ secondary loses cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Robert Golden, but regain the services of Adam Hall and cornerback Jonathan McKnight, who missed all or nearly all of 2011 due to injury. Two starting linebackers depart, but Arizona landed Akron transfer Brian Wagner and Jake Fischer is back from injury, which should prevent any drop-off in play from this group.

4. UCLA Bruins (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Shaq Evans, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, LB Eric Kendricks, CB Andrew Abbott, CB Aaron Hester, S Tevin McDonald

Key Losses: RB Derrick Coleman, WR Nelson Rosario, C Kai Maiava, LB Sean Westgate

Change is in the air at UCLA. Despite claiming the Pac-12 South crown, a 6-6 regular season record cost coach Rick Neuheisel his job. The Bruins made a run at some big names, but ultimately ended up hiring former NFL head coach Jim Mora. Although Mora hasn’t coached in college since 1984, he pieced together a terrific staff, including ace recruiter Adrian Klemm and former Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

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The cupboard isn’t bare for Mora, but how well the Bruins adapt to the new coaching staff remains to be seen. Quarterback Kevin Prince has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and will face competition from talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley and senior Richard Brehaut this spring. Even if UCLA gets improved quarterback play, the rushing attack should be the strength of this team, as Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones are back. Replacing receiver Nelson Rosario and developing the line will be the top priority for the offensive staff this spring.

Mora’s background is on defense, but it will be interesting to see how his NFL mentality works against the spread offenses in the Pac-12. The Bruins struggled on defense in 2011, ranking eighth or worse in the Pac-12 in scoring, rush and total defense. The good news for Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos is nearly everyone returns. Expect the defensive line to get a lot of attention in spring practice, as the Bruins registered only 14 sacks in 2011.  

There’s a lot to like about UCLA next season, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty. The Bruins figure to be the biggest wild card in 2012 Pac-12 predictions this summer. 

5. Arizona State Sun Devils (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: RB Cameron Marshall, WR Jamal Miles, DE Junior Onyeali, DE Davon Coleman, LB Brandon Magee, CB Osahon Irabor, CB Deveron Carr

Key Losses: QB Brock Osweiler, WR Gerell Robinson, WR Aaron Pflugrad, C Garth Gerhart, DE Jamaar Jarrett, DT Bo Moos, LB Colin Parker, LB Shelly Lyons, LB Vontaze Burfict, FS Clint Floyd, SS Eddie Elder

With a 6-2 record going into November, all signs seemed to point toward the Sun Devils clinching the Pac-12 South and earning a spot in the conference title game. What a difference a month can make. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, Arizona State lost its last four regular season games and was crushed 56-24 by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The collapse cost coach Dennis Erickson his job, with Todd Graham coming over from Pittsburgh to replace him.

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Graham wants to run an up-tempo offense, but was dealt a blow when quarterback Brock Osweiler declared for the NFL Draft. Sophomores Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank will battle to replace Osweiler this spring. With an untested quarterback stepping in, expect the Sun Devils to lean heavily on running back Cameron Marshall next season. The backfield will also get a boost with the return of Deantre Lewis, who missed all of 2011 due to injury. Although the Sun Devils have one of the Pac-12’s top running back combinations, the offense line returns only two starters.

Just like the offense, the defense is going to be dealing with some significant personnel losses in 2012. The defensive line must replace key contributors Jamaar Jarrett and Bo Moos, while Vontaze Burfict, Oliver Aaron, Colin Parker and Shelly Lyons all depart at linebacker. Brandon Magee missed 2011 due to injury and figures to step in as one of the leaders in the linebacking corps for 2012. The secondary was hit hard by injuries last year, but could be the strength of this unit next season.

6. Colorado Buffaloes (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: WR Paul Richardson, LT David Bakhtiari, DE Will Pericak, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, LB Doug Rippy, LB Jon Major, CB Greg Henderson, S Ray Polk

Key Losses: QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, WR Toney Clemons, OG Ryan Miller, OG Ethan Adkins, DL/LB Josh Hartigan

Jon Embree knew he had a lot of work to do when he took over this job and 2012 is likely to be another struggle in the win column for the Buffaloes. Colorado closed out 2011 by winning two out of its final three games, including a 17-14 victory over Utah, which knocked the Utes out of the Pac-12 title game.

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Although Embree and his staff did a good job keeping the Buffaloes on track despite a 1-9 start, the bigger test will start in 2012. The offense will be replacing its best two players in quarterback Tyler Hansen and running back Rodney Stewart. Nick Hirschman was expected to push Texas transfer Connor Wood for the starting quarterback job this offseason, but he will miss spring practice due to a foot injury. Replacing Stewart looks to be a wide-open battle, as Tony Jones, Josh Ford and Malcolm Creer all received carries in 2011. Left tackle David Bakhtiari could be one of the top linemen in the Pac-12 next year, but the line has to replace guards Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller. Paul Richardson should be one of the top receivers in the Pac-12 next year, but needs Hirschman or Wood to quickly settle into the starting role.

The Buffaloes finished 2011 ranked 100th or worse in total and scoring defense, while ranking eighth in the Pac-12 against the pass. Needless to say, this side of the ball has some work to do in 2012. There are pieces to build around, especially in the front seven, where Will Pericak and Chidera Uzo-Diribe will anchor the defensive line. Linebackers Doug Rippy and Jon Major could contend for all-conference honors next season. The secondary will return mostly intact, which includes the return of Greg Henderson, a freshman who started 12 games.

2012 Pac-12 Championship Game: USC vs. Oregon

Washington's offseason coaching staff moves have helped to close the gap on Oregon, but the Ducks are still the team to beat in the North next season. USC and Oregon will meet during the regular season in Los Angeles and should meet a second time in the Coliseum for the conference title game. Expect this to be a high-scoring affair, but the Trojans get the early edge, especially with a potential trip to the national title on the line. 

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Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions
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Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

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