Yes, it's that time. With the 2010 season coming to an end, we can now turn our focus to the inaugural Pac-12 campaign in 2011.
It's going to be a radical change for the Utah football program and one I suspect they're not quite ready for at the moment. With that said, every team in the Pac-12 South has just as many questions as the Utes - if not more.
That's good news because even with the inconsistent play toward the end of the season, Utah should still be one of the favorites to win the division in 2011. That could put them in the first ever Pac-12 Conference Championship Game and more importantly, put them a win away from playing in the Granddaddy of 'Em All - the Rose Bowl.
Not going to lie, that makes me pretty damn giddy.
But how does the Pac-12 South stack up and what are Utah's realistic chances of claiming the division crown?
Well for starters, we should note that USC is not eligible for the title game. That means if they finish first in the standings and Utah is technically second, they'll gain the right to take on one of the north teams in the championship game.
That's a pretty big development because I still believe the Trojans have the most talent, however raw, in the conference. They're going to be a tricky and dangerous team and will probably contend for the top of the division next year.
But since they're not allowed a spot in the title, really their only position is that of spoiler.
So who will contend with Utah for the top spot? Are the Utes a legitimate candidate?
Well let's look at the candidates one by one to get a feel of what Utah should expect in 2011.
We'll start with Arizona after the jump and list 'em alphabetically.
The Wildcats and Utes had a very similar 2010. Both teams started the season very impressively and quickly moved up the polls with close home wins over perceived good teams (Utah with Pittsburgh, Arizona with Iowa). However, once November rolled around, both programs struggled. The Utes weren't as bad, managing two okay wins over San Diego State and BYU before their bowl defeat - however, Arizona wasn't as lucky. They ended the season reeling, losing their final five games (including last night's bowl loss to Oklahoma State) to finish the year 7-6.
For a team that started 7-1 and looked like a potential threat to win the conference, that fall is pretty devastating. Especially for a coaching staff that, even after seven seasons, has struggled at producing that one breakout year.
Mike Stoops will be back in 2011. But he'll have a short leash.
Arizona's 2011 Schedule
It's unlikely, with the talent lost off a mediocre 7-6 team, that Arizona finds itself in true contention for the Pac-12 South divisional crown. I believe they might make some noise and will technically be in the race late, but ultimately, it's hard to foresee them winning enough games to slide into the top spot.
Their schedule is a mixed bag. They do get Utah, Stanford and Oregon at home, however, road trips to SC, Oregon State and Arizona State (who could be the favorite to win the division next year) could prove too much for this team.
I see the Wildcats once again winning 7 regular season games. That won't be enough for a division title, though.
The Sun Devils didn't have a very good 2010 season. Their 6-6 record was inflated by wins over Portland State and Northern Arizona - two FCS teams. They also only managed three conference wins (over Washington, UCLA and Arizona).
On that alone, it'd be hard to believe they are a legitimate challenge for the division. However, if you dig deeper, this is a team that was on the cusp of being respectable in 2010 and much of that talent returns in 2011.
While Arizona State did manage to lose five conference games, only one defeat could be considered a blowout (their 50-17 laugher against Cal). They lost to Stanford by four in Tempe, SC by a point in Los Angeles, Oregon State by three in Corvallis and only eleven to Oregon at home.
That is about as respectable as one could play without actually winning. They were in every single one of those games and you've got to think, with a year's experience, they'll flip some of those games.
Arizona State's 2011 Schedule:
The Sun Devils' biggest disadvantage might be playing Utah in Salt Lake City. Since it's very likely the divisional race will be between both these programs, that game in Salt Lake could decide who goes to the conference championship. Of course, that isn't a prediction - but more a what if under a favorable scenario toward our Utes.
If Utah struggles and isn't in contention, then you've got to like the Sun Devils' schedule. Mostly because the only road games against south opponents come against Utah and UCLA. It's hard to imagine the Bruins making the leap from where they were this season to a team capable of winning the division.
With home games against Arizona, Colorado and SC, if the Utes are out of the picture, they've got a schedule capable of cruising to the crown. Even their non-divisional conference schedule works in their favor, as they face only Oregon and Washington State on the road. The Cougars should be improved and the Ducks less dominant, but you can't ask for a better interdivisional road schedule than that.
