PAC 12 CONFERENCE
Predicted Order of Finish
3. Oregon State
6. Washington State
1. Arizona State
Top Storylines to Watch in Pac 12
Lots of newness. There are two new teams. New divisions. New league name. Lots of excitement in the Pac 12 over everything that happened this summer. Newcomers Utah and Colorado stand to experience slightly different fortunes in their first years. Utah has 12 starters back, lots of stability with seventh-year coach Kyle Whittingham, and a new offensive coordinator in Norm Chow who knows a thing or two about this conference. Junior quarterback Jordan Wynn is joined in the backfield by freshman running back Harvey Langi, who should make an impact along with junior John White, a junior college transfer. Colorado has 16 starters back, but new coach Jon Embree has quite a lot of work to do in rebuilding a program that hasn't made a bowl since 2007, and hasn't played in a major bowl since 2001. The Buffaloes were 5-7 in Dan Hawkins' last season, and unless senior quarterback Tyler Hansen takes better care of the ball and stays healthy, CU will struggle in the transition.
Oregon reloads. After a run to the BCS title game, the Ducks return only 11 starters, including just five on a defense that played much better most of the season than it was given credit for. I expect Oregon to ride their offense a bit this year. Quarterback Darron Thomas returns, as does running back LaMichael James. Thomas is only going to develop better passing skills with more experience, and James is coming off a 1,700-yard, 21-touchdown season. There's a lot of talent in that backfield, and while Auburn did a great job slowing the Ducks' frenetic pace, Thomas made a few plays in the passing game to keep them alive in the game. On defense, the Ducks allowed 519 yards to Auburn, and it might get worse this year without Casey Matthews and Talmadge Jackson. That Nov. 12 game at Stanford will be a doozy.
Luck's shocking return leads to ... With a new coach on board (David Shaw replaces Jim Harbaugh), and half the starters gone, this could be a rebuilding year for Stanford. Of course, Andrew Luck's decision to return changes all that. Leading receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen are gone, but running back Stepfan Taylor is back, and Luck still has incredible ability. How will Luck build off last year (70 percent completions, 3,300 yards, 32 touchdowns, only eight picks)? He's going to get better, and he's going to be in the Heisman chase. With defensive leaders Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas, and Delano Howell all back, the Cardinal could be even better on defense than they were a year ago, when they slowed virtually everyone but Oregon and USC. And Luck will be in New York when the Heisman gets handed out.
Another step at ASU. After three straight non-bowl seasons and a lot of disappointment, it looks like Dennis Erickson will have a very strong team at Arizona State this year. The Sun Devils have 15 starters back, which should help support 6-8 quarterback Brock Osweiler. He takes the reigns after Steven Threet was forced to step away from football because of concussions. Osweiler should be well-protected, as the whole offensive line is back, and he has a lot of weapons at his disposal. Running back Cameron Marshall and wide receiver Mike Willie have loads of talent. The Sun Devils have a favorable schedule, with USC and Oregon State at home, and only Oregon and Utah looking like difficult road games. Erickson's defenses have been plenty competitive in recent years, and as long as that trend continues, there's no reason ASU can't be in the mix for the league title and a significant bowl.
Tough times at UCLA. Fourth-year coach Rick Neuheisel was supposed to fix a lot of these ills. Instead, the UCLA program continues to flounder in mediocrity. The Bruins have been to one bowl in Neuheisel's three years, and that was an EagleBank Bowl bid in 2009 that materialized only because Army couldn't win its last game and gain eligibility. This year, UCLA has 17 starters back, including nine on offense, but there is one guy Neuheisel needs more than anyone else. That's junior quarterback Kevin Prince, who was injured much of last season and ineffective when he was healthy. Without him, it won't matter how many yards Johnathan Franklin runs for, and it won't matter who good the defense -- which stunk last year -- is. Neuheisel is an offensive guy, and he has to develop a quarterback or risk being out of a job.
The Rest of the Story
Oregon State seems to always outperform expectations, but after a 5-7 season, the Beavers need to rebound this year. Junior quarterback Ryan Katz should have more time to throw behind an experienced line this season. ... No more Jake Locker at Washington, but the Huskies still have a pretty good team. Sophomore Keith Price takes over at quarterback, and junior running Chris Polk is going to be a star ... Due to stadium renovations, California is playing home games at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Like Oregon State, the Golden Bears were uncharacteristically bad last year, going 5-7. Unless Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard is the answer at quarterback, though, things might not improve as quickly. ... I keep thinking Washington State will improve, and nothing really happens. Paul Wulff is 5-32 in Pullman, but there are signs of light here. He has a quarterback in Jeff Tuel who can play, and the Cougars will be better on defense. Unfortunately, they might not be good enough to win more than three or four games. ... USC is still not eligible for a league title or a bowl game, but they're going to be dangerous this year. The Trojans have a developing star in junior quarterback Matt Barkley, and sophomore receiver Robert Woods is coming off a great season. They should be good enough to battle Arizona State for the South title. ... I'm not sure what to make of Arizona. I like Nick Foles as a quarterback in this offense, and Juron Criner is a hell of a good receiver. I'm just no sure the Wildcats have enough pieces on defense to win more than three or four league games in this conference. They can make a minor bowl, but I'm not sure they're better than that.