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Senior College Football Columnist

Pac-12 preview: Four new, exciting coaches but two favorites remain same

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Matt Barkley and USC will once again do battle with Oregon for the conference title. (US Presswire)  
Matt Barkley and USC will once again do battle with Oregon for the conference title. (US Presswire)  

The Pac-12 not only is set to unveil its TV network this fall but also will offer up perhaps the nation's most intriguing mix of coaches and schemes. The league added four new coaches this off-season (Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, ASU's Todd Graham, UCLA's Jim Mora Jr. and Washington State's Mike Leach). At the very least those four ensure that it won't be boring. Still, this league figures to boil down to a battle between the conference's upstart powerhouse, Oregon and its traditional heavyweight, USC.

Given that USC returns the nation's best receiving tandem, a 1,000-yard rusher (and another on the way), four starting offensive lineman and its entire back seven, the Trojans figured to be the favorite in the Pac-12 South even if Matt Barkley had opted to leave early for the NFL. But when the golden boy quarterback announced on Dec. 22 that he -- and his teammates had "unfinished business" and he was returning to Troy, USC became not only the favorite to end Oregon's run of Pac-12 titles, but also the team with the best hope of ending the SEC's six-year streak of BCS titles. Oddsmakers have made the Trojans a jaw-dropping 1-6 favorite to win the South division.

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Let's just say that the Trojans' timing to get out of the NCAA's post-season jail for the Reggie Bush mess is ideal. This team is loaded. Sure, scholarship sanctions still have nicked USC in regards to its roster size, but Trojan fans have adopted a "Our 75 is better than your 85" mantra. And it's legit. USC's two-deep is stacked. The vibe around the program started to around midseason last year when the Trojans went to South Bend and bullied a favored Notre Dame team.

"We had all of these dark clouds hanging over us, but after that night, some of those clouds lifted," said coach Lane Kiffin, "and then when we went to Oregon and beat them, a whole bunch more of those dark clouds went away."

The focal point has been Barkley, who went from good to great, starting in mid-October as the inexperienced crew around him gained some seasoning. Since then he had a staggering 25-3 TD-to-INT ratio and that included games against six bowl teams. Building on that as well as channeling a hunger that has been stirring for two years will make this Trojan team an intriguing one to watch in 2012.

"I do think that the sanctions have brought our team closer together and strengthened us in a way that I didn't anticipate," Barkley said. "It made us stronger in terms of character and, you know, it allowed us to face adversity in a unique way that guys our age aren't really used to. It seemed all bad at first, but ultimately, I think it worked in our favor for this point where we are today.

"... These guys are my best friends, and you saw it toward the end of last year, how much fun we were having playing together and playing for each other. I think we've got to keep playing like that this year. We can play for a national championship and bowl games, but we can't forget how we got here. You were playing for your buddy, as our coaches say, and I think especially this year we can't forget to do that."

The challenge for the Trojans, as it often was under Pete Carroll, was to avoid stubbing their toe. Kiffin silenced some skeptics in the second half of last season, but he still comes into the 2012 season with a 3-6 record all-time against teams ranked in the Top 25. Avoiding that clunker of a performance all top teams, especially ones comprised of 19 and 20-year-olds, tend to have from time to time could be balanced out by the presence of Barkley, Kiffin said. The coach explained that it's because of how consistent his stat QB is in all aspects of his life that can prevent against the ups and downs.

Asked if he would've dreamed the day the NCAA handed down crippling sanctions if USC could've emerged as a preseason No. 1, Kiffin, in vintage Lane Kiffin fashion, said, "Yeah, I would've believed that."

The Trojans' biggest threat beyond just coping with expectations will be Oregon. The Ducks, of course, have been to a pair of Rose Bowls sandwiched around a BCS title game appearance and finished the past two seasons ranked No. 4 and No. 3 respectively.

Kenjon Barner looks to help Oregon reach another BCS bowl. (US Presswire)  
Kenjon Barner looks to help Oregon reach another BCS bowl. (US Presswire)  
Oregon does have to replace QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James but Chip Kelly's has two gifted quarterback options in Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota, who people inside the program say are both faster and have better arms than Thomas had.

The QBs' skills may be similar even though their personalities are not.

"Bryan's a lot more talkative and in-your-face," says running back Kenjon Barner. "Marcus carries himself like a grown man. He has that Hawaii [cool] attitude. I've never seen him have a bad day."

Whoever is behind center, will have the luxury of getting the ball to the nation's most exciting player, De'Anthony Thomas, who figures to be an even bigger factor in Kelly's lethal system.

"We were conscious in using them, that we didn't want to overload him, and we had him for a true freshman to come in and play receiver and running back," Kelly said. "And to be able to handle both those roles, speaks a lot to his football acumen. He's a smart kid, understands concepts well, and we'll keep adding to his plate a little bit."

Thomas and Barner spark what may be the country's fastest collection of skill players and they mesh well with Kelly's scheme. Defensively, much of the Ducks' key personnel is also back, led by top tackler John Boyett. Better still, Kelly also returns arguably the league's top special teams unit. The bad news: they do have to visit USC this year.

