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College football: Pac-12 is not new to change

Conference ready for first season with two divisions, title game

Posted: July 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin, left, and quarterback Matt Barkley talk to reporters at Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday in Los Angeles. The Trojans are projected to win the conference’s South Division.

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The landscape has changed, but then again, it has before.

The Pac-8 Conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978 with the addition of Arizona and Arizona State.

In 2011, the conference welcomes Colorado and Utah to the fold, and at the Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles on Tuesday, everyone appeared focused on the positives.

“It’s an exciting time to be part of the Pac-12 now,” said second-year USC head coach Lane Kiffin. “I think about a year ago at this event, so much has changed. With two new teams coming in, how competitive it’s going to be, I’ve got to think that if you look at it, it’s the most competitive the conference has been in its history. And we are excited to be a part of that.”

USC and UCLA have remained mainstays in the conference through each transition.

The Trojans finished 8-5 overall last season and are entering their final season under NCAA sanctions for rule violations that prevent them from competing in the conference title game or a postseason bowl game. Their appeal was denied on May 26.

“We are glad it’s over,” Kiffin said. “We are disappointed in the decision, but it is what it is, and we worry about what we can control. We are moving forward and at least we know what it is now.”

Helping ease Kiffin’s concerns is the return of talented players such as junior quarterback Matt Barkley, who was also on hand Tuesday.

USC is projected to finish first in the Pac-12 South, just ahead of Arizona State, according to a preseason media poll.

UCLA is slated to place fifth in the South.

The Bruins are coming off a 4-8 season with fourth-year head coach Rick Neuheisel firmly on the hot seat.

“Yeah, that’s fair to say,” said Neuheisel, with running back Jonathan Franklin at his side. “I’m always an optimist. I believe that UCLA and what UCLA’s done in the past will help catapult us to a great future. ... We just haven’t turned the corner to the extent I thought possible.”

Franklin said the Bruins are playing with a chip on their shoulder.

“That definitely pushes us in the game, pushes us in practice,” he said. “Everybody looks at us like we’re nobodies. We want to be somebodies. Every day, every game, from here on out we’re going out ready ... to ... play.”

Neuheisel expects Kevin Prince to be the early frontrunner for the starting quarterback job, a position that appears far from settled.

USC and UCLA are joined by Arizona, Arizona State and the two newcomers — Colorado and Utah — in the South Division.

The winners of the North and South Divisions will play each other on Dec. 2 in the conference championship game.

It’s a setup that Sun Devils head coach Dennis Erickson likes.

“To me, as you go through a season, you may lose a game or two. Hopefully you don’t,” Erickson said. “To win a division, you can have a bad game or two and come back and get into that championship game, which is what it’s all about — to get to the Rose Bowl.”

Oregon is looking to get back to the national championship game after two straight Pac-10 titles.

The Ducks, which were defeated by Auburn 22-19 in the title game last year, are projected to win the North and the overall Pac-12 championship.

“The vision we have is for this football program to exceed anything on paper,” said Oregon head coach Chip Kelly.

Right behind the Ducks are Stanford and quarterback Andrew Luck.

The senior still has one season of eligibility following the 2011-12 season, but on Friday, Luck officially ended any speculation.

“Great question,” joked Cardinal first-year head coach David Shaw.

Responded Luck: “I’m pretty sure this is my last college football season, and I’m approaching it as such.”

But the focus eventually returned to the two new schools — Colorado and Utah.

The Buffaloes join the conference from the Big 12 North, in which they finished fifth out of six teams.

Expectations remain high, however, according to first-year head coach Jon Embree.

“I don’t want to put a number on it,” Embree said. “I expect us to play to a certain standard and level and be competitive. Whatever shakes out, shakes out. I expect us to assert ourselves in this conference and show that we belong.”

The Utes were 10-3 in 2010, and took second in the Mountain West Conference.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the move to the Pac-12 has resulted in a “big spike in recruiting,” as has the addition of former USC and UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

“We’re ecstatic about the opportunity to join the Pac-12 Conference,” Whittingham said. “It’s something that has been talked about in Salt Lake City for a lot of years, even going back to when it was the Pac-8.”

“Big challenges lay ahead, we are fully aware of that,” he added. “The Pac-12 is a very good conference. There are a lot of good football teams, but with big challenges comes big opportunity. We are excited about the opportunity moving forward.”

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