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Pac 12 Football Preview -- North Division
by Scott Spreitzer - 08/10/2011
PAC-12 PART ONE:
A lot of questions have to be factored into the new Pac-12. Will Oregon and Stanford be able to overcome serious losses in the trenches?
Will Oregon State climb back above .500 after a losing campaign in 2010? The South Division has some questions of their own. Will USC
use the opportunity to win the division as motivation to overcome their second year of probation? They aren't eligible to play in the league's
inaugural title game - and probation keeps them from going bowling for a second straight season. Will Dennis Erickson finally put it all together
in Tempe in what may be his final chance at a conference title and national championship run? And with Arizona way down this season, can
newcomers Colorado and Utah stay out of the South's cellar? Bottom line: The new Pac-12 is the most intriguing conference in 2011, in
Jim Harbaugh is off to the NFL, but Andrew Luck stayed put. Yes, the Cardinal have to replace 11 starters and they have a lot of new faces
in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The offensive line loses a lot of talent, but does return a pair of all-conference performers.
And while they aren't as experienced up front - the talent is there which will keep the drop-off at a minimum. The defensive line loses all but
one starter - but Stanford has shown an ability to overcome that problem. In fact, last year's defensive line had just one returning starter, also.
And making up for the inexperience in the trenches is the fact that they play San Jose State, Duke, and rebuilding Arizona in their first three games,
before a bye week on September 24. The schedule is quite manageable with five roadies at Duke, Arizona, Washington State, USC, and Oregon State.
Only one of those five teams went to a bowl game last season. The home slate includes Oregon and Notre Dame, but the team finishes the season with
three straight home games, with their final roadie coming on November 5.
Oregon will duke it out with Stanford for the North Division title in my opinion. The Ducks are going through some off-field issues right now, but I don't
believe it'll be a distraction once the season gets underway. Like Stanford, Oregon returns just 11 starters. Also like the Cardinal, the Ducks will need
to replace several starters in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But it must be noted that the offensive line, despite a lack of experience, is loaded
with blue chip talent. The drop-off should occur on the defensive line where the team loses all but one starter, not to mention, will likely be starting
a pair of underclassmen at defensive tackle. The LB corps is also going to take a step backwards, and because of the front-seven, I do expect the secondary
to drop-off a bit. The defensive backfield is loaded, but will no longer have the front-seven to allow them to concentrate only on their task at hand.
The secondary will need to "help out" more often in 2011. The offensive skill positions are as good as it gets and could be involved in a few shootouts
throughout the season. Following a tough opener against LSU (Arlington, Texas), the Ducks face a pretty easy slate until their October 15 meeting with
Arizona State. They do get the Sun Devils in Eugene. Their final three games of the season are not easy...at least on paper. Oregon closes the season
in Palo Alto on November 12, followed by home games against USC and Oregon State. I don't see a second straight 12-1 season and I do expect Oregon
to drop 2-3 games in 2011, finishing second in the North.
Maybe we should expect a lot out of Oregon State this season. After all, it seems like HC Mike Riley is at his best when his program isn't expected to
do much. The Beavers do return eight offensive starters, but lose seven on defense. Ryan Katz is back at QB, but the team does lose Jacquizz Rodgers
and he's going to be tough to replace. James Rodgers has been cleared to practice on a limited basis as of August 3. Rodgers must overcome knee
surgery after suffering an injury last October. Joe Halahuni is expected to be cleared for practice soon. Halahuni had off-season shoulder surgery and he
is a huge part of this offense. Halahuni caught 30 passes (6 for TDs) last season and he is listed as a Mackey Award candidate, given annually to the nation's
top TE. The defensive line is going to be a notch down after a couple of major losses from last year's unit. The LB corps and secondary will both be better
than last year's versions. After a 5-7 season a year ago -- I'd like to predict a 7 win season and bowl invitation in 2011, but if James Rodgers and Joe Halahuni
are unable to play at their pre-injury levels, the Beavers won't be able to reach their potential. A top three finish in the North is likely if both players return
Washington should be OSU's compeition for third place in the division. HC Steve Sarkisian has his most talented team on paper and the Huskies do return
15 starters. But one of the losses is a key one with QB Jake Locker on to the NFL. Sophomore Keith Price had a strong spring game for the Huskies, but the
team has a grand total of just 37 collegiate pass attempts among their QB unit. The offenisve line does return a lot of experienced and the team is solid
on the defensive line and in the secondary. Washington's weakness will be at LB where they don't return a lot of starting experience. The road schedule
includes games at Nebraska, Utah, Stanford, USC, and Oregon State, along with a neutral site game in the Apple Cup against Washington State. The road
slate -- along with a home game against Oregon is likely going to keep this team from improving on last year's shaky 7-win season.
It's hard to not include California as one of the top teams in the conference, but Jeff Tedford's squad had such a home/road dichotomy last season.
The Huskies were slaughtered at times on the road last season, while hammering Colorado, Arizona State, and UCLA at home by an average score of
45.7 to 10.3! Memorial Stadium has been a big advantage that the team will not have in 2011. The Bears will play their 2011 home games at AT&T Park
in San Francisco, while Memorial Stadium is under renovation. The offense will have a new QB under center, but the passing game can only improve
after struggling last season. The offense returns seven starters to the other 10 positions and should be better than last year's version. The defense loses
six starters, but I expect Cal's stop unit to be one of the better defenses in the conference. A six win season is not out of the question as long as they
get used to their new home stadium quickly. And a six win season means Cal should be bowling after missing out on the postseason a year ago.
While Washington State should finish last in the North, I will not be surprised if this team captures a bowl invite at the end of the regular season. The Cougars
return 15 starters (7 offense; 8 defense) and they should be 2-0 when they play their first road game of the season at San Diego State. After opening with
Idaho & UNLV in Pullman, the Cougars have a shot at a 3-0 start if they can beat SDSU. They finish up with Washington at QWEST Field in Seattle after
hosting both Arizona State and Utah. The Utes are beatable this season - and ASU is a fragile giant. The Devils are expecting big things in 2011. But
an unexptected loss or two before November 12, could have this team down on themselves again by the time they play in Pullman.
Four teams from the Pac-12 North are virtually definite bowl-bound teams barring major injuries. I believe five team will go bowling from this division with
Washington State likely on the outside looking in. Check back in a few days for my preview of the Pac-12 South.