Bryan Fischer's predicted order of finish:

South

1. Southern California: A trendy pick to win the BCS national championship this year, the Trojans have been freed from their NCAA-imposed bowl ban and are gearing up to return to their winning ways. Thanks largely to the return of quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald for their senior seasons along with a late season run that saw them beat Oregon in Eugene and crush UCLA 50-0 to end the year, there's plenty of momentum for USC in the first year they're eligible for the Pac-12 title.

2. Utah: Don't count Utah out of the division race as they return the second leading rusher from last season in John White IV and the top defender in the Pac-12 in Star Lotulelei. The Utes have suffered from inconsistent quarterback play for the past few seasons but starter Jordan Wynn appears healthy and ready to lead the team to new heights in their second year in the league. They host USC on a Thursday night in early October for a game that should determine the division winner.

3. UCLA: The Jim L. Mora era in Los Angeles will kick off this season and many Bruins faithful hope the breath of fresh air he brings will translate into more notches in the win column. Known mostly for his defensive knowledge, Mora inherits a squad that should be pretty good on that side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has been known for developing quarterbacks and if he can solid play out of Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut or Brett Hundley, UCLA should fair surprisingly well in a division with plenty of turnover.

4. Arizona: Rich Rodriguez is back and more excited than ever to coach football in the Pacific time zone for the first time. Known mostly for his spread offense that took West Virginia within a game of the national championship, the biggest change for RichRod from his failed run at Michigan is that he has his old defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel running things on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Matt Scott is a good fit as trigger-man but there is still plenty of issues up and down the roster the Wildcats will have to overcome.

5. Arizona State: Despite high expectations last season, the Sun Devils came crashing down to mediocre after losing their final five games in 2011. Out went Dennis Erickson and in came the constantly moving Todd Graham as head coach, who is expected to increase the tempo of the offense and add some toughness and much needed discipline to the defense. Only nine starters return for a 6-6 team so expectations shouldn't be set too high in year one.

6. Colorado: It's been a rough transition for the Buffaloes as they enter year two in the Pac-12. The Buffs are hoping the momentum at the end of the year -- two wins in their last three games -- will carry over into 2012 and they can continue the turnaround in year two under Jon Embree. The schedule is much more manageable than last year with more home games and easier opponents but need to replace pretty much everybody but the offensive line on offense and hope the defense takes an additional step this season or else it's the South basement once again.

North

1. Oregon: Feel free to call the Ducks the Rodney Dangerfield team of the Pac-12 -- they simply don't get much respect. Picked to win the North division, they were an afterthought to win the conference behind USC in the most media projections this year and you can bet Chip Kelly will use that as motivation for the reigning league champs. The Ducks have to break in a new quarterback but there are plenty of pieces in Kelly's plug-and-play offense that should produce success once again. The defense has more playmakers than they've ever had and with a schedule that sets up nicely for a BCS title trip, it's time that people start giving Oregon a little respect in 2012.

2. Stanford: Andrew who? The post-Luck era on the Farm kicks off with two winnable games that they'll use to break in a new quarterback before conference favorite USC rolls into town. Although many are expecting a step back for Stanford, the team has high expectations of making a solid run in the Pac-12 once again and it's easy to see why. Running back Stepfan Taylor and a pair of good tight ends will keep the offense moving while the team may field one of the toughest front seven's in the league.

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3. Washington: Steve Sarkisian has taken the Huskies from downright awful to a program on the rise and looking to make serious waves in 2012. Part of the reason they're so optimistic in Montlake is that the offense really started to click with quarterback Keith Price under center and returnees like tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. There's still concern though, over the offensive line and, as you could tell during the bowl game against Baylor, the defense. Sark brought in the highly regarded Justin Wilcox to turn things around and though he's got plenty of things to deal with, he did do a great job at Tennessee despite limited personnel. The biggest issue for Washington however may be lack of momentum at the end of the year after a brutal stretch in which they play Stanford, Oregon and USC in a brutal three week stretch that will make or break their year.

4. California: It seems as though Jeff Tedford has been on the hot seat for five years but with the renovated Memorial Stadium opening this year and plenty of question marks around the Pac-12 North, the time is now for the Golden Bears. Quarterback play remains a huge question mark after a mediocre year with Zach Maynard but he'll have some weapons in running back Isi Sofele and wideout Keenan Allen. The defense will be solid under coordinator Clancy Pendergast but the question remains if Cal can get over the hump and content.

5. Washington State: It's a pirate's life on the Palouse with new coach Mike Leach taking over, swinging his sword and bringing in his high-flying offense to a program hoping to capture past success. The Cougars were headed in the right direction last year but injuries and mistakes kept them from going to a bowl game in 2011. Quarterback Jeff Tuel, CBSSports.com first team All-American Marquess Wilson and defensive end Travis Long are a few of the talented players on the team but they're going to need a few other playmakers to step up if year one of the Leach era is a successful one.

6. Oregon State: Mike Riley is the nicest coach in college football but the time is coming where on the field results have to start mattering. After hitting the restart button on offense last year, the Beavers found their answer at quarterback in Sean Mannion who had a great freshman season despite lacking the wins to go with it. Defensively there are some pieces such as corner Jordan Poyer but for Oregon State to have a good year they're going to need a little magic in Corvallis.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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