The Oregon Ducks are looking for their third consecutive Pac 12 title and a return trip to the BCS title game. Led by 2010 Heisman finalist running back LaMichael James and quarterback Derron Thomas, the Ducks led the country in scoring with their break-neck speed offense. The key loses on offense are three veteran offensive lineman which could be an issue early in the season for Oregon. The running back position loaded with depth featuring James, Kenjon Barner, redshirt freshman Lache Seastrunk and true freshman De'Anthony Thomas. The latter two were both five-star recruits, so the issue with Oregon is if they will feed the ball to James as the primary back or to give some carries to placate Barner, Seastrunk, and Thomas. Regardless of what Oregon does in distributing the ball to their running backs, the offense will put up big numbers and outscore opponents just as they did last year. The season for Oregon hinges on two games: LSU in the season opener and then the November 12 trip on the road against Stanford. WIn those and they're likely headed back to the BCS Championship Game. Regardless, the Ducks should win 10 to 11 games and represent the North in the Pac 12 title game, with home field advantage.
With head coach Jim Harbaugh off to the NFL, former offensive coordinator David Shaw will be taking his place as the head man in Palo Alto. His not so secret weapon in his first season? Andrew Luck. Luck has morphed into 2011's version of Tim Tebow (without the national championships) with all of the praise that has been heaped upon him. The runner up for the Heisman Trophy passed up millions of dollars as the number 1 overall pick to return to Stanford for a shot at a national title. With Luck being arguably the most complete college quarterback in the last decade, the Cardinal have been able to string together their best two year run in history culminating with a 12-1 record in 2010 and an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. Throw in running back Stepfan Taylor, coming off a very productive season, along with arguably the top offensive line in the country, and Stanford should again continue to roll offensively. Defensively, the Cardinal returns quite a few talented players led by defensive end Matt Masifilo. Linebacker Shayne Skov is an All American candidate and could be the best in the conference not named Vontaze Burfict. There are a few holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, but with the way Stanford has recruited of late and developed players, they'll be able to find youngsters to plug the gaps. Will Shaw be able to keep the magic going or will Stanford come back to Earth? With Luck on the roster, this team should still contend with Oregon for the Pac 12 North title, but the loss of Harbaugh will be too much to get them over the hump.
After 7 straight losing seasons, including a winless 0-12 campaign in 2008, Washington ended the season bowl eligible despite starting 3-6. Led by the inspiring play of QB Jake Locker, Washington finished the season on a 4 game winning streak. Although Locker has moved on to the NFL, head coach Steve Sarkisian returns a wealth of young talent in his 3rd season as head coach of the Huskies. Key returning players for Washington include Chris Polk (RB), Alameda Ta'amu (DT), Jermaine Kearse (WR), Senio Kelemete (LT), Desmond Trufant (CB), and Cort Dennison (MLB). 2011 should be more favorable to UW, as they should be favored in 4 of the first 6 games (@ Nebraska, @ Utah). The season may hinge on a 5 game stretch starting at Stanford on October 22nd, followed by home games against Arizona and Oregon, before their final 2 road games @ USC and @ Oregon State. Offensively, the Huskies will rely heavily on Polk, who is coming off of 2 straight 1,000 yard seasons (1,415 in 2010). With the departure of Jake Locker, redshirt sophomore Keith Price has been named the starter heading into fall camp. Though Price lacks experience, he does return one of the Pac 12's more talented receiving groups with the return of All-Pac-12 WR Jermaine Kearse and the reliable possession WR Devin Aguilar. The Huskies have also added two 5-Star recruits in TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and WR Kasen Williams. Williams will be given every opportunity to become a big-time playmaker and coming out of spring ball Seferian-Jenkins has already been inserted as a starter at TE. A young offensive line will be lead by Senior and 3-year Starter Senio Kelemete. The line is a capable group, but will have to grow up quickly if the Huskies are going to return to the postseason in 2011. On defense, All-American candidate Alemeda Ta'amu (6'3, 330) will be a force and anchor on defense. In the secondary, the Huskies will be led by CBs Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson. MLB Cort Dennison, a Senior from Salt Lake City, will be expected to mentor a young group of LBs including Sophomore Garret Gilliland. They won'e be able to keep pace with Oregon and Stanford in the Pac 12 North, but there's no reason a team with this much young talent shouldn't be able to put a stranglehold on third place in the division and set themselves up for a big 2012.
4. Oregon State
Oregon State's season is dependent on players fully recovering from injury. Quarterback Ryan Katz was limited in spring due to a broken hand he suffered in his throwing hand, but he is said to be 100 percent. The offensive line, which was terrible last year, is a year older and with four returning starters back the theory is that they can keep Katz upright long enough to make some plays. Another key injury is to tight end Joe Halahuni who will be out until late September with a shoulder injury. The injury to Halahuni is key because the Beavers have little depth at that position and have two layers to play tight end and H-back until Halahuni returns. Then there is James Rodgers who is the dynamic wide receiver and return man who most likely never be the same after suffering a gruesome knee injury against Arizona last year. Rodgers is practicing on a limited basis, but he will not be the same player and most likely will see the field with a smaller roll in 2011. Oregon State could finish anywhere from four to eight wins, and anywhere from 3rd to 5th in the Pac 12 North.