My guess is that with Utah being the new kid on the block, Arizona State will be the preseason favorites to win the division. The deciding game could be the Oct. 8th contest in Salt Lake City.
It's hard to imagine the Buffaloes contending for the division with how depleted they are at the moment. But there is hope. That's always the case when you make a new hire and with Dan Hawkins being replaced by Jon Embree, it's entirely possible Colorado produces a surprisingly successful season. It happens all the time.
Do they have the talent, though, to win the division? Probably not. This is a team, after all, that has struggled for years and it's hard to imagine Embree becoming a miracle worker over night. He could very well turn out to be a great hire, but I think their first step should be fighting for a bowl berth - not planning a trip to the Pac-12 title game.
Colorado's 2011 Schedule:
This schedule is not going to be easy for a team in transition. They've got road games against Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah. It's very unlikely they pull out enough wins there to battle for a spot at the top of the division.
I think Colorado is a year or two out from making a great deal of noise in the conference.
The Trojans can only act a spoiler here. They're going to be a good team that should hover around the top and certainly would be a favorite to win the division if it weren't for their sanctions.
The Bruins were a mess this season. Entering 2011, Rick Neuheisel finds himself on the hotseat. He can't afford another losing campaign and I guess, with how much talent (based solely on recruiting rankings) UCLA should have, it's entirely possible they finally get it together in 2011 and produce a great season.
But until that happens, everyone should rightfully be skeptical of what Neuheisel is producing in Pasadena.
This is not his first or even second season. He's now entering year four and more should be expected of him and his Bruins than a 4-8 season. Even more so when you realize the guy he replaced, Karl Dorrell, took UCLA to a bowl game in every one of his five seasons as coach there.
UCLA's 2011 Schedule:
It's not entirely easy. They have road games against Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona, Utah and SC.
Granted, they only need to beat the Utes, Wildcats and Trojans - but that is a tall order. Until they become consistent, it's hard to imagine this program is capable of winning the division.
The Utes looked primed for Pac-12 domination around late October and then faded in the month of November with horrific losses to TCU and Notre Dame. Things didn't get much better, even though they did manage to beat San Diego State and BYU. Those wins were almost entirely negated by an ugly defeat to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
But we can't get too down on Utah. They were, after all, without their starting quarterback and that quarterback had spent most of the second half of the season nursing an injury. I don't want to say that was entirely the problem of the offense - but as inconsistent as it was, no one can deny its explosiveness early in the year.
Now Utah needs to shore up some things on the offensive end if they're going to truly contend for a Pac-12 championship. That is obvious. However, I do believe they have the talent and experience entering 2011 to be a true contender.
Hopefully, for our sake, they can fight through their problems and come out on top in 2011. I'm not sure I'd bet on that, but Utah is in a good spot for a team making the leap from small time to big time.
Utah's 2011 Schedule
I think the Utes' schedule sets up favorably. Their game against SC won't matter in the head-to-head because the Trojans aren't going to be a viable division contender and their only other divisional road game comes against Arizona. They get UCLA, Colorado and Arizona State at home. That means the only true division challenger they get on the road is the Arizona Wildcats.
Beyond just divisional road contests, Utah travels to Washington State and Cal. Neither team did much this season and though I think Cal will bounce back, the Cougars are still rebuilding and rebuilding and rebuilding.
With the way the schedule breaks down, if the Utes can get their issues under control, it's hard not to imagine them leading the race to the Pac-12 title game. If they don't, then it's Arizona State's to lose.
So there you have it, my premature look at the Pac-12.
Now as I mentioned, I think Arizona State is the favorite to win. This is because they're familiar with the conference, each road stadium and the pressures of playing on a bigger stage. Utah isn't. That could be a potential downfall, especially late when they travel to, say, Washington State. The Cougars aren't a very good program right now, but they've got some raw talent up there in Pullman and if Utah is sitting atop the division, they could panic and falter in a game like that.
In the end, though, I suspect it will come down to Utah and Arizona State. Those teams will be good and the rest of the south is just either too inexperienced, too inconsistent or sitting on too many sanctions to make as much noise.
So, at the moment, this is how I'd rank the division:
2. Utah Utes
4. UCLA Bruins
If SC was not crippled by sanctions, I would put them at either 1st or 2nd. But they are and pointless to this discussion at the moment.
Now let's get to 2011!