For a long time the Pac-10 – as it then was called – had a reputation as a wild offensive league.
Well, those "Wild, Wild West" days are back because of all the recent coaching turnover in the league.
Four league teams have new coaches this season and all four made notable hires, though for different reasons. Arizona turned to Rich Rodriguez, who had an ignominious run at Michigan after great success at West Virginia. Arizona State hired Todd Graham, who was at Pitt for less than one season and told his Panthers players he was leaving via a forwarded text message. UCLA hired Jim Mora, who had been an NFL Network analyst and hadn't coach college ball since 1984, when he was a grad assistant at Washington. And in perhaps the biggest offseason hire of all, Washington State turned to Mike Leach, whose job it will be to make the Cougars a nationally relevant program.
The four hires this season means a third of the league's coaches are new. When you add in Colorado's Jon Embree and Stanford's David Shaw, half of the leagues coaches are in their first or second season. And when you add in Oregon's Chip Kelly, Washington's Steve Sarkisian and USC's Lane Kiffin, three-fourths of the coaches have been in their current jobs for four or fewer seasons.
Leach, Rodriguez, Graham, Kiffin, Kelly, Sarkisian, Shaw and Embree are known as offense-minded coaches. So are Cal's Jeff Tedford and Oregon State's Mike Riley. That's a lot of good offensive minds in one league. That also should mean a lot of entertaining, high-scoring games this fall.
First, though, most of those coaches have some issues to tackle this spring. Here's a look at the Pac-12's member schools as they prepare for spring practice.
Spring practice opens: March 4 Spring game: April 21 Buzz: The good news for Rich Rodriguez is that it appears he has a quarterback on the roster who can run his version of the spread in senior Matt Scott. In a bit of good fortune for Rodriguez, Scott redshirted last season because he wouldn't have seen much time behind Nick Foles; the irony is that Scott fits the spread but Foles didn't. There also is the making of a good offensive line. But the other skill positions are a bit iffy, and establishing a pecking order at running back is going to be important this spring. Defensively, new coordinator Jeff Casteel has to rebuild the linebacking corps and the secondary; the front four looks OK.
Spring practice opens: March 13 Spring game: April 21 Buzz: The Sun Devils underachieved last season, and Todd Graham has some work to do on both sides of the ball. The only position that appears strong on offense is running back. Graham and his staff have to rebuild the line, find a new starting quarterback and hope that a go-to receiver emerges. The front four on defense has potential. The back seven, though, is troublesome, particularly at linebacker, where all three starters are gone. Arizona State also needs two new starting safeties.
Spring practice opens: March 13 Spring game: April 21 Buzz: Cal made incremental progress from 2010 to 2011, and for the Golden Bears to do so again, work has to be done defensively. Cal lost key players at each level of the defense: end, linebacker and safety. Linebacker looks especially questionable. Offensively, the Golden Bears return their starting quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher and a star receiver. Finding a new left tackle is a high priority this spring. Coach Jeff Tedford also has to find a way to make QB Zach Maynard more consistent.
Spring practice opens: March 10 Spring game: April 14 Buzz: Last season was a bad one for the Buffs, who went 3-10 in their first go-round in the Pac-12. The defense was overmatched and a lot of attention needs to be paid to the secondary, which frequently was abused by opposing passers. The Buffs often were overpowered at the point of attack, and getting bigger up front, especially at linebacker, would help. Offensively, Colorado needs to work on its rushing attack. The Buffs also need to find a new starting quarterback and two new starting guards. In addition, the return teams were anemic last season, and some playmakers need to emerge in that facet of the game.
Spring practice opens: April 3 Spring game: April 28 Buzz: The Ducks lost two starting offensive linemen, along with QB Darron Thomas and TB LaMichael James. But weep not for coach Chip Kelly, who has able replacements. The new quarterback seems likely to be Bryan Bennett, a better runner than Thomas. And James' early departure to the NFL means more carries for Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas, especially, is a big play waiting to happen. Defensively, the Ducks should be better than they were in 2011. They should have one of the better tackle rotations in the league, and if coaches can find more depth in the secondary, everything will be fine.
