The 2011 college football season has drawn to a close. It featured the lowest viewer turnout for a BCS Championship game in BCS history, three high-scoring shootouts—two of which featured Pac-12 teams—and dozens of upsets, firings, hirings and general shenanigans.
Despite finishing with a 2-5 record in bowl games this year, the Pac-12 looks to improve immensely next year. The simple addition of USC to the post-season does most of that, but several high-profile coach hirings and surging recruitment promise to figure in the final tally come 2012's bowl season.
How do the Pac-12 teams stack up? Based on returning starters, 2011 season rankings/wins and recruitment, here are the "pre-preseason" Pac-12 power rankings.
2011 Record: 3-10.
Returning Starters: 13. 4 Offense, 7 Defense, 2 Specialists.
After boasting the worst Pac-12 offense at 19.8 points per game (109th ranked) and worst Pac-12 defense at 36.5 points per game (109th ranked), one would think that the Buffs could only be on the rise.
Think again: the Buffs claimed the last rung on the ladder in 2011, and 2012 does not look any different. Colorado will return fewer starters on the offensive line than any other team in the Pac-12 and will lose QB Tyler Hansen (the only creative element in Colorado's offense), so it may be possible—and scary, if you're a fan—to put up fewer points than this last season.
The silver lining? I believe head coach Jon Embree is leading this program in the right direction, but it will take a few years before they start looking respectable. At the very least, recruiting has gotten organized and the Buffs look to pull in a decent defensive class.
2011 Record: 4-8.
Returning Starters: 12, 6 Offense, 6 Defense.
The 2011 Wildcats featured a one-dimensional passing game with QB Nick Foles, the third-worst Pac-12 defense and the abrupt firing of Coach Mike Stoops less than two months into the schedule.
Stoops got the raw end of the deal, being shackled with one of the worst schedules in the Pac-12 that bridged from the 2010 season (Oregon twice, Stanford twice, Oklahoma State...yeah, all BCS teams). Nick Foles is taking his passing game to the NFL, and Rich Rodriguez has taken over in Tucson.
Safe to say, 2012 will be a rebuilding year. The good news is that Rick Rod will have a clean slate to utilize his spread-option offense, and he has a strong offensive class coming in this year. Look for the Wildcats in 2013, but until then be happy with a four or five-win season.
2011 Record: 6-8.
Returning Starters: 16. 8 Offense, 7 Defense, 1 Specialist.
First of all, the Bruins are not as bad as people say they are. They put up 31 in the Pac-12 champs while a vaunted Wisconsin offense managed only a touchdown and extra point more. And though people were projecting them to get slaughtered by Illinois in the Kraft Hunger Bowl, they lost by a respectable six.
At the same time, they will return a lot of their starters from this year, so expect them to play with more experience and smoother execution come 2012.
On the other hand, head coach Rick Neuheisel was fired after being stomped 50-0 by the rival Trojans, the team got pushed into a Pac-12 championship game despite their best efforts to not show up and tepid performances on the field (88th-ranked offense and 92nd-ranked defense in points given and points allowed) led to defiance in the locker room.
OK, maybe they are as bad as people say.
The upside? New head coach Jim Mora may lack college football credentials, but he has so far been very good recruiting for a sub .500 team, producing several top athletes on both sides of the ball.
But with pro-style football as his ultimate goal for the Bruins, chalk 2012 up as a learning adventure.
2011 Record: 6-7.
Returning Starters: 10. 4 Offense, 4 Defense, 2 Specialist.
How did ASU fare this season?
To start: the Sun Devils were the preseason favorites to win the south. They had quarterback Brock Osweiler leading a talented offense and linebacker Vontaze Burfict heading the defense. They started out all right, with a 6-2 record and a win over USC.
Then ASU flopped hard in the second half of the season and coach Dennis Erickson lost his job. Despite all the talent on the roster, ASU lost its last five games and got embarrassed by Boise State at the Las Vegas Bowl (though we all know Boise State should never have been there anyway).
Then ASU dithered over several prospective coaches Dennis Erickson—dictated by fans, perhaps?— before settling on the mercurial Todd Graham, a coach who has led three programs the past three years. And finally, to cap the season off, Osweiler decided to go pro.
How will ASU fare in 2012? In terms of stability, culture and recruiting they will do fine. In terms of wins? Expect worse than 2011.
2011 Record: 3-9.
Returning Starters: 17. 8 Offense, 8 Defense, 1 Specialist.
The Beavers are looking to climb out of the Pac-12 cellar in 2012. They'll have the players returning, as all of them were very young, including QB Sean Mannion, who made the first-team freshman All-American this year. Mike Riley has another good recruiting class coming in, around fifth or sixth in the Pac-12.
If the Beavers go another season without a bowl, however, I won't like Riley's chances of sticking around another season. His retirement was already looming two seasons ago until the program took a dive.
The good news is that with 2011 to build on, I can't see Oregon State going 3-9 again. While the Beavers are still raw and wanting that taste of victory, I expect modest gains (say, four or five wins) in 2012.
2011 Record: 4-8.
Returning Starters: 18, 8 Offense, 9 Defense, 1 Specialist.
Wazzu was hard to rank. They were last in the Pac-12 North division in 2011 due to a wretched 2-7 showing in conference play. However, their numbers were not nearly as atrocious as those teams just ahead of them, with an offense ranked 45th in the nation and a defense ranked 95th.
