Pac-12 preview: It's a two-team race – and both should be in national title picture

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo! Sports

The Pac-12 should be front-page college football news all season, both for housing two potential national titlists (Oregon and USC) and being the new home to two of the more innovative college coaches in recent memory.

USC will head into the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the coaches' poll, while Oregon is fifth in both. USC is the prohibitive favorite in the Pac-12 South; the Trojans won the division last season but were ineligible for the postseason and thus couldn't play in the league championship game. Oregon, a team USC beat in the regular season, won the title and also the Rose Bowl. The Ducks are prohibitive favorites in the North this season.

USC's postseason ban has been lifted, and the Trojans (and Ducks, for that matter) have their eye on finishing the season in Miami in the BCS national championship game.

As for the new coaches, Mike Leach at Washington State and Rich Rodriguez at Arizona should make things vastly more interesting in the Pac-12 in the future, if not this season. Leach takes over a program that has had eight consecutive non-winning seasons (in seven of those, the Cougars had losing records). But that streak came on the heels of three consecutive 10-win seasons. Leach's pass-first, -second and -third attack should make things interesting in the Pac-12 North.

Rodriguez's run-heavy version of the spread should do the same in the South Division. While his three-season tenure at Michigan was hugely disappointing (one bowl in three seasons), he guided West Virginia to three 11-win seasons and won 61 games in seven seasons. He seems a far better fit at Arizona than he did at Michigan, and his style of play should appeal to numerous prospects in California and Texas, two states that Arizona must recruit successfully to win games.

There are two other new coaches: Jim Mora at UCLA and Todd Graham at Arizona State. That means half the league's coaches are in their first or second seasons at their schools, and that nine of the 12 have been at their schools for less than four seasons.

The players

Best offensive player: USC QB Matt Barkley. This league is loaded with high-caliber offensive studs, and Barkley is at the top. Barkley is the leading contender for the Heisman. He will be a four-year starter for the Trojans and will be the school's first three-time captain. Barkley completed 69.1 percent of his passes and threw for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011. He should graduate with school career records in completions, TDs, passing yards and total offense.
Best defensive player: Utah DT Star Lotulelei. Barkley might be the best offensive player in the nation, and the same goes for Lotulelei on defense. He is a physical force in the middle of the line for the Utes. He had 44 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2011. Lotulelei is quick and extremely strong, almost always occupying two blockers. He seems likely to be the first defensive lineman taken in the 2013 NFL draft.
Offensive player on the spot: Stanford QBs Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes. Andrew Luck is gone, and the quarterback job is up for grabs. Obviously, neither Nottingham nor Nunes in going to put up Luck-type numbers. The key, though, is to play steady football and avoid mistakes. Stanford should have an excellent running game, and the defense should be one of the three best in the league. Stanford can at least flirt with double-digit wins if it gets adequate quarterback play. The onus is on one of these guys (or maybe both) to produce that.
Defensive player on the spot: USC E Wes Horton. The defensive line is USC's potential Achilles heel and Horton has to produce now that E Derek Kennard seems likely to miss the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Horton, a senior, is the only upperclassmen in the front four likely to see any appreciable playing time. He is a solid pass rusher, but will be fighting his way through a lot of double teams. Despite that, he has to come through, or USC will have to resort to far too many blitzes.
Breakout offensive star: Oregon RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas. We're cheating here a bit, as Thomas scored 18 touchdowns as a true freshman last season. But Thomas, nicknamed "The Black Mamba," was a complementary player and had just 140 touches (10 per game). This season, the number of touches could double – and the mind boggles at the numbers he could put up.
Breakout defensive star: Washington LB Josh Shirley. Shirley made seven starts at end as a redshirt freshman last season and showed off his pass-rushing skills (8.5 sacks). But his good numbers were overshadowed by the repeated failings of the Huskies' defense. New coordinator Justin Wilcox, an Oregon alum who had been coordinator at Tennessee, will use Shirley far more often as an outside linebacker this fall. Shirley had a strong spring in his new role and should vie for all-conference honors.
Best offensive newcomer: California WR Bryce Treggs. California needs a No. 2 receiver to take some pressure off All-America candidate Keenan Allen, and Treggs has the playmaking ability to fill that void. Treggs, a true freshman, impressed the coaches with his knowledge of the playbook, and his offseason workouts had him ready to go when summer camp began. His dad, Brian, was a star wide receiver for the Golden Bears in the early 1990s.
Best defensive newcomer: Washington FS Shaq Thompson. Thompson was a five-star recruit who originally committed to Cal, but switched when Washington hired away former Golden Bears assistant Tosh Lupoi. While Washington has two starters back at safety, the secondary was strafed often last season and Thompson figures to earn immediate playing time. The Huskies were 106th nationally in total defense (453.3) and 108th in scoring defense (35.9) last season. Thompson is a big guy (6 feet 2/215 pounds) who can run and covers a lot of ground.

