Will PAC-12 football find a new identity now that Andrew Luck and LaMichael James are gone?

By Aaron Klein

Once the dust of spring practice and summer workouts settles, PAC-12 football may have a decidedly new look come fall. For two seasons, faces of the conference were Oregon and Stanford… but that is about to change.

You see, one of the best college football players in decades, Andrew Luck, has finished his Stanford career and was the recent N0. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The running PAC-12 storyline was Luck against Oregon… Luck against USC‘s Matt Barkley… Luck against the Heishman field… Luck against the best quarterbacks in history… Luck against the NFL.

Luck is gone. Stanford will move on as it did two years ago, when running back Toby Gerhart, one of the most prolific backs in Stanford and PAC-10 history, left the Cardinal for the Minnesota Vikings. That was the day Stanford became Luck’s team. The looming question: Who’s team is it now?

In all fairness, Oregon was even the more prolific team in the PAC-12 over recent seasons, its lightning fast offensive pace blending well with it’s rapid-fire spread offense all built around running back LaMichael James and, late in the year, his backup, Kenjon Barner. Now James is across town with the San Francisco 49ers and playing for his old coach, Jim Harbaugh. Barner thought about testing the NFL Draft as an early entrant but decided to remain when he applied for an evaluation and didn’t like the evaluation. Quarterback Darron Thomas is also gone, further forcing head coach Chip Kelly to recreate the image  of the Oregon Ducks.

Two seasons ago, Oregon played for the National Championship, losing to Auburn. Last year, a Week One loss to LSU seemingly sealed the Ducks’ fate, yet Kelly’s team fought all the way to the inaugural PAC-12 title game.

Now, as the 2012 season looms, there are two factors for PAC-12 followers to consider:

1. USC has paid its dues and will be eligible for a post-season bowl following a two-year ban dished out by the NCAA as a result of all the Reggie Bush business. Funny, but the way head coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Barkley ran things last year, one might have thought the Trojans were up for the title game. Instead, USC’s intention was to let it be known that the Trojans would not be forgotten, that would always be a force in the league, if not the nation.

2. Washington may be on the verge. Head coach Steve Sarkisian and now-Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker worked hard to right the ship after an awful, winless season in 2008 under Ty Willingham. They scratched the surface. Last year, quarterback Keith Price blossomed into a full-fledged force. Yes, the Huskies fizzled as the 2011 season neared an end, but there are rumbles out of Seattle that this is the year Washington breaks out in a big way.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Stanford and Oregon are out of the picture. Nor can we dismiss Cal, the perennial also-ran. In fact, two of the four teams with new coaches — Washington State and Arizona — could mount spoiler roles since the presence of Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez on their respective sidelines cannot be discounted. UCLA‘s Jim Mora and Arizona State‘s Todd Graham are each a work in progress as PAC-12 coaches.

Don’t worry, the PAC-12 is still a major conference in the college football landscape. It’s just that it may look and feel differently this year, maybe more than any other season in quite a long time. Things won’t be so simple, so clear cut anymore… and it’s a good thing, too.

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