There won't be any college football games played for quite a while but that doesn't mean we are going to stop talking about the sport we love. Each week during the off-season we will bring you the top stories and we will also be discussing a variety of topics in our weekly roundtable. Over the next few weeks we will be touching on all of the BCS Conferences and also taking a look at the non-BCS teams. We started with the ACC, hit the Big 12 , talked Big Ten football and last week went discussed the Big East. This week we head west to talk about the Pac-12. There are no special guests this week so it's all up to the Zealots to preach to you about the ways of the Pac-12. Enough with the chit chat, let's talk college football!
Which team has the best chance to challenge Oregon and Stanford for the conference championship?
Kevin: In all honesty I don't think anyone will challenge Oregon and Stanford this year for the conference championship. That being said, I think the team with the "best" chance to challenge them is Arizona. They finished in the top half of the conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense. They return the second leading passer in the Pac-12 in Nick Foles, they return their leading rusher Keola Antolin and have a promising back-up in Greg Nwoko. Arizona also returns 83% of their receptions from last year including CFBZ Pre-Spring All-Pac 12 selection Juron Criner. Arizona showed some promise last year starting out 6-1 before losing their last 5. I think it's the bitter taste of those last 5 games that has been left that will help Arizona be a better team this year. The memory of those games will help them work harder in the off-season. The major question for Arizona is their lines of scrimmage as they lost a lot of players in those areas. If they can perform well enough in those areas then I think they can be the third best team in the Pac-12 and with some luck maybe better.
Ross: A few weeks ago, I would have said Arizona State because they had an absurd number of returning starters (20 -- ten on each side of the ball), but then they had a host of players suffer injuries that could keep them out of action for the season. So with them sliding out of the picture, I'll default to the usual Pac-10 kingpin, USC. Eventually, the effects of the NCAA sanctions are going to really hit them, but for now they still have enough elite-level talent to mount a serious challenge to Oregon and Stanford. Their problem (exacerbated by the sanctions) is depth -- or rather, lack thereof. They can ill-afford injuries at most positions, so they'll be walking a thin line between big success and mediocrity.
Which first year team will have the most success in the Pac-12 this year, Colorado or Utah?
Ross: Utah, no question. Colorado might struggle to finish in the top half of the conference Utah left behind (the Mountain West) -- their talent level was that poor. And you factor in a brand-new coaching staff on top of that? There may be better days ahead in Boulder, but 2011 should be another rough year. Still, even if Utah is the choice by default here, I still think they'll have a solid chance to be pretty good in the brand-new Pac-12. They return a good starting quarterback (Jordan Wynn), three-fifths of the offensive line, and multiple key defenders. They also get the advantage of playing in the weaker Pac-12 division (the South).
Kevin: If you asked me this question last year I would also have said Utah without hesitation. But now I'm not so sure. Despite finishing 10-3 last year Utah was very unimpressive. Remember that last year they beat 5 teams with 3 or less wins, so against teams with more than 3 wins they were 5-3. That's a whole lot of easy wins. They did beat some decent teams in Pitt, San Diego State and BYU but they also got blown out by TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State. On the other hand Colorado got blown out by Pac-12 team Cal and lost to Kansas. After having an internal debate, I too am going to pick Utah but only because I think their style is a better fit right now for the Pac-12 than is Colorado's. I don't expect either team to perform particularly well in their first season in their new conference.
Outside of LaMichael James and Andrew Luck who will be the best players in the Pac-12 this year?
Kevin: I still remember Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict getting on the field as a true freshman against Georgia and just making plays out of sheer talent and instincts. He's a junior now and he's going to be a beast this year. Last year he was in on 90 tackles, 8.5 for loss and he forced two fumbles. I look for him to be a force this year. WR Juron Criner of Arizona is another guy to watch. He caught 83 balls (over 6 a game) and 11 TD last year. Also keep your eye on two RBS, Chris Polk of Washington and Stefan Taylor of Stanford. Both could be in for big years this year. Especially Taylor as he plays off of Luck.
Ross: It's probably cheating a little to name another Oregon player, but Darron Thomas could have a monster year in his second year as the starting QB at Oregon. He wasn't exactly bad last year, but given another year to master Chip Kelly's offense and to improve his timing and confidence should make him -- and, by extension, the entire offense -- even more dangerous. The other player who should have a big season is USC QB Matt Barkley; he's entering his third year as a starter, so not much should surprise him this year and he should have the playbook well-mastered. If he can cut down on his interceptions, he might push Thomas and Luck for the title of "Best Pac-10 QB" (though surpassing Luck could be a tall order).
What is the biggest storyline in the Pac-12 this year?
Ross: The biggest storyline is the dual between Oregon and Stanford. They figure to be the two elite programs in the league and they'll be battling for not just the league title (as well as the Pac-12 North title on their way to that conference championship), but also a potential spot in the national championship game and, quite possibly, the Heisman Trophy. Stanford QB Andrew Luck should enter the season as one of the frontrunners for the award, but Oregon QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James won't be too far behind him. The race between these two programs and their signature players should be pretty thrilling stuff in the inaugural Pac-12 season.
Kevin: For me the biggest storyline is Oregon's attempt to get back to the National Championship Game and get over the top. Oregon's offense was dominant last year and they carefully avoided a couple of slip ups along the way. This year they have a tough road to the title as they play LSU in Arlington right out of the gate. They also have Arizona and Stanford as road games and they finish the season against USC and rival Oregon State. This year is a great chance for the Pac-12 to get another team into the big game because of where Oregon is starting and the fact that they go head-to-head with a heavyweight from the SEC early in the year. Can Oregon get over the hump this year and win a title? That's what I will be watching in the Pac-12 this year.