Spring football preview: Burning questions for each Pac-12 team
Can Oregon and Stanford put themselves in position for repeat BCS berths?
Is Arizona State's defense formidable enough to spark a surprise Pac-12 run?
Will USC overcome NCAA sanctions and become a national factor again?
Unlike some other leagues, the Pac-10 changes its name when it expands. It apparently changes everything else, too. Larry Scott's extreme makeover continued even during the offseason, when the conference addressed football officiating deficiencies; 11 were let go, one retired and 16 were hired (no doubt prompting fans within and without the Pac-10 -- sorry, Pac-12 -- to celebrate). The 2011 season will also bring blandly but geographically named six-team divisions and a conference championship game, which will be played at the home of the division champ with the better résumé.
This spring -- OK, officially this summer, but we're getting a jump on it -- the league welcomes two new members in Colorado and Utah. Colorado and Stanford have new coaches. Several teams have that old spring staple, the quarterback competition. And while Oregon and Stanford seem primed to battle again for conference supremacy, both have significant questions to answer in order to repeat their BCS-level success of 2010, and others have reason for optimism.
Arizona: Can Mike Stoops and the Wildcats overcome the hangover from a five-game slide?
The Wildcats' 2010 season began with such promise. Led by quarterback Nick Foles, Arizona was 7-1 heading into November and on track to contend with Oregon and Stanford for the league title. But after a 36-10 Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, the Wildcats finished 7-6. The losing streak and the bowl blowout brought back memories of the 33-0 shutout by Nebraska a year earlier in the Holiday Bowl. "Obviously, we're not there yet," a frustrated Mike Stoops said during the postgame news conference after the Alamo Bowl, and he promised to review every aspect of the program. The Wildcats start the spring with an offensive and defensive coordinator, which wouldn't be news except a year ago, they had co-coordinators at both slots and no one was sure who would call the plays. Seth Littrell will call offensive plays after Bill Bedenbaugh left for West Virginia, and the addition of former BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae as running game coordinator fits Stoops' desire to develop a more effective running game to complement Foles' passing. To do it, the Wildcats will have to replace all five offensive line starters.
Arizona State: Are the Sun Devils ready to turn the corner?
They think so. Confidence is brimming, and with 19 starters back, there seems to be good reason. It's Year Five under Dennis Erickson, and although the overall record is 25-24 and the program has struggled after a 10-3 record in 2007, Erickson's first year, the Sun Devils believe they were thisclose in 2010 to several more wins. They're looking to vault past bowl-eligible and into Rose Bowl contention in 2011. Although Steven Threet's decision to give up football after multiple concussions leaves Arizona State thin at quarterback, Brock Osweiler was the odds-on favorite to win the job after a strong finish last season (five touchdowns, no interceptions in the last two games); now he figures to get first-team reps without having to look over his shoulder. If standout middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict has matured -- and that's the spring hope, anyway -- the Sun Devils' defense figures to be formidable.
California: Will Jeff Tedford develop a big-time quarterback?
Tedford was once known as a quarterback guru, but it has been a long time since he had one who made anyone salivate. Kevin Riley's gone, and five -- count 'em, five -- guys appear to have a legitimate shot in a wide-open competition. When Riley was injured, Brock Mansion started the latter part of last season. The others: Allan Bridgford (sophomore), Austin Hinder (redshirt freshman), Zach Maynard (junior) and Beau Sweeney (junior). Who will it be? It's an important question to answer, because it's time for the Golden Bears to get back to winning. What Tedford has done in Berkeley is underappreciated; he's been working with substandard facilities (a problem that's finally being rectified). But college football fans aren't known for their patience. Watching Oregon -- and especially Big Game rival Stanford -- surpass Cal in the conference hierarchy has to sting.
Colorado: Does a new coach and a new league make a difference?
