Pac-12 teams preparing for big changes come fall
David Shaw noticed it everywhere he walked on the Stanford campus this spring.
Since Andrew Luck was drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts, the buzz surrounding football has faded. Getting students - and even his players - focused on the future has been a challenge with so much of the attention revolving around the departure of the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up.
''I'm not going to lie,'' Shaw said, ''there's still a little bit of an Andrew Luck hangover going on here.''
Change is in the air across the Pac-12 Conference again.
Luck and LaMichael James of Oregon are sporting NFL uniforms. A third of the teams have new coaches and even the role of the conference's crown jewel - the Rose Bowl - might be morphing into something else as the BCS explores a playoff system.
Oh, and those mighty Trojans down in Southern California, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley, are no longer under NCAA sanctions and are postseason eligible for the first time in two years. That alone could lead to a power shift - particularly with three-time defending champion Oregon and a stout Stanford program replacing several starters - come fall.
''Maybe there's a little bit different attitude as far as confidence because they experienced some success toward the end of last year,'' said USC coach Lane Kiffin, speaking on a teleconference with other league coaches Tuesday. ''So I think they're very confident. But I don't think there's any different feeling because we're eligible for a bowl game or not.''
Coping with change has been a theme this offseason for almost everyone else.
Gone are UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson, Washington State's Paul Wulff and Arizona's Mike Stoops. Entering are Jim Mora, Todd Graham, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez.
Utah and Colorado, coming off disappointing debuts in the expanded conference, are still trying to find their way. And coaches Kyle Whittingham and Jon Embree will face even more pressure to prove the Utes and Buffaloes belong.
''I don't know if you can term it a learning experience,'' Whittingham said, ''but I can tell you our guys are excited for their second go-around.''
The biggest changes still remain at the top.
Stanford had four players drafted in the first 42 picks of the draft - Luck, guard David DeCastro, tight end Coby Fleener and left tackle Jonathan Martin - and co-defensive coordinator Jonathan Tarver headed across the bay to the Oakland Raiders. James is now with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh at the San Francisco 49ers, and the Quack Attack also needs to find a replacement for lightning-quick quarterback Darron Thomas.
Couple that with the additions of offensive innovators Rodriguez and Leach - whom Cougars defensive coordinator Mike Breske said called passing plays 70-75 percent of the time this spring, joking that league stadiums ''better have lights'' because ''the ball is going to be in the air'' constantly - and the margin for error could be slim.
''Our competition is at a level most people East of the Mississippi don't understand,'' Shaw said. ''I think our conference is as tough as anybody top to bottom.''
That wasn't the case last year.
The South Division was so awful that the Bruins had to petition the NCAA to remain bowl eligible after a 49-31 loss at Oregon in the inaugural league title game left UCLA with a 6-7 record. The Ducks and Cardinal turned the North into a two-team race from the start, and the only thing really left to decide by Thanksgiving was where the league's top three teams - including USC - should land in the polls.
Even that debate still rages.
Most Pac-12 coaches agree that, no matter how a proposed four-team playoff system for the BCS national championship shakes out, the Rose Bowl's role shouldn't be diminished and how the standings are calculated is paramount. Finding a consensus on everything from the amount of teams to include - with most wanting more than four - to where the games are played is unlikely.
''I would like to see the top team in the state of Oregon get an automatic bid,'' Oregon coach Chip Kelly joked.
The league finished with three teams in the top seven of the final AP poll - No. 4 Oregon, No. 6 USC and No. 7 Stanford. The BCS standings, which include the coaches' poll, provided enough drama and frustration for one rookie coach to learn at least a lesson heading into next season.
''I don't want to be a voter again,'' Shaw said, ''because I think it's impossible.''
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