Off-the-field news dominates Pac-12 storylines
It's been a year of big stories in the Pac-12, starting with expansion and continuing with Oregon falling just short of the program's first national title.
The biggest story this spring? Again, it didn't happen on the field. It happened in the boardroom: It was announced on Wednesday that the conference had signed the richest TV contract in college sports history, one that will pay the conference an average of $250 million annually over the next 12 years.
That monumental announcement came after all the spring games had been played. But what happened on the field?
• Three schools entered spring practices with intrigue at quarterback, and only one emerged with few answers: UCLA, where a battle remains among Kevin Prince, who missed spring practice with a knee injury, Richard Brehaut and true freshman Brett Hundley.
There's no such indecision at Washington, which went so far as to announce Keith Price as its No. 1 quarterback over Nick Montana. California provided no such announcement, but Zach Maynard emerged as a clear leader over Brock Mansion and Allan Bridgford.
Oregon and Stanford have no such quarterback issues, and they began spring practices as the clear leaders in the conference based on what they did last season and what they have coming back. Both figure to be ranked in the national preseason top 10, perhaps in the top five. Both will play next fall in the conference's North Division, which means at least one can't play for the Pac-12 championship.
"Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said.
• Big questions for Oregon and Stanford: The Ducks have issues on their offensive line, the Cardinal on their defensive line.
• Luck is playing for the only new coach in the old Pac-10. David Shaw replaces Jim Harbaugh, who bolted for the San Francisco 49ers. One session of spring practices won't be enough to reveal the big-picture meaning of that transition, particularly with Shaw continuing to hold closed practices.
"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities. But when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."
• As for the two new teams, Colorado and Utah, the Buffaloes fired Dan Hawkins and hired Jon Embree, who led a physically demanding spring session intended to show his players that a new sheriff was in town. But the transition from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 doesn't figure to be too dramatic, other than giving fans much better road trips. Over in Salt Lake City, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham considered the transition from the non-automatic-qualifying Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, which will be an interesting measuring stick in the fall.
"The week-in and week-out level of competition is ratcheted up," Whittingham said. "There are some excellent football teams in the Mountain West Conference -- TCU last year. Not to downplay or disrespect anything that's going on in the Mountain West, but we're convinced the weekly challenges will be much more difficult than they have been in years past for us."
• A big change at Utah? The arrival of offensive coordinator Norm Chow after he fell out of favor at UCLA. But that didn't yield much fruit for the Utes this spring, in large part because quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
• Injuries were an issue on many campuses. USC, for one, was missing 12 players from its two-deep depth chart for all or some of the spring. Still, the Trojans might have lucked out. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA saw injuries to their potential starting players that will jeopardize all or at least a portion of their 2011 seasons. The Beavers, for example, don't know whether receiver James Rodgers will be able to play after a serious knee injury last fall.
• On the noninjury, off-the-field side: Oregon's potential starting middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who was projected to replace Casey Matthews, was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested the day after the spring game. It's his second suspension in as many seasons.
Ultimately, every team heads into the offseason with the same hopeful mindset.
Said Luck, "The mindset is still very, very hungry. The price never decreases in football."
What we learned this spring
What did we learn this spring that we can cogitate endlessly about this summer?
Thanks for asking.
1. Oregon and Stanford are the class of the conference: The Ducks and Cardinal finished 2010 ranked in the top five and likely will start there -- or close to it -- in 2011. Both are national title contenders, which means their Nov. 12 showdown on The Farm should have huge implications, starting with the Pac-12 North Division.
2. Arizona State is the South front-runner (by a little), but things are murky thereafter: Most preseason rankings will put the Ducks and Cardinal in the top 10 and the Sun Devils somewhere in the top 25. So who's the No. 4 team in the preseason? USC likely will be most folks' first thought. The play of quarterback Keith Price this spring suggests that Washington isn't going away. It's also hard to ignore Utah's 33 wins in the past three seasons. And is there a dark horse? Is it just me, or does Oregon State seem to play its best when ignored? Or is it Cal or UCLA?
3. There are no patsies in the Pac-12: A fair share of you seem to believe that Colorado will get clobbered and Utah will be exposed this season. One word: No. Both will be competitive from the start. Further, Washington State is going to be different in 2011. That lousy, FCS-looking team in 2008 and 2009? Gone. The Cougars were mostly competitive in 2010, particularly down the stretch, when they nearly beat Cal and Washington and did beat Oregon State. They will win multiple Pac-12 games in 2011. There is no team in the conference that you can look at and say, "No way that team wins six games and ends up bowl-eligible."
