At the top, it may well be a two-horse race. Well, one horse and one waterfowl. But beyond the USC Trojans and Oregon Ducks, who both enter this weekend with Heisman Trophy candidates and ranked in the national top 5, the conference is tough to judge.
The biggest reason? The unknowns of four programs with strong traditions, ruddy recent histories and the capacity to muck up the standing thanks to exciting new coaches.
Fresh off an island hiatus after 10 years at Texas Tech, Mike Leach is at Washington State, while former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez landed at Arizona, and Jim L. Mora and Todd Graham (most recently of Pittsburgh), took over at UCLA and Arizona State. Those four men are a combined 285-190-2 as head coaches (including Mora's 32-34 record in the NFL), giving the Pac-12 the nation's hottest concentrated infusion of old-guy talent.
National pundits have pointed to Utah's game against USC on Oct. 4 as a sexy upset pick. But what about Arizona State hosting Oregon on Oct. 18? Or a sleeker Washington State beating Washington on Nov. 23 to win the Apple Cup and, maybe, earn bowl eligibility?
Coaching turnover isn't unfamiliar to the Pac-12. Every school has changed coaches at least once since 2001, and some schools have seen several coaches since then. Stanford, Washington State, Washington and UCLA are on their fourth. Not counting changes by Utah in 2005 and Colorado in 2006 (before the programs were members of the conference), there have been 25 new coaches since 2001.
"It is always interesting what takes place," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who, after 13 years in two stints with the Beavers is the longest-tenured coach in the conference.
This year brings the most turnover to the coaching ranks since 2003, when Oregon State, Washington State, Washington and UCLA hired new head coaches. But never before have so many new hires been so splashy.
Of course, a new-name coach alone isn't enough to turn around a moribund program (see Rick Neuheisel), and certainly not immediately, as Arkansas State fans will likely learn on Saturday when coach Gus Malzahn leads the Red Wolves into Autzen Stadium to face the Ducks.
Here's why it matters, though, in the Pac-12: A program like Washington State, led by quarterback Jeff Tuel, should adjust rapidly to the spread offense that was responsible for huge numbers while Leach coached at Texas Tech.
The Cougars will score bundles of points, even if they start the season with a loss (as is generally expected) Thursday at BYU. Same goes for a talented Arizona team, and Arizona State and UCLA, which were generally considered to have underachieved under Dennis Erickson and Neuheisel.
And when it comes to scouting the Cougars, Wildcats, Sun Devils and Bruins, especially early, programs won't have much to rely on.
"The one thing about continuity, if you have it within the conference you've got a library of stuff that maybe through the years you've been able to watch and get a feel for," Riley said.
Not so this year. Coaches will be combing tape of Michigan, Pittsburgh and Texas Tech games, trying to figure out what to expect.
Ultimately, it will mean upsets. Maybe not enough to totally disrupt the power balance, but enough to leave some heads shaking and, maybe, a few looking for headsets elsewhere.
Getting a good look
Utah plays each of the four programs with new coaches:
Sept 22 • at Arizona State
Oct. 13 • at UCLA
Nov. 3 • vs. Washington State
Nov. 17 • vs. Arizona