Over the last decade the Pac 12 has been dominated by the USC Trojans up until the 2009 season when the Reggie Bush scandal barred USC from the 2010 and 2011 post seasons, leading to the emergence of the Oregon Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal. USC, coming of it's probation, intends to take back it's title as Pac 12 Champs, but they will have to grapple with the Oregon ducks to get to get it back.
As I see the Pac 12 it is only a four-team race, those four teams being the Stanford Cardinal, the Oregon Ducks, the USC Trojans, and the Utah Utes. (Only as a threat to USC in the south.)
USC Trojans: The Trojans are regarded as the preseason #1 team in the NCAA, and with good reason. Backed by Matt Barkley and the unstoppable offense of USC, the Trojans will be competing for a BCS National Title.
Quarterback: The Trojans are high in the rankings thanks to the senior QB Matt Barkley. Hailed as an early Heisman Trophy Candidate, the veteran QB threw for 3,528 yards with 308 completions and a 69.1 % completion rate. Not too shabby? Neither are his 39 TD's. With most of the offensive arsenal returning, I can only see him improve his numbers and I'd predict that he will throw close to 4500 yds.
Receivers: The Trojan wide receivers are going to have fun next season. USC's top 3 Receivers are returning including the duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who both combined for 2435 yds. That total is more than the rest of the team combined. These are going to be Barkley's main targets again in 2012.
Defense: On this USC team it is hard to find a crack in the armor. One potential crack is the uncertainty on the defensive front. The Trojan defense is losing 3 key starters including first-team All-Pac-12 defensive end Nick Perry and tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris. On the plus side the defense that was ranked 45th in the FBS welcomes back 7 starters with a plethora of 2011 all conference players.
Running Back: While this isn't an alarming red flag on the offense, USC's depth at the running back position may become an issue. USC's top running Curtis McNeal returns for his senior year and boasts 1005 yds. of offense and 6 TD's from a year ago. He is the only running back returning that has more than 200 yards of offense which leads to some concern if he gets hurt and USC is left looking for an unproven player to step up.***
Oregon Ducks: for the past 3 years the Oregon Ducks have comfortably made the top of the Pac 12 their home. They stay atop the Pac 12 , but may be threatened this year by the revival of the USC Trojans.
Running Back: Despite losing the offensive explosion that was LaMichael James, the Ducks could replace his contributions and then some. Kenjon Barner contributed 152 carries and 939 yards and the Ducks have other new faces waiting for their opportunity. The running game ranked 5th in the BCS a year ago, and the Ducks reload returning 7 backs accounting for 2178 yards of offense.
Defense: Oregon is known for their offensive fireworks on the field but many overlook the defense that has quietly surged into some of the best defensive units this school has seen. Their defense limited teams to 24.6 points per contest and welcomes back 8 returnees including all conference DE Dion Jordan who had 39 TOT and 7.5 sacks. This defense could prove to be capable of stopping the USC Trojans and winning the league.
Quarterback: For some reason Darron Thomas felt it was his time to enter the NFL draft after his sophomore season where he threw for 2761 yds and 33 TD's and led the Oregon ducks to their 2nd straight BCS bowl appearance. In hindsight he should have stayed all 4 years and become a 2nd or 3rd round pick. Instead he went undrafted as a sophomore (what QB leaves after their sophomore season anyway?).
I don't believe that Bryan Bennett will be a bad QB as he has had some experience this past season. Plus you don't need a super talented QB to hand off the ball to a RB. Still there are major flaws in the Oregon offense that make the Ducks inferior to the USC Trojans.
Wide Receiver: Last year Oregon was arguably a run first and run often team. Losing 3 of your top 5 Receivers and your starting QB won't help your passing game so that looks like it might continue. De'Anthony Thomas will be doing it all adding to both the receiving and running game next season and should get a medal for best team player. Last year he contributed 46 receptions and 605 yards of offense as their top receiver while also running the ball 55 times for 595 yds. of offense. This was enough to place him as Oregon's 3rd leading rusher. The biggest concern is WHO will help Thomas.***
Stanford Cardinal: The Cardinal program has found themselves stuck in the shadow of the Oregon Ducks in recent years despite the fact that they've had a Heisman contending quarterback in Andrew Luck. The losses in the Receiving and QB department makes their case in 2012 very similar to that of those same Oregon ducks. Like the Ducks, their defense will be top notch; if not the best in the Pac-12. Stanford gets prepared for an uncertain season as the only legitimate threat to Oregon's Northern crown, and being ranked all over the board in the preseason. Though uncertain, the Stanford Cardinal shouldn't disappoint this year.
Defense: The Cardinal defense was merciless last year holding the opposing team to only 21.9 points per game. The Cardinal return 8 starters back on their team including All Conference DE Ben Gardner who accounted for 34 TOT and 4.5 Sacks. The Cardinal will also return All Conference OLB Chase Thomas who had 51 TOT and 8.5 Sacks. In all likelihood the Cardinal Defense should prove to be one of the best Defenses in the BCS.
Running Back: Somehow this team was more effective running the ball then passing it last season, (18th in Rushing 22nd in Passing). With many of the contributing RB's coming back this season it is easy to see how they could be even better than last year's group in terms of production. All Conference RB Stefan Taylor accounted for almost half of the yards on the ground for his team and returns this year coming off a season with his 242 carries and 1330 yds. of offense. The other top 3 RB's accompany him to set the table for what should be a threatening running game.
