Pac-12 Preview

Cal vs Oregon
Lara Brucker/File

The Daily Cal sports desk gives its predictions for the 2011 Pac-12 conference season.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon over Utah

Defensive Player of the Year: Mychal Kendricks, Cal

Offensive Player of the Year: Andrew Luck, Stanford

Coach of the Year: Kyle Whittingham, Utah

NORTH DIVISION

1. Oregon

The Ducks, if you remember, left a scorched path on the way to the BCS title game before their offense screeched to a very abrupt halt. Good news for Chip Kelly and company is that no one in the Pac-12 can quite bring what Auburn had in Cam Newton and Nick Fairley.

Its underrated defense from a year ago will need to keep pace after losing five starters from the front seven, but it has a solid secondary that includes John Boyett and Cliff Harris.

The shining stars in Eugene, though, are found in what is likely the best backfield in the country. Quarterback Darron Thomas is a dynamic athlete who acquitted himself well in his first starting campaign, finishing second in the conference in passing touchdowns (30) and efficiency (150.7). Behind him is none other than LaMichael James, last year’s national rushing leader and a Heisman finalist.

If James gets injured? There’s Kenjon Barner, who might be just as good. And De’Anthony Thomas, a true freshman some have compared to Reggie Bush.

A bonus for college football fans is that Oregon will be playing the hottest non-conference ticket of the year this Saturday at Cowboys Stadium: a showdown with LSU, affectionately known as the Willie Lyles Bowl.

— Jack Wang

2. Stanford

You may think your blood oozes blue and gold (it doesn’t) and you may have that beer opener that plays “Big C” when a beer is opened. That’s great; it’s hard to knock you for your school spirit, but right now, Cal is a long way from its rival from the South Bay.

Yeah, even without Jim Harbaugh, the architect of maybe the greatest transformation of a program in recent college football memory, Stanford is still one of the best and most exciting college football teams in the country. And don’t buy any of this “ho-hum, we’re just Stanford” attitude preached by the team’s star quarterback, Andrew Luck.

Harbaugh, who left Farmville for the flailing San Francisco 49ers, instilled a fierce mentality in his players, who will be taking the field this season under new head coach David Shaw.

The main attraction is obviously Luck, the junior quarterback who returned to school to complete his degree (not taking ballroom dancing classes like Matt Leinart did when he wanted to “have one more year of fun”) instead of being the first overall selection in April’s NFL Draft. Luck engraved himself into the memories of not just Cal fans, but seemingly every team he faced.

The junior threw for 3,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions at a Pac-10 record 70.7 percent completion percentage — he was not merely the best college quarterback last year but may very well be on his way to being the best college quarterback ever.

Though the Cardinal lose three offensive linemen, they return arguably their two best from last season, first-team Pac-10 big men David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. And the defense returns the ferocious but savvy Shayne Skov.

Whether or not they can get past Oregon remains to be seen, but look for Stanford to hover around the top-10 all season long.

— Gabriel Baumgaertner

3. Oregon State

Four of the Beavers’ seven losses last season were to top-10 teams. The other three losses, well, those were another story.

Oregon State’s 35-34 double overtime loss at Washington is nothing to be ashamed of. But a mid-season defeat at the hands of a mediocre UCLA squad, and a 17-point loss at home to Washington State, whose only other win that season was 23-22 squeaker over none other than Montana State?

That’s embarrassing.

The Beavers’ 2010 season was in stark contrast to their previous four campaigns, which all ended in postseason berths and eight-plus wins. There are high standards in Corvallis these days, making Oregon State’s task in 2011 even more challenging: the club has to replace all-everything running back, Jacquizz Rodgers.

Rodgers, the 2008 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, ran for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, following an even more impressive sophomore season in 2009, when he rushed for 1,502 yards and 21 touchdowns. But the speedy tailback left after his junior season for the NFL, where he was drafted by the Falcons in the fifth round.

He leaves a gaping hole not only in the backfield but on the entire squad; Quizz was the face of Oregon State for the last three seasons.

The offense has nine returning starters, namely quarterback Ryan Katz, who threw for 2,401 yards and 18 touchdowns last year as a sophomore. The defense, however, loses six starters, including Stephen Paea, who was chosen in the second round of the NFL Draft.

The defense — and Rodgers’ replacement at tailback — will need to get up to speed by the time the Beavers face No. 11 Wisconsin on Sept. 10. Still, head coach Mike Riley has a proven track record and his squad will likely bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

4. Cal

Let’s start with the positives. The Bears’ punting game will be among the best in the country. Bryan Anger was selected first team All-Pac-10 the past two years and is a preseason All-American for his senior campaign.

The defense, which held then-No.1 Oregon to just 15 points and only one offensive touchdown in the squad’s 2010 meeting, could be even better in 2011. Senior Mychal Kendricks returns to anchor one of the league’s top linebacking units, while a mixture of experience and young talent will compose the rest of the defense.

Then there’s the offense.

The Bears had trouble scoring in 2010 despite a veteran quarterback in Kevin Riley and a stalwart running back in Shane Vereen. Just think how the unit will fare this season without the two, who have departed due to graduation and the NFL, respectively.

Head coach Jeff Tedford named Zach Maynard the starting quarterback even before fall camp. Maynard will be perhaps the most mobile Cal quarterback in recent history, but he hasn’t played in a year and that season, in 2009 while with the University of Buffalo, he threw only three more touchdowns than his 15 interceptions.

He’ll be handing the ball off to Isi Sofele, who had just 69 carries for 348 yards as Vereen’s backup in 2010. The junior has scored one touchdown in his Cal career.

The Bears do have one of the best receiving duos in the conference. Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen hauled in a combined 1,255 receiving yards last season.

