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Another college football season is upon us, and USC finds itself at the top of the preseason polls. Just a few slots back, in the fifth position of many rankings, are the three-time defending conference champion Oregon Ducks.
Depending on how the season plays out, the Trojans might have to defeat the Ducks twice in order to reach the national championship game in January. This is the first year that the Lane Kiffin-led Trojans will be bowl eligible following their two-year postseason ban.
Stanford also is a force in the conference, ranked 25th despite losing star quarterback Andrew Luck to the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
Four new head coaches join the conference: Mike Leach at Washington State, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham for Arizona State and Jim L. Mora at UCLA. In a conference known for its offense, these new minds look to continue that legacy.
Overall, the Pac-12 looks to improve its national standing after a woeful 2-5 bowl record last season. Here’s a team-by-team preview for 2012.
USC (Last Season: 10-2 Overall, 7-2 Conference, Not Bowl Eligible in 2011-2012)
Expectations have been high around the Men of Troy ever since Heisman candidate quarterback Matt Barkley announced he would return to campus instead of entering the NFL Draft. Barkley and crew return with eyes on making a major impact on the national college football scene. Ranked atop many preseason polls, Lane Kiffin’s Trojans hope to overcome their two-year postseason bowl ban by using their high-powered offense to run away with the Pac-12 South and give Barkley his first bowl win since the 2009 Emerald Bowl. The NCAA issued the bowl ban back in 2010, following an investigation regarding illegal benefits given to student athletes while Pete Carroll was still head coach. Look for newcomer Silas Redd, the transfer running back from Penn State, to add another element to the already potent USC offense.
The big question mark this season will be the team’s defense. Even though Barkley has the talent to outscore any opponent, many are concerned that the Trojan defense will keep teams in the game far too long.
UCLA (Last Season: 6-8 Overall, 5-4 Conference, Lost in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
Despite a losing record last season, the Bruins are coming off an appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. First- year head coach Jim L. Mora looks to change the culture in Westwood. Mora has conference ties, playing at Washington in the early 1980s, but has been coaching at the pro level for 14 years. Mora named redshirt freshman Brett Hundley the new starting quarterback, beating out three others, including last year’s starter, senior Kevin Prince.
Utah (Last Season: 8-5 Overall, 4-5 Conference, Won Sun Bowl)
In their first season in the conference, the Utes finished one win short of playing in the conference championship game. This year, Utah looks to improve behind returning quarterback Jordan Wynn. The junior was sidelined just four games into last season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. With Wynn behind center, Utah hopes to moves towards the top of the pack.
Colorado (Last Season: 3-10 Overall, 2-7 Conference, No Bowl)
Coming off a rough welcoming to their new conference, the Buffaloes have plenty on which to improve. It will be tough -- Colorado only has nine returning starters from a team that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in both points scored and points allowed.
Arizona (Last Season: 4-8 Overall, 2-7 Conference, No Bowl)
All of Tucson hopes that new head coach Rich Rodriguez can erase the disappointment of last season. After losing quarterback Nick Foles to the NFL, the Wildcats look to start fresh with Corona's (Centennial HS) Matt Scott running coach Rodriguez's speed- option offense. For a mobile quarterback, this type of offense should be a great fit as Arizona tries to transition out of the Stoops era in the desert.
Arizona State (Last Season: 6-7 Overall, 4-5 Conference, Lost in Las Vegas Bowl)
The Sun Devils have a new coach and a new starting quarterback. With Brock Osweiler going in the second round of the NFL Draft, sophomore Taylor Kelly was handed the keys to the Sun Devils offense by first-year coach Todd Graham. Kelly, a known car enthusiast, will take his love for speed onto the field as the main signal caller behind center. Graham may use two other quarterbacks to give the Devils different looks on the field. If the gears start to click after all of these changes, ASU may surprise some in the south.
Pac 12 North
Oregon (Last Season: 12-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, Won Rose Bowl)
The Ducks have won the last three conference championships, and after winning their first BCS Bowl game in the Chip Kelly era, Oregon looks to have another dominant season. The Ducks have lost the second-leading rusher in Pac-12 history in LaMichael James, starting quarterback Darron Thomas, and old uniform designs, but the people in Eugene are not panicking. Electrifying running back De'Anthony Thomas, of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, is on many Heisman watch lists and looks to carry the Ducks into what may be another big season.
Oregon State (Last Season: 3-9 Overall, 3-6 Conference, No Bowl)
After a rough 2011 campaign, the Beavers can be optimistic about returning 15 starters, including sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion. Their biggest upside might be their passing attack, ranked 19th in the country last season. As positive as that looks, their nearly nonexistent rushing game (118th nationally) and ball control (31 turnovers were seventh-most nationally) will need to be rectified in order for Mike Riley's Beavers to make a splash in the conference.
Washington (Last Season: 7-6 Overall, 5-4 Conference, Lost in Alamo Bowl)
Keith Price is going to have to be the man again in Seattle if the Huskies want to improve on last season. Last year, as a sophomore, Price emerged as a star in the making. He threw 33 touchdown passes (tied for 12th in the nation) and completed two-thirds of his passes. The offense will likely have another solid year, but the question mark again will be on the defense. Last year's team gave up nearly 36 points per game, including 67 to Heisman winner Robert Griffin III's Baylor team in the Alamo Bowl.
Washington State (Last Season: 4-8 Overall, 2-7 Conference, No Bowl)
The Pirate has landed in Pullman. Expect a new look on and off the field as Mike Leach unleashes his offensive machinations loose with the Cougars. Leach's weapons include senior Jeff Tuel, one of the conference's top quarterbacks, and pre-season All-American wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who finished 2011 with 1,388 yards (7th in FBS) and 12 touchdown receptions. Leach's treasure will be a bowl game, in which the Cougars have not played since 2003.
Stanford (Last Season: 11-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, Lost in Fiesta Bowl)
David Shaw might have the toughest task of any returning coach in the conference. He must make his own luck after All-American quarterback Andrew Luck was selected first overall in the NFL Draft. Junior Josh Nunes, from Upland High School, earned the starting position after winning the three-player competition this preseason. Alongside Nunes in the backfield will be returning starting running back Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 10 TDs last year. The defense returns seven starters, and will likely improve on a strong unit from a season ago.
California (Last Season: 7-6 Overall, 4-5 Conference, Lost in Holiday Bowl)
The biggest change for Cal will be their return to Memorial Stadium, where they haven't played a game since the end of the 2010 season. Their home field has undergone a $321-million renovation project, but will finally be ready after a season away. The Golden Bears return playmakers Zach Maynard at quarterback (17 TDs last season), running back Isi Sofele (10 TDs last season), and wide receiver Keenan Allen (6 TDs last season). If the offense clicks, they could be an explosive bunch.
For the second straight year, the team with the best record will host the Pac-12 Championship Game and play against the winner of the opposite division. That game is scheduled for Nov. 30. The first week of games begin Thursday, Aug. 30 through Saturday, Sept. 1.
Conference play begins when USC travels to Stanford on Sept. 15.