The coaches

Coach on the hottest seat: Oregon State's Mike Riley. If he is fired, which seems unlikely, Riley would be a victim of his success. This is his second go-round as the Beavers' coach; he was both Dennis Erickson's predecessor and successor, sandwiched around a four-year run in the NFL that included three seasons as San Diego's coach. His second tenure began in 2003, and he guided Oregon State to a bowl appearance in six of the first seven seasons. But Oregon State has been bowl-less in each of the past two seasons, losing 16 games in that span. That's the worst two-season stretch for the Beavers since 1996-97 ('97 was Riley's first season in his first tenure). The Beavers have been mediocre on offense in each of the past two seasons, and the 2011 campaign began with a loss to FCS member Sacramento State and never really improved. The recent downturn also has come at the highest point of archrival Oregon's football history. The Ducks have won four in a row in the fierce rivalry, by an average of 19 points per game. Oregon State won just three times last season, and while the outlook is brighter this season, it might be a stretch to think the Beavers can win more than seven games. Again, Riley seems unlikely to be fired. But all bets are off if Oregon State wins three again.
Best coaching staff: Oregon. Coach Chip Kelly does a great job with the offense. Nick Aliotti almost always has solid defenses. Some of the position coaches are among the best in the nation (Steve Greatwood with the offensive line, John Neal with the secondary, Gary Campbell with the running backs).
Best offensive coordinator: None. It's not that this league doesn't have good offenses; it's just that the head coaches are in control of most of the good offenses (Lane Kiffin at USC, Chip Kelly at Oregon, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Steve Sarkisian at Washington, Mike Leach at Washington State, Jeff Tedford at Cal). The coordinators either have been shaky of late or are lacking in a real track record in this league.
Best defensive coordinator: Oregon's Nick Aliotti. USC's Monte Kiffin is one of the greatest NFL defensive coordinators ever, but his defenses haven't been dominating since he returned to college ball. Aliotti, though, has had some dominating units, and this season's could be better than the 2010 version that helped the Ducks get to the national title game. Aliotti is extremely aggressive and loves to blitz. He has the linebackers and defensive backs to wreak havoc with his blitzes this fall. He also has the best defensive line in the league.

The schedules

Game of the year: Oregon at USC, Nov. 3. This could (should?) be the first of two meetings between the teams. Both could (should?) be unbeaten when they play. This could (should?) match two of the four or five most-prolific offenses in the nation.
Toughest schedule: Washington. The Huskies have a mega-tough non-conference road game against LSU; there's also a good non-conference test at home against San Diego State. The Huskies' league misses this season: Arizona State and UCLA, both good chances for a win. There are no back-to-back home games in league play (technically, there are no real home games at all, as Husky Stadium is being renovated and Washington is playing at CenturyLink Field, home of the Seahawks). Worst of all, take a gander at the first three league games: vs. Stanford, at Oregon and vs. USC. Man, nothing like trying to break in a new defense early in the season against the league's top three teams.
Easiest schedule: Utah. The toughest non-conference game is at home (BYU). The Utes don't play Oregon or Stanford. The toughest league game (USC) is at home. And the toughest road game is Washington, which comes late in the season (Nov. 10).
The 10 best conference games:
10. Washington at Washington State, Nov. 23
9. Stanford at California, Oct. 20
8. Utah at Washington, Nov. 10
7. Stanford at Washington, Sept. 27
6. Utah at UCLA, Oct. 13
5. USC at Washington, Oct. 13
4. USC at Utah, Oct. 4
3. Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 17
2. USC at Stanford, Sept. 15
1. Oregon at USC, Nov. 3
The 10 best non-conference games:
10. Oklahoma State at Arizona, Sept. 8
9. Illinois at Arizona State, Sept. 8
8. Wisconsin at Oregon State, Sept. 8
7. Washington State at BYU, Sept. 1
6. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24
5. California at Ohio State, Sept. 15
4. Nebraska at UCLA, Sept. 8
3. BYU at Utah, Sept. 15
2. Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 13
1. Washington at LSU, Sept. 8

The preseason All-Pac-12 team

First team
QB Matt Barkley, USC
RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon
RB De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
WR Marqise Lee, USC
WR Marquess Wilson, Washington State
WR Robert Woods, USC
T David Bakhtiari, Colorado
T Cameron Fleming, Stanford
G Sam Brenner, Utah
G Carson York, Oregon
C Khaled Holmes, USC
E Scott Crichton, Oregon State
T Star Lotulelei, Utah
E Dion Jordan, Oregon
LB Dion Bailey, USC
LB Michael Clay, Oregon
LB Shayne Skov, Stanford
LB Chase Thomas, Stanford
CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
CB Desmond Trufant, Washington
FS T.J. McDonald, USC
SS Deone Bucannon, Washington State
Special teams
K Andre Heidari, USC
P Jackson Rice, Oregon
KR DeAnthony Thomas, Oregon
PR Jamal Miles, Arizona State
Second team
QB Keith Price, Washington
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
RB John White, Utah
WR Keenan Allen, California
WR Markus Wheaton, Oregon State
TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Washington
T Michael Philipp, Oregon State
T Matt Summers-Gavin, California
G Marcus Martin, USC
G David Yankey, Stanford
C Brian Schwenke, California
E Ben Gardner, Stanford
T Taylor Hart, Oregon
E Wes Horton, USC
LB Kiko Alonso, Oregon
LB Travis Long, Washington State
LB Hayes Pullard, USC
LB Josh Shirley, Washington
CB Nickell Robey, USC
CB Steve Williams, California
FS John Boyett, Oregon
SS Sean Parker, Washington
Special teams
K Coleman Peterson, Utah
P Jeff Locke, UCLA
KR Jamal Miles, Arizona State
PR Drew Terrell, Stanford

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