Pac-12 kicks off 98th season on Thursday

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The Pac-12 kicks off its 98th season with an unprecedented eight Thursday games, four Friday contests and one Sunday game, to go along with the traditional slate of Saturday games. Ten Pac-12 games will be played Thursday-Sunday on the opening weekend of the college football season. Of the seven home games played during the first weekend three will appear on the Pac-12 Networks.

For the second time in league history, and in back-to-back years, two Pac-12 teams appear among the Top 5 in the AP preseason poll - No. 3 OREGON and No. 4 STANFORD. In the Coaches poll, the Ducks and Cardinal hold down the same ranking spots. In both polls, UCLA comes in at No. 21, USC at No. 24 and OREGON STATE at No. 25.  ARIZONA, ARIZONA STATE and WASHINGTON received votes in both polls.

The Pac-12’s non-conference schedule of 37 games includes matchups with 12 opponents who are ranked or received votes in the preseason AP and/or USA Today polls. Keep an eye on week three as the schedule features three games against teams ranked among the Top 25 - No. 23 Wisconsin at ARIZONA STATE; No. 2 Ohio State at CALIFORNIA; No. 21 UCLA at No. 18 Nebraska. ach conference team will play a nine-game schedule that includes five games within its own division and four games in the other division. Teams with the best record in their respective divisions will meet in the Pac-12 title game on Saturday, Dec. 7 (ESPN or ABC). The team with the best Conference record will host the Pac-12 Championship game. 

ARIZONA: Junior RB Ka’Deem Carey, who led the nation in rushing last season (1,929 yards/148.4 ypg), returns to an offense that averaged 526.2 yards and 38.2 points per game . . . Missing from that offense is QB Matt Scott who engineered the Wildcat attack to over 4,000 yards in total offense. The ‘Cats appear to be leaning towards senior QB B.J. Denker to lead Arizona’s spread offense this season . . . The defense is led by senior LBs Jake Fischer (team-leading 119 tackles) and Marquis Flowers (100 tackles), as well as a deep secondary comprised of Shaquille Richardson, Jared Tevis and Tra’Mayne Boundurant . . . Head coach Rich Rodriguez has won seven of his last eight season-openers.

ARIZONA STATE: Senior DT Will Sutton, consensus All-American and reigning Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, leads a vaunted Sun Devil defensive rush that posted 52 sacks last season . . . Senior S Alden Darby, a Thorpe Award candidate, and the Sun Devil secondary held its own too as it allowed a league-low 167.9 passing yards per game . . . Junior QB Taylor Kelly is back under center after completing a school record 67.1 percent of his pass attempts for 3,039 yards and 29 TDs. Senior RB Marion Grice was on the receiving end for 425 yards (41 receptions/8 TDs), while rushing for 679 yards (6.6 yards per carry/11 TDs) . . . The Sun Devils have won 10 consecutive season openers.

CALIFORNIA: The Sonny Dykes era begins in Berkeley and he has tabbed true freshman QB Jared Goff to lead the Golden Bear offense. Goff, a local standout from Novato, Calif., earned numerous high school all-America honors and becomes the first true freshman to start at QB for the Bears . . . Goff will have several quality targets with sophomore receivers Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, as well as junior Richard Rogers. The trio combined for 82 receptions for 1,048 yards and 4 TDs . . . The Bears host a pair of Big Ten teams during the first three weeks of the season with No. 22 Northwestern in the opener and No. 2 Ohio State in week three. Cal’s non-conference opponents were a combined 25-11 last year. Since 2004, the Bears are 27-8 in non-conference play.

COLORADO: First-year coach Mike MacIntyre looks to turnaround the CU program as he did at San Jose State where he went from 1-12 in his first season (2010) to 11-2 last season . . . Junior Connor Wood appears to have the upper hand in the battle for starting QB duties and to run the new pistol offense . . . The Buffaloes led the nation last year in the most games started by true freshmen with 57 (Maryland was a distant second with 39), including the high of 38 on defense . . . One of those rookie starters in 2012 is sophomore RB Christian Powell, who rushed for a team-leading 691 yards and 7 TDs . . . Junior WR Paul Richardson is back and healthier than ever. He missed last season with a knee injury, but has tallied 73 receptions for 1,069 yards and 11 TDs in two seasons.

OREGON: The Ducks hold down the No. 3 spot in both preseason polls. It’s the sixth consecutive season, and 11th overall, that the Ducks have been included in the AP preseason Top-25 . . . First-year head coach Mark Helfrich will continue to lead the fast-paced Oregon attack with sophomore QB Marcus Mariota, the 2012 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, at the help of the Duck offense. The Ducks averaged 537.4 yards per game and 49.5 points per game as Mariota tossed a Pac-12 freshman record 32 TD passes while leading the league with a 163.2 efficiency rating . . . Oregon returns seven defense starters, including the entire secondary led by junior CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (4 INT/16 BPU). The Ducks snagged a Pac-12 best 26 interceptions last season.

