Last year, the PAC-10 became the PAC-12 as it split into two divisions - North and South - with the additions of Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West. The conference stages its title game at the home site of the team with the better conference record between the two division champions. The computer picked Oregon to host Utah, and win. It got the first part of that equation correct, but it was UCLA that Oregon hosted and defeated, 49-31.
Had it been eligible, USC would have been the south's representative in the championship contest, but NCAA sanctions kept the Trojans out of the conference title picture in 2010 and 2011. That roadblock is removed for 2012 and USC is the computer's pick to claim its first PAC-12 championship since 2008.
The Congrove Computer Rankings say Utah poses USC's biggest threat and the south division representative will be decided when USC beats the Utes by 4.51 points in Salt Lake City on October 4.
Oregon will once again represent the north division, but only after breaking its tie with Stanford by edging the Cardinal on November 17 by 1.12 points in Eugene.
The championship match tilts in USC's favor by 6.91 points.
The Trojans, Ducks, Cardinal and Utes are all picked to go 11-1 overall and 8-1 in the conference. It has USC losing at Stanford, Stanford falling at Oregon, Oregon losing at USC and Utah falling at home to USC.
It would be Stanford's third consecutive 11-1 regular season. The Cardinal managed that record in 2010 under Jim Harbaugh as head coach and Andrew Luck at QB. They repeated it last year after Harbaugh left to coach the San Francisco 49ers but with Luck still under center. This year, Stanford will be without Harbaugh and Luck, as well as the top three pass receptions leaders from a year ago.
The computer doesn't see a whole of changes in the PAC-12 over last season. Cal and Washington trade places for 3rd and 4th in the north with the Bears moving up. In the south, Utah takes 2nd away from UCLA while the Arizona schools trade 4th and 5th place with the Wildcats moving ahead of the Sun Devils.
Aside from the top two teams in each division, only California is picked to end the regular season with a record above the .500 mark. Washington and UCLA are on the break-even point. That would give the conference 7 bowl teams, just as it had in 2011 when PAC-12 schools went just 2-5 in bowl games. Oregon defeated Wisconsin 45-38 in the Rose Bowl and Utah squeaked past Georgia Tech 30-27 in overtime in the Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, Washington lost a thrilling 67-56 shootout to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl; Stanford fell 41-38 to Oklahoma State in overtime in the Fiesta Bowl; UCLA was beaten 20-14 by Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl; Cal went down 21-10 to Texas in the Holiday Bowl; and Arizona State was trounced 56-24 by Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
Overall, the computer's 2011 preseason forecast nailed the exact records of Washington and Oregon State. It was just one game away from nailing Arizona's exact record for a third straight year. In all, it missed five schools by just one game and four more schools by two games.
Four PAC-12 schools - Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State - will open their 2012 campaigns under the tutelage of a new head coach.
Former Michigan and West Virginia head man Rich Rodriguez replaces Mike Stoops at Arizona.
Todd Graham leads his third different school in three years as he replaces Dennis Erickson at Arizona State.
Jim Mora takes the UCLA reins from Rick Neuheisel.
Mike Leach takes over for Paul Wulff at Washington State, returning to the sidelines for the first time since being fired from Texas Tech after the 2009 season.
Arizona fired Stoops on October 10 after the Wildcats struggled to a 1-5 start. Defensive coordinator Tim Kish led Arizona to a 3-3 finish, winning his very first game as interim head coach by routing UCLA 48-12. But the 'Cats didn't win again until they defeated state rival Arizona State and non-conference foe Louisiana-Lafayette back-to-back to end the season.
Rodriguez was extremely successful at West Virginia where he was 60-26 with four Big East titles in his last five years and at least ten victories in each of his final three years. But Rich-rod bombed at Michigan, leaving a legacy of some of that school's historically worst seasons. Under Rodriguez, the nation's all-time winningest program won only 15 of 37 games and was blown out 52-14 by Mississippi State in its only bowl appearance. Additionally, Michigan was put on three years probation related to NCAA violations under his watch.
It was Arizona State's loss to Arizona that sealed Erickson's fate with the Sun Devils. He was fired on November 28, effective after the school's bowl game. The 2011 season saw the Sun Devils win 6 of their first 8 games as they appeared to be well on their way to winning the PAC-12 South, but they closed with 4 straight losses by a cumulative 18 points. To add insult to injury, Erickson's going away present was the pummeling his team took at the hands of Boise State in Las Vegas to drop his 5-year record at ASU to 31-31.
Graham was named the new head coach of the Sun Devils on December 14, despite being just 6-6 in his very first season with Pittsburgh. It is the second time he has left a program after just one campaign, burning Rice in the same manner after the 2006 season to move to Tulsa. Graham was 7-6 in his lone season with Rice, leading the Owls to their first bowl game since the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl. At Tulsa, Graham's 4-year tenure produced three seasons of at least 10 wins, two CUSA West division titles and a tie for a third. His 6-year career record is 49-29 (.628).
UCLA announced December 10 that it had hired Mora to replace Neuheisel. Mora, a former NFL coach with the Atlanta Falcons (2004-2006) and assistant with the Seattle Seahawks, had worked as an analyst on the NFL Network since the 2010 season.
Neuheisel was told November 28 that he would be out of his self-described dream job after coaching the Bruins in the PAC-12's first conference championship game, which they lost 49-31 to Oregon to drop their record to 6-7. The former UCLA quarterback was 21-29, including a 50-0 loss to crosstown rival USC in his last regular season game.
Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson served as interim head coach for the Bruins in their bowl loss to Illinois.
Washington State announced Leach as the new head coach on November 30, a day after announcing Wulff's dismissal. He is two seasons removed from Texas Tech where he was fired for alleged mistreatment of WR Adam James (son of ESPN analyst Craig James) who had been diagnosed with a mild concussion. Leach compiled a record of 84-43 in ten seasons in Lubbock with winning records and bowl appearances each year.
Wulff's four-year tenure netted just 9 victories in 4 seasons. He was 9-40 overall and an even uglier 4-34 in PAC-10/PAC-12 games. His teams surrendered an average of 38 points per game and only improved to No. 93 in scoring defense this year after finishing 110th in 2010, 118th in 2009 and 119th in 2008. Prior to his move to Pullman, Wulff was 53-40 in 8 seasons at Eastern Washington with best marks of 9-4 in 2003 and 2007. But his replacement with the Eagles, Beau Baldwin, won an FCS national championship in 2010 with a 13-2 record.
The PAC-12 saw head coaching changes at Colorado and Stanford prior to the start of the 2011 campaign. The Buffaloes went 3-10 overall and 2-7 in the conference in Jon Embree's first season after replacing Dan Hawkins.
Cal returns to its own digs after playing its 2011 home slate at San Francisco's AT&T Park. During the process of renovating and retrofitting supports for earthquake survivability, California Memorial Stadium lost about 9,000 of its' nearly 72,000 capacity as chairback seats replaced bleachers.
Meanwhile, Washington will play its 2012 home slate at nearby CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks. The on-campus Husky Stadium is undergoing an extensive renovation that, according to huskystadium.com includes the complete demolition and reconstruction of the lower bowl and the south side stands.