<
>

Spring transforms conference into Pac-12

2/17/2011

The Pac-10 doesn't become the Pac-12 officially until July 1, but with the advent of spring practices -- Stanford gets an early jump on Feb. 21 -- the reality sets in: It's going to be different this fall.

It's not just about Utah and Colorado joining the "old" Pac-10, which has been stable since adding Arizona and Arizona State in 1978. It's about a massive transformation.

For one, there will be two divisions: North (California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington and Washington State) and South (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, USC and Utah). Teams will still play nine conference games, but the round-robin format adopted in 2006 is over. With 12 teams, every team can't play every other on an annual basis, which affects not only rivalries but also recruiting.

Divisions also bring a conference championship game, which will be played at the home stadium of the team with the best conference record on Dec. 3. The winner of that game, even if it's just, say, 8-5, will be crowned Pac-12 champion and go to the Rose Bowl, if it's not selected for the national title game.

Divisions change the dynamic. In Pac-10 play, every game mattered. In Pac-12 play, divisional games matter a little more.

While some Pac-10 coaches, particularly in the Northwest, weren't terribly excited about expansion and North and South divisions -- Oregon State's always-pleasant Mike Riley was on record as being slightly sour on the idea -- there's no turning back. For the lack of a better phrase, it is what it is.

"It's not really a focal point for us as we head into spring practice," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Our focus for us is on us, trying to get better."

Said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, "Whether there are eight teams in the conference or 18 teams in the conference, it has no effect on us ... I don't care how they split the divisions -- I don't get caught up in that. I don't know why anyone would .... They don't ask us our opinion on that. And it's not that I want that. I don't worry about things I don't have control over."

For Utah, coming from the Mountain West Conference -- a solid league but a non-automatic qualifying one -- the move was a no-brainer. For Colorado, leaving the Big 12 was a more complicated proposition. But new Buffaloes coach Jon Embree admits he has a West Coast bias.

"When they were forming the Big 12 [in 1994], it looked like we might go to the Pac-10 at the time, and I was really hoping that would happen for the university as opposed to the Big 12 conference," he said. "I always felt like that conference was a better fit for us."

Embree played high school football in Colorado, went to Colorado and coached there for 10 seasons under Bill McCartney (1993-94), Rick Neuheisel (1995-98) and Gary Barnett (1999-2002). He's a Colorado guy. But his parents are from Los Angeles, he was born in L.A., he spent plenty of time in Southern California growing up and he coached at UCLA. He even played for the L.A. Rams for two seasons (1987-88).

He's got plenty of West Coast in him, just as Colorado's and Utah's rosters are already laden with players from California, as well as a smattering from other Pac-10 states. The transition for both probably will be fairly easy.

And, of course, none of this has much to do with spring practices, which for all 12 programs will be business as usual: Filling voids, fostering competition, breaking in new coaches and tweaking schemes.

On the football side of things, Embree is the only new coach who arrived after a termination. His predecessor, Dan Hawkins, never posted a winning season in five years. At Stanford, Jim Harbaugh bolted for the San Francisco 49ers after leading the Cardinal to their best season of the modern era. David Shaw was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh.

That's it for coaching transitions, though it's fair to say that a number of coaches enter spring practices facing win-or-else seasons, particularly UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, Washington State's Paul Wulff and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson.

Seven teams enter spring with stability at quarterback, including four with legitimate All-America candidates behind center: Stanford's Andrew Luck, Oregon's Darron Thomas, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles. Conversely, three teams appear to have wide-open competitions at the position: California, UCLA and Washington.

UCLA replaced both coordinators, which notably ended up landing Norm Chow at Utah. California and Arizona also had some significant staff turnover, with Bears coach Jeff Tedford stating he planned to work extensively with his quarterbacks this spring.

At Oregon, the Ducks begin earnest preparations to defend their consecutive conference titles needing to rebuild their offensive line and defensive front seven. Arizona, California, Stanford and USC also have questions on their offensive lines, while Oregon State must address the early departure of running back Jacquizz Rodgers and issues on its defensive line. Arizona State, with a conference-high 19 starters back, needs to square things away at quarterback and prepare for being the favorite in the Pac-12 South. Newbies Colorado and Utah have vacancies in the secondary, which should be worrisome in a conference of quarterbacks.

So it's really about football this spring, not transformation. Because you know what every coach will tell you when asked for his thoughts on heading into the first year of Pac-12 play?

"It's just line 'em up and tell me who to play," Embree said.