Pac-12 preview: Ducks in a rush to put offseason in rearview

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Chip Kelly and the Ducks face LSU in a huge season opener in Dallas. (US Presswire)  
Chip Kelly and the Ducks face LSU in a huge season opener in Dallas. (US Presswire)  

It was a long run and, thanks to traffic lights and pedestrians, not at his normal, fast pace.

That was a bit agitating to Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, who is used to doing everything -- from offense to talking -- at a speed most can't comprehend. But just before meeting with the media in New York City as part of the East Coast stop of Pac-12 Media Days, the most intriguing coach in America was in a Nike t-shirt -- of course -- headed out of his hotel with a smile on his face.

Was he running away from something? Was he running just to clear his head? Perhaps he was already thinking about the first offensive plays for the season opener against LSU?

"I never know where I'm going," Kelly later said of his 40-minute jaunt. "It's always just good to get away and get a sweat going."

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Kelly has enjoyed being treated like a rock star as the Ducks have risen to national prominence thanks in large part to his up-tempo offense. While it's hard to dive into the mind that some have labeled as genius, his smile that day was telling. On the streets of a city full of people who wouldn't recognize him for $25,000, was a man running away from an NCAA investigation and a close loss in the national title game and toward the challenge of a new season.

Moving on from Will Lyles and Auburn and heading for De'Anthony Thomas and LSU. Kelly likes to move on from things as quickly as his running backs move upfield and -- finally -- the upcoming season offers him a chance to do so.

"I'm just looking forward to coaching football," he said.

It's easy to understand why.

Tumultuous is one way to describe the offseason for the third-year head coach. There is the still-ongoing NCAA investigation into the school's dubious payment to an even more dubious talent scout. Cornerback Cliff Harris was arrested after going 118 mph in a 65 zone on a suspended license. Middle linebacker Kiko Alonso was arrested and charged with burglary. No third tailback emerged in the spring and the offensive line is still up in the air.

But now Kelly and "Nike U" have football.

After coming agonizingly close to a national championship in January, a missed tackle away from overtime to be exact, and all of the turmoil since then, September brings hope and optimism.

"We've moved on. You can't live your life looking through the rearview mirror," Kelly said. "Our kids played with a tremendous effort, it was a tight game and we lost on a field goal on the last play of the national title game."

This year's opener against LSU in Dallas is Oregon's chance to prove that they are national title contenders again right off the bat. As Dennis Dodd noted, the game marks only the third time two top-five ranked teams have opened the season on a neutral field. It is an ambitious start to the season.

And, one might argue, might be an even tougher game than the one at the end of last season.

"They are really good," Kelly said of LSU. "They got great athleticism. I spend more time watching the defensive side of the ball, obviously, and they have quality depth and quality athleticism. John Chavis does a great job with his scheme to put those guys in positions to make plays.

"Everybody wants to paint a broad brush and say, 'It's an SEC team,' but every team is different. What Auburn does and what LSU does is drastically different. There's a lot of talent similarities out there, though."

Quarterback Darron Thomas enters his second season as the triggerman of Kelly's fast-paced Duck offense that is looking to move the ball no matter what Chavis or any other defense throws at them. A true dual-threat, Thomas threw for over 2,800 yards last season and was the team's third-leading rusher. Running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner are two of the most explosive players in the Pac-12, but questions on offense remain about the receiving corps outside of tight end David Paulson. True frosh De'Anthony Thomas and Colt Lyerla should see some action early at multiple positions and the two five-star recruits are a pair to keep an eye on.

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Dion Jordan and defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli impressed during spring practice and are expected to be part of a solid rotation on a much bigger defensive line this year. Overshadowed somewhat by Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger last season, linebacker Michael Clay is someone the coaching staff trusts. Kelly labeled Clay the defensive MVP coming out of spring practices. The secondary takes a hit but still returns several players with starting experience.

Can they come together quickly in the opener against another mighty SEC team to become title contenders once again? No one will know for sure until the Ducks take their first snaps in their first quirky uniform combination of the season. They're focused on their start, and not looking ahead to another BCS game.

"It's going to take 12 wins in the regular season and a win in the conference championship game to get back there again," Kelly said of the championship game. "We've never talked about championships, we don't talk about rankings. We only talk about how well can we practice today.

"We'll pick our heads up sometime in the beginning of December and find out if we're good enough to play in a bowl game."

There's no need for the head coach to come out and say it of course, but in case you were wondering, Oregon's the most talented team out West and a consensus top-five team once all the polls are released.

The race for the inaugural Pac-12 title, and possibly a national one, is about to kickoff. You'll find Kelly and his Ducks out in front.

