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Pac-12 could be full of surprises, intriguing Week 1 games, more

For much of the past week, you couldn't turn on a television without seeing Gene Chizik or Steve Spurrier doing an interview, holding a press conference or answering trivia questions. The SEC put on the fullcourt, Media Days/Bristol p.r. assault. This week it's the Pac-12's turn, which held its annual kickoff event Tuesday, then jetted it coaches to the East Coast for a media swing that included visits to our very own SI.com studio.

At this point I should in theory hold some sort of insight into the Left Coast Conference.

Thanks for many good years of the Mailbag. My dad, brother and I, all college football fanatics, read it every week.

Question: It seems like the Pac-12 is full of teams that could go one way or the other this year, even the teams picked at the top. Who do you think will be the biggest overachiever, and who do you think will be the biggest disappointment (I know, the second question is probably too easy. By the end of the season I don't think many will be fearing the "Fork"). -- John, Anchorage, Ak.

First of all: Glad to know the Mailbag is such a hit in Alaska. It's no secret why so many Pac-12 teams seem to be entering the season at a crossroads: One need only look at last year's final standings. You had two teams, Oregon and Stanford, finish far ahead of the pack, while half the conference (Washington, USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Arizona) all finished within a game of each other in the middle. Throw in Cal (which finished below .500 but with one of the best defenses in the conference) and newcomer Utah (a wild-card contender) and you have as many as seven teams that could contend in their division or finish around .500 again, to go with the two BCS teams from last year.

My top candidate for overachiever: Washington. The Huskies earned their first bowl bid in eight years last season, but they did it in rather ugly fashion, scoring just 21.9 points per game (96th nationally). And that was with a quarterback, Jake Locker, that wound up the eighth pick in the NFL draft. But I see Steve Sarkisian's program trending upward, not treading water. Late last season you saw the Huskies really get their running game going behind Chris Polk, who averaged 171 yards in four straight wins. He's back, the offensive line should be better and it wouldn't take much for sophomore quarterback Keith Price to be more productive than Locker. The defense is questionable, but just maximizing their offensive talent should help the Huskies pick up an extra win or two.

For biggest disappointment, I see from your "Fork" comment you want me to say Arizona State, and common sense says I should take Arizona State ... but I'm not ready to jump off the Sun Devils' bandwagon. My answer is Stanford. Andrew Luck's mere presence alone ensured the Cardinal -- 12-1 a year ago -- would start back in the Top 10, but those expectations seem unreasonable for a program that just lost its savior coach (Jim Harbaugh) and must replace three solid offensive linemen as well as key players like fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic and nose tackle Sione Fua. Harbaugh recruited well, but not to the point that Stanford can just reload like an Alabama or Oklahoma. Seven to eight wins seem more likely than 10 or 11. Luck's beard may be the deciding factor.

Good Day, Stewart. What are the top four matchups of the first week you are looking forward to? What chance do you give the improving Baylor Bears of upsetting the Horned Frogs at home that Friday night? Your time is appreciated.-- Walter, Opelika, Kan.

It's not hard narrowing it down to four when opening weekend features a staggering 42 FBS vs. FCS matchups. How ridiculous is that? Fans wait eight months for football season, get maybe six or seven chances to see their team at home, and when they day finally comes, they're playing Elon. It stinks. But I digress.

No. 1, obviously, is LSU vs. Oregon (aka the Willie Lyles Bowl). Unlike those other 42 duds, this is one of those game that makes you appreciate how a game the first Saturday could wind up being as important as any played the first Saturday in December. Maybe that's a stretch, but if either the Tigers or Ducks entertain hopes of reaching the BCS title game, they'll probably need to win this game. Much like the Alabama-Clemson and Alabama-Virginia Tech openers a couple of years ago, we'll find out real quickly whether either or both is deserving of their preseason hype.

No. 2 is Boise State-Georgia, though not for the same reasons as last year's Boise-Virginia Tech game. This won't serve as a referendum on the Broncos as much as it will the Dawgs. Mark Richt has said it himself: Coming off a 6-7 season, he needs a win over a high-quality nonconference foe to kickstart his program.

No. 3 is Baylor-TCU, and yes, I do think Robert Griffin and the Bears have a shot of beating the Horned Frogs -- if TCU's rebuilding offense struggles. It's unrealistic to think Baylor will put up 35 on Gary Patterson's defense. I also appreciate the timing and proximity that will allow me to cover both No. 1 and No. 3.