The Golden Bears are leaving the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium for AT&T Park for the 2011 season, hoping to solidify the job standing of their oft-criticized head coach Jeff Tedford. Quarterback Kevin Riley is gone and a tough spring battle yielded transfer Zach Maynard as the starter over Brock Mansion. Maynard is an athletic lefty that brings a dual threat element to the quarterback spot. Gone is 1,000 yard back Shane Vereen, but Cal always finds a way to reload at running back and former Salt Lake City prep star Isi Sofele has the nod right now. The Bears will rely heavily on their receiving core, specifically Marvin Jones, who has been the team leader in catches each of the past two season, as well as sophomore Keenan Allen. Defensively Cal had a great year in 2010, finishing 18th nationally in total defense under first year coordinator Calncy Pendergast. They did lose four of the front seven starters from last season to the NFL, but have plenty of talent to fill the openings. With Pendergast using his oft-blitzing schemem, led by senior linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and an incoming recruiting class that is heavy on immediate impact linemen, the Bear D could be just as good as it was last season. This team has a great chance to surprise people and make some noise in the Pac 12 North. If the offense comes together, 8 or 9 wins aren't out of the question.
6. Washington State
Washington State hasn't had much hope to hold on to the last few years. After 5 total wins in 3 seasons, head coach Paul Wulff finally has some reason for optimism. Though the cougars may not be a favorite in Vegas to win many games this season, the schedule is such that the Cougars could make some early noise. The first 5 games on Washington State's schedule are all winnable on a week to week basis. The cougars should be heavy underdogs for the final 7 games on the schedule. The Cougars return a legitimate QB in Jeff Tuel, a 1000 yard WR in sophomore Marquess Wilson and another outside threat in WR Jared Karstetter. In order for the Cougars to remain competitive, the Offensive Line must do a better job of protecting Tuel. In 2010, Washington State allowed 51 sacks. It's no surprise that Jeff Tuel will be forced to carry a heavy load with the offense, the Cougar rushing attack was among the worst in the nation in 2010, and was the worst in the Pac-10. The only Pac 12 defense the Cougars might have any chance to run the ball effectively on is their own defense. DE Travis Long and LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis are defenders capable of playing at the next level, while the Cougars have high expectations for young LB Sekope Kaufusu, who moved from DE to LB mid-season in 2010. They're probably still at least a year away from a bowl game, but this team appears to be moving in the right direction. The only question is whether or not they can make a big enough jump to save Wullf's job.
Full preview to come.
The Trojans are in year 2 of the probation period and are extremely thin at many spots, making life tough on second year coach Lane Kiffin. The upside for SC fans? They probably still boast as much talent as any team in conference. Led by quarterback Matt Barkley, who likely won't be around after this season, the offense could end up being the top dog in the Pac 12 South. Barkley has been the starter since his true freshman season and has all the tools and attributes to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. In the backfield, USC will rely heavily on senior Marc Tyler, who has battled injuries throughout his career, but still manager to put up over 900 yards in 2010. Sophomore Dillon Baxter and freshman D.J. Morgan will also get carries and both have the ability to take it to the house every time they touch the ball. The big time play maker on offense is going to be Robert Woods, who is one of the most electrifying players in the country. He'll score touchdowns receiving, rushing, and in the return game this year. Very dynamic. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is back to run things under his son after the first year to turned out to be a struggle. Things should be better this year with the return of free safety T.J. McDonald and corner Nickell Robey in the secondary. Combine them with a big-time talent in linebacker Devon Kennard and a team that gave up 26 points per game in 2010, should be closer to 20 in 2011. These aren't the Pete Carroll Trojans, but this is still a team that can rip off 10 wins if everything falls into place and beat anyone in the conference. They can also lose to anyone in the conference. Consistency from week to week will be the key to a successful season.
3. Arizona State
ASU continues to be one of the most hotly debated teams of 2011. Many people believe that with USC ineligible, the Sun Devils will represent the South in the inaugural Pac 12 championship game. In 2010, ASU finished the season 6-6, and missed out on a bowl game for the third straight year. This year's ASU squad returns 16 starters from last year, and features a ridiculous number of seniors. While the seniors will bring experience to the roster, none of them have played in a bowl game, which means they've also missed out on a significant amount of practice time that comes with bowl games. ASU will be led by their defense. All-American LB candidate Vontaze Burfict and DT Junior Onyeali will be stout against the run and are as imposing a duo as you'll find in the country. The Devils lost their top CB Omar Bolden in spring to a knee injury. Bolden gave up a sure opportunity at the NFL to return to school, and has left the Devils capable, but thin on the outside. Bolden's greatest absence will be as a leader on the defense, a role that must be filled by the erratic Burfict. On offense, the focus will be on new QB Brock Osweiller. Though very large in stature (6'8, 250), Osweiller is short on experience, having started only 2 games in his career. Osweiller assumes the QB post after last year's starter, Steven Threet, retired due to health. The Sun Devil rushing attack should be solid, and will need to shoulder much of the offensive load. The schedule features a key stretch of games starting in week 2 (vs Mizzou, @ Illinois, vs USC, vs Oregon St, at Utah, at Oregon). ASU does not play Stanford in 2012, and will travel to SLC on Oct 8 for what should be a key matchup in the race to the Pac-12 title game. If the Sun Devils can reach November while staying in contention for the South crown, the final stretch of games lines up well.