CBSSports.com Predicted order of finish

North

1) Oregon

There's winning the conference, as Oregon did for the second straight year last season, and then there's running away with it. Outside of squeaking by Cal due to a missed field goal, the Ducks blew the rest of the conference out last year by an average of 17.5 points per game and managed to rush for 78 yards per game more than runner up Stanford. Six starters on offense return, including the entire backfield, led by running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas. The key to three-peat success (the program won the final two Pac-10 titles) likely lies in the trenches as both the offensive and defensive lines will be replacing several starters. Outside of a trip to Stanford, where Oregon has not won since 2007, the schedule is favorable by avoiding Utah and drawing Arizona State, USC and the Civil War game versus Oregon State at home.

2) Stanford

Quarterback Andrew Luck may get all of the headlines but there's some serious talent returning for the Cardinal on offense too. Running back Stepfan Taylor emerged out a pack last year and turned in a 1,000 yard season. If healthy, wideout/return man Chris Owusu is a threat to score anytime he gets his hands on the ball and senior tight end Coby Fleener should be one of Luck's favorite targets throughout the year. The offensive line has to replace All-American center Chase Beeler among others but with the same offensive system intact, the group should be fine. Four holes in the front seven on defense also need to be fixed but there's plenty of time to gel thanks to an easy first half schedule. It remains to be seen how well David Shaw will handle the transition to head coach at his alma matter but with Luck at the helm, the Cardinal will be in the race.

3) Washington

It's going to feel weird seeing the Huskies take the field without Jake Locker under center. The record setting-quarterback gives way to Keith Price, who emerged as the guy out of spring practice. Luckily for Price he'll have plenty of weapons around him to help shoulder the load. Running back Chris Polk nearly left for the NFL but returns as one of the best in the conference and should easily grab his third-straight 1,000 yard season. Receivers Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse are two very good senior targets for Price and with a little consistency should grab more attention nationally. Eight players return on defense, but coordinator Nick Holt must replace the productive Mason Foster, the team's leading tackler from a year ago. Momentum is with Steve Sarkisian's program after the big bowl win against Nebraska, so don't be surprised to see the Huskies make some noise in the Pac-12's first year.

4) Oregon State

It's hard to imagine a more consistent program than Oregon State under Mike Riley, which makes many think that last year's 5-7 season was an aberration. The Beavers always seem to see improvement at the quarterback spot in the second year in the system and the offensive staff is excited at what strong-armed Ryan Katz can do in year No. 2. He'll play behind a veteran offensive line, but injury concerns over tight end Joe Halahuni and all-purpose star James Rodgers have caused both to be cautious about returning to the lineup soon. The defense should be improved in some areas but figuring out a replacement for big defensive tackle Stephen Paea will be a challenge. The schedule isn't as tough as last year, but there are trips to Wisconsin, Arizona State and Oregon that loom large.

5) California

For a supposed quarterback guru, Jeff Tedford has had trouble finding consistency from the most important position on the field. Zach Maynard has been named the starter, but he's unproven at the BCS level despite throwing for almost 2,700 yards at Buffalo in 2009. The backfield in general for the Bears is a bit of an unknown as tailback Shane Vereen is off to the NFL and no established back is ready to fill his shoes. The offensive line should be improved from a year ago and the bright spot on offense belongs to the receiving group, led by talented sophomore Keenan Allen. Clancy Pendergast should be more comfortable in year two as defensive coordinator and should have a solid group to work with despite losing tackling machine Mike Mohamed. Cal normally performs well at home and struggles on the road, which is an issue this year with the renovations to Memorial Stadium forcing the team to play the majority of their games at AT&T Park. Perhaps the Bears can get some of the magic from the San Francisco Giants' World Series run to rub off on them.

6) Washington State

Year 4 of the Paul Wulff era brings much more optimism to the Palouse at the beginning of 2011. Despite the two-win season, the Cougars were much more competitive in the conference and ended their losing streak with a big upset at Oregon State. The bright spot on the team is on offense with quarterback Jeff Tuel and wide receiver Marqeuss Wilson. Tuel has played well under the circumstances since he was a freshman and with a big (6-foot-3) target in Wilson and an experienced O-line, the offense should be one of the best in years. The defense returns eight and according to Wulff, finally understands what to do and where to be at the right time. The team still needs to take a huge jump on the field if they want to move up in the standings but the Cougars are no longer a pushover and someone others will have to take seriously.

South

1) Southern California

The Trojans already know how their season will end thanks to NCAA sanctions keeping them out of the first Pac-12 championship game and a bowl for the second consecutive year. Make no mistake about it though, they will revel in playing spoilers and want to prove they are one of the best in the country even if they will play one fewer game than most. Quarterback Matt Barkley is one of the top signal-callers in the game if healthy and he has one of the deepest receiving corps in the country, led by freshman All-American Robert Woods. A patchwork offensive line will have to keep him upright and finding a primary running back after Marc Tyler's offseason issues will something Lane Kiffin's staff hopes to figure out before the first ever Pac-12 game versus Utah. The defense is looking to rebound from last year's disaster in their second year under famed coordinator Monte Kiffin and the defensive line should be the backbone. The schedule is manageable but trips to Notre Dame, Arizona State and Oregon will be a challenge. Even if the Trojans end up atop the South, they'll have to sit at home and watch in December, but at least they'll have proven they're back after two sub-par years.

