Pac-12 Football Preview

The expectations are soaring at Southern Cal as the college football season draws closer. The Trojans are finished with their two-year NCAA sanctions and are eligible for the Pac-12 and BCS National Championship game titles. Lane Kiffin’s team might have been the best in the land by the team the season ended a year ago. USC finished 10-2 and their only loss after September was a four-overtime affair against Stanford and Andrew Luck. Southern Cal knocked off Oregon on the road and had it not been for the sanctions, we’d have seen a Trojans-Ducks rematch in the Pac-12 title game. The preseason polls say we’ll get that game this season and USC is a consensus choice to play the SEC champion for the national title. Is USC worth all the hype? TheSportsNotebook previews the Trojans and the rest of the Pac-12 football landscape…

Quarterback Matt Barkley comes into the season as the Heisman favorite and likely first pick in next April’s NFL draft. He’s got all the tools around him, with top receivers and Robert Woods and Marquise Lee. The running game was strengthened when Kiffin raided Penn State to get Silas Redd in the aftermath of the entire Nittany Lion program being declared free agents by the NCAA following the sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. If Reed gives USC the running game they need to win their first national title in eight years, it’s ironic that another school’s probation was USC’s blessing.

The offensive line brings back four starters, including highly regarded center Khaled Holmes. The defensive side of the trenches is a little wet behind the ear though, with three sophomores stating. The back seven of the defense is loaded, with safety T.J. McDonald being the big playmaker here.

Along with the young defensive front, depth has to be considered a concern. The effects of the scholarship limits the NCAA imposed the last two years are going to be most clearly felt here. Kiffin’s concern has to be avoiding getting pounded up front in individual games and just pounded into fatigue as the season wears into November. But while those concerns are real, they are not enough to prevent me from agreeing with the national consensus regarding this team. They have to open the year as a prohibitive favorite to win their division, the Pac-12 championship game, with the only question being whether they play for the national championship on January 7 in Miami.

Oregon and Stanford defined the other side of the conference the last two years, with the explosiveness of the Ducks’ offense and the cool professionalism of Luck and Stanford. Both will contend this year, but each has holes to fill. Oregon has to retool its skill positions, while the Cardinal must replace Luck. Each team looks good defensively. The Ducks have a top defensive end in Dion Jordan, a 6’7” specimen with speed on the edge and the wingspan to get his arms in the passing lanes. Oregon also manhandled Stanford in Palo Alto a year ago, and now get their division rival at home on November 17. But Stanford’s running game can’t be overlooked. This was a very physical team last year, and not only is running back Stephan Taylor back, so is most of the offensive line. I like head coach David Shaw’s chances of developing a quarterback within this framework and if he can get his secondary rebuilt, this is a better team than Oregon.

What should be apparent though, as that the North Division can be taken by a dark horse this year, if only one is ready. Cal is hoping their year has finally come. Head coach Jeff Tedford is in his 11th season, the stadium just underwent a pricey renovation and the Golden Bears want something more than just bowl bids and acknowledgement as Aaron Rodgers’ alma mater. They won four of six to close the regular season in 2011, bring back four seniors on the offensive line, plus their complement of skill players. Quarterback Zac Maynard can target one of the league’s best receivers in Keenan Allen and running back Isi Sofele quietly piled up over 1,300 yards in ’11. Cal’s going to move the ball and they have a good secondary. But they can be pounded up front, where the front seven is very young.

Utah & UCLA could be the darkhorse conversation, if not for the fact both are stuck in the South Division with Southern Cal. But the Utes and Bruins are still capable of solid 8-9 win seasons, especially the Utes. Utah should have been in the league championship game a year ago, if not for a horrific home loss to Colorado in the finale. The Utes need to retool the line, but they’ll play good defense and the combination of Jordan Wynn at quarterback, Devonte Christopher at receiver and John White IV in the backfield will win them their share of games. Look for this team to play spoiler in the league race and to finish at least 8-4. UCLA’s got a lot of rebuilding to do offensively, but new head coach Jim Mora Jr. has a good running back in Jonathan Franklin, a nice collection of returning talent on defense. A bowl bid should be expected and eight wins at least a reasonable goal.

Now we move to four teams that will operate on the fringes of the bowl conversation and that’s Washington, Arizona, Washington State and Oregon State. The latter two would be happy to get bowl bids. The Beavers have been going through some rebuilding, but with sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion having a year’s experience under his belt, he’ll be able to run OSU coach Mike Riley’s three-receiver offense with fewer mistakes and the defense looks pretty good. Mike Leach took over at Washington State last year, showed improvement and got to four wins. With his Jeff Tuel-to-Marquess Wilson passing combo, along with a veteran secondary, Leach will compensate for trench problems to get six wins this time out.

Rich Rodriguez is bringing his unique brand of vodka to Arizona and will have a new senior quarterback in Matt Scott stepping in to replace pure dropback passer Nick Foles. Scott is said to be able to run well, so that will serve Rich-Rod’s spread offense needs and the offensive line has experience. But this head coach’s problem in Michigan was still defense and the unit in Tucson remains young. Washington has Steve Sarkisian in his fourth year. Given that he took over a program that had become one of the worst in the country, the fact the Huskies are now a steady bowl team is a big feather in the cap of Sarkisian. But there do remain questions over whether he can get to the 8-9 win plateau. He’s got his quarterback in Keith Price, but both lines have problems. I don’t know that winning any more than six is going to be realistic this time around.

I won’t say Arizona State is hopeless in the first year of the Todd Graham era, but the Sun Devils are going to take their lumps in 2012. Brock Osweiler is gone to the NFL and there’s just no experience here. Over the long haul that’s just as well—the Sun Devils were undisciplined underachievers the last couple seasons, an unfortunate way to end Dennis Erickson’s coaching career, so Graham can start fresh and build toward next season. I don’t know what season Colorado is building towards. Their upset of Utah last year was the only high point and they’re going to be terrible again this year.

PREDICTION: I’m going with the chalk in taking USC to win the league, but I’ll step out on a limb and say Cal steals the North from Stanford and Oregon. A title-game thrashing by the Trojans will then knock Cal down the bowl pecking order, and the Alamo Bowl—which gets first choice of conference teams after the BCS is done will take Stanford, while Oregon will be Holiday Bowl-bound. Cal & Utah settle for the Sun & Las Vegas Bowls respectively.