Colorado plans to honor the Buffs' 2001 Big 12 championship squad at its home opener next fall, and it seems like that long since the program was relevant. After five years without a winning record -- and a couple of years when his fate seemed sealed, only the timing was uncertain -- Colorado fired Dan Hawkins (which is disappointing in one sense, because we could already hear the coach ranting: "It's Pac-12 FOOTBALL!"). New coach Jon Embree and his offensive coordinator, former Buffs running back Eric Bienemy, have deep ties to the school, but very little knowledge of the roster. Consider spring practice, then, an extended meet-and-greet. Only one coach returns from last season. Considering the staff's unfamiliarity and the Buffs' recent struggles, when the coaches say every position is wide-open, they might really mean it.
Oregon: Can Chip Kelly find space-eaters to support the speedsters?
It's a testament to what Chip Kelly has done in only two years that Oregon is on track to be a consensus top five pick in the preseason, and the favorite to three-peat as conference champion, despite having to replace three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. On offense, the departing starters had 94 combined starts; defensively, Brandon Bair, Kenny Rowe and Zac Clark anchored a light but tough unit. Of course, when you've got an array of skill position players led by the likes of LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, and they're running Kelly's frenetic offense, it's easy to see why everybody's overlooking the linemen. The Ducks seem primed to continue their run among college football's elite. But the difference in the 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS title game was indisputably the Tigers' edge in the trenches. Up next, the season opener against another set of SEC Tigers, LSU. How the Ducks fare in that game, and how the season unfolds after that, might hinge on what happens this spring on the offensive and defensive lines.
Oregon State: How does Mike Riley replace the Rodgers brothers?
After a disappointing 2010 season that was derailed by overscheduling and injury, the spring task list includes rebuilding the defensive line, where Steven Paea's departure leaves a huge vacancy. Getting better on the offensive line is also a priority. But the bigger concern has to do with replacing the Beavers' smallest guys and biggest catalysts. Jacquizz and James Rodgers, the diminutive brothers from Texas, are gone. After rushing for 3,877 yards, No. 2 all-time at the school, Quizz turned pro a year early. And James' future is uncertain after a devastating knee injury suffered last season. He's undergone two surgeries; whether he plays in 2011 remains to be seen. Oregon State hopes Markus Wheaton steps into James' playmaking role at receiver; several running backs will get a shot to replace Quizz in the backfield. The Beavers figure to build the offense around quarterback Ryan Katz. Though as a first-year starter last season Katz was maddeningly inconsistent, he's got one of the strongest arms in college football. But what kind of weapons will he have around him?
Stanford: Can David Shaw continue the Cardinal's rise?
Andrew Luck returns. We cannot emphasize that enough. When the Heisman runner-up decided to stick around for his senior season, the Cardinal's outlook for 2011 grew immensely brighter. That's true no matter who's coaching -- but ask around, Jim Harbaugh's departure, while widely anticipated, leaves a significant void. Stanford began spring practice last month, which seems about right. The Cardinal's rise under Harbaugh was stunning, but now Harbaugh has taken his attitude up the road to the 49ers. David Shaw was elevated from offensive coordinator. He's a Stanford alum with good credentials, but he didn't design the offense or call the plays, and he's never run a program. A smash-mouth offensive line must be rebuilt, too, in order to protect Luck. But much of the smash and a lot of the mouth came from Harbaugh; will the program retain the hard-nosed attitude he instilled?
UCLA: Can Rick Neuheisel turn things around?
Back in 2008, the UCLA alum arrived with swagger, declaring in an advertisement that the L.A. football monopoly was over. Give Neuheisel credit, it was about to end -- only UCLA had nothing to do with USC's demise, and the Bruins haven't taken advantage. In three seasons, UCLA is 15-22. Neuheisel's teams have gone 4-8, 7-6 and 4-8, and during the offseason the program seemed in disarray. A strained relationship with offensive guru Norm Chow finally broke up. And when Neuheisel also fired his defensive coordinator, it took almost two months to bring in Joe Tresey (somehow stealing him away from the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks). Along with new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, Neuheisel hired Jim Mastro away from Nevada, a sign UCLA will further implement the Pistol offense. Determining a quarterback might be more important than scheme; while Kevin Prince is recovering from knee surgery, the Bruins will take a long, hard look at hyped recruit Brett Hundley. Neuheisel remains perpetually sunny; there might not be a more painful sight in football than watching him, after losses, take the microphone at the Rose Bowl to implore fans to stick with the team. But if there's not radical improvement in 2011, there's no reason to suspect he'll be coaching a fifth season at his alma mater.
