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Rundown of all you need to know about Pac-12 football

Bryce Love could eclipse 2,000 yards for the second year in a row and contend for the Heisman. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After making the playoff two years ago Washington returns its rugged defense and powerful run offense, as well as quarterback Jake Browning's strong arm. The Huskies may struggle through the air, but their defense should get them to the conference championship. The teams that could challenge the Huskies for the title, USC and Stanford, have some uncertainty at the quarterback spot and on the defensive front, respectively. But the Cardinal's Bryce Love could very well be the best player in the country.

The new coaches in the conference should make for an interesting season out west as well.

With kickoff just a few weeks away, here's everything you need to get you ready for the Pac-12 season, which kicks off with Utah hosting Weber State on Aug. 30.


Five most important conference games

Sept. 8: USC at Stanford

It's unfortunate that this game is played so early in the schedule each year because it's routinely one of the season's most important games but doesn't generate the buzz that it would if played later. It's especially important for Stanford this year because Washington, the favorite in the North, doesn't play USC -- a clear advantage for the Huskies in the divisional race.

Oct. 12: Arizona at Utah

USC will begin the season as a deserving favorite in the South, but both Arizona and Utah should be considered contenders as well. It's easy to envision a scenario where the winner of this game goes on to win the division. It should be an electric atmosphere for this Friday night game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where a win could provide the Utes with plenty of momentum heading into another home game against the Trojans the following week.

Oct. 13: Washington at Oregon

After 12 straight losses to the Ducks, Washington has completely flipped the script in this rivalry over the past two years, winning by 49 and 35 points. With both programs considered conference title contenders, could this be the most consequential game in the series since the conference expanded in 2011? Don't bet against it.

Nov. 3: Stanford at Washington

For Washington, Stanford will likely be its toughest test over the final five weeks of the season (it's sandwiched between games against Colorado/Cal and Oregon State/Washington State) and could serve as either a stumbling block or résumé booster for the College Football Playoff. Last year, the Huskies were 8-1 and alive in the playoff discussion before a 30-22 loss on the Farm.

Nov. 3: UCLA at Oregon

If both teams are still in contention, even better, but Chip Kelly's return to Autzen Stadium in powder blue will be appointment viewing either way. He's a man who is absolutely revered in Eugene, where he guided the Ducks to a 46-7 record in four seasons as the head coach before jumping to the NFL. He's the coach all future Ducks coaches will be measured against, making this game a huge opportunity for new coach Mario Cristobal to ingratiate himself to the school's fan base.

Heisman hopeful

Traditional logic says running backs with NFL talent should, more often than not, jump at the first opportunity to go to the next level. There are only so many hits one man can take, the saying goes, before his body breaks down. And it makes sense for those hits to come while collecting an NFL paycheck. That's why it surprised a lot of people when Bryce Love, after rushing for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, decided to return to Stanford for his senior season. He likely would have been a first-round draft pick and on the receiving end of a life-changing amount of money. No one in the history of college football has rushed for that many yards in a season and returned for another year -- and he's just the third to come back after rushing for 2,000-plus. Coincidentally, former teammate Christian McCaffrey (2,019 yards in 2015) is one of the others.

For college football fans, Love needs no introduction. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting last year and deserves not only to be considered the Pac-12's best shot at winning the award this year but to be the national favorite. The same, though, could have been said about McCaffrey and former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Both players returned to school after second-place finishes in the Heisman voting and neither won the award the following year.

Love's biggest obstacle might actually be the reason he came back: Stanford. For all the school's advantages, recent history suggests the football program's lack of visibility -- particularly on the East Coast -- hurts its Heisman candidates. Since Toby Gerhart started the trend in 2009, a Stanford player has finished second in the voting five times. Only Oklahoma has that many runner-up finishes in Heisman history.

New coaches rundown

Mario Cristobal, Oregon: The Ducks dipped back into a familiar hiring strategy, elevating their offensive coordinator to replace a departing head coach. It's something that worked, briefly, with Mark Helfrich, who guided the Ducks to the national title game in the wake of Chip Kelly's tenure. But then, of course, it went downhill quickly and Helfrich was replaced by Willie Taggart, who didn't even stick around for an entire season. With the Ducks recruiting at a high level under Taggart, it was easy to see the Cristobal hire as a move to save the class (it did). The question now: Does he have the chops to turn Oregon into a perennial contender again? We'll see.

Herm Edwards, Arizona State: The Great Herm Edwards Experiment is nothing if not interesting. The 64-year-old hasn't coached at the college level since serving as an assistant at San Jose State in 1989, nor at any level since being fired as the Kansas City Chiefs coach in 2008. But athletic director Ray Anderson, Edwards' former agent, was unfazed by the obvious question marks about his readiness. He's betting on a born leader and football lifer to find success at a place where mediocrity has been the expectation.

Chip Kelly, UCLA: Kelly was, without question, the best possible coach on the market, and the fact that UCLA was able to lure him to Westwood was a coup that could ultimately define athletic director Dan Guerrero's legacy. The book on UCLA has long been that it hasn't played anywhere near its potential. As one of the top academic institutions in the country, in one of the most fertile recruiting regions, UCLA, it seems, has the potential to be a national power. While the previous staffs didn't necessarily generate much excitement from the fan base, this one has -- for good reason.

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State: Gary Andersen's bizarre midseason mutually agreed-upon departure was probably for the best. He seemed like a great hire when he arrived in Corvallis from Wisconsin, but the marriage just didn't work. In Smith, Oregon State is handing the keys to one of its own. A star quarterback for the Beavers from 1998 to 2001, Smith is best remembered for quarterbacking the 2000 team to an 11-1 record, the Pac-10 title and a No. 4 finish in the final AP poll. After his career, he went right into coaching as a graduate assistant at Oregon State and has spent the past six seasons on Chris Petersen's staff at Boise State and Washington.

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona: When the Arizona State job opened up, Sumlin was one of the most high-profile names associated with the opening. It seemed like a good fit. At that time, there didn't figure to be an opening at Arizona with Rich Rodriguez having the Wildcats on an upward trajectory, but that changed quickly when he was dismissed on Jan. 3. Less than two weeks later, despite it being so late in the hiring window, Arizona hired Sumlin, who guided Texas A&M to six straight bowl games.

Freshman to watch

He hasn't even won the starting job (yet), but there is a sense around USC that it's only a matter of time before J.T. Daniels becomes a household name. After winning the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year for arguably the best team in the country last year -- famed Mater Dei in nearby Santa Ana -- Daniels could have returned for an encore, developed for another season and enrolled at USC in January.

But that also would have meant USC would have a returning starter at quarterback with either two (Matt Fink) or three (Jack Sears) years of eligibility remaining. That's obviously not an ideal situation for an incoming quarterback, but Daniels maintains that wasn't the reason for his decision to graduate high school early. His reasoning aside, Daniels has all the attributes coach Clay Helton looks for in a quarterback -- or at least he did in high school and has shown so far in training camp. He's accurate, makes good decisions and is blessed with the physical attributes needed to become a top-flight college quarterback.

Predicted order of finish