Before all the action starts tomorrow, below are my thoughts on the Pac-12 and how things will shake out.
Setting aside USC, this is where the power lies in the league. Stanford, Oregon, Cal, an improving UW and perhaps a resurgent WSU make this a more difficult division to win than the South.
Here's how I think things will look at the end of the regular season:
- Oregon - A very good D, skill positions loaded, soild O line, exciting new QB options, key games against UW and Stanford at home all combine to get the Ducks over the hump to win the North. I'm thinking a loss or two along the way somewhere (probably to USC on the road), but a very good season for the Quackers that sees them win the North.
- Stanford - Andrew Luck is gone, but the cupboard is not bare in Palo Alto. None the less, I do think they will see a bit of a drop and perhaps lose two league games. But, this team will be good and can beat anyone in the Pac-12.
- Cal - OK, I'll cop to it...I don't know much about this year's Cal team. But, I do know that they have consistently played at the "top of middle" of the league for many years running now. The last couple seasons saw them win early only to fade big down the stretch...yet still get to a bowl. I'll say they do the same this season.
- Washington- Yes, the Dawgs are improving. Yes, their D is going to get better - how could it not? Yes, Keith Price is a dangerous QB when healthy. But no, this is not "the year" that the UW breaks through to challenge for the division or league title. They will most likely lose games to Oregon, Stanford, USC and LSU. That would be four losses right there. Throw in a road trip to Cal and the always unpredictable Apple Cup vs. WSU in Pullman this year and...well, could be another 6-6 or even 5-6 season. We'll see.
- WSU - The arrival of Mike Leach and his system will improve this team so that they are challenging for a six win (and therefore bowl eligible) season. But it won't catapult them to the top of the division.
- OS - A bit of a wild card here as the Beavs are not without talent. But, I think they're due to slip down a notch this season.
You'd think this would be the "class" off the league with programs like USC, UCLA, Arizona and Colorado. But no, only USC has a chance to win the division and league from among this motley crew.
- USC - USC is "back" after its NCAA sanctions and this will be a very good squad. In particular, they have a high quality and experienced QB in his senior season. Throw in all the talent you would expect on their Defense and O line and...well, look out. Oh, and I think these Trojans are going to be looking for redemption.
- Utah - Yes, I am picking the Utes to improve and finish second in the South. Despite their lame start last season as part of the Pac-12, they finished strong...despite having injuries to key players. So, I think they'll represent this coming season.
- UA - Not much to say. New coach Rich Rod will probably bring new energy and motivation for the Cats, but they lose some talent and are breaking in a new QB. So, I'm thinking middle of the pack for them.
- UCLA - Another build up of "this is the year" followed by let down. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Until UCLA actually breaks that pattern, I won't believe it.
- ASU - Same old story...why isn't this team dominating the league? Poor coaching, hit and miss recruiting, players believing their own hype. The list goes on and on. Not a horrible team, but I don't think they improve this season with a new coach and a new QB. Like UCLA, I'll only believe their ascendancy when it actually happens.
- Colorado - I don't see the Buffs crawling out of the basement this season. I'd like to see it, but I don't think it'll happen.
As a reminder, the league champion is determined by a game matching the winner of the North division with the winner of the South division. The location of the game is the home field of the school with the best overall conference record. The winner of the Championship Game earns the automatic Pac-12 bid into the BCS. Typically this means the winner goes to the Rose Bowl. If the winner is in the running for the BCS Title Game, it could mean the winner goes to that game instead. In any case, the stakes are high.
USC vs. Oregon in Los Angeles - I think USC will have beaten UO earlier in the season OR USC will have won more games overall...or both. In any case, USC will have a better overall record. Might be by just one game, but better. So, I say this game will be played in Los Angeles.
Who will win? My heart says Ducks baby! My mind says USC will win it. Home field, tallent, motivation after being on probation, youth at Oregon's QB position...all will combine in USC favor.
And the result from that could take many forms. It could be that USC is in the running for the BCS National Title Game, so they could go there. At worst, they would go to the Rose Bowl. Oregon...depending on their record...might be in the running for a BCS game too even if they lose to USC, but more likely they'd end up in a "second tier" bowl following a loss to the Trojans.