Spring football is wrapping up and we are inching closer to the inaugural season of the Pac-12 conference.
The conference is as strong as it has ever been and promises a thrilling 2011 season.
With two new teams (Utah and Colorado) entering the picture, USC on probation and Oregon emerging as a dominant power, there are a lot of interesting storylines.
The following are 10 things that will happen in the first season of the Pac-12 conference.
Head coach Mike Stoops has led Arizona to three straight bowl games, but the fun stops here.
Last season the Wildcats were 7-1 entering the home stretch of their season and fighting for the Pac 10 crown. Then, they proceeded to lose five straight games to close their season. The main reason was that they could not beat quality conference opponents.
Arizona is returning their star quarterback Nick Foles and his favorite target at wide receiver, Juron Criner. However, they are losing their entire offensive line and their two best defensive players, defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, from a season ago.
Losing those key players will be too much to overcome for the Wildcats next season.
They play a rough schedule in which the face Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford, USC and Oregon State in consecutive games starting in Week 2. These teams were responsible for five of Arizona’s six losses last season.
Since the first game he ever played at Arizona State, Vontaze Burfict has been a true impact player.
Burfict anchors the Sun Devil defense that was the conference’s best against the run last season. He is a big reason why the team is getting so much hype for the 2011 season.
The case behind this prediction is because of two things. The first is that the Pac 12 fired most of their referees from a season ago.
The former staff was often criticized for “targeting” Burfict because he had a bad reputation.
The second reason is that Vontaze Burfict has changed his attitude. Prior to this season, Burfict had never been viewed at as a leader. But this offseason, he has made a huge effort to become a leader and change his overall image.
One place he proved this is in the weight room. For the first time in his college career, Vontaze was awarded an ASU “Hard Hat” for reaching his goals in the weight room.
The Oregon State Beavers failed to make a bowl game last season for the first time since 2005. However, the Beavers will find themselves bowling next year.
The team has relieved heavily on running back Jacquizz Rodgers for the past three seasons, but he is leaving for the NFL and it is time to change in Corvallis.
The 2011 offense will largely be designed around junior quarterback Ryan Katz. He was inconsistent in 2010, but showed promise.
Katz’s offense returns nine starters from a season ago, including four starting offensive linemen and his two top receivers.
Expect Katz to take around 35 passing attempts per game. If he can keep turnovers to a minimum, he has the potential to be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference.
Most preseason polls have Stanford ranked in the top 10, but this is a huge overestimation.
The Cardinal are only returning 11 total starters from a season ago, and are lost three of their starting offensive lineman.
Andrew Luck may be the best quarterback in college football, but he cannot do it by himself. He loses his two top receivers from 2010, Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, and has his work cut out for him if he wants to follow up with another memorable year.
On top of all of these key losses, Stanford also lost their head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Stanford will not be the same team that won the Orange Bowl last season. Their defense is mediocre and will be too dependent on their offense.
In a tough Pac 12 full of pass rushers, Luck will not have as great of a season as he did in 2010. Matchups against USC, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington are all losable games next season.
Stanford will still be a solid team, but not a Pac 12 conference championship contender.
Utah has been given the easiest possible schedule by the Pac 12, not having to play Oregon or Stanford. Yet, they will not have quite as easy of a season as this might imply.
The Utes are experiencing numerous changes. Obviously they are changing conferences, but they are also replacing an old offensive system with the help of offensive guru Norm Chow.
The transition to a tougher conference schedule will not be a smooth one for Utah. They are not used to playing high quality opponents every single week.
Along with the increase in level of competition, Utah’s team is filled with question marks.
They are losing their two leading rushers from a season ago in Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata. True freshman Harvey Langi is expected to get the bulk of the carries.
As there are doubts about the offensive backfield, there are just about as many for the defensive backfield. NFL bound cornerback Brandon Burton will be a big loss.
At the quarterback position, they Utes are returning starter Jordan Wynn. However, he has been unable to play in spring ball after undergoing shoulder surgery. The less chance he gets to practice the new offense, the less confident I am in him.
