Five Questions Facing The Pac 12 In 2011

The rebranded Pac 12 returns next season, with two new teams, two BCS title contenders and one sassy new logo. Here are five questions before the 2011 season. Check out our previous looks at the SEC and the Big Ten as well.

How will Stanford fare without Jim Harbaugh? Harbaugh is a force of nature, wild and intense. He brought character, cruelty and an enthusiasm unknown to mankind to Stanford. Building them from nothing to a national title contender in four years is among the best coaching efforts in college football history. His imprint on this team was massive. Replacing him will be difficult.

Stanford loses eleven starters from last year’s 12-1 team. Crucially, quarterback stud Andrew Luck was not one of them. However, he will have a bunch of new people blocking and catching for him. The Cardinal lost three offensive lineman (though the two coming back are borderline All-Americans). They also have a gaping chasm at wide receiver. A defensive line that was pivotal stopping the run and rushing the passer returns just one starter.

The Cardinal, with a backloaded schedule, should be 7-0 heading into a brutal final stretch: USC (A), Oregon State (A), Oregon, The Big Game, Notre Dame and then potentially a Pac 12 Championship Game. Stanford will start off ranked highly. They should be favored in every game. A BCS title run is not inconceivable. Neither is a drop off to 9-3.

Will Arizona State finally emerge? The Sun Devils have 18 returning starters, from a team most expected to break out last season. Glass half empty: they needed two FCS wins to get to 6-6. Glass half full: they nearly beat Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford. Brock Osweiler, their new 6’8” starting quarterback, spelled Steven Threet in two games last season. He tore apart UCLA and gutted out an emotional, overtime win against Arizona. ASU also returns a strong defense led by Vontaze Burfict, though DT Lawrence Guy left for the nFL and All Pac-10 CB Omar Bolden is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Even without a track-record, they are probable favorites in the Pac-12 South, since USC is ineligible and UCLA, Arizona, and AQ neophytes Utah and Colorado don’t evoke fear. The Sun Devils have a definite chance, but they may be derailed before they can get the engine churning. After a designated win against UC Davis, they have Missouri, Illinois (A), USC, Oregon State, Utah (A), Oregon (A). A slow start could seem them scrambling again, just to make a bowl game. Fortunately, teams will instinctively cower in fear, because they’ll look exactly like USC.

Can Oregon return to the BCS Title Game? The Ducks have skill talent returning, most notably Darren Thomas and LaMichael James. However, they are also replacing their top two receivers and three offensive linemen. They also lost five starters on defense, including Casey Matthews and a lot of defensive line depth.

Oregon relies on a deep roster, speed and precision. To get that this season, they need multiple freshman to slot in seamlessly. If anyone can pull that off, it’s Chip Kelly’s coaching staff, but, usually, depending on youth does not bode well. Oregon will be good, but can they get through a Pac 12 schedule and an away date at the Farm unscathed? There’s also that pesky opening matchup with LSU in Dallas on Sept. 3.

How will Utah cope with the Pac 12 adjustment? How would a MWC team fare playing a top-tier AQ schedule? We’re about to find out. Utah was 4-3 against the Pac 10 under Whittingham, but the “grind” of the conference schedule is far more demanding than a one-off. The Utes are replacing nine starters. They also need years of recruiting to match their conference mates’ depth of quality.

Offense is a concern. The Utes pried Norm Chow from UCLA and he’s implementing an under-center system. It’s a system which Jordan Wynn could not play in during the Spring, recovering from shoulder surgery. They have also lost their two best running backs from last year and this season’s presumptive replacement. Decent teams played Utah tough last year. Good teams throttled them. The Utes are in a wide-open division, but it will be a few years before they can be a veritable force.

How good will USC be? USC remains ineligible for the postseason, but they could decide the postseason fates for a few of their opponents. The Trojans return a ton of offensive skill talent. Barkley could be a Heisman candidate. Robert Woods is a budding All-American wideout. They have great depth at running back. The trouble is the offensive line, which Kiffin himself termed “a gigantic issue.” The injuries/lack of depth/lack of experience trifecta could be crippling.

The Trojans must also be much more competent defensively. During the first year under Monte Kiffin, they were absolutely brutal. A second year in a simplified system should help. Though, being able to practice tackling will remain an issue. Kiffin’s legendary defensive mind has also had a year’s experience facing college spreads.

USC’s 2011 should resemble its 2010. They have enough top-end talent to compete with anyone. But, with undermining depth and motivation issues, there’s no reason to expect it week to week.

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