2) Utah

Utah received its call-up to the big leagues and cannot be more excited to play in the Pac-12 this year. The team is used to beating BCS programs but will have to do so against a much deeper league week-in and week-out this year. The Utes started out hot and climbed all the way to No. 6 in the polls last season before struggling down the stretch with a banged-up quarterback in Jordan Wynn. Claiming to be fully healthy, the Utes hope he returns to early season form and can help smooth the transition to new OC Norm Chow's West Coast offense. The offensive line isn't much of a question mark but running back is, with true freshman Harvey Langi expected to play a big role. Kyle Whittingham is a very good coach and thinks the defense can get back to where they normally are despite losing several key starters. They get a break from the scheduling gods by missing Oregon and Stanford their first year and end up with the bottom four teams in the Pac-12 to close out the season.

3) Arizona State

By the time you finish reading this preview, the Sun Devils might have already lost another player to injury. That's just the way things are going out in Tempe where optimism over 19 starters returning has been dampened with an almost constant stream of injuries. The biggest loss is defensive back Omar Bolden, who tore his ACL in the spring and was expected to lock down an entire side of the field. In a conference full of great quarterbacks, losing your top corner stings. It might not matter if linebacker Vontaze Burfict can keep his head on straight -- fights with teammates aren't a good start -- because he's the leader for conference defensive player of the year and a terror to game plan around. Offensively there's some depth at offensive line for the first time under Dennis Erickson and that's key for a quarterback who really is entering his first full year as a starter in Brock Osweiler. The former basketball player (he's 6-foot-7) has some weapons around him but still is a bit of a question mark after only putting together one full, good game last year. The Sun Devils expect to win the league and go BCS bowling and -- if they can get healthy -- there's no reason to see otherwise.

4) Arizona

Just 10 starters return for the Wildcats in what figures to be a rebuilding year in Tucson despite having a very good quarterback and a great set of skill position players back. Expectations are not high due mainly to the fact that the entire, yes the entire, offensive line has to be replaced. There's only one start among the entire unit, and while tackle Fabbians Ebbele and others looked OK in the spring, that's completely different from doing it in the fall with a stadium full of screaming fans. Accurate quarterback Nick Foles returns and he has several offensive weapons at his disposal if he can stay upright. Running back Keola Antolin is a threat out of the backfield and wide receiver Juron Criner teams with Texas transfer Dan Buckner to give the Wildcats a top receiving corps. The secondary and interior defensive line should be OK but there's a big hole at defensive end that Mike Stoops hopes to rectify quickly. The schedule is brutal to begin with (at Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, at USC, at Oregon State) so they could be out of the conference race by early October.

5) UCLA

Rick Neuheisel is one of the most optimistic coaches in college football, and while it's hard to tell if you talk to him, he's firmly on the hot seat in Westwood. He overhauled the staff after last year's 4-8 campaign by bringing in two new coordinators and Nevada assistant Jim Mastro to help further refine the Pistol offense. Quarterback Kevin Prince is healthy and appears to be the starter but he'll be playing behind an offensive line that lacks depth and is without guard-tackle Jeff Baca for the first month of the season. Tight end Joseph Fauria is a big target in the passing game and the trio at running back, Johnathan Franklin, Derrick Coleman and Malcolm Jones, should be bright spots if the line can be at least average. The defense is led by middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, who is a little bigger than he was last year but still is quick enough to drop into coverage. Defensive ends Owa Odighizuwa and Datone Jones are ones to watch. This team might be better on the field than the 2010 edition but if that doesn't translate to a bowl or better for the Bruins, Neuheisel might be saying goodbye from his alma matter.

6) Colorado

First-time head coach Jon Embree is looking forward to getting to work at his alma matter and has a solid foundation with 16 starters returning from a team that was better than its 5-7 record last season. Quarterback Tyler Hansen is a solid option but he isn't to the level where he can win a game for the Buffalos. Luckily he's got a veteran group up front that loses first-round NFL draft pick Nate Solder but might be the best position group in years for the team. It's been five seasons without a winning record, and at this point, it's difficult to predict how much success Embree and this team will have in a new league. The Buffs draw both Oregon and Stanford and have to travel to Ohio State and Hawaii as part of a 13-week stretch with no bye week. There's some talent on the team for sure, but coming together and learning a new league, under a new staff, will make for a difficult 2011 campaign.

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