To anyone still reading this nearly dormant blog, welcome to the 2011 season of college football and the first season for the new Pac-12 Conference. This is a favorite time of year for the Good Guys, so you should start to see a lot more posts here. Personally, I am finally done with the graduate school that’s kept me from posting for the past 8 months or so, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.
The Pac-12 season kicks off for everyone this week, with Arizona State and Utah both kicking off tomorrow and everyone else starting the season on Saturday. The only real attention grabbers for the weekend are UCLA at Houston and the battle of off-season troublemakers between Oregon and LSU. Everyone else plays an FCS or comparable team. Not to say that all of the teams have a definite win, but even the Cougars should have a pretty easy go of it this week.
Reading through the multitude of Pac-12 previews over the last few weeks, the conference seems unsure, at least after Oregon and Stanford at the top. Oregon, despite the offseason drama, is still as fast as anyone and a threat to return to the BCS championship. Stanford has a few more questions after losing Jim Harbaugh and several receivers, but they still have Andrew Luck and as much or more talent as anyone else in the conference. Expect these two to stay at the top of the league, perhaps meeting as undefeated teams later in the season. Unfortunately, both play in the new North division with the Huskies, meaning that only one of them can play in the new Pac-12 Championship. Of course, if the Huskies want to play in it instead, they’ll probably have to beat at least one of these teams and win just about everything else. More on them in a bit.
After those two, the pecking order is anything but clear. In the south, there is talent with question marks. ASU looked like the top dog, but they’ve suffered some major injury losses, and the Sun Devils haven’t met expectations since Jake the Snake was there, as far as I can remember. USC still has excellent talent, but they’re banned from the postseason. Utah is always good, but how they’ll transition to the Pac-12 is a big question. Arizona could put up crazy passing numbers if they’re o-line holds up. Even UCLA and Colorado seem like they could surprise, although each have big questions or weaknesses. I could truly see just about any order of finish in the south, but none of these teams seem truly dominant.
There is similar uncertainty after Stanford and Oregon in the north. California might have the conference’s top defense to go with some weapons on offense. If new quarterback Zach Maynard can consistently get the ball to Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones and Isi Sofele provides a reasonable facsimile of Shane Vereen, they could easily surprise and make a bowl. It’s hard to imagine Oregon State struggling for a full year, but the offseason has not been kind to them. They lost Jacquizz Rodgers somewhat surprisingly to the NFL and will start the year with at least four starters out due to injury. James Rodgers is among those who might return later in the year, so it’s quite possible this will be another season where the Beavers play good football by November. They have questions on both lines even before the injuries, however, so I have my doubts. Cougar fans have been talking for months about this being their season to break out. Their schedule starts easy, and if they can beat San Diego State to go 3-0, they might have something this year. WSU is definitely better than they have been, but I’m betting talk of a bowl game will prove to be wishful thinking.
That leaves us with the University of Washington. They’re being picked anywhere from 3rd to 5th in the north, with projections of 6-8 wins. That seems likely, with a couple of significant injuries the only real plausible path to fewer than 5 wins. It’s become difficult to expect much out of the Huskies, but this might be the year that starts to change. I remember a comment on a chat board somewhere saying that the Dawgs won’t really return to dominance until they have Pac-12 starter level players who are unable to get onto the field. The Huskies are still too young for that to really be the case this year, but they’re getting closer. Their talent level and depth is significantly better than it has been in years. They have difference-makers at every position. The question now is whether all of these players are actually ready to make a difference. The offensive line needs to translate their talent into consistent performance. The young linebackers on either side of Cort Dennison will have to grow up and make plays in a hurry. Everyone else just needs to show consistency. There is plenty of talent, but in past years it hasn’t always produced results.
After that, it comes down largely to one player: Keith Price. If the rest of the team plays up to its talent-level, he only needs to be okay. Manage the game, make most of his open passes, not do anything crazy and the team should be fine. I think he can do that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does more. Jake Locker was one of my favorite Huskies of all time, but realistically, he wasn’t that great last year. Price should be able to produce similar, if not better, passing numbers. However, like many great quarterbacks, Jake had the ability to get better and make plays when he needed to. There’s no way to know if Price can consistently do that yet. Probably, he can’t, but luckily there are plenty of others on the team who might be able to fill that void.
I don’t know what the actual over/under line is on regular season Husky wins. If I had to guess, I would set it at 6 1/2. I’ve talked myself into expecting 7-5 or 8-4 before a bowl game, and if everything broke right I could see even better than that. It’s been 11 years since everything broke right for the Huskies. I’d say they’re due.