UCLA comes in with a coach on one of the hottest seats in the country. After posting a promising 7-6 mark in 2009 with a bowl victory, the Bruins regressed to 4-8 and will be starting fresh with two new coordinators on each side of the ball. The biggest issue for UCLA during Neuheisal's 15-22, 3 year run has been the poor play of the quarterbacks. Kevin Prince has been the starter each of the last two seasons when healthy, but healthy and Kevin Prince haven't exactly meshed like peanut butter and jelly. Prince is talented, and has shown flashes of brilliance, but too often that is mixed with inconsistent play. The Bruins absolutely need better quarterback play if they want to get back to a bowl. The one thing they do have going for them is the return of running back Jonathan Franklin. Franklin put up over 1,000 yards in 2010 and would have had more if not for recurring fumbling issues. He has elite talent and can put up 1,500 yards if his offensive line does their job. The offensive line has been the second biggest issue at UCLA during Nueheisal's reign. Not because of poor play, but because of constant injuries, academic casualties, and missions getting in the way of finding a cohesive unit each season. Jeff Baca, arguably their best lineman, will miss the first few games with an injury, but there are quite a few returning starters (from either 2009 or 2010) that will be able to pave the way for Frankling and keep Prince off of his butt. At receiver, the Bruins are led by seniors Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree. Rosario is an all-world talent who is still waiting for the light to come on. Defensively the Bruins should be bolstered by the return of end Datone Jones. Jones sat out all of 2010 with a foot injury, but should be the Bruins best defensive player. Linebacker Patrick Larimore is also returning from an injury that saw him miss time in 2010. He was very effective when was on the field and will take over Akeem Ayers role as the leader at linebacker. In the secondary the Bruins lost All American Rahim Moore, but will likely plug in sophomore DIetrick Riley next to Tony Dye, arguably the Bruins best defender in 2010 with Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester manning the corner spots. If there is one spot the Bruins should be set at, it's punter where Jeff Locke will be one of the best in the country. It's now or never for Neuheisal as this has been the season Bruin fans have been pointing towards.
Through 8 games in 2010, Arizona was 7-1. The Wildcats finished the 2010 season on a 5 game losing streak, though all 5 losses came against quality competition. The good news for 2011, Arizona returns one of the top QBs in America in Nick Foles, and the top WR group in the conference, led by All-American candidate Juron Criner (1233 receiving yards in 2010). The key for Arizona's success on offense this season will lay with the Offensive Line. With an entirely new Offensive Line, first year Offensive Line coach Robert Anae will have his hands full keeping Foles from taking a beating. The Offensive Line situation is so concerning, that the Wildcats have already shifted their starting TE, Jack Baucus (6'6, 270) over to play OT. Arizona will find out quickly if they are built to survive the rigors of the Pac 12, as they will face 4 very good opponents on consecutive weeks, starting in week 2 (@Oklahoma St, vs Stanford, vs Oregon, at USC). On defense, Arizona's 3 man defensive rotation at DE to the NFL draft. Justin Washington will be stalwart at DT for the Wildcats, while the DE spot will be filled by a committee of converted LBs, Juco transfers, and even a fullback. Spring was also harsh on the wildcat defense, as they lost starting safety Adam Hall, starting LB Jake Fischer, and rotational DT Willie Mobley all to torn ACLs. All Pac-12 CB Trevin Wade will be a standout CB for the wildcats. It's safe to say this season's success will lie squarely on the shoulders of 6'5 Nick Foles. If Foles can stay healthy, he should be able to lead the Wildcats offense in a fierce air attack in attempt to outscore their opponents and win 6 or 7 games.
Colorado is coming into a new league with a brand new coach in Jon Embree. Embree is a former Colorado tight end and NFL assistant, but he has never been a head coach on any level and seemed to be the safe hire by Colorado. The pass defense will be a major concern, as the Buffs lost Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown who were both taken within the first four rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft. Their pass defense was last in the Big 12, so it is safe to say the Colorado secondary will be tested early and often with all the talented quarterbacks in the Pac-12. The offense will be led by only one quarterback for a change this year with Tyler Hansen at the helm. With a 13 game schedule, no bye weeks and the winnable Pac-12 games being on the road where they have an 18 game losing streak, expect Colorado to struggle in their first year and finish at the bottom of the division.
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