No. 4 may seem a bit odd (and perhaps partisan), but I'm genuinely intrigued by Northwestern-Boston College. These are two very similar teams, both with an elite offensive star (Wildcats QB Dan Persa and Eagles RB Montel Harris), and both capable of becoming the surprise team in their respective conferences. And it's nice to see Northwestern abandoning it recent history of scheduling four dud nonconference games.

I'd like to believe that Slick Rick gets another year at UCLA provided he turns in something over 4-8. However, should he pluck more defeat from the jaws of victory, what would you think about Mike Leach coaching the Bruins? It seems like a job he would take, and with our propensity to go cheap, he seems like a safe bet to win some games in the Pac-12 without breaking the bank.-- Jonathan, Sacramento, Calif.

Any hopes I had for Neuheisel turning things around this year went out the window when he disclosed Tuesday that freshman quarterback/anointed savior Brett Hundley is undergoing knee surgery and will miss the first half of fall camp. Mind you, 99 percent of coaches' Media Day press conferences are completely non-newsworthy. So of course, the one coach that shows up with his own scoop is Neuheisel, and of course it involves yet another quarterback injury.

As to your question, there's no doubt whatsoever Leach would come to Westwood in a nanosecond. UCLA fits all the criteria he'd be looking for in a school (good academics, nearby talent, desirable place to live, etc.). Keep in mind, however, the Pac-12's new multibillion-dollar ESPN deal kicks in next year, and it wouldn't surprise me for one second if the contract includes a Craig James coaching-hire veto clause.

Hate to bring up Ohio State again, but this is a slightly different angle. With OSU now in the search for a permanent coach soon, how do you think that will impact Joe Paterno at Penn State? And which job is the most coveted -- OSU or PSU? And who do you peg as the top candidate and best fit for Penn State? (You need more Penn State-related questions again.)-- Corey Krall, Charlottesville, Va.

You can see the awkwardness coming five months ahead of time. JoePa's contract expires after this season. It would be an ideal time for him to make a graceful departure, but something tells me it could be every bit as awkward as Bobby Bowden's exit from Florida State. If the school does decide to make a change, it could indeed face an unusual situation where it's battling its own division rival and border-state school for the same candidates -- most notably Urban Meyer. He'd be a logical candidate for either, though I think Penn State would be smarter either promoting the ever-loyal Tom Bradley or hiring someone else with ties to the region, like Miami's Al Golden.

In general, Ohio State is the more coveted job of the two. For one, who wants to be the guy that follows Joe Paterno? Unless the Nittany Lions implode this season like Florida State did in Bowden's last year, whoever gets the job -- even someone as respected as Meyer -- is going to face resistance molding the program in his own vision. Meanwhile, it looks at this point like Ohio State is going to avoid major sanctions, so there's less reason for potential candidates to be scared. And Luke Fickell will have served as the buffer between Tressel and the next guy.

But that brings up another point (and I'm sorry to be swinging your Penn State-inspired question back into the Buckeye realm), but it's looking more feasible to me than it did a few weeks ago that Fickell could get the gig permanently. If the Committee on Infractions agrees with the findings that Tressel was the program's sole rules-breaker, there's less pressure the school to clean house. Of course he'll need to produce a Big Ten championship contender this fall to generate the necessary confidence (no small feat), but if he does, Penn State could have the field to itself. Or, Paterno, who turns 85 this December, will go 11-1 and write his own contract extension (again).

You wanted college football equivalents of the characters from The League, here they are. My girlfriend and I are already near-religious devotees of the show, so these are more or less airtight.

Pete is Virginia Tech: Statistically nothing special, but confident and clever enough to usually wind up a winner in the end.

Kevin is Georgia (my alma mater). Has everything going for him -- good job, nice house, smoking-hot wife -- yet at the end of any given episode he's the one muttering in frustration and pulling his hair out.

Andre is Auburn. Had that one really good season nobody can quite figure out, but as long as he thinks he can succeed simply by throwing wads of cash around (and wearing those godawful Affliction shirts), he'll be the butt of jokes to everyone else.

Ruxin is USC. Which one? Could be either one, actually -- like both Kiffin AND Spurrier, he goes out of his way to needle his competitors as much as possible.

Last but certainly not least, Taco is LSU, and specifically Les Miles. Rarely seems to elicit any evidence of a higher thought process going on in his head, yet he repeatedly falls a -- backward into opportunities the rest of us could only dream of.-- Doug Gillett, Columbus, Ga.

