Take 2: Which Pac-12 team might surprise?

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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USC-Oregon, Oregon-USC. Ducks-Trojans. Kiffin-Kelly! Barkley-Black Mamba!

Golly, doesn't anybody else have a chance in this Pac-12 conference? Should we just call off the regular season and have the Ducks and Trojans settle things in a 13-game series?

(That actually might be fascinating to watch. Think about all the interesting weekly coaching adjustments).

Well, that's not happening.

So then the question before us is a radical one. It might very well split up the space-time continuum and send us spinning into a massive black hole: Which team possibly might shock the world? Which team could break up this apparently preordained marriage at the top of the conference, one reportedly written in gold leaf onto the granite facade of Mount Rushmore?

[+] EnlargeWynn
Kirby Lee/US PresswireJordan Wynn and the Utes have a favorable schedule this season.
It's a dangerous question, I know. Not the sort of one entertained by the meek. But if you are brave, read on.

Hey, you in the gray shirt, you're not brave! Better stop reading.

We warned you.

Kevin Gemmell: The general consensus is that Oregon and USC will meet for the Pac-12 title. But which team could put a wrinkle in that plan?

Whenever you are dealing with a could question, you always have to stipulate with ifs. X could happen if Y and Z fall into place. The team that strikes me as having the fewest ifs is Utah.

My first thought was to go wayyyyy out there and tinker with the idea of Oregon State being the team to shock the Pac-12. The Beavers could be the surprise team if they get the running game in order, and if the offensive line holds up, and if Sean Mannion continues to mature, and if all of that experience from last season pays off. But that's just too many ifs, and way too far to reach.

Utah, however, has a lot of pieces in place already to be the surprise team this season. First, its schedule helps, because the Utes don't have dates with Oregon or Stanford. Their first three games are in-state, and the fourth is at ASU, which will likely still be adjusting to life under a new head coach. That's potentially 4-0 out of the gate.

Then they get an extra week to prepare for the big showdown -- at home -- with USC. That game will be high-noon in the Pac-12 South, and Rice-Eccles will be jumping. If the Utes can somehow get over that hump, they have four more winnable games before traveling to Washington, which could be a hiccup. That notion alone, however, is one major if. USC also has extra time to prepare, because it's a Thursday game.

Another reason to be encouraged is that all reports are that quarterback Jordan Wynn is healthy. He's chock full of experience, and has shown he can be an elite quarterback when he gets his rhythm. The only reason to think the running game will take a step backwards is that Utah has to replace two stud offensive tackles in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. But John White IV has shown to be a very capable -- if not special -- running back. He shouldn't have any trouble adapting.

Also, unlike a lot of other teams with new coordinators, the transition to Brian Johnson should be silky, since he's a veteran of the system and has worked with Wynn since Day 1.

The Utes have one of the top -- if not the best -- defense in the conference. With plenty of returning starters and the most feared defensive lineman in the Pac-12, they should be able to win a game or two on defense alone.

Given the way their schedule is laid out -- combined with returning talent on both sides of the ball and an outstanding coaching staff -- it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Utes could emerge from the South.

Ted Miller: One word: Plastics.

[+] EnlargeJeff Tedford
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJeff Tedford and California could be on the cusp of a return to prominence in the Pac-12.
No, wait. That's something else. Our word is "schedule."

Now we have four words: California Freaking Golden Bears! You're back. Welcome. You remember where everything is, right, up here in the national rankings? No, coach Tedford, you don't have to sleep on that twin mattress in your office. You have the view suite down the hall. Yes, it has been a while. Yes, breakfast is included. Eggs Benedict? Well, your wife did tell us about your cholesterol. You want us to stick it? Well, then, Eggs Benedict it is!

The Bears have the schedule to upset the Trojans-Ducks destination wedding. And the talent, by the way.

Schedule? Cal plays host to Oregon, Stanford and Washington, the likely three top teams in the North Division. Plays host, by the way, at an awesomely cool renovated Memorial Stadium that will put the Strawberry back in the Canyon. The Bears went 30-9 in Memorial Stadium between 2005-2010 before playing their home games in AT&T Park in 2011, including 7-0 marks in 2006 and 2008.

Every team is better at home. Cal fans would tell you their team is better-er at home. Sure, it's had its share of mega face-plants in front of the home fans -- Oregon State in 2007 (altogether now "ouch"), USC in 2009, and that three-game home losing streak to end 2010 with a whimper. But there is no doubt it will be better to play the Ducks, Huskies and Cardinal at home, particularly with the Ducks and Cardinal breaking in new quarteracks.

And Cal isn't breaking in a new quarterback. What if, just maybe, Zach Maynard plays the entire season like he did the final four games of the 2011 regular season? And what if offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik works his magic with the line his second year back in Berkeley? And what if all that young talent -- Mustafa Jalil, Stefan McClure, Todd Barr, Viliami Moala, Brennan Scarlett, David Wilkerson, Chris McCain, Michael Coley, Avery Sebastian, Cecil Whiteside, etc. -- breaks through on defense?

We'll probably get a pretty good measure of the Bears early on. They will take a 2-0 record to Ohio State on Sept. 15. That is a winnable game, but it will require the Bears to go East and show some fire. You might recall that they didn't exactly do that in recent years at Tennessee and Maryland.

Then they visit USC. Jeff Tedford is 1-9 against USC, losing those nine by a combined count of 291-144. The Bears can afford to lose at USC, though a poor showing might cause the team to question itself and make it seem like these are the "same ole Bears." That, however, is not a divisional game. The larger issue is holding serve at home, which would give Cal an advantage in the event of a tie atop the North.

As Kevin noted above, we have a surfeit of "ifs" for both scenarios. It just feels as though Oregon and USC are that far ahead of everyone else.

But you do know that you never know until you do know.

Ted Miller | email

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