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September 1, 2011

Week 1 preview in the Pac-12

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Pac-12 teams now are now into North and South divisions. Yet when it comes to quarterback play, they can be divided into two distinct groups that have nothing to do with geography.

They are the "haves" and the "have-no-ideas."

Montana State at Utah
UC Davis at Arizona State
Fresno State at California
Colorado at Hawaii
Eastern Washington at Washington
Idaho State at Washington State
Minnesota at USC
Northern Arizona at Arizona
LSU vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas
Sacramento State at Oregon State
San Jose State at Stanford
UCLA at Houston
Stanford, Oregon, Arizona, USC and Utah have reliable, proven quarterbacks; it's no coincidence each of those teams had a winning record last season and combined for 49 victories.

Oregon State with Ryan Katz and Washington State with Jeff Tuel could be added to that list, too.

Washington State coach Paul Wulff absolutely believes the Cougars should.

"I would take Jeff over anybody right now," Wulff said.

That's a stretch considering Stanford All-American Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Oregon's Darron Thomas all threw at least 26 touchdown passes last season. Still, there is no doubt that several Pac-12 teams hope their quarterbacks can match the production of Tuel, who last season passed for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Their seasons - and some coaches' jobs - may depend on it.

Arizona State could win the South Division if Brock Osweiler can be effective and consistent in his first season as a starter. Washington could a legitimate challenger in the North Division if Keith Price proves an adequate replacement for Jake Locker. Cal could bounce back from its first losing season under Jeff Tedford if Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard proves the solution to the Bears' quarterback issues. UCLA could be a contender in the South (and save coach Rick Neuheisel's job) if Kevin Prince can put an end a streak of terrible quarterback play in Westwood.

Last season, Osweiler came on for an injured Steven Threet and passed for 380 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-34 victory over UCLA in the next-to-last game of the season. The next week, he led the Sun Devils to a 30-29 overtime victory over Arizona, but several passes that easily could have been intercepted were dropped.

"Leadership-wise, he's pretty much taken the offensive football team over, without any question. He's taken that role and embraced it," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "As far as the quarterback part of it, he's improved a lot. He's playing with confidence, but then again, he's only started two football games."

That's one more start than Keith Price had as a redshirt freshman last season. He filled in when Locker was injured and passed for 127 yards in a 53-16 loss to Oregon.

But Washington coach Steve Sarkisian is optimistic Price will produce much better results.

"I thought the few opportunities he had when he did step in at critical moments - he was prepared mentally," Sarkisian said. "None of those moments were too big for him. We're talking about going into the [Los Angeles] Coliseum against USC and on his first play throwing a touchdown pass or making his first career start at Autzen Stadium against the No. 1 team in Oregon or coming into the Holiday Bowl against a top-10 team in Nebraska and playing in that ballgame."

Though comparisons to Locker probably are inevitable, Sarkisian said Price actually reminds him of a former Heisman recipient.

"The guy he reminds me of the most - and I hate to put too lofty expectations on him - is Charlie Ward back at Florida State [in the early 1990s]," Sarkisian said. "He has a good feel for the game, a former basketball player, and he has awareness. He can make a variety of throws ... unorthodox throws. He has enough running ability that he can hurt you with his legs, and he has a really good command and understanding of the offense."

Quarterback play has been a big problem at Cal since Aaron Rodgers left after the '04 season. The hope is that Maynard, who was a starting quarterback at Buffalo in 2009, looks as good in games as he does in practice.

"He's a gifted player," Tedford said. "But you can only practice so long. Now, it's game time. Each game and each play, I'm sure, he's going to get more and more comfortable with what's going on."

Tedford said Maynard has gained the team's respect and has taken over a leadership role. He also has the ability to scramble and make plays off schedule, which will be a big help to Cal's offensive line.

Cal quarterbacks have combined to rush for fewer than 200 yards in the past six seasons. Maynard rushed for 300 yards in '09.

"He can make all the throws, but he can manufacture things with his legs - pulling the ball down and getting you a key first down," Tedford said. "That's a dimension we haven't had in a while."

It's also been a while since Cal has been among the quarterback "haves." Maybe that will change this season.

Best matchup: Houston QB Case Keenum vs. UCLA secondary. Keenum has thrown for more than 5,000 yards twice in his career and could be a threat to reach 6,000 this season. But last season he threw two interceptions and endured a season-ending injury in a 31-13 loss to the Bruins. He opens the season facing a talented UCLA secondary that returns three starters, including FS Tony Dye and CB Sheldon Price, who will contend for postseason honors.