Quarterback: When you lose your 3-year starting Heisman level QB going into the next season, you can expect the passing game to drop immediately. Unfortunately that is the case for the Stanford Cardinal. As everyone knows, Andrew Luck left Stanford after his senior year. He took with him 3517 yards of offense and 37 TD's. That Heisman caliber season will be a tough act to follow for Brett Nottingham, the Jr. understudy of Luck, who got a speck of playing time last year. The loss of talent around him will only make his first year even tougher.
Receiving: Brett Nottingham already has big shoe's to fill at the QB position. It doesn't help that he is losing Luck's top 3 targets Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener, and Chris Owusu. Everyone else is staying but what does that get you? 1717 yards of returning offense. Of course players like Ty Montgomery, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo will see plenty of opportunities. Unfortunately this is the Achilles Heel of this team and at first glance that makes them inferior to their northern foe Oregon.
Utah Utes: Kyle Whittingham enters his 8th season as the Utes' head coach. His experience as well as his teams exxperience means that they could have an outside shot at the Pac 12 despite being one of the newest members. This team returns two QB's, top RB, and top WR along with a killer defense. The Utes are poised to be an immediate threat to the Trojans USC southern crown.
Receiving: all the receivers who contributed 100 or more yards are coming back in 2012. While the Utes' passing game wasn't all that impressive, 2252 yards, many of the receivers are young and will mature. This should be even more noticeable if Jordan Wynn can return to his "2010" form. Overall it is always a plus when all your receivers come back, and with a coach like Kyle, anything is possible.
Defense: with 7 players returning on the pac-12's best defensive squad, including All Conference NT Star Lotulelei who had 45 TOT and 1.5 Sacks last season, the Utes' are sure to bring the best defense in the pac-12 again, if not definitely in the south division.
Uncertainty at the QB Position: During the 2010 season the Utes started out the season at 8-0 but after the win against Iowa State, Jordan Wynn injured his arm. That injury plagued the rest of his 2010 season and sidelined him during the 2011 season, which may have accounted for the less than spectacular passing game. If Jordan Hayes can return to his old self and re energize the WR ‘s then I think that the Utes can put together a team that may beat USC (especially since they play them at home). If not then they will have to go back to Jon Hayes, who only threw for 1459 yards, 12 TD's and 8 INT.
Depth at RB: last season their lone All Conference offensive player, John White IV, anchored the Utes' running game. John carried the ball 316 times and ran for 1519 yds. and 15 TD's . Much like the case of USC, if John gets sidelined then they're running game dies, and then will rely on their WR which could be shabby if Jordan isn't throwing.
Others to look out for:
Washington Huskies: the Washington Huskies have been getting a lot of attention lately due to their QB Keith Price who threw for 3063 yds. and 33 TD's. Losing his 2 top targets is never positive, though the other receivers will make up for there losses. The Huskies would be higher on the rankings if their defense weren't so bad. Sure they return 8 on a team that was ranked 108th, but they will have to compete with the defenses of Stanford, Cal, and Oregon. Losing your top RB isn't anything to get excited about either.
California Golden Bears: Jeff Tedford has never disappointed at Cal and won't this next season. California will be one of the most evenly balanced teams in the Pac 12. They return 6 players to a defense ranked 48th in the BCS, QB Zach Maynard returns for his Senior year (passed for 2990 yds., 17-12 TD-INT), early Heisman Candidate RB Isi Sofele returns ( rushed for 1322 yds. and 10 TD's), and the Golden Bear's top receiver Keenan Allen (Caught 98 passes for 1343 yds. and 6 TD's). the only thing is that the top returnees are the only good ones returning. Wide Receivers Marvin Jones, Michael Calvin, and Anthony Miller, who combined for 1378 yards of offense and 7 TD's, are all gone. C.J. Anderson isn't leaving but is not a worthy backup RB with a mere 345 yds.
Washington State Cougars: The Cougar's newest head coach has some luggage to bring with him to Pullman, WA. Mike Leach is the coug's newest head coach and brings with him an impressive record of 84-43 overall and 9 bowl bids while at Texas Tech. I think that Mike Leach will fit in nicely with the Cougars passing game offense, as he known for his air raid offense. Washington state boasted the 9th best passing yards offense, and returns their QB Marshall Lobbestael who threw for 2584 yds. with 19 TD's. The cougars top receiver Marquees Wilson returns (caught 82 passes for 1388 yds. and 12 TD). The only flaw that is noticeable is their defense. Which was ranked 95th overall and surrendered close to 32 PPG. If they can get over that hump, then I could see them competing for a bowl bid.
Most Important Games Of the Pac 12 Season:
1. Oregon @ USC
2. Stanford @ Oregon
3. USC @ Stanford
4. Washington @ Oregon
5. USC @ Washington
6. USC @ Utah
Players to watch out for:
WR: Marquess Wilson, Washington State
QB: Keith Price, Washington
RB: Isi Sofele, California
DE: Josh Shirley, Washington
LB: David Wilkerson, California
DT: Andrew Seumalo, Oregon State
DB: Josh Hill. California
CB: Andrew Abbott, UCLA
S: Sean parker, Washington
Overall Rankings and Bowl Destination:
1. USC (BCS National Championship)
2. Oregon (Rose Bowl)
3. Stanford (Alamo Bowl)
4. Utah (Education Bowl)
5. Washington (Sun Bowl)
6. Cal (Las Vegas Bowl)
8. Oregon State
9. Arizona State