College Football Analysis: Will Utah, Stanford Surprise USC, Oregon in 2012?

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The Saturday Edge is very proud to present an exclusive PAC 12 football Q & A session with Bob Condotta, the University of Washington football beat writer for The Seattle Times. Bob has been covering the Huskies for more than a decade and his writing and reporting has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

Question # 1: Las Vegas has installed USC as the overwhelming favorite to win the PAC 12 South Division this year (-600) and Oregon to win the North Division (-240). What other team(s) could realistically surprise the oddsmakers and challenge those two teams for the division & conference title? Why?

I only see one other possible contender in the South and that’s Utah, which is experienced, has a lot of returning starters, gets its QB back and also plays USC at home early in the year in what might be as big a regular season game as the Utes have ever played. I don’t see anyone else in the South really having much of a realistic chance.

The obvious choice in the North is Stanford, which despite losing Andrew Luck still appears to have enough returning on paper to be a legit contender. Stanford has some questions, no doubt, notably the aforementioned QB spot — it’s really hard to judge Stanford right now until we see how that plays out. But if the Cardinal gets halfway decent QB play, it could still be an 8-10-win team this year.

The North has a lot of other improving programs — basically, all of the remaining four have reasons to think they could be better this year than they were last year. But I’m not sure any yet is a realistic choice to beat Oregon. It’s kind of boring to write, maybe, but right now, it’s hard to really go away from the listed favorites.

Question # 2: Name me a few unknown players that could become stars this season.

Unknown always comes with a few qualifiers — hardcore fans I’m sure know who these guys are. But even fairly devout Pac-12 fans might be surprised to read how highly Utah DT Star Lotulelei is regarded by the NFL — some scouts think he could be the No. 1 pick in the entire draft next year. He was the Morris Trophy winner last year, picked as the best DL by the other OLs in the conference, but still seemed to go a little under the radar during the season.

Another guy who may not be all that unknown, but enters the year a little under the radar, is WSU QB Jeff Tuel, who looked like an emerging star in 2010 before being hurt in the first game last year and pretty much having a wasted season. Now back as a senior, and running the offense of new coach Mike Leach, it would be little surprise if he became among the nation’s leading passers this season.

Whoever wins Oregon’s starting QB job also figures to pretty quickly become a real well-known guy nationally.

Since I cover Washington, I should probably mention one Husky other than QB Keith Price — who I think is past the unknown stage now — who could become well-known — tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He was one of the better freshmen at his spot last year and could legitimately contend for All-American honors this season.

Question # 3: Which team do you believe will show the greatest improvement over last season? Which team is overrated (not nearly as good as they are being made out to be)?

The team that may be set up the best for rapid improvement this year is Washington State, which has won just nine games the last four years but has a lot of experience back and a new coach in the aforementioned Leach, who brings in an offense that seems a good fit for a lot of the skill talent on hand. The defense remains a major question mark, but if Leach can do with the offense what he did at Texas Tech, the Cougars could/should contend for a bowl game this year.

Another team I think could surprise is UCLA, if it gets any kind of consistent QB play. Judging by a lot of what I’ve read elsewhere, I guess I’m in the minority in thinking Jim Mora could be a really good hire there. But I think he could be, though it will be interesting to see how the players he inherits react to his hard-line approach. I think everyone agrees there’s better talent there than the on-field play has indicated the last few years.

As for overrated, the obvious candidate is Stanford. As I wrote above, I still think the Cardinal could be a legit candidate to threaten Oregon in the North this year. But there’s no question the Cardinal is getting somewhat of the benefit of the doubt because of its success the last three years, when it had Andrew Luck at QB. There’s no way Stanford will replace Luck easily. But if it turns out to be even more difficult than many of is think, then the Cardinal could experience more of a dropoff than is expected. I like Stanford’s defense and I think its running game and physical approach will remain, despite also losing a couple of really good OLs. But there was always the thought that Luck meant a lot more to the Cardinal than his stats indicated. We’ll find out this year.

I would like to thank Bob for his participation and insight to our PAC 12 football questions. If you get a chance please check out Bob’s daily Husky Blog at The Seattle Times. He  always has some great information on PAC 12 and UW football there. And don’t forget to leave us your comments below. Thanks – Pez.

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