2011 NCAA Football Preview: Pac-12 Conference

August 29, 2011
By K. Becks

Overview

For the first time in conference history, the Pac-12 football champion will be decided by a championship game pitting the winner of the North division against the winner of the South division in a game played on the home turf of the team with the conference’s best overall record. Giving a team home field advantage is an interesting concept; only Conference USA has a similar system. However, it gives the team that arguably is the conference’s best team a better shot a better shot at winning.

It could prove to be a smart move by a conference that has made several smart moves over the past year and a half. The Pac-12 isn’t an overwhelmingly strong conference, but does have their share of teams that could be in the hunt for a national title bid. The conference should also benefit from the curiosity of fans that want to know how teams such as Utah, who have found success in smaller conferences, will fare playing supposedly tougher competition every weekend.

The Pac-12 has shown that they are a major player in conference re-alignment. Now is the time to show the country that the play on the field will benefit as a result.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Oregon

At the skill positions on offense, Oregon should be as good as ever. LaMichael James is possibly the most dangerous player on offense in the entire country, and Darren Thomas will be back under center for the Ducks which means that there won’t be a learning curve this season. However, the skill positions are just the guys who get the glory on Chip Kelly’s squad. The offensive line is what makes this offense click, and the Ducks lost a lot of contributors from last year’s team in that area. Kelly does a good job of readying his players for the rigors of his offensive scheme, so they may not suffer as much as other teams would.

The problem for Oregon may be on defense. Firstly, they are thin at linebacker, and only return one starter from that group. Secondly, they need to be better against the pass this season. The teams with the best shot at taking down the Ducks are those with talented quarterbacks, and the secondary was the weak link for the Oregon defense in 2010.

Until someone finds a way to slow down Oregon’s offense, teams will have a lot of trouble beating the Ducks. Chip Kelly seems to be able to put almost anyone on his roster in the game and get solid production out of them. Oregon plays some tough games on the road, and it will be difficult to repeat the success they enjoyed last year. They do still have the talent to do it, though.

Stanford

The Cardinal lost one game all of last season, on the road against Oregon. This year, Stanford comes back with a solid offense, defense, and the chance to beat Oregon at home.

The offense starts with Andrew Luck, one of the early favorites to contend for the Heisman Trophy. Luck is extremely accurate and possibly one of the best pure pocket quarterbacks that college football has seen in quite some time. Stanford’s one weak spot on offense, the receiving corps, shouldn’t be a burden considering that Luck could make a bunch of Pop Warner receivers first team All-Pac-12 selections.

On defense, Stanford will need to replace some key pieces in the middle of the defense, including nose guard Sione Fua and inside linebacker Owen Marecic. Luckily for the Cardinal, they don’t play in the Big Ten, so the defense shouldn’t suffer greatly from the departure of those players. Stanford had arguably the best defense in the Pac-12 last season, and they should be one of the best in the conference again this year.

If there is a team with the best shot at taking down Oregon, Stanford is that team. If the Cardinal can beat the Ducks at home, they should be looking at a great shot to win the Pac-12 North division. If they are still undefeated by that time, all they would need to do is beat California and Notre Dame at home, and they would almost undoubtedly be playing in New Orleans on January 9th.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Oregon State

When Jacquizz Rodgers decided to leave college early for the NFL, many people thought that it would mean bad things for the Beavers. However, that may not be the case. When Steven Jackson left Corvallis, the Beavers had gone 7-5 in 2003. The next year, Oregon State finished 6-5.

Oregon State may have actually relied too much on Rodgers. Without him, the Beavers will be more willing to use the passing game, which is where their strength may have been even when Rodgers was around. Junior quarterback Ryan Katz learned a lot last season, and has a strong arm. With Markus Wheaton and Jacquizz’s brother James returning this season at receiver, the Beavers have the ability to score a lot through the air.

The defense will be an area of concern for Oregon State because they only return three starters, but the defense wasn’t that good last year, either. The defensive front is undersized but quick, and if they can find a way to get better pressure on quarterbacks this season, they will have more success. If they don’t, there are a lot of teams in the Pac-12 that can pick them apart.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Andrew Luck (Jr.), Stanford quarterback

He probably would have been the number one pick in the NFL Draft had he left school. He is one of the most polished quarterbacks in college football in years, and is the leader of a team ranked in the top ten. Around The Corn even came across an article entitled “Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning”. When you are being compared to Peyton Manning and you’re still in college, you have to be pretty good.

Luck is such a big name in college football this year that his personal performance may outshine that of his team’s performance, which could very well run the table in the Pac-12. Of course, the only way that Stanford will do that is if Luck lives up to the high expectations put upon him. Thanks to his calm demeanor, he shouldn’t have a lot of trouble doing that.

A Heisman Trophy would be a great accolade for Luck, but it is pretty safe to say that he would trade that experience to be able to hold up a crystal ball at the end of the season. For a guy like Andrew Luck, both things are possible.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Oregon vs. LSU (September 3rd)

This is one of the biggest games of the opening weekend, although recently LSU has suffered a major blow not only for this game, but for their entire season.

With Jordan Jefferson suspended indefinitely, LSU went from a team with national title aspirations to a team that should be happy to escape their non-conference schedule with less than two losses. While Jefferson has struggled with consistency in the past, he gave the Tigers the best chance to win and was certainly one of the main reasons why LSU is ranked so highly.

The Jefferson story aside, the battle between Oregon’s offense and LSU’s defense will still be a great one. LSU is always tough against the run, and could be one of the few teams on Oregon’s schedule capable of containing LaMichael James. The secondary should also be strong for the Tigers, and they hold the upper hand against Oregon’s receivers.

LSU is not dead in the water, but they could be feeling a lot more comfortable if they had Jefferson for this game. If LSU is in this game by the fourth quarter, expect it to be a defensive struggle.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Stanford vs. Southern California (October 29th)

USC is still banned from playing in the postseason, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good this year. The Trojans should be pretty good on offense this year under second year head man Lane Kiffin. Matt Barkley could finally be ready to have a breakout season at quarterback, and he has a preferred target in sophomore receiver Robert Woods. The concern for USC this year will be the defense, which was surprisingly bad in Monte Kiffin’s first year as defensive coordinator.

This could be one of the toughest games for Stanford because the game is being played in the Coliseum. If USC is improved on defense, they could give the Cardinal a run for their money in this game. Considering how bad the Trojans were against the pass last year (109th in the nation), they need to improve a lot in order to stop Andrew Luck.

Conference Predictions

North Division

1. Arizona State (9-3, [7-2])

2. Utah (9-3, [6-3])

3. Southern California (7-5, [5-4])

4. Arizona (5-7, [4-5])

5. Colorado (3-10, [2-7])

6. UCLA (4-8, [2-7])

South Division

1. Stanford (11-1, [8-1])

2. Oregon (11-1, [8-1])

3. Oregon State (8-4, [6-3])

4. Washington (7-5, [5-4])

5. California (6-6, [3-6])

6. Washington State (2-10, [0-9])

Championship Game (Arizona State vs. Stanford)

Winner: Stanford

- K. Becks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*