Andrew Luck, Oregon, the return of USC and coaching hot seats that melted were the big stories for the Pac-12 in 2011.
Luck was a big story because he's the best college football player in the nation. Despite being the certain No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, he opted to return for his redshirt junior year. While he fell short of winning the conference title, and may fall short in the Heisman Trophy race, he led the Cardinal to a second consecutive BCS bowl game -- the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl opposite No. 3 Oklahoma State. Not too shabby.
Luck didn't get everything he wanted in large part part because of those pesky Ducks, who won their third consecutive conference title and will play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Oregon opened with a loss to LSU, but that defeat became less of an issue as the season went on and everyone learned just how good LSU was.
USC -- quietly then loudly -- returned to the top five with a 10-2 finish. The Trojans weren't terribly impressive early but their 38-35 victory at Oregon on Nov. 19 forced the nation to take notice.
Finally, four coaches were fired. Arizona's Mike Stoops went down first at midseason; he's already been replaced by former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. Then UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Washington State's Paul Wulff were dumped. The Cougars generated positive national publicity when they quickly scooped up former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
UCLA and Arizona State? Their coaching searches seem to be struggling to find a mutual fit.
As for the conference in general, things were top-heavy. Oregon, Stanford and USC gave the Pac-12 three top-10 teams. But no other team even sniffed the rankings by season's end. The nine other teams had at least five losses. Seven had six or more defeats.
It was another big year for offense, with six of the nation's top 36 offenses residing in the conference. And not a great one for defense, with just three defenses ranking in the top 50.
As for the new elements of being a 12-team league, the conference championship game was ruined by USC's ineligibility due to NCAA sanctions. Instead of a top-10 matchup, the conference was stuck with 6-6 UCLA as the South Division "champion." The Bruins, of course, had just fired Neuheisel.
Utah, after a slow start, mostly played well, despite losing its starting quarterback. The Utes are headed to the Sun Bowl, a better bowl than any their former conference, the Mountain West, has to offer.
Colorado finished 3-10. Obviously, the Buffs have a ways to go.
There were some good things and bad things about the Pac-12 in 2011. The good news going forward is the new $3-billion conference TV contract that clicks in next year, as will the debuts of the Pac-12 Networks. The influx of money is one reason a school like Washington State can increase what it pays its head coach from $600,000 to $2.25 million.
Does the future look bright? Well, it certainly looks green.
Offensive MVP: It was an extremely difficult decision. but our choice is Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. He just nips USC QB Matt Barkley. Barkley has more passing yards, touchdowns and fewer interceptions, but here's why the choice is Luck: Stanford had a better offense than USC with less talent, particularly at receiver. The Cardinal averaged more yards (481 vs. 457) and points (43.6 vs. 35.8) per game. And that superiority can be directly traced to Luck as the manager of the Cardinal offense, a role that gave him more responsibility in terms of play choice than any college QB has had in years.
Defensive MVP: Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas. Thomas led the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss with 17.5 and was second with 8.5 sacks. He also forced five fumbles, second most in the conference, had four quarterback hurries and finished with 51 total tackles. He's not the most physically talented player in the conference, but he might have the best motor.
Newcomer of the Year: Oregon WR De'Anthony Thomas was a do-everything performer in 2011. He rushed 53 times for 440 yards with five touchdowns. He led the Ducks with 42 receptions for 571 yards and nine TDs. He ranked 13th in the nation in kick returns, returning two for TDs. That's 16 total TDs. He ranked 17th in the nation in all-purpose yards.
Coach of the Year: While it might be difficult for some folks to wrap their minds around it, the 2011 season made clear that USC's Lane Kiffin can coach. It's not just that he led his Trojans to a top-five ranking and 10-2 final record. It's not just that he did so while the Trojans were yoked with unfair NCAA sanctions that prevented them from getting a postseason reward, which means he kept a team motivated when it would have been easy for his players not to be. No, it's about the fact that the Trojans went from looking like a mediocre young team over the first half of the season to one that could play with anyone in the nation by season's end. USC improved, and that can only be attributed to coaching.
Biggest surprise: At the start of the season, there were plenty of Pac-12 coaches on the hot seat, but Arizona's Stoops didn't look like one of them. Yet on Oct. 9, after an embarrassing loss to Oregon State dropped the Wildcats to 1-5, he was fired.
Biggest disappointment: Arizona State and Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict share this dubious distinction. The Sun Devils were disappointing because they started 6-2, climbed into the national rankings and looked like a sure-thing South Division champion. But then they collapsed and Erickson was fired. Burfict was a preseason All-America who didn't even make honorable mention All-Pac-12. He's an incredible talent who simply didn't play well this year, for whatever reason.
Best game: Stanford's 56-48 triple-overtime win at USC was not only the best game in the Pac-12, it might have been the best game anywhere all season. The game featured brilliance from both Barkley and Luck -- both tossed three touchdown passes; Luck rushed for a fourth -- but it truly was a thrilling, exhausting, physical battle of attrition.