They will be the primary playmakers for a Cal squad hungry for a return to the postseason after its first losing season in the Jeff Tedford era.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

5. Washington

Jake Locker finally left for the NFL Draft (I mean, his eligibility was up after all) but is now the time where coach Steve Sarkisian’s Dawgs return to the upper echelon of the Pac-12?

A traditionally strong program that won back-to-back national championships in 1990 and 1991 and a Rose Bowl in 2001, the Huskies wilted under Tyrone Willingham and even endured a winless season in 2008. With the arrival of Sarkisian from USC in 2009, there has been an excitement abounding in Washington about a possible return to primacy.

The Huskies will be breaking in sophomore quarterback Keith Price, but he should be at least decently protected by one of the conference’s finest running backs in Chris Polk and an improved offensive line.

The defense returns some of its top players in Cort Dennison, Desmond Trufant and Nathan Fellner. The Huskies have to travel Nebraska, Utah, Stanford and USC, all games that will be tough for a new quarterback.

— Gabriel Baumgaertner

6. Washington State

Washington State has a promising quarterback in Jeff Tuel, which might give Cougars fans a glimmer of hope while simultaneously prompting Jeff Tuel to ask some pretty existential questions. I hear Pullman’s a good place for those sorts of thoughts.

Tuel, now a junior and a second-year starter, has the sort of arm and moxie that commentators love. He also has a strong vertical threat in wideout Marquess Wilson. Outside of that though … it might be ugly.

Ugly is something the Palouse knows well, what with coach Paul Wullf managing just five wins over three seasons. The O-line might be better this year, and Tuel likely hopes so after being sacked 48 times in 2009. The team also has the benefit of a weaker schedule, one that includes Idaho State and excludes USC.

But the Cougars’ defense was far and away the worst in the conference, allowing 467 yards per game — nearly 100 more than the conference average. On top of that, they have the misfortune of sharing a division with two top-10 teams. Ouch.

— Jack Wang

SOUTH DIVISION

1. USC 

No, the Trojans won’t have a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game, but in what appears to be the weaker of two divisions, they’re the clear standout.

Matt Barkley is one of the better quarterbacks in a conference filled with them — Cal fans will remember his five first-half touchdowns in 2010 — and the rest of the roster still has top-to-bottom talent even with scholarships reduced due to the Reggie Bush sanctions. The team opens the season at No. 25, but don’t be surprised if it shoots up.

— Jack Wang

2. Utah

The other not-so-Pacific addition to the newly formed Pac-12 should continue to play the consistent football that has defined Kyle Whittingham’s tenure in Salt Lake City.

The Utes reached as high as No. 6 last season, but two uncharacteristically bad losses in back-to-back weeks against TCU and Notre Dame overshadowed an otherwise successful season. Utah returns starting quarterback Jordan Wynn and his top downfield target, DeVonte Christopher, as well as its top two tacklers (Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez).

The Utes are always solid and should provide challenges to most opponents, though they receive conference baptism by fire when they take on USC in Los Angeles on Sept. 10.

— Gabriel Baumgaertner

3. Arizona State
Arizona State’s defense will be scary good, which bodes well for coach Dennis Erickson in what could potentially be his last season in Tempe. After opening his stay with a 10-3 record, the 64-year-old has gone 15-21 per the past three years.

Vontaze Burfict is arguably the top linebacker in the Pac-12, and the development of new starting quarterback Brock Osweiler — he’s 6-foot-8! – has made the Sun Devils this season’s popular breakout pick. Consider, though, that the junior has completed only 44.2 percent of his 104 career passes.

— Jack Wang

4. Arizona

Who knows which Arizona squad will show up in 2011?

It could be the team that started off last season winning seven of eight games and earning a No. 15 ranking. Or, perhaps, the club that lost its final five contests, including a 36-10 trouncing in the Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats will have to answer that question in Stillwater, Okla., on Sept. 8, when they face No. 9 Oklahoma State.

Nick Foles and Juron Criner make up perhaps the best quarterback-wide receiver combo in the conference. Eleven of Foles’ 20 touchdown passes were to Criner, who finished the season with 1,233 receiving yards.

However, the squad’s defense, specifically against the pass, will need to improve from last year, when it gave up over 307 yards a game, the most in the conference.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

5. UCLA

If only the coach could suit up.

Head coach Rick Neuheisel is probably the best quarterback on UCLA; unfortunately for the Bruins, his playing days — which included a Rose Bowl MVP in 1984 — are over.

Quarterback Kevin Prince threw for just 384 yards and three touchdowns (and five interceptions) in his five starts last year before going down with a season-ending knee injury. His replacement, Richard Brehaut, wasn’t much better. Each was the starter for two of UCLA’s four 2010 wins.

The season actually started out promising for the club. Despite dropping their first two games, the Bruins came back to crush two top-25 teams — No. 23 Houston and No. 7 Texas in Austin — in consecutive weeks.

UCLA beat lowly Washington State the next week. It had one win after that.

Until the Bruins find a decent quarterback, expect more seasons like 2010 in Westwood.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

6. Colorado

Well, there is nowhere to go but up, I guess.

Maybe it’s not that dramatic, the Buffaloes did win five games last season after all, but it’s hard to envision one of the new additions finishing anywhere but last in the Pac-12 South.

The failed Dan Hawkins experiment is mercifully over in Boulder, and the Buffs are now led by former Washington Redskins tight end coach Jon Embree, who  apparently completely opened up the depth chart in fall practice.

Colorado has one of the conference’s finest offensive linemen in guard Ryan Miller, but despite the new coaching staff, it is unlikely that the boys in Boulder will make any significant noise this season.

— Gabriel Baumgaertner

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that Matt Barkley threw for five first-half touchdowns against Cal in 2009. He accomplished the feat in 2010.