The 2012 college football season kicks off Thursday night and it will finally end the anticipation that has been building since the start of fall camps earlier this month. The Pac 12 conference is entering its second full season with 12 members and there’s a lot of excitement surrounding each team.
USC and Oregon are both ranked in the top five of both preseason polls, something that has never happened in conference history. Four new coaches will be making their debuts with their new team, Rich Rodriguez (Arizona), Mike Leach (Washington State), Todd Graham (Arizona State) and Jim Mora (UCLA).
The power rankings will be based off of the team’s overall position in the conference, a team’s performance from the previous week and a team’s rating of their season as a whole up to each week.
It should be a banner year for the conference but without further ado, here is the Pac 12 power rankings for week one:
1) USC Trojans
The Trojans are ranked No. 1 in both national polls so it would be hard to put them anywhere else but at the top to start the season. This team is poised to make a national championship run this season after missing out on post-season play last year due to NCAA sanctions. Matt Barkley returned for his senior season just to lead the Trojans to a national championship and they have as good of a chance as anybody to do just that this year.
Justine’s take: The team has high expectations for this season and they have the talent to back it up. All that’s left is actually playing like it.
James’ take: Too much talent and the best quarterback in the country.
2) Oregon Ducks
Oregon is the reigning conference champions but they will be breaking in some new playmakers on offense. Marcus Mariotta is the new quarterback in charge of running the up-tempo, blink and they scored, offense this year replacing Darron Thomas. Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas both return to form one of the best running back one-two punches in the country. Their defense is their real strength this season and will be the main reason why they stay up near the top of the polls week in, week out.
Justine’s take: The Ducks are ready to sprint through another season with a redshirt freshman at QB. They’re still one of the nation’s top teams, but USC’s experience at key positions gives the Trojans the edge.
James’ take: Until Chip Kelly proves otherwise, the Ducks will continue to outscore opponents even with new personnel in the backfield.
They lost Andrew Luck but they still have a very good defense and their running game will continue to be one of the best in conference. Josh Nunes takes over at quarterback and to be successful he’ll need to limit his mistakes, be a game manager and rely on 1,000 yard back Stefan Taylor to do the rest. It’s a new season for the Cardinal but it’s still the same winning formula.
Justine’s take: She ranked Stanford No. 6 but here’s what she had to say, “The team loses Andrew Luck but the rest of the team will get the job done, led by senior RB Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons.”
James’ take: Excellent Defense and run game. If Nunes can limit mistakes, watch out.
4) Utah Utes
It will be a bounce-back season for the Utes in their second year in the new conference. In 2011 they took their licks but were still only one upset loss to Colorado away from playing in he inaugural conference championship game. Their stout defense is led by DT Star Lotulelei who is arguably the best defensive lineman in the country. On the offensive side of the ball they should be much improved with a healthy Jordan Wynn leading their balanced attack. To take that next step and really prove they belong, they’ll have to play better against the top teams in the conference, something they did not do last season.
Justine’s take: She ranked Utah No. 8 but here’s what she had to say, “Kyle Whittingham’s team has a slew of returners on both sides of the ball. Even without starting QB Jordan Wynn, the team was just a few kicks away from a conference championship berth. Wynn is back this year, and if he stays healthy, the team has an even better chance to make it there this year.”
James’ take: If there was a time to make a statement this is the year. Solid players on both sides of the ball and excellent in the trenches.
The Huskies return one of the more exciting quarterbacks in the country, Keith Price. Their defense must improve for them to improve on last year’s record and they hope to do so under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. If the Huskies can survive their brutal early season schedule (at LSU, vs. Stanford, at Oregon, vs. USC) and walk away with some confidence, this team will be in good shape and should make a upper-tier bowl game.
Justine’s take: She ranked Washington No. 4 but here’s what she has to say, “The Huskies have one of the Pac-12′s best QBs in Keith Price and some key returners on defense, but there are still questions on D, and UW has to replace its top two scorers from 2011: all-conference running back Chris Polk and kicker Erik Folk.”
James’ take: The most dynamic QB in the conference. If D improves the Huskies will challenge in the Pac-12 North
Their defense was one of the best units in the entire conference last season. If they play like they did a season ago they should finish in the top half of the conference. They have good talent on offense with quarterback Zach Maynard and his go-to receiver Keenan Allen. If Maynard can remain consistent then you could see Cal moving up this list rather quickly.
Justine’s take: She ranked Cal No. 3 but here’s what she has to say, “If the defense – one of the best in the conference last year – can fill the very big holes left by last year’s seniors, the Bears will be poised for a return to the top of the conference. The offense, which returns QB Zach Maynard, WR Keenan Allen and TB Isi Sofele, is underrated.”
James’ take: He ranked Cal No. 7 but here’s what he has to say, “Talent back at receiver, running back, and quarterback. Best D in conference last season.”
7) UCLA Bruins
The reigning South Division champions (weird to say considering their 6-8 record to finish the season) have enough talent to get back to a bowl game this year. Dual-threat redshirt freshmen QB Brett Hundley should bring a renewed excitement to the offense this year but he will obviously experience some growing pains along the way. The defense was not very good last season so they’ll have to improve if this team wants to progress past least year’s mark.
