College Football 2011 Top 25: 10 Predictions for the Pac-12
The Pac-12 Conference is nearing its inception, with newcomers Colorado and Utah joining the league's existing 10 for the 2011 college football season.
Commissioner Larry Scott and his constituent universities are ecstatic at the expansion of the conference to 12 teams, the shuffling of the schedule, and the advent of the Pac-12 Conference Championship game.
For all the unknown that gets ushered in with a new name, logo, and teams, there's a lot about the teams and games on the field that we already know: who's good, who's bad, who's most fun to watch, etc.
When it kicks off on September 10 with Utah at USC, it will already be considered one of the most exciting and anticipated leagues in the nation.
Based on what we know of the teams and players, here are 10 predictions for the 2011 season in the new Pac-12 Conference.
10. Utah Will Finish in the Top Five
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The Utes finished 2010 with an unfortunate run-in with Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, but not before a strong season.
Kyle Whittingham's bunch made the most of their last run through the Mountain West slate, going 7-1 with the lone loss at the hands of the TCU juggernaut.
Heading into the Pac-12, Kyle Whittingham has a lot of his best guys back on offense and only one early entry to the NFL, cornerback Brandon Burton.
With what he's currently got, I don't see Whittingham's team finishing worse than fifth in this revamped conference. At worst, it finishes behind Oregon, Stanford, USC (crossing my fingers), and Washington, and likely better than the latter two.
One or two good years playing on TV in the Pac-12 should bring Utah's recruiting up to par with the biggest recruiters on the West Coast, so this program is going nowhere but up.
9. LaMichael James Will Be the Conference Player of the Year
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The Oregon tailback, who put up 1,731 rushing yards and 21 TDs, is back for another run at the National Championship with quarterback Darron Thomas.
James carried the ball 294 times last year and caught it another 17 times as the workhorse of the frenetic Ducks offense. Those numbers, while inflated because of Oregon's volume of plays, will make him the Pac-12's first Player of the Year and will have him firmly in the Heisman conversation. He should do enough to beat out Stanford's Andrew Luck and USC's Matt Barkley for the Conference's top award.
I expect to hear people talking about James for Heisman all year long in tandem with his team being touted as the best in the country.
8. De'Anthony Thomas Will Start and Win Freshman of the Year
The top-ranked athlete in the 2011 recruiting class from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, Thomas threw USC a curveball and signed with Oregon on National Signing Day.
The 5'9", 160-pounder will probably play running back, receiver or cornerback, and will likely grab a starting spot upon stepping on campus in Eugene. His commitment is a huge boon to Oregon, especially since they stole him out of USC's backyard; on many recruiting sites, the Trojans would have jumped from the No.4 ranked recruiting class to No.1 with Thomas in the fold.
Wherever he ends up playing, Thomas will make his impact felt with 4.4 speed and oozing athleticism. Whether on offense or defense, he will be named Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12.
7. ASU Linebacker Vontaze Burfict Will Repeat As Defensive Player of the Year
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The to-be junior invoked a comparison to Ray Lewis by Sun Devils' coach Dennis Erickson when he arrived as a freshman, and he's been dominating since.
He's gotten better in each of his first two years, being named Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year, then Defensive Player of the Year in the conference as a sophomore.
There's no reason to think that he won't do it again, especially with a future paycheck within sight. If he can stay eligible for the whole season, who knows, he might even help ASU make some noise at the top of the Pac-12.
6. USC Will Score More Than Oregon
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It's a bold claim, but the the Trojans have built the firepower to possibly do it.
First, Barkley will be back in his third year as a starter, having improved markedly last year from the year before. His new favorite target, to-be sophomore Robert Woods will be joined by top recruit George Farmer and Victor Blackwell in the receiving corps. I defy anyone to find a better group of receivers than those three, plus Kyle Prater, Brandon Carswell and Brice Butler.
Barkley will be aided by some additions to the offensive line with highly-rated guards Cyrus Hobbi and Aundrey Walker, who bolster depth in the interior.
Tight end help is coming in heaps as well. Xavier Grimble, a redshirt who was No.1 at the position in the 2010 freshman class, will finally see the field, as well as Christian Thomas, also from the 2010 class.
The Trojans return leading rusher Marc Tyler for his senior season and hope to develop and mature the talented Dillon Baxter as well.
All together, the Trojans should have one of the most prolific offenses in the country, and should challenge Oregon's scoring average all season.
