By Marc Lawrence
With a $3-billion TV contract freshly inked, the original PAC 8 moves into a third phase of expansion when Colorado and Utah join the newly minted conference this season.
The self-proclaimed ‘Conference of Champions’, the PAC 10 has won more NCAA National Team Championships (400) than any other conference in history. In fact, the top three schools with the most NCAA team championships on that list reside in this conference, namely UCLA, Stanford and USC – in that order.
Oregon and Oregon State joined in 1964 to form the PAC 8. In 1978, the conference added Arizona and Arizona State to create the PAC 10 in its most recent form.
Had Texas and other BIG 12 schools rumored as candidates to join the loop not decided to remain put, it would have likely been known as the PAC 16 this season. But that’s another story for another time.
Remaining true to its roots, the PAC 12 is home to notable football rivalries such as The Civil War (Oregon and Oregon State), The Duel in the Desert (Arizona and Arizona State), The Big Game (California and Stanford), the Apple Cup (Washington and Washington State) and The Battle of LA (UCLA and USC). As such, these traditional rivalries continue throughout a new alignment of two divisions, the North and the South.
Oregon remains the team to beat (despite impending sanctions), with Stanford breathing right down its neck. Meanwhile, because of ongoing NCAA suspensions, the University of Spoiled Children (USC) remains sidelined from bowl play and is ineligible to participate in the PAC 12 championship game. That makes the South Division a wide-open chase for the title.
Yes, it appears more so now than ever, money continues to do the talking – in more ways than one - in the new PAC 12 these days.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
CALIFORNIA - 7 / 6 TEAM THEME: UNBEARABLE Cal’s seven-year post-season run came to a stunning conclusion last year when a season ending three-game losing streak, in its own den, denied the Bears bowl-eligibility. That’s certainly surprising considering that the home team in California’s first eight games last year posted an 8-0 SU and 6-1 ATS mark. “This is a new thing for us. It doesn’t feel good,” understated HC Jeff Tedford, the longest tenured coach in Cal history. Twenty-two losses, however, in four seasons is beginning to test the faithful. Look for Tedford to put the pedal to the metal early and often in 2011 to keep things ‘Bearable’ in Berkeley. Stat You Will Like: HC Jeff Tedford is an alumnus of Fresno State. PLAY ON: vs. Fresno State (9/3)
OREGON - *7 / 6 TEAM THEME: MEET THE YUCKERS If they were an NFL team, the Ducks would be branded as Super Bowl losers this season. That’s the ignominy associated with choking in the BCS title game last January. The again, any team that allows 500-plus yards four times in the same season should likely not be mentioned in the same sentence with national champions. And if you think their uniforms are yucky, consider that the defense lost five pieces from last year’s front seven. The good news is that QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James, the two main weapons on a potent attack, are back. That, along with seeing what new dopey digs will come out of Eugene, make this team worth watching. Stat You Will Like: Last year was the first 7-0 start for the Ducks since 1933. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. USC (11/19)
OREGON STATE - *8 / 4 TEAM THEME: 2ND TIME A CHARM Despite 17 starters back in 2010, Mike Riley’s bunch couldn’t overcome one of the nation’s toughest schedules as they suffered their first losing season since 2005. That makes the Beavers a MISSION TEAM in 2011 and we think they’ll do most of the gnawing this season. QB Ryan Katz, back as a starter for the second year, and fifth-year star senior WR/KR James Rodgers (5,784 career all-purpose yards), who sat out most of last season with a knee injury, will lead an offense looking to recoup the 8PPG and 84 YPG it lost last season. FYI: the last three seasons that OSU was playing on the heels of a losing effort, they have gone 10-4, 8-5 and 7-5 - bowling all three times. Stat You Will Like: The last three 2nd-year starting OSU quarterbacks went 9-4, 10-4 and 8-5, leading all three teams to a bowl game. PLAY ON: vs. Stanford (11/5) - *KEY off BB losses
STANFORD *5 / 6 TEAM THEME: HE GETS IT The best move made by new head coach David Shaw was convincing Andrew Luck (3,338 yards, 32 TD’s last year) to return to Stanford for his junior season. Had he decided to come out, Luck was the sure-fire first-pick in this year’s NFL Draft. While our Playbook cover boy spurned the NFL, HC Jim Harbaugh did not. Stanford quickly branched out to Shaw, the Cardinal offensive coordinator the past four seasons, who has worked under Bill Walsh and Dennis Green, and knows offense. And while the offensive line returns only two starters, they are dandies, as both were named first team All-Pac 10 last season. The Tree’s top four rushers and top four tacklers also return from last 2010’s 12-win edition. Stat You Will Like: Stanford’s No. 4 finish in the final poll was its highest year-end ranking since 1940. PLAY AGAINST: at USC (10/29)
WASHINGTON – 7 / 8 TEAM THEME: U DUB MAN After languishing in the loser’s lounge for each of the previous six years, it was mission accomplished for Steve Sarkisian last season when he took U Dub to its first bowl game since the 2002 Sun Bowl. That was a dramatic jump from the 0-12 team Sarkisian inherited when he came aboard two years ago. The bottom line is the Huskies have their growl back and with it, the new PAC 12 has elevated its game. The most critical aspect surrounding this year’s team will be finding a replacement for 1st-round NFL pick QB Jake Locker. Fortunately, WR Jermaine Kearse (1,005 yards, 12 TD’s) and RB Chris Polk (1,415 yards) each return to Seattle. Here’s hoping the Huskies are not lounging around at season’s end. Stat You Will Like: The Huskies are 5-0 ATS with rest under Sarkisian. PLAY ON: vs. Colorado (10/15)
