2012 NCAA Football Preview: Pac-12 Conference

August 28, 2012
By K. Becks

The number of Pac-12 related questions I received from readers tells me that this is clearly a conference that people will have their eye on this fall. It isn’t because of a certain team from Los Angeles, is it?

Here is the Pac-12 Conference preview.

Overview

The conference has heard it all before; “There is no defense played out West” and “There are really only a couple of teams that would stand a chance against the best from the other major conferences”. Those things might still be valid arguments in 2012, but the Pac-12 won’t care at all if it gets one of its own into the national championship game. Southern California is back in the running after a two-year bowl ban that didn’t seem to punish them nearly as much as some prognosticators had predicted. Oregon will attempt to stay relevant itself before potentially taking a break from postseason play if sanctions are handed down later on this year.

Then there is the rest of the conference. It would be accurate to describe it as a jumbled mess that almost no one will predict entirely correctly. Stanford is Luck-less, Washington replaced its entire defensive staff after a bowl loss in which it scored over 60 points, and Washington State and Arizona are starting over with head coaches that, to put it simply, are characters. Like a smaller conference but still possessing size and talent of a major conference, the Pac-12 will be interesting because of the potential for parody in the league.

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

Southern California

The best quarterback in the league? Check. The best receiving corps in the league? Check. A vastly improved defense from the one that took the field in 2010? Check. The Trojans are loaded this season, and head coach Lane Kiffin knows it. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley has a very experienced and very big offensive line blocking for him, so it makes sense that the Golden Boy would want to come back for another season at USC rather than take punishing hits in the NFL. Barkley should have no problem finding his receivers, who like him are headed for the NFL when they’re eligible. Both Robert Woods and Marqise Lee can hurt defenses, so it will be tough for opposing teams to try anything but single coverage.

The difference between a national title run and a heartbreaking one loss regular season will be the defense. As mentioned, Southern Cal has improved immensely over the past two years thanks to Lane’s father, Monte Kiffin. The entire secondary returns for the Trojans, so the hope is that the experience gained by those players will set the tone for the rest of the defense and also result in a better pass defense (USC was 102nd in the nation in pass defense). If the pass defense is improved, it will be very difficult for anyone on Southern Cal’s schedule to score enough points to keep up with the Trojans’ potent offense.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Arizona

Michigan fans, you probably don’t like him very much. West Virginia fans, you probably don’t like him even more. But Rich Rodriguez has the chance to build a winner in Tucson. His offensive principles did not work in the Big Ten, but it did create a winner in the Big East and can survive in the Pac-12 as well. Although the Wildcats do not have a lot of depth at the skill positions, all five offensive lineman return from last season, which should allow the offense to thrive. Expect sophomore running Ka’Deem Carey to become a household name by the end of the season.

In addition to Rodriguez’s spread option having the potential to work against Pac-12 defenses, Arizona has a very friendly schedule that could result in more wins than expected. The Wildcats play eight games at home, including winnable games against Oklahoma State and Washington. Arizona probably won’t challenge USC for the South Division title, but they could end up playing in a January bowl game.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Keenan Allen (Jr.), California wide receiver

Yes, Matt Barkley and Robert Woods will get most of the air-time on SportsCenter, but Keenan Allen will probably be in next year’s draft class as well. The 6’3”, 206 pound junior is a big target that can make Cal quarterback Zach Maynard look a lot better than he really is, which is good considering that Maynard has had consistency issues throughout his career. Allen is the one star on an otherwise unproven receiving corps, so don’t be surprised if his numbers are a bit lower than other elite receivers across the nation because he’ll be double covered a lot.

Since Allen can only do so much to help Cal as a receiver, don’t expect him to turn around a team that has been mired in mediocrity over the past few seasons. However, he will provide a lift to the Golden Bears when he makes a spectacular grab or snags a touchdown catch that no defensive back can reach. As far as talent is concerned, he’s on par with Barkley and Woods, but without the majority of the hype.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Washington vs. LSU (September 8th)

Call me crazy, but I think the Huskies could give LSU a tough game. If the Alamo Bowl is any indication of the type of season Washington quarterback Keith Price could have, then the Huskies will have one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation. Defensively, Washington is not even in the same ballpark as LSU. However, if the offense can produce points against the vaunted Tiger defense, it might not be as severe an issue.

The Tigers are without a doubt the favorite in this game, but I could definitely see them struggling on offense in the early stage of the season. If that’s the case, the Huskies have the ability to surprise LSU and at the very least make this game too close for comfort for fans in Baton Rouge.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Oregon vs. Southern California (November 3rd)

This could be Round 1 of 2 between these two teams, who may face each other again in the Pac-12 Championship Game. This could also be a battle between two BCS hopefuls, although I think that only one of them will end up in a BCS game this year. It has been a pretty even series lately, with each team splitting the last six meetings, most of which have been games where both teams are ranked. Barring a collapse, both teams will again be ranked in the Top 25 when they meet each other.