Now, will Utah make a bowl game?
They just wont be able to compete for the South title.
LaMichael James, not Andrew Luck, will win the Pac 12 offensive player of the year award. Unlike Luck, James returns most of the key players from his offense and has a chance to repeat his success from a season ago.
James and Oregon are returning seven stars from what was the most prolific offensive in the nation last season.
Last season, James ran for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore. Now a junior, he should not experience a dip in his offensive output.
In his two seasons at Oregon, James rushed for at least 1,500 yards and has rushed for at least 100 yards in 18 games.
With a healthy Kenjon Barner backing him up, James should get plenty of rest to keep him fresh. He won't miss a beat in the 2011 season.
With USC ineligible to play in the conference championship game, the door is left wide open for the Sun Devils to make 2011 their year.
Arizona State returns 19 starters from a team that competed with some of the best teams in the nation last year.
They will be led on offense by quarterback Brock Osweiler who stepped in for the injured Steven Threet last season during the last two games of the year. In these games he threw for a combined 647 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.
He is surrounded by playmakers, and if he can prevent turnovers, the Sun Devils will be tough to stop.
The strength of this team is really the defense. They are led by All-American linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is mentioned in an earlier slide.
Burfict personifies what this team is all about. He is fast, aggressive, hard hitting and passionate.
A new logo and uniforms are also things that are exciting people about Sun Devil football. There is a new found swagger developing in Tempe.
If Arizona State can win their matchup at Utah on October 8, they should find themselves playing in the inaugural Pac 12 championship game.
There I said it.
Washington State showed improvement last season, and a few conference wins would not be out of the question in 2011.
The Cougars have a strong passing game behind quarterback Jeff Tuel and wide receivers Marquess Wilson and Jared Karsetter. They should be able to score enough points to win next year.
The Cougars defense has been a real issue for years now. During the offseason, they addressed this issue the best they could by bringing in four junior college defensive ends to make instant impacts.
While Washington State is improving, some teams in the Pac 12 are falling. Once great programs like UCLA, Colorado and Cal are all programs moving in the wrong direction. One of these teams could easily take over the Cougs spot as the perennial cellar dwellers of the conference.
As long as Rick Neuheisel is at UCLA, my bet would be on the Bruins.
Andrew Luck is a very good quarterback, possibly the best in the nation, but he should have entered the draft last season. He was the sure first overall pick, and now he is risking that by going back to school for his junior season.
I don’t want to fault the decision of wanting to continue your education, especially at a school like Stanford. However, it is not worth risking millions of dollars over.
Last year, Andrew Luck had a magical season in which he led his team to the Orange Bowl and became a national celebrity.
This year will not be the same.
Luck loses the majority of his offensive line that only allowed five sacks all last season. Having little to no pressure is a big reason why Luck had as much success as he did.
The Stanford quarterback will also be without his two leading receivers from a season ago, Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin.
This could be too much to overcome for Luck. He should still have a solid season, but I doubt he will remain the top candidate for the Heisman trophy.
Jake Locker is proof that you should enter the NFL draft when you know you will be drafted high. Locker took the risk and now he might not even be a first-round draft pick.
Last season, Stanford and Oregon were clearly the top two teams in the conference. Next season, Oregon will be the sole team that is a step above the rest in the Pac 12.
On offense, the Ducks return seven starters from a season ago, including key players like quarterback Darron Thomas, running back LaMichael James and tight end David Paulson.
The defense however, is not quite as experienced. They do return cornerback Cliff Harris and safety John Boyett, giving them one of the best defensive backfields in the country. But unfortunately, they are only returning two starters from last year’s front seven.
This shouldn’t be too big of an issue to overcome. Oregon’s offense and defensive backs are so good that they should be able to make up for their inexperience in the front seven.
The Ducks get most of their tough conference games at home this season, except for Stanford. If they can get past them, they will win the Pac 12.
If they can also beat the LSU Tigers on opening night, they could be favorites to win the BCS title as well.