Pac-12 wrap: USC’s ineligibility a real downer

Oregon and Stanford lived up to billing this season. But by the end of the season, USC might have been the league’s best team.

Coach Chip Kelly and Oregon enjoyed a nice Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
(Getty Images)

Oregon and Stanford went into the season in every top 10, and the Ducks prevailed in a wild one over the Cardinals to win the North Division title. Oregon also won the inaugural league championship game. But given that USC beat the Ducks in November, the Trojans could make a strong case they were the league’s best team. Alas, a postseason ban kept the Trojans out of the league title game and out of a bowl.

The coaching carousel spun as furiously in the Pac-12 as it did anywhere. Four schools changed coaches, and this fall, 75 percent of the league’s coaches will have been in their current jobs four or fewer seasons; half will be in their first or second seasons

Here’s a closer look at the Pac-12.

Best postseason performance: Oregon. There’s not much to choose from, considering the league went 2-5 in bowls. But Oregon’s performance in a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin was a good one, especially on offense. The Ducks rolled up 621 yards in winning 45-38; those yards came on 64 plays and in just 24 minutes, 18 seconds of possession time.

[Related: Chip Kelly spurns NFL, opts to stay at Oregon]

Worst postseason performance: Washington’s defense. The offense put up 56 points – but Washington still lost by 11 to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. The Huskies actually led 35-21 and 42-24 before the roof caved in. Baylor put up an NCAA bowl-record 777 yards. The defensive debacle led to the firing of most of Washington’s defensive staff, including coordinator Nick Holt. Baylor ran 85 plays and gained 9.1 yards per play; the Bears gained 345 yards in the third quarter alone.

Underclassmen turning pro early: Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict, Stanford G David DeCastro, Oregon CB Cliff Harris, Oregon RB LaMichael James, USC OT Matt Kalil, Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Stanford OT Jonathan Martin, Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler, USC DE Nick Perry, Washington RB Chris Polk, Oregon QB Darron Thomas.

[Related: Record 65 college underclassmen enter NFL draft]

Team most hurt by early departures: Stanford. Oregon and USC also were hit hard, but the Cardinal lost Luck and two first-team All-America linemen (DeCastro and Martin). Oregon looks better-equipped to replace its departing underclassmen than Stanford, which is why the Ducks will be the preseason pick in the Pac-12 North.

Coaching change: Todd Graham in at Arizona State, replacing Dennis Erickson; Graham had been coach at Pittsburgh. Mike Leach in at Washington State, replacing Paul Wulff; Leach, a former coach at Texas Tech, was a radio host last year. Jim Mora in at UCLA, replacing Rick Neuheisel; Mora had been a NFL Network analyst. Rich Rodriguez in at Arizona, replacing Mike Stoops; Rodriguez, a former coach at West Virginia and Michigan, was a CBS Sports Network analyst last year.

Key coordinator hire: Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Casteel is reunited with his former West Virginia boss, Rich Rodriguez, with the Wildcats. Casteel is a proponent of the 3-3-5 set, and it will be intriguing to see how that scheme works against the varied offenses in the Pac-12. Casteel has done yeoman work with less-than-elite talent; he’ll need to do more of the same at Arizona.

Coach on the hottest seat in the fall: None. Oregon State has had back-to-back bowl-less seasons under Mike Riley, but unless the Beavers truly fall apart, Riley isn’t going anywhere.

Recruiting storyline to watch: Can USC finish with a top-15 class despite severe recruiting restrictions? This is the first recruiting cycle for the Trojans in which NCAA sanctions are in place, but USC still has a shot at a stellar class despite limited scholarships (it looks as if the Trojans will sign a 15-man class). There’s a chance that five league schools will finish in the top 20 in the rankings, though it doesn’t look as if any will be in the top 10.

[Recruiting: Trojans continue to land stars despite sanctions]

Biggest spring practice question: How fast can Stanford rebuild its offense? The Cardinal are losing five offensive starters, starting with Luck. DeCastro and Martin were stud linemen (and their backups were seniors). TE Coby Fleener and WR Griff Whalen also are gone. That is a ton of talent off one unit that has to be replaced. Obviously, finding a new quarterback is important, but given that Stanford likely will remain a power-running team, rebuilding the line in front of that new quarterback is a high priority, too.

Projected 2012 division champs: USC in the South, Oregon in the North

2012 national title contender: USC. Had Kalil and Perry not turned pro, a strong case could’ve been made that the Trojans deserved to be the preseason No. 1. As it is, they likely will be in the top three of every major poll. QB Matt Barkley’s decision to stay in school gives USC the Heisman front-runner going into the season, and his work with WRs Marqise Lee and Robert Woods gives the Trojans the nation’s most dangerous passing attack. Even without Kalil, the offensive line returns four starters. A young back seven on defense matured as this season progressed, and the linebackers, especially, should be big-time playmakers in the fall. The main question centers on the defensive line. Oregon is going to be strong again, too. The Ducks have recruited well, but Thomas’ early departure stings. One positive: Oregon’s defense should be noticeably better in 2012 than it was in 2011.

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Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 23, 2012