It will be up to Oregon to find the weak spots in the Trojan defense and exploit those weaknesses for four quarters. A lot of points will be scored by the winner of this game, and it also seems like a forgone conclusion that USC will put up its fair share of points. If Kenjon Barner and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota gel well, then Chip Kelly’s offense might be running well enough at this point in the year to give USC all they can handle. If that isn’t the case, expect Oregon’s reign in the Pac-12 to come to an end this season.

Conference Predictions

South Division

1. Southern California (13-0, [9-0])

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

3. Arizona (8-4, [5-4])

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

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

6. Colorado (1-11, [0-9])

North Division

1. Oregon (10-2, [7-2])

2. Washington (8-4, [6-3])

3. Stanford (8-4, [5-4])

4. California (6-6, [4-5])

5. Washington State (6-6, [4-5])

6. Oregon State (2-10, [1-8])

Questions from the Readers

Q. I’ve heard all about USC’s potent offense but is their defense any good? And can teams like Oregon and Washington challenge them for the Pac 12 title? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

Q. How legitimate is USC? Do they really belong at the top spot? (Submitted by @BigZeech)

If you’ve taken a look at my conference predictions for the Pac-12, then you know my answer to both of these questions. Yes, I believe that USC for legitimate and belongs at the top spot in the rankings, and yes, I think that the defense is good enough to hold teams to less points than the offense can score. Obviously, there may be teams throughout the year that challenge the notion that the Trojans are the number one team in the nation, but right now there is just too much talent on the offense to dispute that without any games being played.

The defense is definitely a source of concern for Southern Cal. A championship caliber team needs to be good on both sides of the ball, not just great on one. It remains to be seen if the experience that the Trojans have on defense translates into improvement upon last season’s play. The Pac-12 is a league where many teams can keep pace with even the best offenses in the nation, so USC should be wary of assuming it can simply outscore everyone.

However, even considering the roadblocks to success, I think USC is the class of the Pac-12 and will take care of both Oregon and Washington with relative ease. Oregon must travel to Los Angeles to play the Trojans and will be relying on a redshirt freshman to call the shots at quarterback. Washington should be improved on defense, but probably not enough so as to contain USC.

Q. How long will it take Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez to have exciting offenses that can create shootout thrillers like their old teams? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

A. Not long at all. I believe that both schools will return to the postseason this year, and Arizona even has a chance to finish runner-up to USC in the South Division. Little roster depth will be of concern for Arizona, but assuming injuries are not a major factor, Rich Rod has the athletes capable of running his offense very well this season. I expect Arizona to be one of the most exciting teams in the Pac-12 and turn some heads with an upset or two.

Washington State has had its troubles for the better part of the last decade, but Mike Leach is the perfect guy to bring them back. Leach just knows how to win, and will find a way to upset a few teams this season as well. In fact, I think that the Cougars are a team that could dispel Oregon from the national title talks before USC even has a chance to get to them. A bowl game is not out of the realm of possibilities for this team, and I would even go as far to say that it would be a disappointment for this program if they don’t finish at least .500. Per usual with a Mike Leach team, Washington State will need to score a lot of points in order to win games.

Q. With Andrew Luck gone, who will take the load for Stanford’s offensive attack, and how will the Cardinal fare as a result? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

A. Without Andrew Luck, Stanford will shift from an offense that focused on the short passing game to a power rushing attack. The Cardinal still have a capable offensive threat in tailback Stepfan Taylor, who was a 1,000 yard rusher last season and will almost undoubtedly eclipse that mark again in 2012. In addition, Stanford still has an offensive line with experience, which should make the post-Luck transition an easier one.

When you think about the fact that Taylor has rushed for over 1,000 yards the past two seasons, you would figure that Stanford may not struggle as much without Luck. Any team is going to miss having a player such as Andrew Luck from a leadership and confidence perspective, but the Cardinal could end up experiencing a soft landing.

Q. Which freshman will make the biggest immediate impact? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

A. Let me begin this answer by clarifying that I have only answered this question (as well as the “which first year coach will make the biggest immediate impact”) once in my conference preview segment. Due to the talent around him and the expectations for the team, I believe redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota of Oregon has the potential to make the biggest impact for his team this season.

Mariota will have the task of replacing Darron Thomas, who ran Chip Kelly’s offense exceptionally well during his two-year tenure as the starter. Like Thomas, Mariota has the ability to use both his arm and legs to beat defenses, and also has some size at 6’4”. The expectations for Mariota are similar to the expectations for the team, as former Ducks running back LaMichael James tweeted that Mariota “will possibly be the best qb ever to play at Oregon!” However, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas will still be the most important pieces of the Oregon attack.

In other words, Mariota is unlikely to become a breakout star this season. He does have the power to inhibit Oregon’s ability to remain an offensive juggernaut in the Pac-12, though, which is what makes him an impact player. If he does his job, he’ll be a piece of a fine-tuned machine. If he struggles, he’ll negatively impact what has been one of the most prolific offenses in the country over the last few years.

- K. Becks

 

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