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The Top 10 offseason storylines in the Pac-12

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For the past week, Crystal Ball Run has been giving you all the big off-season storylines in the major college football conferences. Included were: the SEC, Big XII, Big Ten, ACC and the Big East. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up with all the non-AQ schools.

But today? It’s time to talk Pac-12.

With a slew of new coaches, and two true National Championship contenders, there has never been a more exciting time to be a fan of West Coast football.

Here are some things to keep an eye on.

10. What’s Up At Oregon State?

 

For years, there were three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Oregon State upsetting the balance of power in the Pac-10. The Beavers were the master of the big-game surprise, ending USC’s title hopes before they began in 2008, knocking off the Trojans in Corvallis again in 2010, and nearly claiming a Pac-10 title in 2009.

But that was then, and this is now though, and it’s hard to think of a team that has fallen harder, faster than the Beavers. After winning at least eight games in every year from 2006-2009, Oregon State has combined to win just eight total in the last two years, with last year’s 3-9 campaign low-lighted by a season-opening loss to… (are you ready for this?)… Sacramento State. A team which finished 4-7, in FCS play. In college football, there are bad losses, really bad losses, and then a home defeat to Sacramento State to open the year. Some could make a strong case it was the worst loss any team had all season.

And sadly, it doesn’t appear- at least on the surface- that things will be much better in 2012. Last year the Beavers were hardly efficient on offense (100th nationally in scoring), and not much better on defense either, allowing over 30 points a game. And while quarterback Sean Mannion is back under center, there just doesn’t appear to be a whole talent of talent returning around him. James Rodgers- one of the last remaining relics of the glory run of a few years ago- is gone to graduation, and the rushing game was so bad in 2011, not only did it not produce a 1,000-yard rusher (which is understandable), it didn’t produce a 500-yard rusher either. Not good.

Yup, these are tough times at Oregon State. And with everyone around them getting better (more on that coming), things don’t seem to be getting any easier.

9. What Should We Expect In Year One From Jim L. Mora?

When Jim (don’t call me Jr.) L. Mora was hired by UCLA this past December, it elicited the same reaction your girlfriend might give you, if you told her you were taking her to Applebee’s for Valentines Day. Simply put, the hire could’ve been worse. But yeah, it also could’ve been a lot better too.

Or so we thought. Because for whatever disdain folks showed after the initial hire, they were quickly assuaged once recruiting season started. Given a short window to work with, Mora assembled a killer staff, and put together the third best class in the conference, trailing only Stanford and USC. For at least one day, the UCLA faithful were happy with the hire.

Unfortunately, recruiting has never been an issue at Westwood, and what everyone is dying to know right now is instead if Mora can win, and if so, how soon?

The coach’s first task will be figuring out who his quarterback is (Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut split time and both return), but whomever wins out the job, will get to hand the ball of to Johnathan Franklin (who has combined to rush for over 2,000 yards the last two years) and also throw to leading receiver Nelson Rosario. Yes UCLA fans may have been happy to run Rick Neuheisel out of town. But he didn’t leave the cupboard bare for successor.

Also, remember this: With Arizona and Arizona State going through similar coaching transitions as well, and Colorado and Utah struggling in their first seasons in the Pac-12 last year, it seems fair to ask, why can’t Mora win right away? He returns talent, and outside of USC at the top, there doesn’t appear to be a pecking order in the Pac-12 South.

As crazy as it sounds, it could be a big year one for Mora in Los Angeles. Just don’t call him Jim Jr.

8. Speaking of Utah and Colorado:

The other day, while listening to the Solid Verbal podcast, I thought Spencer Hall from Everyday Should Be Saturday summed up last year’s Pac-12 expansion pretty well, when he said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Adding Colorado and Utah was like having your kids move home from college, and into the basement. Essentially, nothing changed.”

And essentially, Mr. Hall was right: Nothing did change. Truth be told, Lane Kiffin makes causes more interest by walking out his front door every morning than either of these teams did in their first year in conference. Combined, they finished 11-15, and 6-12 in the Pac-12.

But in Year Two, can they make some noise? It seems feasible.

Again, half of the South Division (UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State) will be in the midst of coaching transition, meaning that if there was a time for one of these programs to make a move, now would be it. Colorado still seems to be lacking the elite playmakers to make it happen (although they did sign a few blue chippers this spring, including the esteemed Yuri Wright), so they may be off the table.

But Utah? Well, considering that they went 8-5 last year (4-5 in conference), return two quarterbacks with experience (Jon Hays replaced the injured Jordan Wynn), and ended 2011 on a hot streak (winning five out of their last six), things seem to be trending upward in Salt Lake City.

