Some Pac-12 teams facing big tests right awayPosted: Updated:
Since the last football season, what was once known as the Pac-10 has added two teams, changed its name and landed a massive television contract, not to mention starting up its own network.
The metamorphosis over, it's time to hit the field again.
And for all 12 teams, particularly newbies Colorado and Utah, there's one collective thought: Finally!
"There's been a lot of attention put on our football team in the offseason, a lot of buildup and, really, we're just ready to start playing," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday.
The Utes are not alone.
The Pac-12's inaugural season starts Thursday with Arizona State facing UC Davis at home and Utah playing Montana State in Salt Lake City. The rest of the reshaped conference gets going on Saturday and some teams face big tests right off the bat.
Colorado looks to end its 18-game road losing streak against high-scoring Hawaii. USC opens with down-but-still-dangerous Minnesota. UCLA has to go on the road against Houston and its talented quarterback Chase Keenum. Cal faces tough-to-defend Fresno State.
The biggest game - anywhere, not just the Pac-12 - will be at Jerry Jones' football-topia in Texas.
Seconds away from becoming national champions a year ago, Oregon kicks off the season against LSU at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night. The third-ranked Ducks are again brimming with talent, returning Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James, quarterback Darron Thomas and enough speedsters to start a couple of track teams.
The favorite to win the conference title again, Oregon's bid for another trip to the national title game faces a speed bump right out of the gate.
Fourth-ranked LSU went 11-2 last season and has most of its key players back, putting the Tigers among the favorites to not just win the SEC, but a national title. In other words, LSU has the kind of team that can keep up with the flying Ducks.
As good as the teams are on the field, though, this game will be as much about whether they can overcome the problems they've had off it.
Oregon is under NCAA investigation for its ties to a Houston-based recruiting service owner and Lache Seastrunk, a running back connected to the probe, has transferred from the school. Starting cornerback Cliff Harris also was cited for speeding and driving with a suspended license after being clocked at 118 mph in a rental car that also contained Thomas.
LSU had to switch offensive coordinators when Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, then had to deal with the aftermath of a bar fight that involved four players, including quarterback Jordan Jefferson,
Jefferson, accused of kicking a victim in the face, has been suspended indefinitely, leaving the ball in the hands of Jarrett Lee, who's had nine career starts. Starting receiver Russell Shepard also was suspended for an unrelated NCAA rules violation.
But, no matter who's on the field, this will be a monster game for both teams.
"We're going against one of the best teams in the country and if you want to be the best, you have to measure yourself against the best," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "We love playing in games like this ... and will continue to play them if people will play us. This university and particularly this football team won't back down to anybody."
The Ducks aren't the only team that'll face some heat right away.
USC, which can't play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, kicks off its season against Minnesota.
The Gophers have a new coach in Jerry Kill and have struggled over the past few years, but they're physical and have talented players, particularly quarterback MarQueis Gray, a game-breaking receiver before switching positions this season.
"You could see with the ball in his hands as a receiver last year, how dangerous and explosive and quick he is, how powerful he is," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "It's very scary for us. Here's a guy people were having a hard time handling when he was getting the ball six or seven times a game and now he's touching the ball every snap. We're going to have our hands full. This is going to be a big-time challenge for our defense."
UCLA faces a difficult opening challenge in what could be a make-or-break season for coach Rick Neuheisel.
Neuheisel is under pressure this year after a pair of 4-8 records in his three seasons at his alma mater. The Bruins have 16 starters back and plenty of talent, but Houston is loaded with playmakers and has Keenum, who's chasing the all-time NCAA records for yards and touchdowns after tearing his ACL last season.
"It's an important game for us," said Neuheisel, who hasn't decided whether Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut will start at quarterback. "Will it make or break our season? Absolutely not, but it'll help get ourselves on the right track and believing that things are going our way and it's going to be a really exciting year."
Eleven other coaches and teams in this new version of the conference feel the exact same way.
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