2011 Pac-12 Football Conference Outlook and Preview

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2011 Pac-12 Football Conference Outlook and Preview
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Maybe now the Left Coast will get some love.

The Pac-10 is no more, choosing instead to swell its ranks to 12 teams, institute a new divisional system and implement a championship game that should keep this conference in the news well into December. It is a pretty heady time in the Pac-12, and with new promise and potential comes new expectations.

By my count, there are no fewer than five coaches in the Pac-12 that are either coaching for their jobs (Rick Neuheisel, Paul Wulff) or on the cusp of having to defend their jobs all offseason (Mike Stoops, Dennis Erickson). You know that Lane Kiffin is always just one season away from his new job—how the man is coaching at all is stunning to me—and even stalwarts like Mike Riley and Jeff Tedford are starting to feel the ground tremble beneath their feet.

The Pac-12 has made major moves in the past two offseasons to increase membership, revenue and national profile. The stakes are higher. And with more eyes and more dollars being floated around the Pacific, the pressure is going to mount quickly on the field. This first season should help shake things out in the fresh conference. And the seeds of how this league could play out over the course of the next decade could be sown in the next five months.

Let’s see if they are up for it.

Here is a look at my 2011 Pac-12 football predictions and futures odds, with the college football odds courtesy of BetOnline:

 

The Favorite: Oregon (+125)

You shouldn’t need me to tell you that as long as Oregon possesses one of the most explosive, most devastating, most unique offenses in college football, they will be a force to be reckoned with in West Coast football. The Ducks were just a score away from a national title last year, and while just 11 starters are back from the team that played in the BCS Championship Game, there is a host of experience ready to step in and carry the banner for the Pac-12’s new premier program.

 

The Challenger: Stanford (+250)

The Cardinal dodged one bullet when quarterback—and Heisman Trophy favorite—Andrew Luck decided to return to college for his junior season. But Stanford was dealt a blow when the architect of their recent Renaissance, Coach Jim Harbaugh, bolted for San Francisco in the NFL. Harbaugh handed the reigns to former offensive coordinator David Shaw. And with Luck running the show this team should continue to put up the gaudy offensive numbers that they have managed the last two seasons.

However, without Harbaugh’s swagger, game planning and in-game management, there is no doubt that Stanford is going to take a step backwards. Further, this team lost eight of its top 15 tacklers from a defense that was dominating through its last six games last year (9.4 points per game allowed). Stanford does get Oregon at home this year, though, so they have to be considered the league co-favorites heading into the season.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Dark Horse: Arizona State (+450)

These odds may seem a bit low for a team that hasn’t finished better than .500 in the past three seasons. But Arizona State should be poised for a breakout, and, to a certain extent, this team reminds me a bit of Michigan State from last year. Arizona State has lost 10 games by five points or less over the last three seasons (they are 1-10 in those contests). That is a significant statistical anomaly, and if they can find a way to finish, you could see a massive spike in their win total. ASU also has some talent, and their 12 senior starters help make them one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The Sun Devils play five league home games and get Wazzou on the road. Add in the fact that they can finish second to USC and still make the title game and ASU has about as large of a margin for error as any team in the country.

 

The X-Factor: USC (N/A)

The Trojans are still working through sanctions from the Reggie Bush scandal, and that means no possibility of a bowl game or an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game even if they win the South. However, the Trojans still have something to play for—a division title—and that should help keep them motivated all season long. The Trojans still have one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Matt Barkley, and there is always going to be talent on this roster. USC has to play all three of the top contenders (ASU, Oregon and Stanford), so while they aren’t eligible to win the league title, they could go a long way in determining who does.

The Disappointment: Arizona (+1000)

I just don’t know how many times people need to see Arizona collapse under the weight of preseason expectations before they realize that Mike Stoops has no idea what he is doing. Arizona is a respectable 23-16 over the last three years. But when you consider the talent and goals that this program has faced during that time, they have been clear underachievers.

Stoops should once again have an exceptional crop of skill players, led by Nick Foles and Juron Criner. But Arizona has five new offensive linemen, and they welcome back the fewest starters in the Pac-12. Throw in a tricky nonconference trip to Stillwater immediately preceding brutal home games against Stanford and Oregon (right before trips to USC and Oregon State), and the Wildcats have to have one of the most difficult schedules in the country. They should be facedown on the canvas well before Halloween.

