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Pac-12 Football Preview
by Scott Spreitzer - 08/16/2011
While Colorado and Utah may not be ready to challenge for the Pac-12 championship in their first season in the conference, they can at least be thankful that they were added to the South Division. That's because the South will likely be a two horse race. And with one of those two top teams hamstrung by NCAA sanctions, it's really Arizona State's division to lose.
Let's start with the Sun Devils. When Dennis Erickson left Idaho a few seasons ago, he told his players it was because he wanted one more shot at a national championship before retiring. After a 10-3 season in year one, ending in a Holiday Bowl bid against Texas, Erickson hasn't come anywhere close to contending for a title. Following an 8-0 start in his first campaign in Tempe, the Sun Devils have gone 17-24 SU in their last 41 games, including a few embarrassing losses along the way. But Erickson expects to have his best team yet and I believe he does. This season's squad has eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense, including Vontaze Burfict. The junior is certainly in the running for Pac-12 Defensive POY. He must however, keep his temper in check. Burfict has been known to pick up an occasional 15-yarder in key situations. The secondary is loaded with five returning starters, and while the front-four will be missing two starters, it's still a solid unit. This should be Erickson's best defense yet, although that's not saying a lot when you consider the points given up by this team over the last few years. The offensive line and most skill spots are solid across the board. ASU must settle on a starting QB and they have a couple of players who should get time including Brock Osweiler. The junior was a prized recruit a few years ago for Erickson, but has suffered a lot of bumps and bruises through his first couple of seasons. He does own the talent to lead this team to a conference championship appearance, but must stay healthy. RFR Taylor Kelley is waiting for his chance if Osweiler fails to perform. ASU opens with UC Davis, and their following six contests could get tricky. ASU hosts Missouri in week-2, followed by a visit to Illinois. They host USC on 9/24, followed by a homer against Oregon State. The final two games in the first 7 come on the road at Utah and Oregon. ASU's final five games are all quite winnable. Get through the first five with only one loss and Erickson may get a shot at his wish (although not likely) if his team can win the Pac-12 title game.
Southern Cal is still the most talented team in the South, but once again, won't be eligible for postseason play. USC returns 13 starters, but they do lose key personnel in every unit. However, the team is loaded with blue-chippers and should have little trouble filling shoes. QB Matt Barkley leads a strong skill unit. The main question mark on offense is the offensive line that must replace three starters. While the o-line develops chemistry, the defense could easily carry the team. USC's stop unit is loaded with talent, front to back. The defensive line should make a return to the level of those we saw under Pete Carroll. The linebacking corps is easily one of the top-20 units in the nation, and the secondary returns 7 of 8 tacklers from last year. In fact, the secondary should be the best in the conference in 2011. USC should be 3-0 when they travel to Tempe for their first road game of the season against ASU. They also have roadies at Notre Dame and Oregon that could get tricky, and they host Stanford on October 29. A potential revenge spot to play on comes on November 12 when USC hosts Washington. The Huskies will be off a home battle with Oregon and could be primed for a beating. However, if Lane Kiffin's troops lose an early game or two, this is the type of team that could struggle down the stretch if their one motivating factor, a south title, is lost before expected.
Many are expecting the UCLA Bruins to finish in the upper half of the south this season, and they should. But Rick Neuheisel has certainly struggled in his return to Pasadena. The Bruins are just 14-22 SU under the "Golden Boy," with a pair of 4-8 seasons sandwiched around a 6-6 campaign. The team expected to return 9 starters on offense, but have lost both starting guards over the last few weeks, one to injury and one was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons. Neuheisel is reportedly looking at freshmen to start up front, much like last season. The team is expecting big improvements from the QB spot. But working in a pair of freshmen on the o-line may hamper the growth of the offense early on. The Bruins are loaded, relatively speaking on defense, with what may be one of the 4 or 5 most improved defensive lines in the nation. They'll have to be ready right out of the blocks playing on the road against Houston on 9/3. You know the Cougars will be primed for revenge after suffering a 31-13 hammering in Pasadena last season as a 3-point favorite. Hosting Texas in week-3 won't be easy either. The Longhorns are also looking for revenge after a 34-12 UCLA win in Austin last season. The Bruins schedule includes roadies at Houston, Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona, Utah, and USC. A home slate that includes Texas and Arizona State, combined with the tough road schedule is going to keep Neuheisel on the hot seat throughout the season. However, they may crack the upper half of the division by default.
Utah may knock UCLA out of the third spot in the South thanks to the Bruins' tough slate, combined with Utah's relatively easy schedule. The Utes, who are down from their last couple editiions, have a tough road game at USC on 9/10. But their other conference road games come against Cal, Arizona, and Washington State...all of which are winnable games. They draw ASU at home and avoid Oregon and Stanford in 2011. The Utah defense is the weak link this season and they could have their troubles with some of the Pac-12 offense they're going to have to adjust to. A six or seven win season is about all I think we can expect in their first season in the Pac-12.
The South cellar dwellars will be Arizona and Colorado, in that order. The Wildcats return just five starters on each side of the ball, although Nick Foles does return at QB. Unfortunately for Foles, his offense must replace its entire offensive line. The team is also in trouble on the defensive front where three of four starters must be replaced. U of A plays conference roadies at USC, Oregon State, Washington, Colorado, and ASU. The game against UW could be a nice "play-on" revenge spot for the Huskies, who were drilled 44-14 in Tucson last season. It's a definite rebuilding year for Mike Stoops, who already enters on a serious hot seat.
Colorado is going to find the going tough in their first year in the Pac-12. New HC Jon Embree must ready the troops in a hurry for a very tough slate. CU does return 16 starters, but their first four games include a road game at Hawaii to start things, followed by a homer against Cal, a neutral site tilt with in-state rival Colorado State, and a road game at Ohio State, who'll still be extremely tough despite their suspensions. The Buffs get USC and Oregon at home. And they have road games at Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, and Utah. I expect four wins for the Buffs in what will be a rebuilding year for the first-year HC.