Washington quarterback Keith Price and the Huskies hope for an improved showing in 2011.
Washington quarterback Keith Price and the Huskies hope for an improved showing in 2011. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

Breaking down the Pac-12

In predicted order of finish:

NORTH

1. Oregon: Like Stanford, the Ducks are rebuilding their lines and replacing their top receivers. Unlike Stanford, they don't have a rebuilt coaching staff.

2. Stanford: Division title and BCS berth could be on the line when Cardinal and Ducks collide at Stanford Stadium on Nov. 12.

3. Washington: Well stocked at every position except the most important: If sophomore QB Keith Price is solid, UW will be, too.

4. Cal: Expectations are as low as they've been in years, and that's probably a good thing for a program that often wilts under the spotlight.

5. Oregon State: Spate of injuries and questions along offensive line are two of many challenges facing the reeling Beavers.

6. Washington State: Could be both the most-improved team in the conference and the worst team in the conference - that's how far WSU has fallen.

SOUTH

1. USC: Unquestionably the most talented team in the division, the Trojans are ineligible for a bowl bid - and for the Pac-12 title game.

2. Arizona State: A veteran roster and dominant defense have expectations soaring in Tempe. But will combustible linebacker Vontaze Burfict keep his cool?

3.

Stanford QB Andrew Luck could have been the top pick of the NFL draft.
Stanford QB Andrew Luck could have been the top pick of the NFL draft. (Nhat V. Meyer / Mercury News)
Utah: How's this for a welcometo-the-conference gift: Utes don't play Stanford or Oregon, and they get Arizona State at home.

4. Arizona: Rash of injuries, retooled offensive line and brutal early schedule might be too much for veteran QB Nick Foles and a superb group of receivers.

5. UCLA: As usual, there are questions at quarterback and along the offensive line. But with a few breaks, the Bruins could be the league's biggest surprise.

6. Colorado: Given all the uncertainty (and mediocrity) in the South, rebuilding Buffaloes could finish several slots higher.

Heisman hopefuls

1. Andrew Luck, Stanford QB. He's the best player at the most important position in the game — not to mention a true student-athlete. But history's working against him: The last player to win the Heisman after finishing second the year before was Herschel Walker, in 1982.

2. Landry Jones, Oklahoma QB. Stacks up as Luck's primary challenger due to Oklahoma's No. 1 ranking, TV exposure and pass-happy offense, which gives Jones a chance to post big numbers.

3. LaMichael James, Oregon RB. He finished third last season and should be in the hunt once again if the Ducks win big and he rushes for another 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns.

4. Kellen Moore, Boise State QB. Has less margin for error because of the perception that he's facing weaker competition on a weekly basis.

5. Trent Richardson, Alabama RB. Doesn't enter the season with as much hype as others on this list. But the SEC provides the ideal platform from which to mount a Trophy charge.

Breaking down the WAC

Projected order of finish:

1. Hawaii: With veteran QB Bryant Moniz (39 TDs in 2010), the Warriors are a threat to run the table in league play.

2. Fresno State: The standings take on entirely different look with Boise State having moved to the Mountain West.

3. Louisiana Tech: Like most WAC teams, Bulldogs have a hole at quarterback. But they're stocked at other skill positions.

4. Nevada: Opening with four consecutive road games is tough enough; it's even tougher without QB Colin Kaepernick.

5. Utah State: The bottom half of the conference is muddled, but Aggies stand as the best bet to rise above the fray.

6. San Jose State: As long as QB Matt Faulkner avoids game-losing mistakes, Spartans should be much improved over 2010.

7. Idaho: The offense must be rebuilt, but fifth place is within reach if Vandals stay healthy and catch a few breaks.

8. New Mexico State: Aggies return 16 starters, the second-highest total in the conference behind SJSU

Top 25

The Bay Area News Group's Jon Wilner votes in the Associated Press top-25 poll. Here's the preseason ballot he submitted earlier this month.

1. Alabama. A roster loaded with top NFL draft prospects and the nation's best defense, including a secondary for the ages, make the Tide the team to beat.

2. Boise State. First game is the biggest. If Broncos beat Georgia (in Atlanta), an undefeated regular season becomes a distinct possibility.

3. Oklahoma. The schedule is brutal and includes a trip to Florida State, but Sooners have the talent to handle it.

4. Texas A&M. With 18 returning starters, Aggies are a contender for the Big 12 title in what's likely their final year in the league.

5. Oregon. Returns of QB Darron Thomas and TB LaMichael James make the Ducks a threat to run the table. Opener vs. LSU is critical.

