With spring practices in the books, I continue to run down my post-spring conference power rankings. Let’s take a look at how things shape up in the Pac-12.
And be sure to check back with the NFP on Tuesday afternoon for my Pac-12 spring review.
1. Oregon: The Ducks are poised for a third consecutive league championship after returning many of the same characters from last season’s high-octane, up-tempo offense. Losing clutch receiver Jeff Maehl hurts, but there are too many skilled players for the unit to take a step back even with questions on the offensive line. However, it was the defense that really surprised me this spring — not skipping a beat despite losing productive players such as Kenny Rowe, Casey Matthews and Brandon Bair. Chip Kelly’s squad learned from its experience in the Rose Bowl loss two years ago. Can it learn something from its defeat to Auburn in the BCS title game?
ICONWith Andrew Luck back on The Farm, can Stanford topple Oregon and claim the Pac-12?
2. Stanford: Any team with Andrew Luck at quarterback has a chance to win every Saturday. But how will the Cardinal fare without emotional leader Jim Harbaugh, who left for the head job with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers? Scoring points will come easy, especially because a sound rushing attack complements Luck. But will the defense revert back to its pre-Vic Fangio ways and struggle? The longtime NFL coordinator left The Farm with Harbaugh, and the defensive line remains a concern after spring ball.
3. USC: I’m buying the Trojans as the team to beat in the South division. There was a lot of concern over Matt Barkley not being able to work with his full complement of receivers this spring — that’s why the unit looked sluggish. But the junior signal caller will have his weapons back in the fall, and Monte Kiffin’s defense looked much improved in camp despite missing a lot of key components to injury. This could be a fun year for ‘SC fans even if they will be shut out of the postseason.
4. Arizona: The Wildcats face life without pass-rush specialists Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed. In addition, safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer are battling back from knee injuries. Quarterback Nick Foles and receiver Juron Criner are one of the best offensive combos in the nation, and there’s depth at receiver as well. But the Wildcats are replacing all five starters on the offensive line, and the growing pains showed this spring.
5. Utah: The Utes certainly will have to adjust to life in a BCS conference. Quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined this spring with a shoulder injury and still needs to improve his overall game. How will the offense look under new coordinator Norm Chow, who was run out of Westwood? The secondary should be okay after a solid spring, and Kyle Whittingham is too good of a coach to not have a successful debut campaign in the new Pac-12.
6. Arizona State: There’s no question that the Sun Devils are talented — they always have one of the more talented teams in the league. But they’re traditionally an underachieving bunch, and that can’t be the case in 2011 if head coach Dennis Erickson expects to keep his job past the season. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is one of the best defenders in the country, and the Sun Devils racked up 601 yards of total offense in the spring game, led by quarterback Brock Osweiler. When ASU hosts USC on Sept. 24, we’ll find out which team has the upper hand in the division race the rest of the way.
7. Washington: The post-Jake Locker era has commenced in Seattle, and head coach Steve Sarkisian has chosen Keith Price to take over under center. Look for more of Chris Polk and his talented running back mates to take some of the pressure off of Price. The big question is if Nick Holt’s defense can continue to improve and be a consistent unit week after week.
ICONBetter play under center is needed if Rick Neuheisel wants to get the Bruins back to a bowl game.
8. UCLA: Who knows what type of offense we are going to see next fall in Westwood. Head coach Rick Neuheisel will take a more hands-on approach, but will a true leader emerge on offense? The offensive line continues to battle injury concerns, so it looks like the Bruins will have to rely on their defense week after week — a unit that remains strong despite the losses of Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore.
9. Oregon State: Head coach Mike Riley has an emerging star in quarterback Ryan Katz, who continues to improve after his first season as the starter. But will he have receiver James Rodgers back at 100 percent after his knee injury? And will a rushing attack be prevalent with the surprising entry of Jacquizz Rodgers into the NFL? Line play will be huge for the Beavers, who still don’t have enough to compete with the rival Ducks at this point.
10. Washington State: I am going out on a limb here and not slotting the Cougars dead last — where they usually reside. Quarterback Jeff Tuel would be well-known if he played anywhere other than Pullman, but Paul Wulff has surrounded his signal caller with some solid skill-position players. Wulff has just two conference wins in three seasons, so his fourth season is a big one for his job security.
11. Cal: The Golden Bears begin the post-Kevin Riley era with Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard, who gives the team a running threat from the quarterback position. A replacement for Shane Vereen must emerge at tailback, and the offensive line must come together. But it’s the young defense that remains the biggest concern.
12. Colorado: The Buffaloes begin life with new head coach Jon Embree, who is looking to change the culture in Boulder. CU will lean on running back Rodney Stewart as quarterback Tyler Hansen will need some weapons to emerge at receiver. The Buffaloes should be able to get more speed as they make a bigger mark on the California recruiting trail, but the rebuilding effort will take time.
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