As Spring football is just starting up at colleges around the country, the buzz for the 2011 season is growing.
In the first year of the Pac-12, teams want to make their presence felt. They want to show the new teams that they will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
It seems as if every team in the conference is coming into the inaugural season with high hopes. Everyone wants to be the team that takes home the coveted first-ever Pac-12 title.
Throughout the season there will be key games that will be pivotal in deciding how well teams do.
These are the key games for each team in the Pac-12 for 2011.
Sept. 17 vs. Stanford
The Wildcats have a very tough stretch in which they play at Oklahoma State, home against Stanford, home against Oregon, and then at USC. Arizona should be happy if they can win one of these games.
The Wildcats are losing their entire offensive line and their two best defensive players from a season ago, defensive ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore.
I feel they will be outclassed by Oklahoma State, Oregon, and USC. There only chance of winning a game in this difficult stretch will be against a Stanford team that is losing much of its offensive line and their head coach.
Arizona will probably be fighting for a bowl berth in 2011. If they cannot win this game against Stanford, I don’t see them finishing better than 5-7.
Sept. 9 vs. Missouri
This week two matchup at home against Missouri has been dubbed one of the most important games in the program's history. It will be a nationally televised game on a Friday night, a golden opportunity for the Sun Devils to get some exposure.
Anyone who has followed Arizona State at all this offseason knows that everybody in the program believes they are going to win the Pac-12 South in 2011. If they can beat Missouri, then their swagger will be at the highest it has been since the Devils were Co-Pac-10 champions in 2007.
Sun Devil fans have a lot to be excited about. They are returning nine starters on both sides of the ball and have one of the most intimidating players in the country, Vontaze Burfict.
Arizona State needs this game and this season. It can save coach Dennis Erickson’s job and will save this program from becoming irrelevant.
Sept. 24 at Washington
Cal was the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team last season. At home they blew teams out and were one of the best in the conference, and on the road they were a Pac-10 cellar dweller.
When they play Washington in week two, they need to prove that they are different this season. This is a statement game for the Golden Bears.
There are so many questions surrounding this team. Who is going to play quarterback? Who will replace Shane Vereen at running back?
This game will answer a lot of questions. Washington is always a tough team to play in Seattle.
Nov. 26 at Utah
I know exactly what you are thinking. How can the last game of the season be a make or break game for a team?
Well, I think we can all agree that Colorado is not going to compete for the conference championship anytime soon, and probably won’t make a bowl game in 2011. This game against Utah is meant to be the start of a rivalry.
All of the Pac-12 teams are apart of pairs, USC is with UCLA, Stanford is with Cal, Arizona State with Arizona, Washington with Washington State, and now Utah with Colorado.
Colorado needs to make a statement that they are not going to be shoved around by Utah. Running back, Rodney “Speedy” Stewart, needs to play great and make himself the first hero of this new rivalry game.
Sept. 3 vs. LSU (at Arlington, Texas)
The Oregon Ducks seem to clearly be a step above the rest of the teams in the Pac-12. This season their main goal has to be to win a national championship.
The first test on that long road to the BCS title game is in week one against the LSU Tigers. This game is going to be the kickoff for the entire college football season, everyone will be watching.
The Ducks return seven players on offense and five on defense from a team that lost to Auburn in the BCS title game last season. Running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas are returning to headline the best offensive attack in the country.
If Oregon wants to win this game, they will need to beat LSU with their speed. This is game is huge for Oregon, but also for the reputation of the Pac-12.
Oct. 1 at Arizona State
The Beavers are one of the toughest teams in the conference to judge this early. They lose their key players on both sides of the ball, but return many promising players.
They lose the heart and soul of their offense from a season ago, running back Jacquizz Rodgers, and their strongest defensive player, defensive tackle Stephen Paea. These were two of the best players in the Pac-12 last season and will be impossible to replace.
The Beavers do return quarterback Ryan Katz and eight other offensive starters, so all hope is not lost.
Their week four matchup against Arizona State is key because it is the first game on their schedule that could go either way. Sacramento State and UCLA should be easy wins, while Wisconsin in week two should be a rout.
