Oregon looks to stay atop Pac-12
Ducks return RB James, one of league's Heisman contenders
LOS ANGELES -- Even before Utah visits Southern California for the first Pac-12 game on Sept. 10, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is confident his school is getting in on something big.
"You couldn't be in a better place at a better time, as a school or a program," said Whittingham, whose Utes no longer need to bust the BCS. "This is a tremendous opportunity for everybody involved in this conference."
Utah and Colorado have joined the Pac-10 teams to form a league from Seattle to Tucson, from Boulder to Berkeley -- and its footprint is just as big as its ambition.
The Pac-12 hasn't lost its West Coast flair with the addition of two mountain-based schools. The league still has several inventive offenses and an impressive collection of star quarterbacks, including Stanford's Andrew Luck and USC's Matt Barkley, while its lucrative new television deal eventually will expose its stars to an even broader audience.
Many of those stars are still at Oregon, which is favored to win its third consecutive league title after last season's run to the national championship game. Yet the high-octane Ducks begin the season under a cloud of NCAA investigation into coach Chip Kelly's questionable use of a recruiting service.
"It's nice to be picked to win," Kelly said. "It's nice to be picked top-five in the country, but it doesn't mean anything until you go out and play the game, so that mindset won't change. Hopefully, our motivation comes from within."
Key players: RB LaMichael James, QB Darron Thomas, DB Cliff Harris, DB John Boyett, LB Josh Kaddu. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: The Ducks are the class of the new conference after last season's unbeaten run through the Pac-10. ... Coach Chip Kelly doesn't believe Oregon's recruiting investigation will become a distraction. ... Oregon returns enviable offensive talent for Kelly's fast-paced scheme, including Heisman contender James. ... Harris is suspended for at least the season opener after allegedly driving 118 mph with a suspended license. ... The Ducks have a tough season opener vs. LSU in Arlington, Texas.
Key players: QB Andrew Luck, RB Stepfan Taylor, LB Shayne Skov, S Michael Thomas, OT Jonathan Martin. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Coach Jim Harbaugh jumped to the 49ers after last season's stunning run to an Orange Bowl victory, leaving David Shaw in charge. ... Heisman runner-up Luck's top two WRs are gone, but Taylor returns. ... Cardinal still have ample talent, but recapturing last season's unexpected momentum will be huge challenge.
Key players: RB Chris Polk, QB Keith Price, WR Jermaine Kearse, S Nate Fellner. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: The Huskies are coming off first winning season since 2002. ... UW won four consecutive to end season, including first bowl win since 2001. ... Price is likely replacement for Jake Locker, but Washington will rely early on 1,400-yard rusher Polk and a sturdy defense.
Key players: WR Keenan Allen, LB Mychal Kendricks, OL Mitchell Schwartz, DB Sean Cattouse. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Golden Bears hope to bounce back from disappointing 2010, which ended streaks of eight consecutive winning seasons and seven consecutive bowl games. ... Coach Jeff Tedford rehired offensive assistants Jim Michalczik and Eric Kiesau, but Tedford plans to call plays. ... Cal will play most of its home games at San Francisco's AT&T Park while Memorial Stadium is renovated.
Oregon State Beavers
Key players: WR James Rodgers, S Lance Mitchell, DT Kevin Frahm, OT Mike Remmers, LB Cameron Collins. Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Coming off 5-7 season and first bowl miss since 2005. ... Rodgers is back from two major knee surgeries, but coach Mike Riley isn't sure how much he can play. ... With plenty of new players on defense, Beavers will rely on offense and strong special teams.
Washington State Cougars
Key players: QB Jeff Tuel, WR Marquess Wilson, WR Jared Karstetter, S Deone Bucannon, DE Travis Long. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: The Cougars have won just five games in their first three seasons under coach Paul Wulff, who could be down to his last chance. ... Non-conference home opponents Idaho State and UNLV provide good chance for 2-0 start.
Southern California Trojans
Key players: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, OT Matt Kalil, DL Nick Perry, S T.J. McDonald. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: USC is ineligible for postseason play in final season of bowl ban. ... Coach Lane Kiffin's staff returns largely intact for second season after stocking roster with talent during NCAA sanctions appeal. ... Junior QB Barkley's enviable targets include Woods and touted newcomers Kyle Prater and George Farmer.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Key players: QB Brock Osweiler, RB Cameron Marshall, RB Deantre Lewis, LB Vontaze Burfict, DE Junior Onyeali. Returning starters: 11 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: All five starters return on coach Dennis Erickson's offensive line in front of Osweiler, the junior who led an OT win against Arizona in his only start last season. ... Sun Devils will debut their slick new uniforms and helmets Sept. 1 vs. UC Davis. ... Burfict is a preseason defensive player-of-the-year choice by multiple publications.
Key players: QB Jordan Wynn, OL Tony Bergstrom, LB Brian Blechen, DT Star Lotulelei, KR Shaky Smithson. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Utes are coming off eight consecutive winning seasons in Mountain West. ... They got the luck of the draw in Pac-12 scheduling, avoiding Oregon and Stanford this season. ... Wynn should fit comfortably into the conference's class of outstanding QBs, but Utah must rebuild defense on the move.
Key players: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, RB Keola Antolin, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade. Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Perpetually on-the-bubble coach Mike Stoops has led Wildcats to three consecutive bowl games, but is 40-45 overall. ... Foles and his top three WRs return, but Wildcats must replace entire starting offensive line.
Key players: RB Johnathan Franklin, QB Kevin Prince, S Tony Dye, LB Sean Westgate, DE Datone Jones. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Coach Rick Neuheisel knows he's on hot seat at his alma mater after just one winning season in three years, so he hired hungry young coordinators Mike Johnson and Joe Tresey. ... Bruins' annual injury woes already have started: QB prospect Brett Hundley hopes to return mid-camp after tearing his meniscus playing basketball.
Key players: QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, S Ray Polk. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: New coach Jon Embree thinks Pac-12 is much better fit for his alma mater than Big 12. He faces a high degree of debut difficulty: After taking over a program with five consecutive losing seasons, the Buffaloes play 13 games without a bye week. ... Colorado hasn't won on the road since Oct. 27, 2007, but opens at Hawaii on Sept. 3.