Originally Published: May 9, 2011
US Presswire, AP Photo, US PresswireStanford and Oregon are the expected Pac-12 favorites; Utah and Colorado are set to join the league.

Off-the-field news dominates Pac-12 storylines

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

It's been a year of big stories in the Pac-12, starting with expansion and continuing with Oregon falling just short of the program's first national title.

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Getty ImagesThe biggest spring news in the Pac-12 occurred off the field, as the league announced a lucrative 12-year television deal.

The biggest story this spring? Again, it didn't happen on the field. It happened in the boardroom: It was announced on Wednesday that the conference had signed the richest TV contract in college sports history, one that will pay the conference an average of $250 million annually over the next 12 years.

That monumental announcement came after all the spring games had been played. But what happened on the field?

• Three schools entered spring practices with intrigue at quarterback, and only one emerged with few answers: UCLA, where a battle remains among Kevin Prince, who missed spring practice with a knee injury, Richard Brehaut and true freshman Brett Hundley.

There's no such indecision at Washington, which went so far as to announce Keith Price as its No. 1 quarterback over Nick Montana. California provided no such announcement, but Zach Maynard emerged as a clear leader over Brock Mansion and Allan Bridgford.

Oregon and Stanford have no such quarterback issues, and they began spring practices as the clear leaders in the conference based on what they did last season and what they have coming back. Both figure to be ranked in the national preseason top 10, perhaps in the top five. Both will play next fall in the conference's North Division, which means at least one can't play for the Pac-12 championship.

"Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said.

• Big questions for Oregon and Stanford: The Ducks have issues on their offensive line, the Cardinal on their defensive line.

• Luck is playing for the only new coach in the old Pac-10. David Shaw replaces Jim Harbaugh, who bolted for the San Francisco 49ers. One session of spring practices won't be enough to reveal the big-picture meaning of that transition, particularly with Shaw continuing to hold closed practices.

"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities. But when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."

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AP Photo/Paul SakumaNew Stanford coach David Shaw and QB Andrew Luck aim to keep pace -- and possibly overtake -- Oregon in the Pac-12 this season.

• As for the two new teams, Colorado and Utah, the Buffaloes fired Dan Hawkins and hired Jon Embree, who led a physically demanding spring session intended to show his players that a new sheriff was in town. But the transition from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 doesn't figure to be too dramatic, other than giving fans much better road trips. Over in Salt Lake City, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham considered the transition from the non-automatic-qualifying Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, which will be an interesting measuring stick in the fall.

"The week-in and week-out level of competition is ratcheted up," Whittingham said. "There are some excellent football teams in the Mountain West Conference -- TCU last year. Not to downplay or disrespect anything that's going on in the Mountain West, but we're convinced the weekly challenges will be much more difficult than they have been in years past for us."

• A big change at Utah? The arrival of offensive coordinator Norm Chow after he fell out of favor at UCLA. But that didn't yield much fruit for the Utes this spring, in large part because quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

• Injuries were an issue on many campuses. USC, for one, was missing 12 players from its two-deep depth chart for all or some of the spring. Still, the Trojans might have lucked out. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA saw injuries to their potential starting players that will jeopardize all or at least a portion of their 2011 seasons. The Beavers, for example, don't know whether receiver James Rodgers will be able to play after a serious knee injury last fall.

• On the noninjury, off-the-field side: Oregon's potential starting middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who was projected to replace Casey Matthews, was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested the day after the spring game. It's his second suspension in as many seasons.

Ultimately, every team heads into the offseason with the same hopeful mindset.

Said Luck, "The mindset is still very, very hungry. The price never decreases in football."

What we learned this spring

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

What did we learn this spring that we can cogitate endlessly about this summer?

Thanks for asking.

1. Oregon and Stanford are the class of the conference: The Ducks and Cardinal finished 2010 ranked in the top five and likely will start there -- or close to it -- in 2011. Both are national title contenders, which means their Nov. 12 showdown on The Farm should have huge implications, starting with the Pac-12 North Division.

2. Arizona State is the South front-runner (by a little), but things are murky thereafter: Most preseason rankings will put the Ducks and Cardinal in the top 10 and the Sun Devils somewhere in the top 25. So who's the No. 4 team in the preseason? USC likely will be most folks' first thought. The play of quarterback Keith Price this spring suggests that Washington isn't going away. It's also hard to ignore Utah's 33 wins in the past three seasons. And is there a dark horse? Is it just me, or does Oregon State seem to play its best when ignored? Or is it Cal or UCLA?

3. There are no patsies in the Pac-12: A fair share of you seem to believe that Colorado will get clobbered and Utah will be exposed this season. One word: No. Both will be competitive from the start. Further, Washington State is going to be different in 2011. That lousy, FCS-looking team in 2008 and 2009? Gone. The Cougars were mostly competitive in 2010, particularly down the stretch, when they nearly beat Cal and Washington and did beat Oregon State. They will win multiple Pac-12 games in 2011. There is no team in the conference that you can look at and say, "No way that team wins six games and ends up bowl-eligible."