OREGON STATE: Junior Sean Mannion and senior Cody Vaz are battling for the starting nod at quarterback. The two combined to throw for 3,926 yards and 26 TDs last season . . . Regardless of who takes the snaps, the Beavers will have sophomore RB Storm Woods (940 yards/13 TDs) to carry the ball and WR Brandin Cooks (1,151 yards/5 TDs) as a primary target in the passing game . . . The OSU defense was one of the best in the league last season as the Beavers ranked third in both rush defense (129.5 ypg) and pass defense (224.5 ypg) . . . Junior DE Scott Crichton paced the Beavers with 17.5 tackles for loss, including 9.0 sacks. Senior DB Rashaad Reynolds led the secondary with 13 pass breakups . . . Head coach Mike Riley is 11-1 in home openers.

STANFORD: At No. 4, the Cardinal have attained their highest preseason ranking in school history. Stanford has been ranked for 45 consecutive weeks dating back to Sept. 5, 2010. The streak marks the school’s longest continuous ranking in the poll . . . Stanford is 35-5 over the past three seasons . . . Currently the longest winning streak in the Pac-12 at 8 games, and the league’s longest home field winning streak at 9 games . . . QB Kevin Hogan (71.7 completion percentage) will run the Stanford attack behind an impressive offensive line led by All-American David Yankey (6-5, 313), Cameron Fleming (6-6, 318) and Andrus Peat (6-7, 312) . . . Stanford enters the season with one of the top defensive units in the nation. The Cardinal limited opponents to just 97.0 yards rushing and 17.2 ppg last season.

UCLA: Sophomore QB Brett Hundley looks to take the Bruins to a third straight Pac-12 Championship Game. Hundley threw for 3,740 yards and 29 TDs last season while setting a UCLA single-season record with 4,095 yards in total offense (5th best all-time in Pac-12 history) . . . Four of five offensive linemen return to protect Hundley and to provide holes for the rushing game, highlighted by junior Xavier Su’a-Filo . . . Seniors Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumalt, and junior Eric Kendricks provide the Bruins with one of their best set of linebackers in years. Kendricks led the Pac-12 in tackles last season with 149 (10.6 pg), while Barr was among the league leaders with 13.5 sacks (0.96 pg) and 21.5 tackles for loss (1.54 pg).

USC: Replacing Matt Barkley at quarterback may be a two-man job with sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek. While a starter has yet to be named, both are expected to play in the season-opener at Hawai’i. Regardless of who takes the snaps, they’ll have plenty of talent on the receiving end of their passes . . . Junior WR Marqise Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, owns or shares 22 USC records. Five are Pac-12 marks, including most receptions in a season (118) and yards receiving in a season (1,721). A pair of Mackey Award preseason nominees in tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, who have combined for 82 receptions and 18 TDs . . . The Trojan defense returns seven starters, including a defensive front that was responsible for 38 of the team’s 45 sacks. Senior DE Morgan Breslin led the squad with 13.0 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.

UTAH: Dennis Erickson, a three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year (at three different schools - Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State) has joined Brian Johnson as co-offensive coordinator to help jump start the Ute offense this season . . . Sophomore QB Travis Wilson, who became the starter midway through last season, will rely on a pair of senior tight ends in Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga. Wilson completed 62.7 percent of his pass attempts for 1,311 yards and seven TDs . . . Freshman PK Andy Phillips has never played in a football game. He’s a former five-year member of the U.S. Ski Team (2007-11) . . . Utah State is Utah’s oldest rival and the series, in its 111th game, is the 12th-longest in NCAA FBS history. The first football game in Utah history was against USU in 1892.

WASHINGTON: One of three schools to return its leading passer, rusher and receiver (also Arizona State and Colorado) . . . The Husky offense returns 10 of 11 starters from a year ago . . . Senior QB Keith Price has thrown for 5,953 yards and tossed 54 TD passes in his career . . . Junior RB Bishop Sankey is one of two returning Pac-12 running backs to top 1,000 yards rushing last season with 1,439 yards and 16 TDs . . . Senior tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (69 receptions, 850 yards, 7 TDs) and sophomore WR Kasen Williams (77 receptions, 878 yards, 6 TDs) provide a dual receiving threat for the Huskies . . . The defense is led by a pair of talented linebackers in senior John Timu (team-leading 91 tackles in 2012) and sophomore Shaq Thompson (74 tackles).

WASHINGTON STATE: As with several other Pac-12 teams, the quarterback position is not completely firmed up for the Cougars, but Connor Halliday appears to have the upper hand. Halliday started five games last season, throwing for 1,874 yards and 15 TDs . . . All-Pac-12 FS Deone Bucannon (team high 105 tackles in 2012) leads a veteran Cougar secondary . . . Junior PK Andrew Furney is a preseason Lou Groza Award candidate. He connected on 14 of 20 field goal attempts last season, including all seven attempts within 30 yards. He nailed a 60-yard field goal last season against Eastern Washington, the longest in the Pac-12 since former Cougar Jason Hanson set the Pac-12 record with a 62-yarder vs. UNLV in 1991.

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