 

The Rest:
 

Utah (+500): Utah was seemingly given the red carpet treatment in its first season in the Pac-12. The Utes and their 24-year-old seniors don’t have to face either Oregon or Stanford and they get to host Arizona State. If things break right for this group, they could end up in the thick of the conference title hunt. New offensive coordinator Norm Chow brings plenty of Pac-12 experience into the fold, but we will see how this group adapts to a new offensive structure. This year will be the first step in finding out if Utah is truly a top-notch program or if it simply benefited from playing in a feeble conference over the last several seasons.

Washington (+1000): It isn’t often that you can lose a No. 1 draft choice at quarterback and actually improve the following season. However, I think that Jake Locker was overrated in Washington and that the Huskies have a shot to be even better without him this year. UW has 15 other starters back, including 10 three-year starters, and Steve Sarkisian has this group starting to believe in his system. The problem is that they have Oregon and Stanford on the slate, a trip to Nebraska in the nonconference and road trips to Utah and USC in league play. Washington faces one of the toughest road schedules in the country. But looking at the college football odds, I still see some value here with this group.

Oregon State (+1200): I am a big fan of Mike Riley, and I think he has been an underrated coach for most of the past few years. But that said, there isn’t a ton to like about the Beavers this season. They welcome back just four defensive starters, and if wideout James Rodgers simply can’t come back from last year’s knee injury, then the team will be without its best two playmakers from last year. They lost six of their top eight tacklers and there are still plenty of questions about quarterback Ryan Katz. But then again, Riley has had only one other losing season in the past nine years (2005), and he bounced back with a 10-win campaign the following year. That would be optimistic to predict this season, but I am always wary of betting against him.

California (+1800): The Golden Bears were all over the map last season. They nearly sprung upsets against No. 14 Arizona and No. 1 Oregon (losing both games by a combined three points). But they also lost four of their five road games by an average of three touchdowns, and this team won just one of its last five contests when one more victory would have secured a bowl appearance. Cal better hope is can solve its road woes because the Bears won’t play in Berkeley once this year; Cal will play all of its home games in AT&T Park as their home stadium is remodeled.

UCLA (+1800): Three years ago, Rick Neuheisel was being touted as the savior of a floundering UCLA program. But three seasons and a 15-22 record later, and Neuheisel is starting to feel the pressure in L.A. This is kind of a make-or-break year for the Bruins. But the good news is that after several injury-riddled years, the Bruins now boast the deepest, most talented, most experienced team that Neuheisel has had here.

UCLA welcomes back 17 starters—including last-chance QB Kevin Prince—and the Bruins could begin the season with a whopping seven three-year starters on offense. The trouble is that their opening five games—at Houston, SJSU, Texas, at Oregon State and at Stanford—are as challenging as any schedule in the country. Things soften up after that, but will the players, coaches, fans and alumni have already jumped ship?

Colorado (+2,200):The Buffs are the less ballyhooed of the two Pac-12 newcomers and enter the year with minimal expectations. But with 16 starters back, one of the more experienced rosters west of the Mississippi and a style of play much better suited for the Pac-12 than the Big 12, I am not willing to write this team off. Yes, they have a new coach and there will be some growing pains. But teams like Arizona and Cal aren’t used to playing at altitude, and Colorado could surprise. But, like UCLA, a look at the Colorado Buffaloes schedule reveals some harsh realities. They play only five true home games and have road tilts at places ranging from Hawaii to Ohio State to Utah.

Washington State (+10000): It really wasn’t all that long ago that Washington State was a major player out west. They went 30-8 from 2001-2003, but those days seem like a lifetime ago. Paul Wulff has been a train wreck as the head man in Pullman, and he is probably another guy coaching for his job. Washington State definitely sucked less last year, improving on both sides of the ball despite a 2-10 record. Wulff is just 5-32 in his last three years. But he finally has a little depth and just enough experience where this team could be good for a stunner or two. They play only two road games after Oct. 9 and they have the potential to start to season 3-1 or possibly 4-0.

2011 Pac-12 Conference Predictions: Predicted Order of Finish

 

North Division

1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. Oregon State
4. Washington
5. California
6. Washington State

 

South Division

1. Arizona State
2. USC
3. Utah
4. UCLA
5. Arizona
6. Colorado

 

Robert Ferringo is an NFL and college football handicapper and is coming off an exceptionally profitable 2010-11 football season (college and pro). Over the last year, his clients have more than tripled their bankrolls with his predictions in all sports. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall, and you can check him out here.

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