Okay, their defense is pretty bad, but not as bad as Washington's or Arizona's or Colorado's. And their offense was pretty good, with a star wide receiver developing in Marquess Wilson. And they landed Mike Leach, a winning coach renowned for his "Air Raid" offense at Texas Tech.
With such upside/potential, it's hard seeing the Cougars at the bottom of the barrel again. I find it likely they'll pull off more upsets in 2012 like the one over ASU this season. That said, there is still work to be done in Pullman and I don't expect a winning record until 2013.
2011 Record: 7-6.
Returning Starters: 14. 7 Offense, 7 Defense.
Nick Holt and his assistants can only be good for the Huskies in 2012. Losing Chris Polk will hurt. But maybe not a lot, since QB Keith Price proved in the Alamo Bowl that he can chuck rocks with the best of them, outshining Heisman-winner Robert Griffin III.
That said, the Washington defense and offensive line really, really need to beef up and come together. Price is good, but he can't do much if he's on his back three or four times a game—that's an exaggeration, but not by much.
Washington landed Tennessee assistant Justin Wilcox (of former Oregon Ducks fame) to be their defensive coordinator, so there is hope for 2012 that they won't rank in the bottom 25 in defense. That said, it will take a while for Wilcox to leave his imprint on the defense-fearing Huskies.
2011 Record: 7-6.
Returning Starters: 11. 6 Offense, 5 Defense.
I wrote before that if Cal pulled off an upset of Texas in the Holiday Bowl, then they would be in good position for re-discovering their elite status. The Bears didn't pull it off, however, and their five fumbles, poor time management and generally disconnected offense ensured an anemic Texas offense a blowout.
While in 2011 Cal could hang its laurels on its defense, In 2012 half of that line moves on, including the heart of the defense and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks.
However, Cal will return all of its major offensive playmakers, and QB Zach Maynard was beginning to find a rhythm at the end of the season before the time off rattled him. If he doesn't show up this season, expect top recruit Zach Kline to step in and start seeing minutes.
2011 Record: 11-2.
Returning Starters: 12. 5 Offense, 6 Defense, 1 Specialist.
After a great 2011 campaign ended with poor coaching and field-kicking, the Stanford Cardinal now must face college football post-Andrew Luck.
Stanford is left with two gaping holes in their offensive line, no deep threats to speak of and no quarterback expected to step up.
Those deficiencies aside, Stanford has always been more about the power-running game than about the passing game, and all of those major pieces, including tight end Stephen Taylor, will return. Stanford will also continue to boast one of the better defenses in the conference.
I think the Cardinal will regress to nine wins, maybe eight, if David Shaw continues to make the calls when the game is on the line.
2011 Record: 8-5.
Returning Starters: 18. 9 Offense, 7 Defense, 2 Specialists.
The Utes over the Cardinal? Without Luck, yes.
Utah posted a mere 4-5 in-conference record, but they finished by winning four of their last five games and accomplishing a bowl win over favored Georgia Tech.
They will return the second-most starters in the Pac-12, and have several key offensive components coming back from injury, including QB Jordan Wynn and all of Utah's receiving threats (including tight ends). This means Utah will likely have a pass attack in 2012, unlike in this past season.
RB John White IV will also return to challenge his record-setting 2011 season, and the 19th-ranked defense in the nation will return most of their playmakers.
Utah adds several backfield threats (including Kelvin York, a junior college transfer with more potential than White) in a recruiting class in the Pac-12's top five.
2011 Record: 10-2.
Returning Starters: 19. 9 Offense, 8 Defense, 2 Specialists.
USC without Matt Barkley would mean a nine or ten-win season with Pac-12 championship hopes. USC with Matt Barkley means national title aspirations. And since Barkley decided to stay, you can bet USC will be rearing to be let out of the gates come September 2012.
USC has a talented playmaker at almost every position, despite losing OT Matt Kalil, and every one of them is a star in the making. Barkley threw for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2011 with a mere seven interceptions. He was throwing to sophomore Robert Woods (1,292 yards, 15 TDs) and freshman Marqise Lee (1,143 yards, 11 TDs).
They pulled off an upset on Pac-12 champ Oregon's home turf in November, which vaulted them into the top five in the AP Poll and has many picking them for the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2012.
My one caveat? Depth. Or lack thereof.
If any single star player goes down, there is really nobody to cover for them. And this could spell trouble in big shootouts (as it did versus Stanford in 2011). Limited scholarships will make this problem more pronounced over the years, but for 2012 I expect a BCS bowl berth for USC.
2011 Record: 12-2, Pac-12 Champions, Rose Bowl Champions.
Returning Starters: 15. 6 Offense, 7 Defense, 2 Specialist.
I'm not entirely comfortable handing over the keys to the kingdom when the champs are returning the majority of their offense and defense. It should be noted that UO is returning more than they did after their national championship appearance, and yet they still managed a Rose Bowl victory.
On top of momentum and record, Oregon also has the depth USC is lacking. Oregon has oceans of depth, with their spread-option offense often playing rotation players as much as starters. The existence of Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas makes the loss of LaMichael James more than bearable.
The only area of concern is in the defensive backfield, with Eddie Pleasant leaving for greener pastures and young cornerbacks all over. Expect USC to challenge for the top spot with its high-flying passing corps.
As they are, the Oregon Ducks should also challenge for a BCS berth, be it the Rose Bowl or the National Title.