4. The quarterbacks are legit, but two have questions: No conference -- for the second consecutive season -- offers the quality at quarterback that the Pac-12 does. It's possible that three will be first-round NFL draft picks next spring: Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles. And that leaves out Oregon's Darron Thomas, who might become a Heisman Trophy candidate. Washington State's Jeff Tuel has an NFL future, and that also might be the case with Arizona State's Brock Osweiler and Oregon State's Ryan Katz. Colorado and Utah are solid at the position with Tyler Hansen and Jordan Wynn, while Price has Huskies fans feeling better about the departure of Jake Locker. Only Cal and UCLA have worrisome issues at the position.
5. There will be plenty of preseason hot seat talk: Ever look at the website Coaches Hot Seat? Notice something? Washington State's Paul Wulff is No. 2, UCLA's Rick Neuheisel is No. 5 and Cal's Jeff Tedford is No. 8. You might not agree with that -- Tedford's seat likely is closer to merely warm -- but it's out there. You probably could toss in Arizona State's Dennis Erickson if the Sun Devils fall short of high expectations this fall. And what if USC crashes and burns? Fact is, most coaches are just a few bad bounces from job jeopardy.
Best of spring
Everyone loves "best of" lists. Here's one for the Pac-12 after spring practices concluded.
Best performance by an offense: Noel Mazzone's crew saved its best for last. Arizona State's offense gained 601 yards in the spring game: 446 yards passing and 155 yards rushing. Junior quarterback Brock Osweiler completed 17 of 22 passes for 237 yards and five touchdowns.
Best performance by a defense: Utah's Red defense held the White offense to 106 total yards in a 7-0 Red victory.
Best performance by a defense II: The Oregon Green limited the White to 164 total yards, including only 63 rushing yards on 31 attempts, in a 16-0 Green win.
Best QB troika: Arizona's three senior quarterbacks -- Nick Foles, Matt Scott and Bryson Beirne -- combined to complete 31 of 42 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats' spring game. Foles (11-16-133), Scott (11-14-134) and Beirne (8-9-115) found a total of 13 different receivers in 60 plays.
Best crowd: Oregon played its spring game in front of a conference-spring-game record crowd of 43,468.
Best performance by a walk-on: Colorado sophomore walk-on running back Josh Ford rushed 17 times for 164 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown in the Buffaloes' spring game.
Best performance by a backup QB: While starter Ryan Katz was out with a wrist injury, Cody Vaz cemented his status as the backup with a consistently strong performance all spring.
Best newbies: Arizona got a likely starter at receiver in Texas transfer Dan Buckner. Arizona State's big-armed trued freshman quarterback Mike Bercovici might end up as the Sun Devils backup QB. One of Cal's starting linebackers is likely to be grayshirt freshmen Cecil Whiteside and Chris McCain. Oregon freshman TE Colt Lyerla lived up to his recruiting hype and looks like he'll be in the rotation in 2011. JC transfer defensive end Rusty Fernando is on track to win a starting job at Oregon State. UCLA true freshman QB Brett Hundley is still in the race to start. Utah's three candidates to start at running back are newbies: JC transfer John White, freshman Harvey Langi and walk-on Thretton Palamo. Washington freshman TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is listed as an "Or" for the starting spot with redshirt freshman Michael Hartvigson. Washington State JC transfer Ian Knight finished spring No. 1 at DE.
Most international interest: Utah's Thretton Palamo, he's best known as an international rugby star. A first-year sophomore who walked on this spring, at 19 years old, he was the youngest player in the Rugby World Cup. He played rugby for the Samoan national team in 2007 (his father captained Samoa's national team as a teenager), then switched to the U.S. national team. He also played professionally for the French team Biarritz Olympique. By the way, Utah upset Cal last year to win the national rugby championship.
Best "you've never heard of me but you will": Colorado DT Conrad Obi had just four tackles last year and has played just 100 snaps in his career, but the 310-pound fifth-year senior was selected as the Buffaloes' most improved player this spring. In the three scrimmages, he had 20 tackles (17 solo, six for losses, two sacks), four third-down stops and four tackles for zero yards (so 12 of the 20 were at or behind the line of scrimmage). Oh, and he forced fumble.