Players on the spot: Oregon C Hroniss Grasu. It's tough enough that Grasu, a redshirt freshman, is making his first college appearance, but as Oregon's starting center, he's counted on to make blocking adjustments, identify blitzes and make accurate shotgun snaps to QB Darron Thomas. And he has to do that while facing LSU's powerful defensive line. Two seasons ago, Oregon opened the season with a new center and a rebuilt line and was shut down in a loss to Boise State. Grasu will be a key figure in determining whether that happens again.

Keep an eye on: Colorado's secondary. The unit in general and the cornerbacks in particular are under the microscope. The Buffaloes' starting corners from last season have gone on to the NFL - Jimmy Smith as a No. 1 draft pick and Jalil Brown as a fourth-round choice. They've been replaced by senior Travis Sandersfeld and freshman Greg Henderson. In the first game, they will face Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz, who last season led the nation with 5,040 passing yards.

Numbers game: Oregon junior RB LaMichael James needs 20 yards to break the school's career rushing record of 3,296 held by Derek Loville. James rushed for 1,546 yards as a redshirt freshman and 1,731 as a sophomore last season for a career total of 3,277. He's averaged 6.3 yards per carry for his career, so if continues at that pace, he would set the record on his fourth carry. James also needs seven rushing touchdowns to break the school record of 41 and 96 points to set the school's career scoring record.

Key injuries: Oregon State will be without four key players for the opener: DT Kevin Frahm (knee), H-back Joe Halahuni (shoulder), CB Brandon Hardin (shoulder) and WR James Rodgers (knee). ... Utah will be without starting G Sam Brenner (elbow). .. Washington could be without TB Chris Polk (knee) and CB Quinton Richardson (ankle) - arguably their best players on both sides of the ball.

What they're saying

"It's our next upcoming game. And this is like the championship. If we lose this game, it's a done season." - Oregon QB Darron Thomas, to the Eugene Register-Guard about the importance of the season-opener against LSU.

"I'll be surfing. I mean, I'll be surfing a lot on the channels. There's not a lot of places to go surfing here." - Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, on what he will be doing Saturday. The Sun Devils open Thursday

"He's in negotiations with me. He wants every single kickoff return. And we're not going to give him every single one." - Stanford coach David Shaw, on WR Chris Owusu, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2009 but has had injury issues.

Poll watch: No. 3 Oregon faces No. 4 LSU in the only game of the week matching top 10 opponents. The winner won't necessarily have an inside track to the BCS national championship game, but it definitely will be a major plus on their BCS resume. No. 7 Stanford and No. 25 USC are the only other Pac-12 teams that are ranked, and neither would seem in jeopardy of falling out with opening games against typically weak opponents.

Etc.: Cal has played every home game for the past 88 seasons in Berkeley, but Memorial Stadium is closed for renovations this season. The Bears are playing Fresno State at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on Saturday and will play their remaining home games at San Francisco's AT&T Park. ... Colorado heads to Hawaii seeking to end a streak of 17 consecutive road losses. The last time the Buffaloes won on the road was 31-26 upset at Texas Tech in 2007. ... Oregon State's Reser Stadium will pull double duty Saturday. It's obviously the venue for the Beavers' season opener against Sacramento State, but more than 100 members of the Corvallis High School class of 1971 also will have their 40-year reunion there. Beavers coach Mike Riley is a member of that class. ... Junior C Kyle Quinn is the only lineman on Arizona's roster with starting experience. He has started one game. ... Arizona State RB Deantre Lewis practiced Monday for the first time since last November. Lewis was a victim of a shooting in the offseason and also has struggled with hamstring problems. Meanwhile, true freshman Mike Bercovici has been named the backup to Sun Devils starting QB Brock Osweiler. ... Cal sophomore Dan Camporeale, a former walk-on, has emerged as a starter at outside linebacker. He has played in one game in his career and has one tackle. ... Oregon State RB Malcolm Agnew and WR Brandin Cooks will become the first true freshmen in school history to start the season opener at their positions. ... Projected starting G Jeff Baca broke an ankle in spring practice, but could be cleared to play for UCLA next week against San Jose State. Kevin Prince has been named UCLA's starting quarterback over Richard Brehaut. Both are expected to play against Houston. ... USC LB Chris Galippo returned to practice this week after missing two weeks with a sprained shoulder. Trojans TB Marc Tyler is suspended from the opener against Minnesota because of inappropriate comments he made about USC's program in the offseason. ... JC transfer John White will start at tailback for Utah. He's the Utes' first new starter at that position in three years. ... Washington State DT Brandon Rankin has looked good in practices, but cannot play for failing to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. Washington State officials, citing extenuating circumstances, have asked the NCAA for a waiver. An answer is expected next week.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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