Posted: Wednesday August 22, 2012 11:28AM ; Updated: Wednesday August 22, 2012 11:28AM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL
2012 Pac-12 Conference Report
Will talent trump depth at USC? Does Oregon have a defense to match its offense? What impact will the slew of new head coaches have on the league? Stewart Mandel answers that and more in his Pac-12 conference preview. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
NORTH Conference Overall
Oregon 8-1 11-1
Stanford 6-3 9-3
Cal 4-5 6-6
Washington 4-5 6-6
Washington State 4-5 6-6
Oregon State 3-6 4-8
 
SOUTH Conference Overall
USC 8-1 11-1
Utah 6-3 9-3
UCLA 5-4 7-5
Arizona 3-6 4-8
Arizona State 2-7 4-8
Colorado 1-8 3-9
Championship Game: Oregon beats USC
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Matt Barkley
2011 stats: 69.1 COMP %, 3,528 YDS, 39 TD, 7 INT
2012 projection: 70.8 COMP %, 3,927 YDS, 38 TD, 7 INT
The preseason Heisman favorite will benefit from a pair of All-America caliber receivers in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and from the fortified backfield of Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd. An improved run game will make it harder for opponents to drop back defenders, giving the receivers more room and Barkley more big-play opportunities. Barkley's accuracy has improved every season, and he looks to crack the 70-percent completion mark this fall.
Barkley headlines SI.com's Preseason All-Pac-12 Team
 
Defensive MVP
 
DT
Star Lotulelei
2011 stats: 44 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks
2012 projection: 52 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Utah native has come a long way since 2007, when he spent his first year after high school delivering furniture. In fact, he missed two of three post-high school seasons before arriving at Utah by way of Snow Junior College in 2010. In his first season starting last year, Lotulelei emerged as the most dominant lineman in Utah's new conference. NFL scouts immediately took notice and have begun talking about Lotulelei as a potential top 10 pick in the 2013 draft.
 
Impact Freshman
 
WR
Gabe Marks
2011 stats (high school): 65 REC, 10 TD
2012 projection: 62 REC, 890 YDS, 11 TD
This lithe 6-foot, 167-pound L.A. native has been the undisputed star of preseason camp. "Gabe came in here as the most polished high school kid I've ever seen," quarterback Connor Halliday told reporters. "Route running, catching the ball -- everything. A four-star Rivals.com recruit, Marks is looking to lock down the outside spot opposite All-America Marquess Wilson, which could equate to big numbers in Mike Leach's Air Raid.
Debate: Which new coach will have the best season?
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Jeff Tedford
Last season: 7-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
Career at Cal: 79-48 (48-38 Pac-12)
Tedford deserves credit for resuscitating the Bears and consistently taking them to bowl games. But fans have grown restless as the program has sunk into a perennial middle-of-the-pack spot in the conference, and it didn't help when former player and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi defected for Washington last January. Tedford needs to field a team this year worthy of the refurbished Memorial Stadium.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Washington at LSU
Saturday, Sept. 8
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Steve Sarkisian's program is looking for a statement nonconference win to show the Huskies can reclaim their former glory, but they have their work cut out traveling to Death Valley. If, however, junior quarterback Keith Price -- the nation's seventh-rated passer last season -- can exploit the Tigers' inexperienced secondary and produce a big game, he'll certainly find a place in the Heisman discussion.
 
BYU at Utah
Saturday, Sept. 15
10 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Holy War is annually one of the nation's fiercest rivalries, but much like Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Missouri, it's about to go on a temporary hiatus. Due to Utah's nine-game Pac-12 schedule, the teams will not meet in 2014 and '15, the series' first interruption since World War II. This has only added fuel to the rivalry, with the Cougars looking to avenge an embarrassing 54-10 loss last year.
 
Notre Dame at USC
Saturday, Nov. 24
TBD
In addition to possibly carrying BCS implications, this game has often proven a closing argument for Heisman contenders. Carson Palmer (2002) and Matt Leinart ('04) both sealed their trophies with big games in this highly watched regular-season finale, and if preseason prognostications are correct, MAtt Barkley could be in much the same position.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
USC at Stanford
Saturday, Sept. 15
7:30 p.m. ET, Fox
It's a key early season test for both teams and a rematch of last year's triple overtime classic at the Coliseum, in which Stanford won its fourth game in five meetings with the Trojans. There will be considerable pressure on Andrew Luck's replacement Josh Nunes, though the Cardinal will try to run right at USC's shaky front four. Trojans receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee will likely pose matchup problems for Stanford's inexperienced secondary.
 
USC at Utah
Thursday, Oct. 4
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Trojans should be heavy favorites, but Thursday night road games are always dangerous (see: 2008 USC-Oregon State). Utah was miserable on offense last season but fielded the nation's 19th-ranked scoring defense and was able to slow down Matt Barkley and the USC offense in an early-season 23-14 loss. Utah running back John White eventually emerged as 1,500-yard rusher, but quarterback Jordan Wynn will need to make plays for the Utes to have a shot.
 
Oregon at USC
Saturday, Nov. 3
TBD
This figures to be the game of the year in the Pac-12, and both teams could enter the contest undefeated. USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has spent three years plotting how to slow down Oregon's offense and it paid off with a 38-35 upset in Eugene last year. That game also served as Marqise Lee's national coming-out party, as he racked up 325 all-purpose yards. Meanwhile, Ducks all-purpose star De'Anthony Thomas returns to his hometown.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Will talent trump depth at USC? It's looking a lot like 2005 in Troy, with the Trojans ranked preseason No. 1 and Matt Barkley, running backs Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee filling the roles of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett. Stars like linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety T.J. McDonald highlight the defense. But USC is still under scholarship restrictions and can't afford injuries; the Trojans have already suffered a significant one with defensive end Devon Kennard's torn pectoral muscle.
Will Oregon's defense get some props? Chip Kelly's fast-paced spread gets the accolades in Eugene, and rightfully so after averaging 520-plus yards the past two seasons. The Ducks don't figure to slow down with Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas stepping in for LaMichael James. But the biggest source of optimism at Oregon is a deep, athletic defense led by defensive end Dion Jordan and linebacker Michael Clay. The Ducks will need the defense to excel against USC.
Can Stanford survive without Luck? Coach David Shaw knows the Cardinal won't get nearly the same mastery under center they did with eventual No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck, and the fact that it took until Aug. 21 for Shaw to anoint junior Josh Nunes the new starter did not seem encouraging. But the program fancies itself a power-run team first, and the presence of Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson -- along with defensive standouts Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov -- could help Stanford win another way.
Will anyone else in this conference play defense? The numbers from last year weren't pretty. Half the league ranked 82nd or lower nationally in total defense, and while much of that can be attributed to the league's powerful offenses, the talent simply isn't as prevalent on the other side of the ball. Washington, for one, scrapped its entire defensive coaching staff in hopes of a turnaround, but high-profile offensive hires like Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez won't make life any easier for defensive coordinators.
Will the nation watch more Pac-12 football? Commissioner Larry Scott is counting on it. This season marks the first of the conference's landmark new television deals. Fans will see 44 games on ESPN or Fox and every other game on the newly launched Pac-12 Networks, available in more than 40 million cable households, with the possibility of a DirecTV deal by the start of the season. Supply is no longer a question for the exposure-starved league; demand remains to be seen.
 
Pac-12 Video Preview
Debate: Best new coach?
Source: SI
Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel discuss which Pac-12 coach will have the most success with his new team.

 
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