The Pac-12 Conference enters the 2011 season as one of the most talked about conferences in the nation.
Last year it contained two BCS bowl teams, Heisman candidates and numerous All-Americans.
The 2011 offseason so far has been full of trash talk, fearless predictions and high hopes. Who will win the most prestigious honors, and who will be crowned the inaugural Pac-12 champion?
The following are one writer’s predictions of who will win the individual awards and who will be crowned conference champions in 2011.
QB: Andrew Luck (Stanford)
RB: LaMichael James (Oregon)
RB: Chris Polk (Washington)
WR: Juron Criner (Arizona)
WR: Chris Owusu (Stanford)
TE: David Paulson (Oregon)
OL: Jonathan Martin (Stanford)
OL: David DeCastro (Stanford)
OL: Matt Kalil (USC)
OL: Garth Gerhart (Arizona State)
OL: Ryan Miller (Colorado)
Plenty of familiar faces make up the All-Pac-12 first team. Players like Andrew Luck, LaMichael James and David Paulson are regulars on the list.
The conference is loaded at running back this season, so that spot was tough to choose. Great backs like Rodney Stewart of Colorado, Johnathan Franklin of UCLA and Stepfan Taylor of Stanford could all have easily made the cut.
DL: Junior Onyeali (Arizona State)
DL: Travis Long (Washington State)
DL: Justin Washington (Arizona)
DL: Alameda Ta’amu (Washington)
LB: Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State)
LB: Mychal Kendricks (California)
LB: Shayne Skov (Stanford)
DB: Cliff Harris (Oregon)
DB: T.J. McDonald (USC)
DB: John Boyett (Oregon)
DB: Omar Bolden (Arizona State)
Only one player (Omar Bolden) from the 2010 All-Pac-10 defensive team is returning for the 2011 season. Bolden actually tore his ACL in spring football, but is included on the first team here because he is expected to return for the majority of the Pac-12 season.
Cliff Harris of Oregon, T.J. McDonald of USC and Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State are three of the top defensive prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft and look to have huge 2011 seasons.
K: Kai Forbath (UCLA)
P: Bryan Anger (California)
KR: Kenjon Barner (Oregon)
PR: Jamal Miles (Arizona State)
There is nothing too special about the kickers in the Pac-12. Kai Forbath was the Lou Groza Award winner in 2009, but had a shaky 2010 season.
The greatest strength of the entire conference could be on the kick and punt return teams. Kenjon Barner and Jamal Miles are just two of the many star returners in the conference.
The reason I chose them over players like Robert Woods of USC and Cliff Harris of Oregon is because Miles and Barner are not starters for either of their teams. Thus, they will probably be used more than players who have more valuable roles elsewhere on their teams.
Running back, Utah
The Utah Utes have high hopes entering their first season of the Pac-12. They are believed to be one of the early favorites to win the South Division.
If they are going to win it, they will need an instant impact from Harvey Langi.
Langi was heavily recruited out of high school and chose Utah over schools like BYU, UCLA, Stanford and USC. He is a power runner with great instincts.
Utah is losing both of its top rushers of 2010, Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, so it is likely that Langi will instantly become the team's feature back.
Even if Utah doesn’t have a big year, I still expect Langi to rack up a decent number of yards. There are not too many other offensive freshmen, except for Washington wide receiver Kasen Williams, who I feel will challenge Langi for the honor.
USC’s linebackers were fairly mediocre last season. It might sound odd, but it is the truth. As a result, Lamar Dawson may have the chance to start right away.
Standing at 6’2”, 230 pounds, Dawson has the prototypical size at linebacker. Out of high school, he is being praised for his athleticism and discipline.
I feel USC needs to flex its muscles in the first year of the Pac-12. The Trojans need to prove to Oregon and the rest of the conference that they are still the big dogs.
If they are going to do so, they will need improvement at linebacker. Expect Dawson to provide that instant impact.
Steve Sarkisian, Washington
As an Arizona State student and lifelong fan, I want to pick Dennis Erickson so badly at this spot. However, I know that he will not be the most deserving of this honor.
Steve Sarkisian has done a great job in Washington, and the once-embarrassing program appears to be starting to turn the corner.
Despite losing quarterback Jake Locker, I believe that Washington will challenge Stanford for the second spot in the North Division.
With running back Chris Polk carrying the offense and a defense that showed a lot of progress at the end of the 2010 season, do not be surprised to see the Huskies win around eight games next season.
LaMichael James, Junior
Running back, Oregon
This is really a two-horse race here. It should be either LaMichael James or Andrew Luck. I like James over Luck because James plays in such an unstoppable system that is built for running backs like him.
Last season, James ran for 1,731 yards with 21 touchdowns and won the Doak Walker Award for the top running back in college football. Expect nothing less than those numbers again in 2011.
James’ Ducks return one of the best teams in college football and look to make a big splash on the national scene.
Along with being my pick to win Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, I also expect James to win the Heisman Trophy.
Vontaze Burfict, Junior
Linebacker, Arizona State
As Arizona State starts to gain some national attention, Vontaze Burfict will as well.
Burfict has gained a reputation as one of the most feared players in college football due to his bone-crushing hits and passionate style of play.
Last season, Burfict led the Sun Devils with 89 tackles, but his impact is felt on every single play.
The only knock on Burfict is he has the tendency to get bad personal fouls and stupid penalties, but he believes he was “targeted” by referees. The good news for Burfict is that the Pac-12 has fired 11 referees and hired 16 new ones.
The Oregon Ducks appear to be a step above the rest of the conference this season. They have one of the most dominant offenses in college football history and a very underrated defense.
Quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James are two of the leading Heisman candidates, and cornerback Cliff Harris is one of the best shutdown guys in the country.
Expect the Ducks to breeze through the Pac-12 again undefeated and find themselves hosting the first ever Pac-12 championship game.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils may have been just 6-6 last season, but they proved they are good enough to play with any team in the nation.
In 2011, the biggest question is whether or not they can turn the corner. The team is finally experienced, returning 18 starters, and the time is now.
The athletic department underwent a total rebranding in the offseason, and the football team plans on revamping its reputation.
Head coach Dennis Erickson needs a big season if he wants to keep his job. Anything less than a spot in the Pac-12 championship game will be a disappointment for Sun Devils fans.
As much as it pains me to say it, the Oregon Ducks will beat the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Pac-12 Conference championship. Until somebody figures out a way to stop their potent offense, I have a tough time picking against them.
Arizona State challenged Oregon last season just about as much as any team in the country, other than possibly California. The Sun Devils forced them to punt 11 times, and LaMichael James called their defense the best he had ever faced.
Regardless, it is hard to pick against Oregon at home. Expect the Ducks to win this game and possibly find themselves in a position to win the BCS title.