Look for the Utes to compete with UCLA and Arizona State for the second spot in the South Division.

7. Freshmen, Freshmen All Around:

Earlier we mentioned that in his first winter at UCLA, Jim L. Mora became one of the darlings of the recruiting world, when on short notice, he put together one of the Top 20 classes in the country. However, Mora was hardly the exception to the rule, as a number of programs across the conference scored big on Signing Day. Simply put, the class of 2012 may provide the biggest talent boon to the Pac-12 in several years.

Looking around the conference, it seemed like virtually everyone had some degree of success on Signing Day. The class belonged to USC, who- despite only signing 15 players because of scholarship sanctions- signed one of the best classes in the country, headlined by two stars from….the East Coast. Those two would be receiver Nelson Agohlor and defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who are both from Florida, and each could get significant playing time starting from day one. Washington added assistant coach Tosh Lupoi from Cal, then added a few of the Golden Bears’ top recruits, including safety Shaq Thompson, a consensus Top 20 player nationally. Oregon added arguably one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the country in Arik Armstead. And Stanford signed one of the top classes anywhere, with four offense and defensive line prospects that could literally play for anyone in college football.

Even a school like Arizona hit a recruiting home run when they convinced playmaker Trey Griffey of Florida to come across country. Speaking of which…

6. Can Rich Rodriguez’s Spread Work In The Desert?

The short is answer is: Almost certainly. Sure it’s going to take time, and yes it’ll take a major overhaul on the players recruited by Mike Stoops’ regime. But at the very least, it can’t be worse than Rodriguez’s time at Michigan. Right?

And while trying to break down Arizona’s depth chart seems like an exercise in futility right now, what we do know is that with time, Rodriguez will succeed. There are plenty of high-level athletes on the West Coast for Rodriguez to recruit (look at the kind of guys Chip Kelly has gotten to go play up in Eugene), and many of the assistant coaches that Rodriguez brought with him to Arizona are guys he worked with at West Virginia. It’s safe to say that there are no Greg Robinson’s on Rodriguez’s staff this time around.

Quite frankly, we’re expecting big things from new head coach Rich Rodriguez, kind of like…

5. Mike Leach at Washington State:

That’s right, the pirate ship has landed in Pullman, WA folks, and after two years away from the game, Mike Leach is officially at Washington State. And college football is better because of it.

Speaking of Leach- as crazy as it sounds- there’s a real possibility that, umm, the Cougars won’t be terrible this year. Despite combining for just nine wins over the last four years, the one thing that Washington State did do well under Paul Wulff was pass the football, something that isn’t expected to change with Leach’s arrival. Wazzu finished ninth in the country at over 322 yards per game through the air, and could be even better under Leach, whose “Air Raid” offense took college football by storm at Texas Tech. It won him 84 games over 10 year at a school with virtually no football tradition before he arrived. A lot like Washington State, actually.

Like Rodriguez, Leach will need time to fully implement his system, but it’s hard to imagine a better fit for the off-the-beaten-path, tough-to-recruit-to Pacific Northwest than Leach is.

That trip to Pullman that everyone’s taken for granted as a win these last few years, won’t be nearly as easy as it once was.

4. Will Washington’s Defense Be Better?:

So if you pay attention to college football, there’s a reasonable chance that you may have seen the debacle that was the Alamo Bowl this past December.

You remember that game, right?

In it, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin put up roughly 25,000 yards of total offense (all numbers approximate), in a record-setting 67-56 Baylor win (that number is real), which looked more like the final score a Big Ten basketball game, then a football game. (Ok, who are we kidding? Outside of Ohio State, nobody in Big Ten basketball could score 67 points in a game! You get the point though. From a football perspective, it was hideous.)

As for the team that was on the wrong end of that final score? It’d be Washington, and it cost most of the defensive staff their jobs, including coordinator Nick Holt. As far as we know after the game, not only was Holt fired, but also banished to the Island of Misfit coaches, along with Ron Zook, Bill Stewart and Dave Wannstedt amongst others. (Kidding, of course.)

Anyway, this off-season did provide an overhaul of the defensive staff in Seattle, and for the first time in a long time, there is real optimism that things will be turned around. New coordinator Justin Wilcox returns to his Pacific Northwest roots, after spending two years at Tennessee, where he turned one of the nation’s youngest defenses, into one of college football’s most underrated overall (the Vols finished 27th nationally, which was no small feat for a team that started mostly freshman and sophomores, and did it in the SEC). Along with Wilcox linebackers coach Peter Sirmon came West from Knoxville, and as we mentioned earlier, Tosh Lupoi was plucked from Cal, to not only coach the defensive line, but also be the Huskies’ primary recruiter.