Best "graduate a semester early from high school, enroll in the spring, earn a starting job by default": USC fullback Soma Vainuku went from high school to Stanley Havili's replacement the first week of spring practices.
Best buzz, non-football division: Arizona State's "It's Time" campaign created plenty national buzz in advance of the April 12 launch of the rebrand, which included a new logo. The Sun Devils joined Oregon as the most fashion-forward Pac-12 team.
To read the Pac-12's spring superlatives in its entirety, click here.
Pac-12 Players To Watch
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Arizona: Quarterback? Check. Receivers? Check. But how will a young offensive line acclimate? For more on the Wildcats, click here.
California: Improving the team culture and building unity was a focus this spring. Will it lead to more consistency in 2011? For more on the Golden Bears, click here.
Colorado: "Hello, my name is ...." Players are acclimating to a new coaching staff this spring and vice versa. For more on the Buffaloes, click here.
Oregon: There are two Heisman Trophy candidates in the backfield; where will the rest of the playmaking come from? For more on the Ducks, click here.
Oregon State: It's been running back by committee this spring, but who will eventually be called upon to fill Jacquizz Rodgers' shoes? For more on the Beavers, click here.
Stanford: No team received better news heading into this spring than Stanford, but questions at some key positions remain. For more on the Cardinal, click here.
UCLA: With a healthy mixture of youth, depth and speed, things are looking good on the defensive end. For more on the Bruins, click here.
USC: Issues outside the team's control remain, but on the field, a thin and injury-plagued offensive line remains an area of concern. For more on the Trojans, click here.
Washington: Whoever wins the quarterback competition will have plenty of guys who can catch the ball. For more on the Huskies, click here.
Washington State: A lack of talent and experience hindered Paul Wulff's attempts to integrate a no-huddle offense. An upgrade in both areas will be welcome. For more on the Cougars, click here.
Pac-12 Games To Watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Oregon: The Ducks, the two-time defending champions, are No. 1 until somebody knocks them off. The defense outplayed the offense much of the spring, which might mean that the rebuilding offensive line is questionable -- or that the rebuilding defense is solid.
2. Stanford: It starts with quarterback Andrew Luck, so the Cardinal have the best starting point in all of college football. But it's not all about him. Stanford is stacked at running back, tight end and linebacker and looks solid on the offensive line and in the secondary. The big question is the defensive line.
3. Arizona State: It hurt to lose two starters, All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson, to knee injuries this spring, but the Sun Devils still look like the top team in the South Division.
4. USC: Spring wasn't terribly revealing because so many players were hurt. But quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Robert Woods looked very good, while the defense looked improved. If the Trojans get their postseason eligibility back from the NCAA, watch out. This could be a dangerous team.
5. Arizona: Safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer suffered knee injuries, which isn't good for the defense. The offensive line, which is replacing five starters, struggled at times. But quarterback Nick Foles and the conference's deepest crew of receivers make the Wildcats a threat to anyone.
6. Washington: Keith Price asserted himself in the quarterback competition with Nick Montana, and the defense looks improved. The Huskies might actually take a step forward post-Jake Locker instead of a step back.
7. Utah: It's hard to evaluate the offense with new coordinator Norm Chow because quarterback Jordan Wynn was out with a shoulder injury. But questions at running back and in the secondary don't seem as worrisome after spring practices compared to before.
8. UCLA: The Bruins didn't answer their questions at quarterback and the offensive line has injury questions, but the defense looks as though it might take a significant step forward in 2011.
9. Oregon State: The Beavers have a lot of questions, which injury issues didn't help. Chief among them are the offensive and defensive lines and running back. Hearing at some point this spring that WR James Rodgers is running again, and fast, would ease many concerns.
10. California: The Bears still have questions at quarterback, at running back and along the offensive line. Practices were closed, so all the touted young talent on defense is mostly based on conjecture. The Bears might take a step forward in 2011, but it's hard to say at this point exactly why.
11. Colorado: The Buffaloes were mostly competitive last season in the Big 12, and it helps that they have an experienced quarterback in Tyler Hansen and a returning 1,300-yard rusher in Rodney Stewart. Still, it seems that new coach Jon Embree has inherited a team that needs to be rebuilt, particularly in terms of speed at receiver and in the secondary.
12. Washington State: Everything suggests the Cougars will be much improved in 2011, starting with what should be a potent passing game with quarterback Jeff Tuel. But two conference victories in three previous seasons forces us to act all Missouri on this one: The Cougs have got to show us.