Of the many, many submissions I received, this one is pretty much perfect, though I'm surprised your girlfriend didn't raise the same objection so many readers did: Leaving out Jenny. Fortunately, there was near consensus about the overlooked hanger-on who winds up beating the guys: Boise State.

Speaking of which ...

Stewart, with everyone always talking about the new Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, etc., how about we throw in the new MWC? What are you thoughts on Boise State steamrolling through the conference? It's no SEC but the MWC is definitely a lot more challenging with a great TCU team and really strong Air Force and San Diego State and potential sleeper Colorado State.-- Mark, Denver

Agreed. Boise is not going to steamroll through its new conference. For one thing, the 2011 Broncos have far more questions than last year's heavily hyped team. Kellen Moore's still around, but no longer has Austin Pettis and Titus Young at his disposal. Boise's defensive line is still stacked (look for a monster year from senior defensive end Tyrone Crawford), but the secondary lost several key figures.

Even with those questions, Boise would have had a chance to steamroll through the WAC this year, what with Nevada replacing Colin Kaepernick. Hawaii would have been its one viable challenger. In the MWC, however, TCU, Air Force and SDSU will all be games that could go either way. (If CSU is a sleeper, that's news to me, but as a local, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt). The interesting question will be whether a Boise team that beats Georgia but loses one conference game can still finish ranked high enough to earn a BCS berth. Starting high won't hurt.

I have a statement followed by a question. I truly miss the old "Kickoff Classic" type of game that preceded the regular season. What I would like to see is the week before everyone else plays, two top-level teams go at it in a neutral venue. I know we have some of that today, but it is mixed in with everyone else's first game. What would be the greatest obstacles to bringing this tradition back?-- Andy Harris, New Market, Iowa

I agree that college football needs a more dramatic kickoff than UNLV-Wisconsin or South Carolina-Southern Miss on a Thursday night. The biggest obstacle is that the schools opted to go to a 12-game schedule. That, along with conference title games, spelled doom for the Kickoff/Pigskin Classics. (The NCAA banned them starting in 2002, though it honored existing contracts through '04.) Even if you kept the 12-game limit, there would still be resistance about moving branded games like the Cowboys Classic (Dallas) and Chick-fil-A Kickoff (Atlanta) a week earlier, now that many teams' regular seasons extend into December. It's one of those selective situations where "student-athlete welfare" suddenly becomes paramount.

What I don't understand is why more high-profile teams haven't embraced that opening Thursday-night time slot. The NFL has managed to turn its Thursday-night opener into a major event, but the only notable college opener in recent years was Oregon-Boise State (and that one kicked off late on the East Coast). Meanwhile, the two biggest games opening weekend this year, LSU-Oregon and Georgia-Boise State, are kicking off at nearly the exact same time on Saturday night. Of course, before you can schedule a notable Thursday night game, you have to sign up a notable opponent, and as noted earlier, most teams prefer opening against a cupcake.

Hi Stewart, can you remind us why Texas is still part of the Big 12? They obviously have enough resources and money to run on their own, they're talented enough to play with almost anybody (I'm assuming that last year was an anomaly), and I'm sure that they could get their own seat at the BCS table. As it stands, they're already the only team with its own TV network, which is only having trouble now because they decided to stay in a conference. So what gives?-- Moneer, Berkeley, Calif.

Maybe that's where it's ultimately headed, but there's one major obstacle: What about all the school's other teams? Basketball, baseball, tennis, etc? Notre Dame has the Big East, BYU the WCC, Army and Navy the Patriot League. It's safe to assume that if Texas bolted the Big 12 in football, a potentially decimating move, that conference wouldn't be keen on allowing the Longhorns to keep its other teams. So where would they wind up? The WAC? The Mountain West? Conference USA? There's no appealing alternative.

As it stands now, Texas is reaping the benefits of both power-conference membership and a little bit of independence. Its teams compete in a high-level league and enjoy national exposure on established networks, and now it will reap a little extra money and exposure on the side with The Longhorn Network. It's a pretty ideal setup, and whether or not the channel will ultimately be allowed to show high school games (which, considering the understandable level of resistance, it almost certainly will not) is not nearly as big a deal to the Texas brass as it's become to their rivals.

Nice call on conference realignment being completely over. Can you ever just admit you don't have all the facts about a situation instead of heading the wrong way? It really hurts your credibility and portrays a writer that isn't well connected enough to even have a hint of one of the biggest stories in college football this year.-- Brent, Houston

Well now I'm going to sound even more disconnected, because I completely missed the news that more realignment happened.

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