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Posted: Wednesday August 17, 2011 11:56AM ; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2011 11:56AM
Pac-12 Conference Report
Can Oregon three-peat? Is there life after Jim Harbaugh? How will Utah fare in its first season in a big-boy league? George Schroeder tackles that and much more in his 2011 Pac-12 preview.
 
How They'll Finish
 
NORTH Conference Overall
Oregon 8-1 10-2
Stanford 7-2 10-2
Washington 5-4 7-5
Oregon State 4-5 5-7
California 2-7 4-8
Washington State 1-8 4-8
 
SOUTH Conference Overall
USC 7-2 9-3
Utah 7-2 9-3
Arizona State 6-3 8-4
Arizona 4-5 6-6
UCLA 3-6 4-8
Colorado 0-9 2-11
Conference Championship: Oregon def. Utah
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Andrew Luck
2010 stats: 3,338 yards, 32 TDs, 8 INTs; 55 carries, 453 yards, 3 TDs
2011 projection: 3,915 yds, 35 TDs, 11 INTs; 51 carries, 414 yds, 5 TDs
Luck's decision to delay NFL millions provides us with one of the more refreshing college football stories in a while. Whether Stanford can equal its unprecedented success of 2010 is uncertain, given a remade offensive line and the departure of coach Jim Harbaugh. But with the league's best quarterback, the Cardinal has a great shot at remaining elite. In Luck's 25 starts, Stanford is 20-5 and 5-1 against ranked opponents.
Luck headlines SI.com's preseason All-Pac-12 Team
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Vontaze Burfict
2010 stats: 90 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 2 FFs, too many penalties
2011 projection: 113 tackles, 13 TFLs, 3 FFs, 1 INT, too many penalties
Search YouTube, and you'll get the dichotomy that is Burfict. The junior middle linebacker is a wrecking ball of speed and size combined with instincts that produce serious collisions. But he's too often been too fast, too furious, a hot-headed personal foul waiting to happen. Though the talk all spring and summer was of his maturation, Burfict reportedly punched a teammate in the locker room earlier in preseason camp. If he's able to harness his emotions, the enormous impact would be all positive.
 
Impact Freshman
 
RB
De'Anthony Thomas
2010 stats (high school): 1,299 rush yds, 18 TDs; 359 pass yds, 4 TDs
2011 projection: 553 rush yards, 5 TDs; 11 catches, 274 yards, 2 TDs
When Oregon snatched the five-star recruit away from hometown USC, the symbolism was unmistakable: The Ducks had supplanted the Trojans as the Pac-12's power. Thomas chose Oregon in part because he could play running back rather than cornerback. Despite his small stature (5-9, 173 pounds), his speed makes him well-suited for Chip Kelly's scheme, which gets the ball to multiple threats. He's also a potential return weapon.
Debate: Which Pac-12 team can challenge Oregon?
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Rick Neuheisel
Last season: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-10)
Career at UCLA: 15-22 (8-19 Pac-10)
We could have put Washington State's Paul Wulff here, but his task might have been impossible anyway. Neuheisel arrived in Westwood at what seemed like an opportune time, as crosstown rival USC was fading, and almost immediately participated in a marketing campaign that proclaimed "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over." But after three years, the Bruins have managed only 15 wins -- none over USC -- and finished no better than eighth in the league standings. During the offseason, Neuheisel cut loose both coordinators, including Norm Chow. He's well aware this is a make-or-break year.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Oregon vs. LSU (Arlington, Texas)
Saturday, Sept. 3
8 p.m. ET (ABC)
The rare season-opening battle of top five teams at Cowboys Stadium could provide early definition for the BCS title race. It's also important in the ongoing perception battle the Pac-12 -- no, make that every league -- has with the SEC.
 
Washington at Nebraska
Saturday, Sept. 17
3:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Huskies' upset of the Huskers in the Holiday Bowl last December was a stunning reversal of a beatdown applied by Nebraska during the regular season in Seattle. Now the teams meet for the third time in 13 months. Asking Washington to win in Lincoln is a tall order, but it's another measuring stick for Steve Sarkisian's resurgent program.
 
Notre Dame at Stanford
Saturday, Nov. 26
8 p.m ET (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)
We all know Andrew Luck is back. Everyone keeps saying Notre Dame is, too. If that's true, the matchup could have big BCS implications -- and for Luck, it might be the springboard to the Heisman Trophy.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Utah at USC
Saturday, Sept. 10
7:30 p.m. ET (Versus)
While this could be a very early showdown for supremacy in the South (even though USC, because of NCAA sanctions, is ineligible for the conference championship), it's more notable for its historical value. Utah's first Pac-12 game comes at the Coliseum against the league's traditional flagship program.
MURPHY: Expanded Pac-12 poised for power
 
Oregon at Washington
Saturday, Nov. 5
TBD
Oregon has dominated the rivalry in recent years, and though Washington has some momentum after last season, a considerable talent gap remains. But this has huge potential as a trap game. A week later, the Ducks travel to Stanford in what could be the de facto conference title game. Could the Huskies spring an upset and spoil the showdown?
 
