BERKELEY, Calif. – Colorado and Utah joined the conference and Oregon defeated UCLA in the inaugural championship game last season, but only now does it feel like the new and improved Pac-12 is about to make its debut.
Entering 2012 everything about the conference screams innovation, commissioner Larry Scott’s fingerprints ever present. The new Pac-12 Network, with its main cable channel and six regional affiliates, is up and running. A new television contract takes effect, offering prime-time coverage on Fox and more broadcasts on ESPN. The new deal and network ensure that for the first time in history every football game will be televised.
California returns to a renovated Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Washington will do the same next season with Husky Stadium now under construction. Washington State adds a new press box and luxury suites. USC has a new on-campus headquarters for its football program and athletic department. Arizona and Oregon have new buildings under construction.
Flush with new income, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, and Washington State all hired new coaches. Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, two innovators that helped usher in the current era of spread offense that now dominates the game, arrive to find personnel perfectly suited to run their option and Air Raid schemes.
And for the first time in history, the conference has two teams ranked in the top five of the preseason AP and coaches’ poll in USC and Oregon. Both teams are contenders to break the SEC stranglehold of six consecutive BCS championships.
Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley is the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, directing a dynamic offense featuring two of the best wide receivers in the nation in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Ducks running back/receiver/return specialist DeAnthony Thomas is a highlight reel play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball. Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Cougars receiver Marquess Wilson, already selected to multiple preseason All-America teams, will be household names every fan will know by year’s end.
The sun may set in the west, but the Pac-12 is finally ready to step out into the daylight.
10 predictions for 2012
-De’Anthony Thomas will break the Pac-12 record for all-purpose yardage
As a true freshman, the Black Mamba accounted for 2,235 yards. Now a year stronger with game experience and better understanding of the offense, Thomas will shatter the mark of 2,683 yards that USC running back Marcus Allen totaled in 1981.
With LaMichael James now in the NFL, Thomas will be featured more as a runner and will have more than 900 yards on the ground, adding another 900 on kick returns, 500 as a receiver, and 200 on punt returns.
The better question might be whether Thomas can match the 2,890 yards Reggie Bush amassed during his now-vacated 2005 Heisman Trophy-winning campaign.
-Marquess Wilson will be a first-team All-American
In 2011, Wilson had 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns on 82 catches with three different quarterbacks throwing him the ball because of injuries. Now he will play in the most dynamic passing offense imaginable.
With Wilson, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee at USC, and Keenan Allen at Cal, it will be harder to make first-team All-Pac-12 than first-team All-America.
-Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be named first-team All-Pac-12
There are no fewer than eight standout tight ends capable of receiving top billing, but the sophomore will emerge as the centerpiece of the Washington offense.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian knows how to feature the tight end, as Fred Davis won the Mackey Award in 2007 with Sarkisian calling plays, and quarterback Keith Price should be even better in his second season as a starter. They’ll both look to Seferian-Jenkins often, especially in the red zone where that 6-foot-6, 258-pound frame will be unstoppable.
-Brett Hundley will throw for 3,000 yards
UCLA hasn’t had a 3,000-yard passer since Drew Olson in 2005 because of injuries, ineptitude, and inconsistent offensive identity. Hundley, the redshirt freshman, will easily break that mark in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s timing-based spread passing offense.
-Washington State will be bowl eligible
Mike Leach is the most interesting man in college football. Who else would be asked to compare his media day player representatives to generals, then go into a stream of consciousness regarding the Civil War?
He is also a proven winner and one of the great offensive minds in the sport. Leach brings a new confidence to a team that showed signs of progress last season.
Expect an immediate repeat of his early Texas Tech tenure: passing yards and points aplenty, more shootouts than the O.K. Corral, and an upset or two along the way.
-Stanford loses at least four games
No Andrew Luck, no Jonathan Martin, and no David DeCastro guarantee the Cardinal offense will take a major step backwards. The secondary, abused by USC, Oregon, and Oklahoma State last season, has several new faces and must again face the Trojans and Ducks, plus the Cougars.
Head coach David Shaw also showed questionable judgment in Stanford’s closest games. Remember this is the coach who took the ball out of Luck’s hand and ran the Wildcat with a chance to take the lead late at USC, then settled for a field goal try in the final moments of the Fiesta Bowl.
Add it up, Stanford must come down from the lofty heights it will enjoy the past two seasons.
-Arizona State will finish last in the South
The Sun Devils have a new coach, a nasty non-conference slate, must play both USC and Oregon, a new quarterback, and huge turnover on defense.
That is not a formula for success.
-No head coach will be fired
Barring unexpected issues regarding conduct, the only two real candidates to be pink-slipped are Jeff Tedford at Cal and Mike Riley at Oregon State. But the Bears and Beavers will show enough progress to earn their coaches another season at the helm.
-USC and Oregon won’t lose a game to the other 10 teams in the conference
The Trojans and Ducks are leaps and bounds above everyone else, even with depth concerns in Los Angeles and a new quarterback in Eugene.
Each will march through the regular season en route to their collision on Nov. 3, followed by a rematch in the conference championship game. The loser will play on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl, the winner has a date to play for the crystal football.
-USC will play for the BCS title
The Trojans under Pete Carroll never got their clash with the SEC, which led to a split title in 2003, plenty of Auburn whining in 2004, and daydreams of what might have been in 2006, 2007, and 2008 if not for stunning upsets.
Now with the championship game back in South Florida, site of their wiped-away romp over Oklahoma, and Matt Barkley leading a mission to complete unfinished business and an offense possessing such firepower it should be unstoppable, USC will finally get its chance by downing the Ducks twice in one month.
Predicted Results (* denotes team will be bowl eligible)
5. Washington State*
6. Oregon State
6. Arizona State
Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon at USC
Pac-12 Champion: USC
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.