Yahoo Sports expert Pat Forde breaks down everything you need to know about the Pac-12 for this season.
College football: SEC at a glance
College football: SEC at a glance (Getty)
Best Defensive Player: Leonard Williams, USC. He’s one of the rarest football commodities: a 290-pound defensive tackle who can move. Williams is no space-clogger; he’s a playmaker. He had 74 tackles and six sacks last year, and will key a Trojans defense that may be the best in the nation. (Getty Images)
Most Intriguing Freshman: Budda Baker, Washington. The highly touted defensive back/kick returner, who de-committed from Oregon to play for Chris Petersen, might make his first significant impact on special teams. But once the fast and ferocious safety, pictured celebrating after winning the 3A high school championship in Washington, cracks the starting lineup in the secondary, he’ll probably never leave it.
Most Important Quarterback Battle: Washington. In a league where almost everyone is set at the most important position, the Huskies still have a three-way battle between Cyler Miles, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams. At least publicly. Miles, above, likely would be the starter if he hadn’t gotten in a fight the night of the Super Bowl that led to his suspension from spring practice and the season opener against Hawaii. And it’s easy to believe that he will be the guy for the second game. But Petersen isn’t tipping his hand on who gets the start against the Warriors.
Best Coach: Chris Petersen, Washington. With the departures of Pete Carroll, Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, the throne sits vacant. David Shaw has taken Stanford to three straight BCS bowls, and Jim Mora has rushed UCLA up the Pac-12 ladder. But only Petersen has won two BCS bowls and authored an undefeated season (two of them, in fact) at Boise State.
Best Assistant Coach: Justin Wilcox, USC. Defensive coordinator made an impact at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington before moving south from Seattle with Steve Sarkisian this off-season. If his unit is as good as everyone thinks it will be, he will be a hot head-coaching candidate.
Coach on the Rise: Jim Mora, UCLA. The Bruins were 10-26 in the two seasons before Mora arrived; they’re 19-8 with him. And this year’s team is loaded, starting the season ranked in the top 10 and a solid favorite to win the Pac-12 South. Mora also says he’s committed to UCLA for the long haul: “I’m staying until they kick me out.”
Coach on the Decline: Kyle Whittingham, Utah. After seven straight winning seasons in Salt Lake City, Whittingham has gone 10-14 the past two and slid onto the dreaded hot seat. Close losses and key injuries have been the biggest issues, but the Utes are about out of excuses. This is an important year to produce – but winning games in this league will be harder than ever.
Coach on the Psychiatrist’s Couch: Mike Leach, Washington State. If you heard Leach’s soliloquy on gnats in Valdosta, Ga., at Pac-12 media days, you understand. Well, if you’ve heard Leach talk about any number of topics, you understand.
Biggest League Game: Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1. For the fifth year in a row, it should play a huge part in deciding who wins the Pac-12.
Biggest Non-League Game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. This is the top non-conference matchup in the nation this season. Ducks have had some struggles with power teams, but have a huge home-field advantage. Game will help shape the College Football Playoff debate in terms of conference strength.
Breakthrough Team: USC. The Trojans have been just 11-7 in league play the last two years, which is why they have a new coach. Steve Sarkisian inherits a major scholarship deficit but a lot of talent, and USC should be the prime contender to UCLA in the South.
North Champion: Oregon. Ducks finally figure out Stanford and return to the league title game. (AP)
South Champion: UCLA. The schedule is murder, but at least Oregon, Stanford and USC all must come to Pasadena.
League Champion: UCLA. This may not be the only championship the Bruins win this year.
Best “Now” Rivalry: Oregon-Stanford. The clash of styles is fascinating, and the stakes have been extremely high for the past four meetings.
Best Forever Rivalry: USC-UCLA. Eighty-three meetings of very good teams, great uniforms, superb weather and the nation’s best song girls.
Most Marinated Fans: Washington State. If you lived in Pullman, you’d be drunk, too.
Most Apathetic Fans: Colorado. Too many other things to do when the football team is bad. And the football team has been bad for several years now. Besides, a large percentage of the fans save up their emotional investment for the Broncos on Sundays.
Angriest Fans: Not a lot of anger out West. But the edge goes to USC fans for still screaming bloody murder over the Reggie Bush NCAA sanctions.