It was a busy offseason with scandals and shakeups. In all the conference moving, only one league actually changed it’s name to reflect its new makes up. The Big 10 now contains 12 teams. The Big 12 now has 9. But the PAC-10 added correctly and is now the PAC-12. New additions Utah and Colorado will be thrown into the fire of facing up to nine new and unfamiliar opponents. Even though they may have seen each other before on the non-conference slate, playing a team in conference is a whole new obstacle to tackle. Also, the PAC-12 takes up the Big 12’s spot on Championship Saturday with their first conference title game. National Runner-Up Oregon returns most of its high octane offense while Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck wants to show his decision to stay for his senior year can net him Stanford’s first PAC-12 crown since 1999. That’s the battle for the North division. The South is more wide open with USC unable to play in the title game or a bowl due to probation. Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA will all battle to represent their division at the end of the year.
Teams to Watch:
You already know a ton about Oregon and Stanford. They’re Top 10 preseason teams and the Four-Letter Network has covered them pretty extensively over the last few weeks. So how about some love for the PAC-12 South? The Sun Devils were one of those teams last year that were on the cusp, literally a missed field goal away from a bowl. Don’t be fooled by last year’s 4-5 PAC-10 record, they played the top teams close (lost to Oregon by 9, OSU by 3, USC by 1, and Stanford by 4). The Sun Devil front seven will be the big difference-maker for this year’s team, lead by future 1st round draft pick LB Vontaze Burfict (more on him in a bit). Mobile QB Brock Osweiller is back and leads 6 returning starts on a passing offense that was 2nd in the PAC-10 last year. Osweiller was responsible for only 757 yards and 5 touchdowns of that because previous starter Steven Threet was forced to retire from football due to concussions. However, the junior is ready to take over the reigns and with seven of last year’s top eight receivers back, he’ll have plenty of experienced hands to throw to. The defense was average last year, but don’t expect that to continue and this is a team that is very likely to be playing on Championship Saturday.
This could be one of the most improved teams in the nation this year. Yes, they’re coming off a 4-8 season, but there are several things that make me believe this is the dark horse in the South. First, Kevin Prince is finally healthy. After a knee injury limited him to five ineffective starts last season, the junior is ready to fully embrace the pistol offense that was installed last year. Inconsistent play under center wasn’t the only hindrance as the Bruins lost 58 starts to injury. Only San Jose State (59) and North Carolina (89) were more beat up. Or in the Tar Heels case more suspended, a title that will likely go to The U this year. But I digress. Johnathan Franklin also returns to be the bruiser of the pistol. His 1,127 yards are the third most returning in the league. Eight starters return on defense and this is an experienced unit despite only having 2 seniors at the top of the depth chart. Keep an eye on 2nd-team All-PAC-10 Linebacker Sean Westgate (90 tkl, 4 sks, 7 tfl) and senior strong safety Tony Dye (96 tkl, 9 pbu, 1 int). This is not a bad team at all, certainly not a 4-8 squad that should play up for a coach on the hot seat. Rick Neuheisel has one winning seasons in his three years in LA and needs a winning season to stay off the hot seat. An upset over cross-town rival USC would go a long way in securing his job, something the Bruins haven’t done since 2006. Neuheisel also gets a shot at his old squad when UCLA welcomes Colorado to the Rose Bowl on November 19. The Bruins have lost 2 straight against the Buffs. The Bruins will have something to say about the South champion and should be in the thick of the title race this season.
Players to Watch:
MLB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
Burfict proudly takes his nickname: “The meanest man in college football”. It’s safe to say that he’s the best junior linebacker in the country. 90 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles a year ago are the numbers, but to get an idea of how good he is you have to see (and feel) him play. He has tremendous closing speed and punches holes in offensive lines on blitzes. A 6-3, 252 beast of a man also plays with fire. One article said Burfict’s play is what you’d get if you kicked Ray Lewis’ dog in front of him. In fact, a comparison with Lewis is probably the best way to put into words the impact this guy brings. Just ask Idaho State quarterback Russell Hill.
If he’s got a downside, it’s that at times he plays with too much emotion and ends up costing his team with stupid penalties. Personal fouls and unsportsmanlike calls have cost the Sun Devils, due to his intensity. Top that off with a locker room fight with wideout Kevin Ozier at the beginning of camp this summer and you’ve got a beast of a player that will get on teammates and opponents with the same ferocity. Regardless, watch Sportscenter for Arizona State highlights and you’re likely to see Burfict destroying PAC-12 quarterbacks and runners.
QB Jeff Tuel, Washington State
Casey, I can already hear you yelling, why the hell are you spotlighting the quarterback on a team that’s won a grand total of five games in the last three years? Well, you have to take into account the team he’s playing on. First, this is a defense that ranked 118th in total defense last year. Second, there was no running game for the Cougars, as they ranked 117th only rushing for 91 yards a game. Tuel was a successful part of the offense, passing for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, completing 60% of his passes. Tuel could be the best quarterback in the FBS you’ve never seen and he’s been improving. The three-year starter has been turning heads over the summer, coming with 15-20 more pounds of muscle and improved footwork. He’ll need it with the second-worst offensive line in the conference, according to Phil Steele. If it tells you how much he got beat around last season, Tuel rushed for 598 yards but had to give back 171 due to sacks. He gets his top two targets back for this season and should top the 3,000 yard passing mark this year. I’ll even be so bold as to call for WSU to double last year’s win total and it will be on the arm of Jeff Tuel.
Conference Championship Game:
The North is the easier one to call. The winner of the November 12th showdown between Stanford and Oregon will take the division crown. And after seeing last season’s 52-31 dissection, it’s hard to think the Ducks won’t be able to do it again on the road. The South is much more muddled, with four teams with a legit shot at the title. USC can win the division, but cannot play in the title game. However, I don’t see that as a problem, since Arizona State will be the feel-good story of the PAC-12 and take the South after dispatching the Trojans at home on September 24. It seems like a no-brainer that Oregon prevails on December 3rd and heads for their 2nd Rose Bowl in 3 seasons. I’m sorry Duck fans, but I think there are still 2-3 teams ahead of you this year to get into the National Title game. You may send the hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org