6. Nebraska. Huskers have a much better chance to reach the BCS this year in the mediocre Big Ten than if they had stayed in the loaded Big 12.

7. West Virginia. Returns of QB Geno Smith and settled coaching staff two big reasons WVU is my pick as the season's biggest surprise.

8. LSU. As if the off-field turmoil weren't challenging enough, Tigers play Oregon, West Virginia, Mississippi State and Alabama away from home.

9. Stanford. The favorable schedule (no Utah, no Arizona State) and Andrew Luck's presence mean Pac-12 and national titles are well within reach.

10. Florida State. 'Noles have 16 returning starters and get Oklahoma at home. EJ Manuel takes over at QB for Christian Ponder.

11. Mississippi State. Bulldogs (9-4 last season) are on the rise under third-year coach Dan Mullen. Their toughest games, LSU and Alabama, are at home.

12. South Carolina. With sensational running back Marcus Lattimore, Gamecocks are poised to be the best team in the SEC East.

13. Notre Dame. Second-year coach Brian Kelly has a veteran roster, experienced quarterback (Dayne Crist) and manageable schedule.

14. Michigan State. Should be the second-best team in the Legends Division (behind Nebraska) and possibly the second-best team in the conference.

15. Brigham Young. Cougars have 10 returning starters on offense and a favorable schedule in their first year as an independent.

16. Oklahoma State. Returning QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon make Cowboys a threat to win the top-heavy Big 12.

17. USC. The defense should be much-improved, and QB Matt Barkley is one of the nation's best. But Trojans have issues at tailback, of all places.

18. Georgia. All sorts of delicious options are on the table if the Dawgs handle Boise State and South Carolina in the first two weeks.

19. Air Force. The best bet to keep Boise State from dominating a Mountain West that no longer has Utah or BYU.

20. Wisconsin. The schedule is soft early and late, but October is brutal with Nebraska, Michigan State (road) and Ohio State (road).

21. Arizona State. Despite being hit hard by offseason injuries, Sun Devils have the experience to nudge aside USC in the Pac-12 South.

22. Texas. Tough to envision another crash-and-burn season with all that talent. Key game is Week Two when BYU pays a visit.

23. Ohio State. Tumultuous offseason included dismissal of coach Jim Tressel and departure of QB Terrelle Pryor.

24. Virginia Tech. Would be an afterthought in the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 or Big Ten. But in weak ACC, the Hokies are one of the teams to beat.

25. Hawaii. Looking for a BCS party-crasher? Warriors become a threat to run the table if they beat Washington (in Seattle) in Week Two.

Coaches on the hot seat

For these coaches, the future is now.

Dennis Erickson, Arizona State. Won 10 games his first year but only 15 combined over the next three. Expectations are high, as is the potential for disappointment.

Mark Richt, Georgia. When does averaging 9.6 victories a year for 10 years land you on the hot seat? When you coach in the SEC and are 14-12 in the past two seasons.

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA. Hired to revive his alma mater, Neuheisel instead has made the Bruins less relevant than they were under Karl Dorrell. Which is saying something.

Paul Wulff, Washington State. Anywhere else, a three-year record of 5-32 would be cause for immediate dismissal. But at WSU, it's worthy of one more chance.

Houston Nutt, Mississippi. Expectations were high last year, and Ole Miss responded with a measly four wins. Even worse for Nutt, archrival Mississippi State is on the rise.

Soft schedules

These teams will be dining on cupcakes:

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders face the daunting nonconference lineup of Texas State, New Mexico and rebuilding Nevada.

Virginia Tech: A program as successful as VaTech should never be caught playing Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall in the same year.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are making their annual appearance on our list with UNLV, Northern Illinois, South Dakota and Oregon State.

Bowl Championship Series predictions

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
Alabama vs. Oklahoma. The powerhouse programs have loaded rosters and favorable schedules. BCS and ESPN officials are crossing their fingers.

ROSE BOWL
Oregon vs. Nebraska. Cornhuskers make their third appearance but first as Big Ten champs.

FIESTA BOWL
Texas A&M vs. Boise State. The Broncos are this year's TCU - the best bet to crash BCS party. But would 12-0 be enough for a berth in NCG?

SUGAR BOWL
Mississippi State vs. Stanford. Andrew Luck and 10-plus victories should be enough to get Stanford an at-large bid if it doesn't win the Pac-12 title.

ORANGE BOWL
Florida State vs. West Virginia The Orange picks last, which probably means it's left with the Big East champion (WVU).