Given Wilcox’s track record at Tennessee (and Boise State before it) it’s hard not to see Washington’s defense being better than it was in 2011. Then again, given that the Huskies finished 108th in scoring defense last year (allowing 35 points per game), and more importantly, given how the season ended period, it doesn’t appear as though things can get worse.

3. What Will Stanford Look Like Post-Luck?:

In the interest of full-disclosure, I’ll just say it: I was wrong about David Shaw this past season. Even with Andrew Luck, I thought that without Jim Harbaugh, Stanford would take a major step back from their historically good 2011 season. Well, if going 11-2, as opposed to 12-1 is a “major” step back, then I guess that happened. By all other tangible measurements though, Year One was a resounding success, under Shaw.

But now, the fun part starts. Because with Luck gone to the NFL, expectations have again been tempered in Palo Alto (much like last year), and no one is quite sure what to make of the Cardinal. Well personally, I’m signing a completely different tune than I was a year ago, and actually think that Stanford could surprise some people.

No, new quarterback Brett Nottingham won’t be Luck (although, with that name, he does sound like he’d make a heck of a monarch overseas); then again, he doesn’t have to be. Along with him, the Cardinal return running back Stepfan Taylor, as well as emerging wide receiver Ty Montgomery, and welcome star running back Barry Sanders Jr. to the fold. Add in a young, but uber-talented group of offensive line prospects, and it seems like the Cardinal should be able to at least hang with opponents, if they can’t straight outscore them.

Now, will they win another 11 games? Almost certainly not. But could they be better than expected? Take that to the bank.

Chip-Kelly2. How Good Were Oregon’s Back-Up Quarterbacks Last Season?:

When quickly glancing over everyone’s roster following this past bowl season, it seemed as though Oregon was built for another Pac-12 title – and potentially National Championship- run. Sure LaMichael James would likely head to the NFL, but with Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Joshua Huff back to run alongside quarterback Darron Thomas, there was no reason to think that the Ducks couldn’t post another 10 or 11 win season. If not, 12 or 13.

Then, insanity occurred, and Thomas entered the NFL Draft, becoming the most surprising member of this year’s early entry list. While Crystal Ball Run has explained why we didn’t like the decision, it is in fact final, and we obviously wish Thomas nothing but the best at the next level.

With Thomas now gone, that has hardly dampened Oregon’s title hopes however. Nope, not by any stretch. That’s because back-up, Bryan Bennett, got a little bit of playing time last year and plenty of acclaim from the folks in Eugene, after starting- and winning- at Colorado, in a 45-2 rout last fall. And when Thomas returned the next week, there was even talk that Bennett should split reps, and see time under center. It obviously never happened, but it’s safe to say that the folks in Eugene had no problem with the idea of Bennett seeing more playing time.

Well, the starting spot is now Bennett’s, and with that stable of backs, don’t be surprised if Oregon’s offense (which is repeatedly one of the Top 10 nationally) keeps chugging along, and keeps putting up points. Remember, at one point Thomas was thought to be a pretty unworthy replacement for Jeremiah Masoli, but two years, and two Pac-12 Championships say otherwise. Also, don’t sleep on Bennett’s back-up last year Marcus Mariota, a 6’4 freakish athlete from Hawaii, who was a third-stringer last year. He could very easily steal some reps under center.

That’s right, Chip Kelly has built a super-power in Eugene, one that will continue to run smoothly with or without Thomas.

And finally…

1. How Good Are USC’s Back-Ups?

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a pretty reasonable chance that the USC Trojans might have a good football team in 2012. Matt Barkley returns as a Heisman Trophy favorite, with two star receivers on the outside (Robert Woods and Marquise Lee), along with 1,000 yard back Curtis McNeal. The defensive has plenty of top-line talent too, including Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson at linebacker, not to mention All-Pac 12 safety T.J. McDonald. Simply put, it’s good to be Lane Kiffin. And not just because his wife is a total knockout.

But to go from solid, 10-win team in 2011, to National Championship contender in 2012, the question that everyone will want answered is about the depth is on Kiffin’s roster. NCAA scholarship sanctions are just starting to hit, and with a slew of off-season transfers and just 15 players signed in this incoming class, the margin for error at ‘SC is thin. Simply put, this team cannot afford to have anyone get injured or underperform.

So how deep is USC and how good are their back-ups? It’s one of the most important questions in the run for the 2012 Crystal Ball.

It’s also the biggest off-season question in the Pac-12.

For all his opinion, analysis and articles on college football, please follow Aaron Torres on Twitter.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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