2011 football predictions…is the ‘new look’ helping ASU?

The early pre-season prognostications in college football are beginning to seep out, and the new Pac-12 Conference is getting its share of attention.

So far, Arizona will have a chance to prove the skeptics wrong, while Arizona State will have the more difficult task of living up to expectations.

Sporting News magazine has picked ASU to finish in second place in the Pac-12 South Division, while the Wildcats are projected for a fourth-place finish.  Utah, one of the two new additions to the conference for 2011, was selected to win the conference title.  Colorado, the other newbie, was projected right behind Arizona, in fifth place.

But there will undoubtedly be other ranking services that will put the Sun Devils atop the division, since Utah will be without its two top rushers from last season, Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata.  On top of that, the Utes’ starting QB, Jordan Wynn, is recovering from shoulder surgery and may, or may not, be 100% for practice in the fall.

ASU will return 19 starters from a squad that showed a great deal of promise last year, playing toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the country enroute to a 7-6 finish.

The Sun Devils’ starting quarterback last season, Steven Threet, has retired following his fourth concussion, but Brock Osweiler should have little trouble stepping into the role.  He filled in for the injured Threet during the final two games of the season, winning both – including a big win over rival Arizona – as he threw for five TDs and a total 647 yards as the Devils racked up a combined 85 points.

But most predictions are based on ASU putting another solid defensive unit on the field, like the 2010 edition that led the conference in defending against the run.  And, most importantly, their All-American linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, returns to lead the defense.

ASU should be solid on both sides of the scrimmage line, and deserving of the expectations.

The University of Arizona, on the other hand, wrapped up last season with five straight losses and then was embarrassed in the Alamo Bowl, losing to Oklahoma State by 26 points.  It’s hard to get much respect in the next season’s projections with that kind of collapse in a year that began 7-1.

The fact that head coach Mike Stoops has to replace his entire offensive line doesn’t help instill confidence.

However, the Wildcats will bring back its scoring combination of quarterback Nick Foles and wide receiver Juron Criner.  The pair has been included on the just-released watch list for the new Pony Express Award, which will honor the best tandems in college football.

EA Sports, a developer of sports video games that include the ultra-popular Madden NFL series, also just released its team rankings, using a rating system to score the Pac-12 schools.

The Arizona schools didn’t fare as well in the EA system.

Arizona State, which received a No. 25 national ranking, couldn’t score better than a B+ in any category.  Arizona, which came in at No. 56 nationally, had grades pretty similar to its cross-state rival.

Both teams had a B+ overall rating.  ASU got a B+ for both offense and defense, but dropped to a C for special-team play.  UofA got a B+ for offense, but slipped slightly to a B for defense and special teams.

Each school received a ‘3’ for a category called “prestige.”  By comparison, Oregon, which got an overall grade of A, was awarded a ‘6’ in the prestige section.  I guess that comes with playing for the national championship last season – and having the wildest uniform designs in the country.

Maybe ASU’s sexy, new uniform designs, that now include black and a new pitchfork, will give their prestige a bump.

After all, they were designed by Nike, which also brought us the crazy mix&match Oregon look.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)