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January 18, 2011

Pac-10: Chasing down Oregon, Stanford

MORE: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | SEC

Next season, the Pac-10 adds two teams and breaks into two divisions.

Cynics would say it already was divided.

The conference clearly was top-heavy in 2010, with Oregon and Stanford in a class of their own compared to rest of the Pac-10, which had just two other teams gain bowl eligibility.

But next season figures to be more competitive on the West Coast. Utah relocates from the Mountain West Conference and Colorado moves in from the Big 12 to join the Pac-12's South Division.

Utah is coming off a 10-win season. Arizona State lost four games by a total of nine points and, with a bevy of returning starters, will be improved. Washington appears on the upswing after winning a bowl game.

Yet Oregon and Stanford still project as the class of the conference. Aside from expanding from 10 to 12 teams, the main difference in 2011 is that that the league may not be so top heavy.

Biggest surprise: Stanford. The Cardinal were unranked entering the season and faced questions about replacing RB Toby Gerhart and improving the defense. QB Andrew Luck raised his performance to an elite level and was the Heisman runner-up, the defense made dramatic improvement and the Cardinal finished 12-1. Stanford's only loss was to Oregon, and the Cardinal closed the season by blowing out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and finishing No. 4 in the national rankings.

Biggest disappointment: Oregon State. The Beavers weren't expected to win the Pac-10, but they did open the season ranked No. 24. But injuries -- the most serious of which sidelined standout WR James Rodgers for most of the season -- took a toll. In addition, QB Ryan Katz did not play as well as hoped and the defense was soft against the run. Oregon State typically gets better as the season progresses, but this season, the Beavers lost four of their last five, fell to lowly Washington State and failed to qualify for a bowl.

Best postseason performance: Stanford. The Cardinal's second-half performance in the Orange Bowl was as dominant as it gets. The Cardinal, who led 13-12 at halftime, scored four unanswered touchdowns -- three on Luck touchdown passes of 58, 41 and 38 yards to TE Coby Fleener -- and romped to a 40-12 victory over ACC champion Virginia Tech. Stanford's defense sacked Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor six times for 59 yards in losses in the second half alone.

Worst postseason performance: Arizona. The Wildcats were ranked as high as No. 13 in early November, but a late-season swoon concluded with a 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats, who lost their last five games, gained 370 yards against Oklahoma State, but committed four turnovers. QB Nick Foles threw three interceptions, with one returned for a touchdown. Oklahoma State took a 17-7 lead in the first quarter and Arizona never got closer.

Underclassmen turning pro early: UCLA LB Akeem Ayers, USC DT Jurrell Casey, Arizona State DT Lawrence Guy, Stanford LB Tom Keiser, UCLA FS Rahim Moore, Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers, USC OT Tyron Smith, California RB Shane Vereen.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Arizona State RB Cameron Marshall. He had a strong 2010 season, rushing for 787 yards and nine touchdowns. But much more is anticipated in '11. Marshall has good power and excellent speed. He'll also have an experienced line that no longer is a glaring weakness in front of him. If the Sun Devils' quarterback play is good enough to make defenses at least respect the passing game, Marshall will be a good bet to break into four digits and contend for postseason honors.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Stanford LB Shayne Skov. He has two good seasons behind him. He now appears primed to raise his game to another level. Skov put on an incredible performance in Stanford's Orange Bowl victory in which he posted 12 tackles and had three sacks. Expect him to earn All-Pac 12 recognition in 2011; All-America honors aren't out the question, either.

Player most on the spot next season: Oregon State QB Ryan Katz. He had an up-and-down season. Katz threw for 363 yards in a victory over Arizona and 260 in a win over Arizona State, but he passed for fewer than 200 yards in seven games. He also had three games in which he threw three interceptions. Not surprisingly, those were three of the Beavers' seven losses. If Katz doesn't improve significantly, Oregon State could fail to quality for a bowl game again. And next season he doesn't have RB Jacquizz Rodgers to relieve some of the pressure.

Next season's conference champions: Arizona State and Oregon. The top two finishers in the 2010 Pac-10 race -- Oregon and Stanford -- will be the top contenders in 2011 in the Pac-12. But the Ducks and Cardinal will fight it out for supremacy in the North Division. The primary contender in the South figures to be Arizona State, but don't count out Utah. First-year conference members have a history of winning championships. Still, whoever emerges in the North likely will win the conference crown.

National title contenders: Oregon and Stanford. Here we go again: Oregon and Stanford have realistic chances of winning it all. Both should be ranked among the preseason top 10. Although Oregon has holes to fill in the offensive line and on defense, the return of RB LaMichael James and QB Darron Thomas ensure the Ducks will be a force with which to be reckoned. Stanford also has to reinforce its offensive line, but Luck's decision to remain in school should enable Stanford to remain among the national championship contenders even with coach Jim Harbaugh now in the NFL.

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

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