College Football 2011: The Pac-12 Games That Will Decide the South
This season the Pac-10—whoops, I mean the Pac-12—will be the latest to expand and host its own conference championship game. While much of the talk is about the Big Ten and the potential matchups there, the Pac-12 is no slacker.
In the North it appears as though Oregon and Stanford will hammer it out to see who can both win the division and host the title game, since the team with the best record gets home field. In the South, wide-open could be the word with Arizona State, Utah and USC, who could play spoiler since it seemingly has little to play for other than pride in 2011.
So which games are the ones that will shape the conference race?
Here is a look at 10 games that will shape the race, impact bowl position and possibly choose a national champion.
We start with the games earliest on the calendar and will move on all the way until Thanksgiving weekend.
Sept. 10: Utah at USC
The first of the intriguing new matchups within the expansion happens at the Coliseum on September 10. Utah comes in after years of dominating the MWC, while USC will once again be left to suffer the consequences of NCAA sanctions.
This game will show what Utah is made of and give the Pac-12 South a look at what could be the best team there—and that is certainly not USC.
The Trojans do have talent, but what they do not have is depth. Nevertheless, they will be looking to show the conference that they are not going to lie down against the new kid on the block.
This game should be very close, with the winner getting the early edge on the division. Look for the difference-maker to be former USC coordinator Norm Chow. Chow, now the offensive coordinator at Utah, knows how to run a college offense. With a healthy Jordan Wynn, Utah should have that.
Sept. 17: Stanford at Arizona
Last year's contest wasn't much of one, as the Cardinal rolled to a 42-17 victory. That was also against what appears to be on paper a much better Wildcat team.
This year, other than Nick Foles at quarterback and a few standout pass catchers, looks to be a rebuilding year for Mike Stoops and company.
On the other side, Stanford is a favorite to win the conference and dethrone Oregon despite losing head coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL. Heisman favorite Andrew Luck will lead a potent attack that should put up big numbers on a weekly basis.
So why is this game on here?
It's simple. This is the first true road test for Stanford (sorry Duke) and could be one of those late-night, under the lights thrillers that Foles and company have enjoyed in the past, like against Iowa last year.
Stanford is more talented, but the challenge of an early season road test could leave it closer than everyone thinks, and who knows—maybe the first major upset of the year.
Sept. 24: USC at Arizona State
Sun Devils head coach Dennis Erickson is on the hot seat in Tempe, but with the return of 31 seniors and 19 starters, that could all change by season's end. Last year they finished 6-6, losing four games by four points or less.
One of those was to USC, 34-33. The Sun Devils came back from a 15-point deficit to nearly win the game.
This year's game could be payback, as ASU QB Brock Osweiler finally showed the reason why he was recruited with wins over Arizona and UCLA at the end of the year. Behind a steady O-line he could have a big game against a USC defense that appears thin and has had its troubles with tackling at times.
If Arizona State can get the monkey off its back, it could set up an interesting contest down the road against Utah.
Oct. 8: Arizona State at Utah
Speaking of that game, ASU heads to Salt Lake City to battle the Utes in early October. By now we should know if both teams are division contenders or pretenders.
The key to this game will be who can run the ball better. ASU has two backs in Cameron Marshall and Deantre Lewis, while Utah may look to lean on the legs of freshman Harvey Langi.
Rice-Eccles Stadium will undoubtedly be rocking, which could be another factor in that this will be ASU's first conference road test.
It should be a good one to watch and should help clear up the South title picture, and maybe even finalize it.
Oct. 29: Stanford at USC
Even if USC is playing just for pride, this has to be one that it is foaming at the mouth for—a revenge factor game, if you will. Since USC fell to Stanford back in 2007 in one of college football's biggest shockers, it has lost to the Cardinal twice in a row, with the 2008 game being all Trojans.
Many look to the 2007 loss as the beginning of the end of the USC stranglehold on the conference. Now it is USC's chance to put to bed any chances Stanford has of building its own dynasty.
This game appears to be no contest with Stanford running away with it, but not so fast. USC still has Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, as well as the home field. It will have also faced heavyweights Utah, ASU and Notre Dame, while Stanford could remain untested.
Trap game, anybody?
Nov. 5: Oregon at Washington
Speaking of traps, one week before Oregon travels to Stanford in one of the most anticipated games of the year, it has a trap game at Husky Stadium, where it will face Washington.
Oregon is once again loaded offensively with Darron Thomas and LaMichael James and company back on offense. The concern may be on defense, where it lost five of its starting front seven.
Enter Washington and Chris Polk. Polk ran for over 1,400 yards a season ago and could go for more in 2011, especially with a new starting quarterback at the helm.
Oregon may be looking ahead, especially if it has already beaten LSU in the opener. Washington will be looking for an upset, a signature win and maybe even to keep its bowl chances alive.
Trap game again.
Nov. 12: Oregon at Stanford
The game everyone in both the Pac-12 and all of college football is anticipating goes down on Nov. 12, as Stanford looks to get even with the defending conference champs in Palo Alto. The question will be, can both teams go unbeaten to this point?
Most experts say yes to Stanford, maybe to Oregon based on the LSU opener. Either way, there is little doubt that this will be for the division crown.
Who wins the game could be determined early. If Oregon gets off to a fast start, then the Cardinal may start to think back to last year and the 21-3 lead it blew early on.
The other key is if Stanford can stop LaMichael James, who ran for 257 yards against it in last year's 52-31 win. If the Cardinal can't slow him down, look for yet another Oregon romp.
Nov. 19: Utah at Washington State
Here's one that you may not have your finger on, and rightfully so. Washington State is certainly not what it once was under Mike Price, but by this point in the season it could be playing with nothing to lose on Senior Day in Pullman.
Last year the Cougars improved throughout the course of the season, but that doesn't say much. Since Paul Wulff's arrival in 2008 they are 5-32.
So why would this one be a trap? Why should we care, you ask?
Wazzu is not as bad as people may think. Injuries have played a major role in its downfall over the past several years. One of those injuries was to tailback Rickey Galvin, who the Cougs are high on.
So back to the question and answer. Utah will not have clinched that division title by this point. Either USC or ASU will be neck and neck or on its heels, although USC wouldn't matter much. Utah could look past Wazzu, while Wazzu could be looking for a program saver.
Watch for this to be on the upset tab on ESPN's bottom line.
Nov. 19: Oregon State at Washington
In all likelihood this one will not be for the division title, but rather bowl positioning, or bowl elimination.
Oregon State fell apart late last season and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2005. Meanwhile, the Huskies went to and won a bowl game for a change. Now the two could be battling it out for bowl extinction rights in Seattle.
Washington should be a slight favorite at home, but Oregon State will have already had the benefit of playing in Seattle against Washington State at Qwest Field.
This one is a toss-up, but for all intents and purposes, it will be important to bowl selection Sunday for both schools and their alums.
Nov. 26: UCLA at USC
Bruins head coach Rick Neuheisel said he wanted UCLA to be the toast of the town when it came to college football. So far the Rick is 0-for-3 against the crosstown rivals. Another loss could spell the end of the Neuheisel era.
So why does this game make the list?
Well, it is a rivalry, there will be storylines and there will be a lot of talk about the direction the USC program takes heading into 2012 and being out of the NCAA doghouse.
The chances of this one meaning anything are slim, but it should be a hard-hitting contest with the Rick earning his fourth straight "L" to USC.
So what other games are you looking forward to?
Which ones will determine the divisions?
Any upsets in mind?
As always, feel free to share your thoughts with me and other readers, and remember to play nice.