5. Chris Polk Will Lead the Pac-12 in Rushing
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Polk, a junior, finished second in the conference to LaMichael James last season, but on about 35 less carries. I think he has room to increase on last year's 260 carries and 1,415 yards, especially without the help of Huskies legend quarterback Jake Locker.
James hit his statistical ceiling last year; its hard to imagine him going higher on his rushing and touchdown totals. Polk, however, will be the focal point of Steve Sarkisian's offense, and should produce accordingly.
Look for the majority of Locker's 114 carries and 385 rush yards to go straight to Polk's totals in 2011.
4. UCLA Will Finish at the Bottom with Colorado and Washington State
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This isn't the boldest or most extreme prediction, but it's worth mentioning that the Bruins, who have the reputation as a top Pac-10 team historically, are competing at the same level as two conference doormats.
Last year's 2-7 league record topped only Washington State in the final standings, and only a streak of 22 unanswered points got them past Wazzou. The coaching staff is in turmoil and Rick Neuheisel thinks he has the right to fire some of his assistants for some reason. So the assistant coaches are the problem, right? Take a look in the mirror, Rick!
Colorado comes in to its new setting on a string of several disappointing years, and shouldn't expect things to get better immediately out West.
My guess is that they will finish, in decreasing order, like this: Colorado, UCLA, Washington State.
3. Arizona's Nick Foles Will Lead the Country in Passing
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Foles was second in the Pac-10 in passing yards behind Luck despite missing the better part of three games, and is poised to take another step forward next year.
In Mike Stoops' aerial attack, which had Foles tossing 426 passes last season, the senior could ring up some pretty gaudy passing numbers. With his top targets, Juron Criner and David Douglas, returning, Foles and the offense should hit the ground running with the advantage of being comfortable and familiar.
This time next year, everyone will be talking about the NFL Draft class of 2012, and Foles will be at the center of that discussion as a likely top ten pick. But for now, he'll settle for being one of college football's preeminent passers.
2. Stanford Will Take a Step Back in Harbaugh's Absence
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Do you think Andrew Luck regrets returning to school now that Jim Harbaugh's out?
It's been one of the themes of this article, but it's worth repeating: Stanford owes more of its success to Harbaugh than we realize, and without him, they'll be a shadow of their 2010 image.
I'm not saying they will finish below .500 or that they'll be outside the top 25 or anything like that. I'm saying that they won't reach the BCS-winning, top 10 standard they set for themselves this season.
Luck will be the best player in the nation and will be a Heisman finalist with possibly two other Pac-12 players (James and Barkley).
All it will take is one loss to USC and Stanford could miss the Pac-12 title game.
1. Oregon Will Defeat USC in the Inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game
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Oregon is certainly the favorite to repeat as conference champions and return to the National Championship. After all, they don't lose any of their offensive core players, and replace their role players with new ones through recruiting.
The debate surrounds who will join Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. The contenders are likely to be newcomer Utah, USC and Arizona in the South division.
Stanford is the conventional choice, but they are not eligible to play against Oregon because they are in the same division. They will have to finish above Oregon to play in the Championship Game.
Utah will have an adjustment period to the speed and athleticism of the Pac-12 game, and I think that is quantified in 2-3 conference losses.
USC is still rebuilding and hampered by sanctions, but they showed signs of returning to elite status during the year despite the 8-5 record. Remember, 5-4 was good enough for third in the league last year; will 6-3 get them a spot in the conference title game?
I think the new blood in recruiting is going to give USC a huge lift at some shallow positions where attrition and injury really took their toll last year. In year two of the Lane Reign, the USC Trojans make a noticeable jump back to supremacy by challenging, and losing, to Oregon for Pac-12 Champion.
Storylines Abound in Busy Pac-12
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Larry Scott has done a great job in assembling this conference and positioning it as one of the most powerful organized bodies in college sports. His p.r. campaign has put the Pac-12 on the map and his marketing and media strategies point toward a dedicated TV network, a la the Big Ten or Longhorn Network.
As the league out West gets more and more share in national headlines, its players and teams will also grow in reputation and popularity, which breed more popularity.
Power coaches, power players, historical teams, brand recognition. This conference has it all.
The Utah-USC Pac-12 kickoff starts the league off with a bang that will surely be heard around the whole country and will leave their ears ringing all season long.