Justine’s take: She ranked UCLA No. 9 but here’s what she had to say, “Last year’s squad had to beg for a bowl berth with an overall losing record. There might not be a marked improvement in Jim Mora’s first year. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley has the potential to be a big difference maker for the Bruins but the defense, which was dismal last year, has to prove itself.”
James’ take: He ranked UCLA No. 8 but here’s what he has to say, “I love Jonothan Franklin as a playmaker on offense. Loss of Patrick Larimore on D hurts.”
8- Washington State Cougars
Under new head coach Mike Leach this offense should score a ton of points this season. QB Jeff Tuel will lead the charge and he has a bevy of quality receivers to target in their new offensive scheme. The offense might have to score a bunch of points just to stay in ball games due to their suspect defense. If their defense improves even just a little bit it should mean a bowl berth for the Cougs.
Justine’s take: She ranked Washington State No. 5 but here’s what she has to say, “The Cougars will be an exciting team under new head coach Mike Leach. With senior Jeff Tuel throwing to Marquess Wilson, one of the nation’s top receivers, the offense won’t struggle to score; the big concern will be stopping their opponents. Leach hired a new defensive coordinator, but there might be a learning curve as the players adjust.”
James’ take: He ranked Washington State No. 6 but here’s what he has to say, “Right coach in Mike Leach, and right QB in Jeff Tuel to turn things around in Pullman.”
9) Arizona Wildcats
Buoyed by a new coach, Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats should play with a renewed passion, something that they lacked last season. QB Matt Scott should be a good fit in Rodriguez’s offense and he’ll have good supporting players around him to ease the transition. Like the Cougars, the Wildcats will need to score a lot of points to stay in games due to their poor defense. Anytime a new coach comes in there’s always some growing pains implementing a new culture and a new playbook. This will be the case for ‘Zona in 2012.
Justine’s take: She ranked Arizona No. 7 but here’s what she has to say, “Rich Rodriguez and quarterback Matt Scott both get chances to redeem themselves this year at Arizona. Rodriguez is hoping to reprise the success of his West Virginia years rather than his Michigan struggles, while Scott gets another shot to prove himself at quarterback after losing the job to Nick Foles in 2010.”
James’ take: New coach in Rich Rodriguez along withe new systems on both sides of the ball. There will be a learning curve, but the personnel are capable of making it a short transition.
Head coach Mike Riley is entering his 10th season as the Beavers head coach (at least in his second go-around) and this needs to be the year he turns it around. Last year they were one of the weaker teams in the conference and if they are once again in the cellar in the Pac 12 Riley’s seat will be extremely hot. Second-year quarterback Sean Mannion should be improved but his offensive line is suspect and that’s never a good sign for a young QB. The problem for the Beavers is that they could not run or stop the run last season and it led to a three win year. If a bowl game is even possible they will have to improve on both sides of the ball in the running game.
Justine’s take: The Beavers have to win, early and often, if Mike Riley’s going to keep his job. The team went 0-4 to start last season and finished with one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation, but they should be able to count on the defense and passing game to remain fairly solid.
James’ take: This HAS to be the year Mike Riley gets the Beavers back on track. Sean Mannion has the tools at quarterback to lead the way.
Out of all the new head coaches in the conference, Todd Graham inherits the team with the most challenges. They have to replace playmakers on offense and their offensive line is one of the weaker units in the conference. They do have Cameron Marshall as their running back which is good for new QB Taylor Kelly to be able to rely on. It will take some time for Graham’s new offense to sink in and we might have to wait until next season to see it all come together. The defense will be solid but I don’t see that keeping the Sun Devils in most games this year.
Justine’s take: On each side of the ball, the Sun Devils have a prominent returner and some prospects they hope will pan out. RB Cameron Marshall will carry the offense while quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank continue to compete (Kelly is the official starter) and senior LB Brandon Magee, who missed 2011 with an injury, will step up to lead the defense.
James’ take: Must replace key positions at QB and WR. Todd Graham has to break in a fast paced spread system. That could mean trouble for an inexperienced offensive line.
It was a tough first season for Jon Embree and co. in their new conference. They played, arguably, the toughest schedule in the entire country and never had a bye week. Injuries ravished their secondary and that was a death sentence in the pass-happy Pac 12. They did show signs of life though finishing the season 2-1, including a surprise win at Utah. This season Colorado will be extremly young with the majority of their 26-man recruiting class either starting or playing significant minutes.
Transfer Jordan Webb takes over at quarterback but he won’t have too many weapons to work with, at least until Paul Richardson returns from injury. Their secondary will benefit from the infusion of young recruits the most with Kenneth Crawley and Yuri Wright expected to play big minutes. A sign of hope for the Buffs is their schedule. Their first five games are winnable and if they can start out fast a bowl game is not out of the question.
Justine’s take: QB Jordan Webb was a starter at Kansas, but it’ll be more difficult to turn “starter” into “winner” at Colorado, especially with top WR Paul Richardson missing at least some time with a knee injury. The team just doesn’t have the talent or the experience to significantly improve on last year’s 3-10 finish.
James’ take: Way too young to break out of the basement. Jordan Webb not the answer at quarterback.
James Gomez also covers the Pac 12 and the Mountain West.