4. The quarterbacks are legit, but two have questions: No conference -- for the second consecutive season -- offers the quality at quarterback that the Pac-12 does. It's possible that three will be first-round NFL draft picks next spring: Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles. And that leaves out Oregon's Darron Thomas, who might become a Heisman Trophy candidate. Washington State's Jeff Tuel has an NFL future, and that also might be the case with Arizona State's Brock Osweiler and Oregon State's Ryan Katz. Colorado and Utah are solid at the position with Tyler Hansen and Jordan Wynn, while Price has Huskies fans feeling better about the departure of Jake Locker. Only Cal and UCLA have worrisome issues at the position.

5. There will be plenty of preseason hot seat talk: Ever look at the website Coaches Hot Seat? Notice something? Washington State's Paul Wulff is No. 2, UCLA's Rick Neuheisel is No. 5 and Cal's Jeff Tedford is No. 8. You might not agree with that -- Tedford's seat likely is closer to merely warm -- but it's out there. You probably could toss in Arizona State's Dennis Erickson if the Sun Devils fall short of high expectations this fall. And what if USC crashes and burns? Fact is, most coaches are just a few bad bounces from job jeopardy.

Best of spring

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

Everyone loves "best of" lists. Here's one for the Pac-12 after spring practices concluded.

Best performance by an offense: Noel Mazzone's crew saved its best for last. Arizona State's offense gained 601 yards in the spring game: 446 yards passing and 155 yards rushing. Junior quarterback Brock Osweiler completed 17 of 22 passes for 237 yards and five touchdowns.

Best performance by a defense: Utah's Red defense held the White offense to 106 total yards in a 7-0 Red victory.

Best performance by a defense II: The Oregon Green limited the White to 164 total yards, including only 63 rushing yards on 31 attempts, in a 16-0 Green win.

Best QB troika: Arizona's three senior quarterbacks -- Nick Foles, Matt Scott and Bryson Beirne -- combined to complete 31 of 42 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats' spring game. Foles (11-16-133), Scott (11-14-134) and Beirne (8-9-115) found a total of 13 different receivers in 60 plays.

Best crowd: Oregon played its spring game in front of a conference-spring-game record crowd of 43,468.

Best performance by a walk-on: Colorado sophomore walk-on running back Josh Ford rushed 17 times for 164 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown in the Buffaloes' spring game.

Best performance by a backup QB: While starter Ryan Katz was out with a wrist injury, Cody Vaz cemented his status as the backup with a consistently strong performance all spring.

Best newbies: Arizona got a likely starter at receiver in Texas transfer Dan Buckner. Arizona State's big-armed trued freshman quarterback Mike Bercovici might end up as the Sun Devils backup QB. One of Cal's starting linebackers is likely to be grayshirt freshmen Cecil Whiteside and Chris McCain. Oregon freshman TE Colt Lyerla lived up to his recruiting hype and looks like he'll be in the rotation in 2011. JC transfer defensive end Rusty Fernando is on track to win a starting job at Oregon State. UCLA true freshman QB Brett Hundley is still in the race to start. Utah's three candidates to start at running back are newbies: JC transfer John White, freshman Harvey Langi and walk-on Thretton Palamo. Washington freshman TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is listed as an "Or" for the starting spot with redshirt freshman Michael Hartvigson. Washington State JC transfer Ian Knight finished spring No. 1 at DE.

Most international interest: Utah's Thretton Palamo, he's best known as an international rugby star. A first-year sophomore who walked on this spring, at 19 years old, he was the youngest player in the Rugby World Cup. He played rugby for the Samoan national team in 2007 (his father captained Samoa's national team as a teenager), then switched to the U.S. national team. He also played professionally for the French team Biarritz Olympique. By the way, Utah upset Cal last year to win the national rugby championship.

Best "you've never heard of me but you will": Colorado DT Conrad Obi had just four tackles last year and has played just 100 snaps in his career, but the 310-pound fifth-year senior was selected as the Buffaloes' most improved player this spring. In the three scrimmages, he had 20 tackles (17 solo, six for losses, two sacks), four third-down stops and four tackles for zero yards (so 12 of the 20 were at or behind the line of scrimmage). Oh, and he forced fumble.

Best "graduate a semester early from high school, enroll in the spring, earn a starting job by default": USC fullback Soma Vainuku went from high school to Stanley Havili's replacement the first week of spring practices.

Best buzz, non-football division: Arizona State's "It's Time" campaign created plenty national buzz in advance of the April 12 launch of the rebrand, which included a new logo. The Sun Devils joined Oregon as the most fashion-forward Pac-12 team.

To read the Pac-12's spring superlatives in its entirety, click here.

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