Spring practice opens: April 3 Spring game: April 28 Buzz: It was all about the run for Oregon State last season. Unfortunately, the Beavers couldn't run the ball or stop the run, so they suffered through a 3-9 season. Sophomore QB Sean Mannion eventually should contend for all-league honors, and he will work with an OK group of receivers. It would help his cause if a feature back – as well as a solid No. 2 tailback – emerges this spring. Finding a new left tackle is important as well. The defense has potential, and you can expect a priority to be placed this spring on becoming more physical in the front seven. The Beavers allowed almost 200 rushing yards per game last season, an embarrassingly high number.
Spring practice opens: Feb. 27 Spring game: April 14 Buzz: The Andrew Luck era is over. But the Cardinal also lost a ton of other talent, meaning this is a vital spring in terms of finding new starters and capable backups. Stanford has to replace Luck, its top two wide receivers, a star tight end and its two best offensive linemen. One positive is that there is a deep group of tailbacks. Defensively, the key will be rebuilding the secondary, which lost three starters. The front seven should be stout again, especially with the return of star LB Shayne Skov, who missed most of last season with an injury.
Spring practice opens: April 3 Spring game: May 5 Buzz: Jim Mora's highest priority should be fixing the defense, which had trouble stopping good offenses last season. There are holes everywhere on that side of the ball, from the line to the linebackers to the secondary. The pass rush was non-existent, and finding some guys who can provide some heat off the edge needs to be a spring priority. Rick Neuhseiel often was criticized for his mediocre offenses, but the Bruins actually had success running the ball last season. What Mora and his staff need to focus on is improving the passing attack. It's hard to win in this league when no one fears your quarterback, but that's what happened to UCLA the past few seasons. The leading returning wide receiver caught 19 passes last season.
Spring practice opens: March 6 Spring game: April 14 Buzz: Unless the Trojans suffer a rash of injuries this spring, they are going to be ranked in the preseason top five by everyone. USC is going to have one of the best passing attacks in the nation, and the biggest issue on offense this spring is finding a new left tackle and developing depth at wide receiver and tailback. The back seven on defense should be quite good, and, again, developing depth is the main concern at linebacker and in the secondary. The front four bears watching, however. USC lost three starters up front, and how the coaches replace their starting tackles ultimately will decide how good the Trojans can be this season.
Spring practice opens: March 20 Spring game: April 21 Buzz: Defense led the way for the Utes last season, but coach Kyle Whittingham has some holes to fill on that side of the ball this spring. Linebacker bears watching. The Utes lost their top two tacklers, and they need young guys to fill the breach. Utah needs E Joe Kruger to show this spring he can be a consistent pass-rush threat. There are more concerns offensively. Both starting tackles are gone, and they were the Utes' two best linemen. QB Jordan Wynn missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, and he needs to show this spring that he is healthy and good enough to win games in the Pac-12. Wynn has talent, but too often he has teased with his potential. The receivers and tailbacks are in place. The new offensive coordinator is former Utes QB Brian Johnson, at 24 the youngest coordinator in the nation.
Spring practice opens: April 2 Spring game: April 28 Buzz: The last time folks saw Washington, the Huskies' defense was getting carved up line a Christmas ham, giving up 67 points to Baylor. There is a new defensive staff, and their top priority has to be toughening up the line and finding some hard-nosed linebackers. The secondary needs a bit of work, but not near as much as the front seven. Offensively, there's a nice building block in rising star QB Keith Price, who had a great Alamo Bowl. But he and the team as a whole will miss star TB Chris Polk. Finding a replacement for Polk is the No. 1 job on offense this spring. The No. 2 job is replacing the left side of the line. Coaches also need sophomore WR Kasen Williams to show he can be a go-to receiver.
Spring practice opens: March 22 Spring practice ends: April 24 (spring game April 21) Buzz: The Cougars should have one of the more interesting spring practices in the nation because of Mike Leach's presence. Washington State was a heck of a lot better in 2011 than it was in 2010, and it's up to Leach to continue that growth. Deciding on a quarterback is going to be important, but there are able candidates in Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday. The offensive line needs two new starters, but the Cougars still should be fine up front. The rushing attack wasn't much last season, and it won't be much this season, either. Still, the tailbacks need to show they can be effective pass receivers this spring. A lot of work has to be done with the secondary, which was shredded often last season. Finding a pass rusher would help in that regard. Linebacker is a concern, as well, with two starters gone.