Philadelphia, PA – With the addition of Colorado and Utah the 10 turned into the Pac-12, and with those teams came a conference title 12 a trip to a BCS bowl game.
In the first year of this new format, it would seem the North Division is filled with the bulk of the talent. Right off the top there are Oregon and Stanford, the third and sixth ranked teams in the nation, respectively.
In early January, Oregon was battling Auburn in the national title game. As for the Cardinal, they possess possibly the best quarterback in the nation, along with one of the better defensive units in the Pac-12.
Throw in a quickly improving Washington squad under Steve Sarkisian and the always tough Beavers of Oregon State and you have a division that is not built for the weary. Also in the North Division is California and Washington State, but neither team is equipped to compete with the other four schools. At least not this season.
So, what does the South Division bring to the table in 2011? Well for starters there are Colorado and Utah, the two new kids on the block. The division will also include UCLA and USC, along with the two schools from the Grand Canyon State.
Lets start with the defectors from the Mountain West Conference, the Utah Utes. Over the past three years, Kyle Whittingham's squad has reached the double-digit win plateau, but that is likely to change now that the team is in a much tougher conference.
Over the past two seasons, the Utes have lost three of their four matchups against ranked opponents, and even though they magically avoid the invasion of Stanford and Oregon from the North on their schedule, do not expect Utah to make a big splash in the inaugural season of the Pac-12.
The other newcomers, the Buffaloes of Colorado, may actually have a tougher transition ahead of them, even though they are coming from a more prestigious conference, the Big 12.
The Buffs have a lot going against them in 2011, beginning with a daunting road slate, and that is definitely not ideal for a team that has lost its last 16 true road matchups. Add a new head coach to the mix in Jon Embree and this has all the makings of a rebuilding year for Colorado.
The North Division will also contain the two schools from the City of Angels, but those two teams will not make a run at the title in 2011.
Even though the Bruins return 17 starters, the team has simply underachieved since Rick Neuheisel took over on the sidelines. While the squad should improve on its win total from a year ago (four), expect UCLA to suffer through its fourth straight losing campaign within conference play.
As for the Trojans, they will likely be the team to beat in this division in the near future, but for this season Lane Kiffin's squad is not eligible to participate in the title game due to NCAA sanctions. The best this talented USC team can do in 2011 is play spoiler, and it will have plenty of chances with Stanford and Oregon on the docket.
While it is clearly tough to predict the future, the Cardinal and Ducks will likely fight for the North Division title, but what team will meet the winner from that division in the championship contest?
The answer lies in the 48th state of this great country, Arizona. The Wildcats and Sun Devils are likely to lead the charge in the weak South Division in 2011.
Of the two programs, the Wildcats will have a tougher time clawing their way to the top of the division mainly because of a brutal schedule. Mike Stoops' squad will have a five-game stretch that includes road games at Oklahoma State, USC and Oregon State, and the two home games during that span come against Stanford and Oregon.
Too make matters worse, the Wildcats will also have to battle the Huskies on the road and take on their bitter rival, Arizona State, also on enemy turf.
As for the Sun Devils, this could be the year Dennis Erickson finally gets his team over the hump. Over the past three campaigns Arizona State has been unable to finish with a winning ledger, but there is a bunch of talent returning, which makes the Sun Devils the team to beat in the south.
Last year, Arizona State averaged 32.3 ppg and eight starters are back in the fold for 2011, including running back Cameron Marshall, who is ready to break through the 1,000-yard plateau.
Defensively, the Sun Devils were weak against the pass, but overall the unit was one of the best in the conference and should be better in that area in 2011. What should also help the Sun Devils is the return of Vontaze Burfict, who has been labeled as the preseason favorite to win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Burfict is a devastating hitter with the heart of a giant, and the Sun Devils will go as far as he can take them.
ASU's schedule is definitely manageable. Missouri bring the toughest of the non-conference opponents, while the hardest conference matchup will be on the road against Oregon. However, ASU avoids Stanford and will have the luxury of hosting USC, Oregon State and bitter rival Arizona.
As mentioned, the North Division is stacked with most of the talent in 2011, and Oregon and Stanford stand alone on top of the conference. Simply put, the South Division as a whole can not measure up this year, but if there is one team that can bring respect to the division it will be Arizona State, the league's dark horse team in 2011.