Every year in any conference with divisions the question comes up, which division is stronger? For the Pac-12, this will be the first year the question is asked.
The eyeball test tells me the Pac-12 North is the stronger division heading to 2011. Things aren't always what they seem, though, so maybe it needs to be looked at a little closer.
Taking a look at the two divisions team for team from last year is hard to do for a couple of reasons. The addition of Utah and Colorado from other conferences makes it a little hard to figure where they may fall in the pecking order. The situation at USC also makes it hard to gauge exactly where they are.
Factor in graduation, transfers, early exists, coaching changes, recruiting classes, schedules and what else may happen between now and the start of the season, and I can only make my best guess.
It is no secret that the Cougars have been at the bottom of the Pac-10 for a while now, but they have also shown improvement over the last couple seasons.
Colorado comes in with a multitude of questions, including a new coach, not to mention having to play teams they have rarely seen. Due to the horrendous result against Cal last season, I am putting them in the bottom spot.
The two could both start out well with a couple of non-conference wins before playing each other to open conference play for both teams.
It wouldn’t surprise me if both teams had very similar records at season's end.
The rest of the conference knows what Washington State has to offer and what style they play. The same cannot be said for Colorado.
Throw in a new unique home field advantage with altitude that the rest of the conference is not used to, and I think the Buffaloes make for a slightly tougher opponent.
It should be easy enough to compare the two. Cal finished higher in the conference and with a better overall record. Cal also beat UCLA head to head, 35-7.
Both teams will have similar things going on, including quarterback competitions and some new faces on the coaching staffs.
Cal had a surprisingly good recruiting class that ranked in the top 15 in the nation.
I have heard both head coaches names put out there for hot seats this season, but I seem to hear Neuheisel more than I hear Tedford.
I have found that in recent years, both of these teams underachieve and are inconsistent. Cal just seems to be a little more consistent.
Couple that with the good recruiting class and less pressure on the head coach, and I have to give Cal the nod.
Last year's head-to-head matchup went to Oregon State, but only by two points. This gave Oregon State the better spot in the conference, even though they had the same record. The non-conference schedule made all the difference, and Oregon State was home for the holidays, while Arizona was in a bowl.
The end of the season was no picnic for either team. They will both need to forget how last year ended and concentrate on a new season.
Both teams lose key players on both sides of the ball: running backs in Jacquizz Rodgers and Nic Grigsby and defensive linemen Stephen Paea and Brooks Reed.
Both also return a number of key players, such as quarterbacks Ryan Katz and Nick Foles, and wide receivers James Rodgers and Juron Criner.
Overall, I think Arizona returns a bit more at the right spots on both sides of the ball that they could do well. There is a catch, though, and that is the schedule.
I think that any momentum they hope to have will be taken away with a brutal early schedule of going to Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and going to USC in consecutive weeks.
Advantage: Oregon State
I said before I think Arizona looks tougher on paper, but the early schedule takes steam away from the Wildcats, and they will not have the season they were hoping for.
The Beavers, on the other hand, will be competitive all season long.
A lot of people are big on Arizona State in the South next season, but I am wondering what the news that Steven Threet is likely done does to that?
But wait, there will be a quarterback competition at Washington as well. Jake Locker is done and it now goes to Keith Price or Nick Montana.
Arizona State took the game last season but it was early in the year. The Washington defense at the end of the season was an altogether different squad.
The two actually miss each other this coming season, so we may not really know who was better between the two, just who did better against everyone else.
Neither schedule seems to give an advantage to either team.
Washington signed a better incoming class ranking in the top 25 by all services.
The momentum from the Holiday Bowl win carried into a strong recruiting class and will continue to spring and the start of next season.
The team has been improving little by little each year under Steve Sarkisian, and I see more of the same next season.
The Sun Devils, on the other hand, have not been having the expected results under Dennis Erickson, and until they show otherwise, I am not quite on board with them being vastly improved.
I am not really sure how Utah’s 7-1 Mountain West record and 10-3 overall record exactly translates to the Pac-10, but I think it places them fairly high and that’s why I have them here.
They are actually my pick to win the South, but only because of the USC sanctions.
Stanford finished last season highly ranked and will likely start next year much the same.
Utah finished just outside the rankings and early rankings have them floating the top 25. I have seen them either just in or just out.
Utah gets a beneficial schedule in missing both Oregon and Stanford next season.
Stanford will be losing a good portion of the O-line as well as the defense. One of the biggest losses though, will be head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Keeping quarterback Andrew Luck was one of the biggest pluses for Stanford, but Utah’s Jordan Wynn was no slouch.
He may not have finished near as high as Luck, but he was still rated fairly well while also missing a couple games.
Hear me out here. Losing a head coach is never easy. Things can go in either direction. Oregon stayed up and reached new heights through the transition, but Michigan fell pretty hard during theirs.
While I expect Stanford to start ranked high and have a solid season, I just have to wonder if they lost too much.
Moving conferences is also a question mark: something we don’t have a lot of examples to look back on.
Virginia Tech won the ACC in their first year after moving over from the Big East. The move from the Conference USA to the Big East wasn’t as kind to Cincinnati in the first year.
I feel like both will do well in their divisions, but due to the questions for both, I have a hard time knowing which will truly be the tougher team.
It’s easy to go with the defending conference champions here and pick Oregon. They are projected to start the season in the top five, picked to win the conference and possibly make a repeat trip to the National Championship game.
USC is under sanctions that prevent them from playing in the conference championship game and any bowl games. I still think they will finish with the best overall record in the South division.
Oregon has beaten USC each of the last two seasons. The 2011 game will be played at Autzen, where Oregon is riding a 16-game home winning streak and hasn’t lost to USC here since 2005.
Both teams brought in top 10 recruiting classes, with USC’s being ranked just a bit higher.
USC returns quarterback Matt Barkley, but Oregon returns their starting quarterback Darron Thomas as well. Really neither team has any kind of advantage here as both lose a pretty equal amount on both sides of the ball in near every unit.
With Oregon having won the last two games played head to head and winning back to back conference titles, I have to give this one to the Ducks.
Their momentum may look like it is taking a dip, having lost the National Championship game, but I think it will actually push the team to another level.
USC not only has their own problems but now appears to have to deal with some baggage that may be following head coach Lane Kiffin from Tennessee.
Coach of the Year: Oregon Kelly
Offensive Player of the Year: Stanford Luck
Offensive Freshman of the Year: USC Woods
Defensive Freshman of the Year: Arizona State Onyeali
Returning All Pac-10 First or Second Team
South 12 + 3 for Utah All Mountain West
Early Heisman Watch List
Darron Thomas Oregon
LaMichael James Oregon
Andrew Luck Stanford
Matt Barkley USC
Top 25 Classes (Rivals/Scout)
The team advantage total comes to a 4-1-1 for the North.
Looking at the other stuff, such as returning award winners and recruiting, the North again has the advantage.
I am sure there is other stuff that I haven't fully taken into account, but as for right now, I can only conclude that the North is the tougher division heading into the 2011 season.
What does it all mean? Probably nothing. Both sides will be competitive and will have stars that emerge. Some teams will exceed expectations, while others will try to figure out where things went wrong.
I have never been a big backer of the conference championship game or the division format, but I am looking forward to the inaugural season of the Pac-12.