USC: Will the Trojans overcome NCAA sanctions and become a factor again?
Lane Kiffin's first season at USC should be considered a success, all things considered. The Trojans finished a pedestrian 8-5, but when their stated goal of perfection to overcome NCAA probation melted away (yes, it was far-fetched, but this is USC), they didn't fade away. Kiffin didn't pop off, either, which was an upset. And after he successfully manipulated recruiting rules, signing eight players who enrolled for the spring (thus circumventing the NCAA's scholarship limitations) and landing a class universally ranked in the top five, there's optimism that the sanctions might not damage the program as much as first thought. Matt Barkley returns for his junior season, a third-year starter and someone to build the team around. But if the Trojans are going to return to the top of the Pac-12 (much less college football), the biggest improvement must come from a defense that fell far below recent standards. The Trojans gave up 26.7 points a game in 2010 and ranked last -- last! -- in the league against the pass, allowing an average of 259.5 yards.
Utah: Who carries the football? And who distributes it?
The second question is easier to answer. Jordan Wynn is the Utes' starting quarterback, but he'll sit out the spring after shoulder surgery. The snaps will be taken by sophomore Griff Robles and freshman Tyler Shreve, but assuming Wynn recovers on schedule, he'll take over again next fall. At running back, after losing their two leading rushers in Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, the Utes will try youngsters Harvey Langi and John White. A more important priority for the Utes is installing Norm Chow's pro-style offense. It means a departure from the spread we've grown used to seeing from the Utes. How different is it? Like many spread offenses, Utah didn't have a true fullback; three players are competing this spring for the newly added position.
Washington: Can the Huskies build on their momentum? Who follows Locker?
Washington took home a grand total of $3,796 after expenses from its Holiday Bowl trip to end last season, but as one reader of the Seattle Times' popular Husky Football blog asked: "Can you actually put a price on reigniting the passion that is Husky football?" The stunning upset win over Nebraska -- four months after the Huskers had manhandled the Huskies in Seattle -- sent the program into the offseason with plenty of momentum for the first time in a while. It also closed the Jake Locker era, which leads us into the big spring battle (which might extend into fall): Will Keith Price, Locker's backup last season, maintain the lead he holds over redshirt freshman Nick Montana? Yeah, you recognize the last name, and Joe's son figures to be a better fit for Steve Sarkisian's desired pro-style offense than Locker was -- or than Price is. Price has more experience so he'll get the first shot. Although Locker's inconsistent career never lived up to expectations, he wasn't always surrounded by great talent; his successor inherits a program seemingly on the rise.
Washington State: Do the Cougars win six games, or do they look for a new coach?
The won-loss record didn't reflect it, but Washington State made strides in 2010. The Cougars were competitive, which was a huge improvement. Although they won only two games, one was a stunning road win over Oregon State. Still, Paul Wulff's future wasn't certain until last December. Bill Moos took his time evaluating the program before deciding to give Wulff a fourth year as head coach of his alma mater. Moos hinted in a radio interview that the Cougars must win six games -- one more than in the last three seasons -- though he later backed away from calling it a requirement. There's no debating that Washington State has undergone a talent upgrade under Wulff. Junior quarterback Jeff Tuel, who'll be a third-year starter, is joined by 15 other returning starters. Many of them probably played too early by necessity, but are now experienced veterans. Will it pay off? Or will Wulff get paid off?