WASHINGTON STATE - *9 / 8 TEAM THEME: HOWLING AT THE MOON One would have to figure that, unless the Cougars are able to cross on over to the other side (read: a winning season), this is likely Paul Wulff’s last year under the stars in Pullman. That’s what five wins (3 FBS) in three years will do. Worse, 10-plus losses every year begins to wear on a person in more ways than one. The Cougars Achilles heel has been its rush defense - or lack of one – as they’ve allowed 5.6 or more yards per rush in all three seasons under Wulff. The good news is the numbers were finally up on both sides of the ball in 2010 and 17 returning starters, including nine on offense, are howling for more. A 7-3 ATS mark as double-digits dogs last season certainly has us doing the same. Stat You Will Like: The Cougars are 3-34 ‘In The Stats’ under Wulff. PASS
ARIZONA - *5 / 7 TEAM THEME: WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA A promising 7-1 start to last season ended with a disastrous 5-game losing skein, including a bowl thumping at the hands of Oklahoma State. The silver lining, however, is 2010 marked a third straight bowl appearance for the Wildcats, a first since the 1992-1994 campaigns. More good news is Tucson is the return of QB Nick Foles and WR Juron Crinor, the bread-and-butter of the Arizona attack. If HC Mike Stoops can rebuild an offensive line that lost all five starters, look for these Wildcats to avenge some of those late season losses early this year, including a September showdown in Stillwater. Stat You Will Like: Three wide receivers that accounted for 176 catches, over 2,200 total yards and 18 TD’s return for their senior seasons. PLAY ON: at Oklahoma State (9/8)
ARIZONA STATE – 7 / 4 TEAM THEME: UNI DIVERSITY New uniforms, new helmets and a new logo that is said to resemble a Chicago-based gang, ‘Satan’s Disciples’, have the Devils headed in a new direction as they seek their first bowl bid since 2007. Between the mix of 30 seniors and 26 players who saw their first action at Tempe last season, HC Dennis Erickson has a lot of diversity to work with in 2011. One of only two coaches in the nation to earn six ‘Coach of the Year’ trophies (Steve Spurrier is the other), Erickson must shore up a defense that fell 69 YPG last season if he expects to bowl in his new digs. It may not be this year, but it won’t take until Hell freezes over, either. Stat You Will Like: The Sun Devils have led the Pac 10 in rush defense each of the last two years. PLAY ON: at Oregon (10/15)
COLORADO - *9 / 7 TEAM THEME: EMBRACING EMBREE A member of the Big 12 Conference since 1996, the Buffaloes will be roaming onto PAC 12 grounds this fall, taking new head coach John Embree along for what very well could be a nasty stampede. Only five home games dot the schedule as well as a tough non-conference slate. Embree, a Colorado alum and Redskins assistant last season, is set for the challenge. “Having coached in this conference before really opened my eyes to the strength of the PAC 12… from top to bottom, there aren’t going to be any weeks off,” insists Embree. Literally - as the Buffaloes play 13 straight games without a week of rest this season. Stat You Will Like: The Buffaloes are 3-9 SU and ATS vs. PAC 10 opponents since 1999, including 0-6 ATS as a favorite and 0-5 ATS at home. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Washington State (10/1)
UCLA - *8 / 8 TEAM THEME: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS While the numbers appear to fall short, Rick Neuheisel remains relentlessly positive in rebuilding this program. That’s confirmed by two-straight top recruiting classes. In addition, a bevy of quality starters return this season, including QB’s Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince (2009 starter). Joining them in the backfield are the top seven rushers from last season’s squad. On the defensive front, a total of six starting linemen are back. A relatively lightweight home schedule awaits UCLA this season but we’re guessing revenge from the Slickster’s worst home loss ever will find the Bruins banding together in Stanford. Stat You Will Like: Three starters from the 2009 squad that missed all or the majority of the season last year are back in 2011, including C Kai Maiava, G Jeff Baca and DE Datone Jones. PLAY ON: at Stanford (10/1)
USC - *6 / 7 Team Theme: LANE VIOLATION The Trojans debuted at 8-5 under HC Lane Kiffin with two of those losses coming on a last-second field goal. While the offense improved (43 YPG) under Lane and two-time Davey O’Brien semi-finalist QB Matt Barkley, the defense backpedaled (59 YPG) under daddy, Monte, as it allowed the most yards ever in school history. The younger Kiffin, however, was impressed with the stop unit in this year’s spring game. And surprisingly, with news just out that the Trojans will be bowl-ineligible once again this season, word is team morale is still high. It better be as only 47 of 86 players on the spring roster have ever taken a collegiate snap due to those well-publicized school violations. Stat You Will Like: USC owns the best win percentage away from home (46-9, .836) over the last eight years. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Arizona (10/6)
UTAH - *7 / 5 TEAM THEME: CHOW TIME After being one of the Mountain West Conference's founding members in 1999, the Utes said "ciao" and will move into the newly formatted Pac-12 in 2011. Though Utah's 21 wins in 33 game vs. BCS foes since 1998 tells us Kyle Whittingham's bunch should be competitive, there will be immediate pressure on new OC Norm Chow. Why? QB Jordan Wynn, 11-4 as a starter, missed spring camp with a shoulder injury, and the loss of RB’s Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata means Chow will ditch the Utes' spread offense in favor of his multiple attack scheme. He'll be tested early on the road against USC and Utah's blood-rival, BYU. Order up! Stat You Will Like: The Utes are 18-7-1 ATS as dogs and 2-6 ATS as favorites vs. PAC 10 opponents since 1982. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Arizona State (10/8)