Oregon at Stanford
Saturday, Nov. 12
TBD
The inaugural Pac-12 championship is set for Dec. 2. But this regular-season matchup might decide the title for the second straight season. A year ago, Stanford led 21-3 before the Ducks revved up and ran away with the win. But Oregon's bid for a third straight title means a road trip, and potentially a road block.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Can Oregon three-peat? We'll learn a lot about the Ducks' chances of making another run at a national championship right away, when they play LSU at Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 3. They bring back the bulk of last year's BCS runner-up squad, including quarterback Darron Thomas and Heisman finalist LaMichael James, but must fill holes at receiver, along the offensive line and at several key defensive positions. Also uncertain is how the ongoing NCAA investigation into the Ducks' association with controversial scout Willie Lyles might affect the on-field results. All of those factors, or some combination, could sink the Ducks' hopes of remaining elite. But the Pac-12 is another matter. USC won seven straight Pac-10 titles from 2002-08. No one's likely to repeat that dominance soon, but NCAA issues aside, Oregon seems well-positioned for a decent run as the league's power.
Top 25 scouting reports: Oregon | Stanford | Arizona State | Utah
How will Utah fare in its first season in a big-boy league? Utah got the dream schedule for its Pac-12 debut: five conference home games -- and somehow, the Utes miss both Oregon and Stanford. It's a good thing, because everyone in college football will be watching. If Utah stumbles, all of those non-AQ naysayers will see it as reinforcement of their argument that the BCS-busters wouldn't succeed against the grind of an AQ league. If the Utes succeed, though, they'll bolster the claim that the non-AQs play good, consistent football -- and deserve more BCS access. Is the experiment fair? Nah. But it's coming, so how will the Utes do? Quite well. Start with quarterback Jordan Wynn, who appears to have recovered well from shoulder surgery and will work with offensive guru Norm Chow in a total remake of the offense (good bye, shotgun; hello, drop-back attack). The Utes must find a running back and the defense has been rebuilt. But the South is up for grabs, and given their favorable schedule -- did we mention they miss Oregon and Stanford? And the second half features teams with a combined record of 28-45 in 2010 -- the Utes might just take it.
Is there life after Harbaugh? Andrew Luck returns, but was the Heisman runner-up the most important catalyst in Stanford's finest season ever? We could argue Jim Harbaugh's sheer force of will was the biggest reason for the Cardinal's rapid rise (from 1-11 to 12-1 in four years). Now that he's gone (though just up the road to the San Francisco 49ers), does the hard-nosed culture he instilled remain? David Shaw has credentials, and so far he's made the right moves. "It's the same message, just a different messenger," Stanford safety Michael Thomas told the San Jose Mercury News. Time will tell how well the message gets across and whether the Cardinal can sustain the success. For now, though, Luck's presence is huge. Three offensive linemen must be replaced, and Luck will be throwing to a group of largely unproven receivers. The schedule falls right, though: Stanford hosts Oregon Nov. 12 in an expected showdown for the Pac-12 North. It's not unrealistic to expect another BCS bowl appearance.
Should we still be high on Arizona State? Along with an extreme makeover including a conversion to Oregon-style uniform combinations, Arizona State has a new slogan: "Fear the Fork." It seemed reasonable during the offseason, when the Sun Devils were a trendy pick as a potential break-out winner for 2011. Yeah, they were 6-6 last year with two wins over FCS teams. But they almost upset Wisconsin, and gave Oregon and Stanford all they could handle. With 15 starters returning, there was good reason to like their chances this season. Then they started getting hurt. Cornerback Omar Bolden, linebacker Brandon Magee and leading receiver T.J. Simpson all have been lost for the season (and defensive end James Brooks, a two-year starter, left the team before fall practice started). As the Los Angeles Times' Chris Dufresne recently tweeted: Maybe the Sun Devils' mantra should be "Fear the Knife (scalpel)." And maybe opponents don't have quite as much to fear from ASU.
Does USC become USC again? Not this year. At least, not if the standard is what we think Lane Kiffin meant when he kept saying: "USC is still USC." While USC is good enough to finish atop the Pac-12 South standings, as league media have predicted -- even as it's ineligible to play for the conference championship -- this clearly is not still the USC we knew under Pete Carroll. Those Trojans won seven straight conference titles and two national championships and won games before kickoff with their aura. All that's gone. In Kiffin's first year, and the first year under NCAA sanctions, the Trojans went 8-5. They were just 3-3 at the Coliseum. There's still front-line talent, starting with third-year starter Matt Barkley. But there's also very little depth; the Trojans have fallen several steps behind Oregon and Stanford. Also a factor is the NCAA's denial of USC's appeal of the sanctions; without a conference title or bowl berth to play for, could motivation become an issue this fall? It might have a year ago, and it's understandable. Though USC signed one of the nation's best recruiting classes last fall, the full effect of the loss of a total of 30 scholarships over three years hasn't yet been felt. When does USC return to being USC? It might be a while.
 
Pac-12 Video Preview
Top Pac-12 contenders
Source:SI
SI.com breaks down why Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State look like top Pac-12 contenders.

 
SI.com
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