Against Arizona State, the Beavers will look to make a statement on the road. If they can win this game, it proves they are still one of the upper echelon teams in the conference.
Nov. 12 vs. Oregon
The popular belief seems to be that the Stanford Cardinal and the Oregon Ducks are clearly the top two teams in the Pac-12. I am not totally sure about that, but if it is true, then there is no doubt about what their key game will be.
Their late season battle at home against Oregon could be key in deciding who gets to play in the inaugural Pac-12 championship.
Stanford has a lot to overcome before they get to this game. They are losing their head coach, three staring offensive linemen, and five defensive starters from a season ago.
This has the makings to be one of the biggest games in the nation of the 2011 season. It may decide national championship contenders and probably a conference title.
Oct. 20 at Arizona
At the very best, UCLA will be a team fighting to make a bowl game. They are losing four of five starting offensive linemen and their two best defensive players (safety Rahim Moore and linebacker Akeem Ayers) from a team that only went 4-8 last season.
Arizona is in a similar situation as UCLA. They are one of the teams just ahead of UCLA and will also be fighting for a bowl bid.
This game is on a Thursday and is nationally televised on ESPN. It gives Rick Neuheisel a chance to prove that his Bruins are starting to go in the right direction.
It appears as if the Bruins have another long season ahead of themselves, but a win in Tucson against the Wildcats could be a game that turns around their season.
Sept. 10 at USC
This is going to be one of the most anticipated games of the season. It is the first conference matchup for both teams and the first game of the new Pac-12 conference.
Even though USC cannot make the Pac-12 championship game in 2011, this game is key if Utah wants to play in it. They need to prove to the nation that they are ready for Pac-12 football and can compete with the elite teams in this league.
Utah has a lot of question marks coming into the 2011 season. They lost their leading rusher, leading receiver, seven defensive starters, and most of their offensive line from last season. To top it all off, quarterback Jordan Wynn will not be healthy enough to participate in Spring ball and his status is questionable for the season.
This game is a golden opportunity for the Utes to prove their worth in the Pac-12. It is a statement game for both squads.
Oct. 22 at Notre Dame
Since USC is unable to play in the Pac-12 championship game or make a bowl game, they will be playing for themselves.
Their Oct. 22 rivalry game at Notre Dame has to be as emotional as any game on their schedule. Last season, they were shocked when Notre Dame beat them in their home stadium.
This season the Trojans will look to return the favor. The Fighting Irish are one of the most hyped teams for 2011. They are looking to compete for a BCS bowl berth and will need to get by USC to get there.
There isn’t anything more satisfying than beating your rivals and ruining their season.
The Trojans should have a strong team capable of this task. They return star quarterback Matt Barkley and seven starters on both sides of the ball.
It is hard to know what to expect from the Huskies in 2011 and from this early game against Nebraska. Last season Washington’s defense was embarrassed when they played quality opponents, except for in their second meeting with Nebraska.
In their first meeting, the Cornhuskers won a blowout 56-20. But in the second meeting, the Huskies slowed down the Husker attack and won 19-7.
When the two teams meet again, they will both have plenty to prove. Which teams will show up to the game?
Most Washington fans are very hopeful for the 2011 season. They will need to replace quarterback Jake Locker and star linebacker Mason Foster. However, they do return eight players on both sides of the ball and running back Chris Polk.
I am not sold on the Huskies quite yet, but a victory in Lincoln, Nebraska might change my mind.
Nov. 26 at Washington
The Cougars have made strides to get better and probably won't be an embarrassment to the conference in 2011. They are returning underrated quarterback Jeff Tuel and should not be taken lightly in 2011.
Despite improvements, the Cougars probably won't be making a bowl game in 2011. So their make or break game has to be the Apple Cup.
The trip to Seattle will be the bowl game for the Cougs. Their rival Huskies will be coming off two tough road games against USC and Oregon State, so they might be vulnerable to the upset.
The Cougs are still a year or two away, but they definitely have the capability to upset some teams in 2011.