The 2012 Pac-12 football season gets underway Thursday night when Washington State travels to BYU in a battle of the Cougars, pitting new WSU coach Mike Leach against his alma mater. On paper, it looks like the toughest test a Pac-12 team will face in Week One, but last year Oregon State and Washington demonstrated that even the so-called easy wins aren’t as easy as they seem.
Here’s a look at some of the top storylines for the Pac-12 in Week One:
Washington State @ BYU (Thursday, 10:15 p.m. ET)
The big story is Mike Leach’s return to coaching for the first time since he was fired by Texas Tech under controversial circumstances. BYU has won 5 consecutive season openers and they’re looking to do it again, with senior quarterback Riley Nelson as the starter. It’ll be a tough test for the WSU defense, which features several inexperienced starters. WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel and star receiver Marquess Wilson will debut their version of Leach’s famed “Air Raid” offense for the first time, but watch the offensive lines carefully. The WSU line surrendered 186 sacks over the last four seasons, while on the other side, BYU plans to alternate players at several positions.
Nevada @ Cal (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
The Cal Bears will finally be back home at Memorial Stadium after 21 months and $321 million in renovations. Their opener starts a span of 12 straight weeks of football – the Bears don’t have a bye all season. Last time they played the Wolfpack, they lost, 52-31. Nevada has a new quarterback this time around – Cody Fajardo, who can make plays with his arm or his legs as well as his predecessor, Colin Kaepernick. Look for him to run quite a bit as the Wolfpack tries to find solid receivers. The Bears don’t have that problem with first-team All-Conference WR Keenan Allen returning. Quarterback Zach Maynard will be even better in his second year as starter.
Nicholls State @ Oregon State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Last year’s loss to an FCS opponent on opening weekend spelled disaster for the Beavers’ season. Can Oregon State avoid a repeat of 2011’s shocking upset?
Colorado State vs. Colorado (Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)
The in-state rivals kick off the season in the Cinch Jeans (really?) Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, where Jim McElwain will make his debut as the CSU Rams’ head coach. Colorado leads the all-time series. Kansas transfer Jordan Webb will start at quarterback for the Buffs, but the team will be without top receiver Paul Richardson, who’s out with a knee injury. Colorado will also start several true freshmen at key spots on defense.
Hawaii @ USC (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
The Trojans are 7-0 all-time against the Warriors and will host a sellout crowd for this year’s opener. Lane Kiffin‘s first win as the head coach at USC came in a week one win against Hawaii in 2010. The Warriors are in their first season with head coach Norm Chow, the former Trojans’ offensive coordinator who was supplanted by Kiffin back in 2005. Chow returns to the Coliseum as the first Asian American head coach of a major college football program.
Arkansas State @ Oregon (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET)
New Ducks’ starting quarterback Marcus Mariota shouldn’t have too many problems in his first start, against a Red Wolves’ team that has been depleted by injuries and disciplinary issues. Arkansas State is coached by Gus Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator at Auburn when the Tigers beat Oregon to win the 2011 BCS title, but the Red Wolves can’t match Oregon’s talent.
San Diego State @ Washington (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET)
It could be another sneakily difficult season opener for the Washington Huskies. The Aztecs went to the New Orleans Bowl at the end of their 8-5 season, and they have former Oregon State starter Ryan Katz as their new quarterback. Steve Sarkisian‘s team got a lucky last-minute end zone interception to win their 2011 opener against Eastern Washington; they’ll have to play much better to beat SDSU. This year’s Huskies should look very different from last year’s version. They brought in a new defensive coordinator to revamp the shoddy defense, but they have to replace record-setting RB Chris Polk, and they have a duo of freshman wideouts set to start.